China Pledges $20 Billion in Loans to African Nations

New York Times - By Jane Perlez

Published: July 19, 2012

BEIJING — President Hu Jintao told a gathering of African leaders on Thursday that China would lend $20 billion to the continent for infrastructure and agriculture in the next three years, with a new emphasis on grass-roots projects designed to help the people.

The loans outlined by Mr. Hu doubled the amount offered at the last big conference of African leaders in China in 2009, a signal that China plans to press ahead with aid programs in African nations with abundant energy and mineral resources.

China’s aid to Africa has expanded rapidly in the past decade as the continent has become a major source of oil from Sudan and Angola, and copper from Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

China has built roads, pipelines, and ports that assist China’s extractive industries but do less to assist African people, critics say. The infrastructure is generally built with Chinese labor.

China has come under heavy criticism for its no-strings-attached approach to assistance to Africa that ignores human rights abuses, and plays no role in trying to improve governance. This has resulted in China supporting repressive regimes, including the government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan.

In his speech, Mr. Hu said China would train 30,000 Africans, offer 18,000 scholarships and send 1,500 medical personnel to Africa, an effort to blunt the criticism. The president said China would mount programs to improve drinking water and protect forests, new endeavors for China.

“Before, China had more of an attitude that ‘we’ll give what we want to give you,’ but now the aid is more focused on African needs,” said Li Xinfeng, an African studies scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

But how much of the aid promised by Mr. Hu will be disbursed, and where exactly will go was unclear because China’s aid programs to Africa are not clearly documented, development experts said.

“An accurate number of what China actually gives is difficult to come up with because Western countries have different definitions of foreign aid to China,” said Yun Sun, a foreign policy expert on China and Africa at the Stimson Center, a nonprofit group in Washington.

For example, China can say building roads and infrastructure benefits the people, but the real aim is to strengthen the legitimacy of the government and get natural resources, she said.

In an assessment of how Chinese aid works, the Congressional Research Service, an independent research arm of Congress, said: “China appears to administer foreign aid in an ad hoc fashion, without a centralized system, foreign aid agency and mission or a regularized funding schedule.”

The conference of African leaders held at the Great Hall of the People seemed a lower key event than in the past when Beijing was decorated with banners announcing “Amazing Africa.”

Many leaders were not present, perhaps a reflection of the timing of the conference that was pushed forward so that it would not clash with the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party that will choose China’s new top leadership in the fall.

The president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, addressed the meeting and praised China’s approach, saying it was preferred to Africa’s experience with Europe. “We are particularly pleased that in our relationship with China we are equals and that agreements entered into are for mutual gain.”

China’s experience in Africa has not been so smooth in the past year. The flow of oil from Sudan has stopped because of a feud between Sudan and South Sudan, which became independent in July 2011.

The China National Petroleum Corporation has pulled out most of its engineers from the oil fields in South Sudan, and Chinese-built infrastructure, including a pipeline from the fields to Port Sudan, and a refinery near Khartoum, are virtually abandoned.

In Libya, China was a longtime backer of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, and since the revolution and his death, the new leaders have failed to honor China’s contracts.

Criticism from some quarters in Africa became so intense last year that a senior Chinese official felt compelled to answer.

In an interview with an African magazine, JeuneAfrique, the director general of the Department of African Affairs at the Foreign Ministry, Lu Shaye, defended the dispatch of Chinese workers to Africa. In doing so, China was more efficiently spending its assistance than Western donors to Africa, he said.

“They work in three shifts a day and work all day and all night to speed up project schedules,” Mr. Lu said of the Chinese workers. “Take government assistance projects as an example. China spends 95 percent of the money on the project and on the recipient countries while the West may spend 80 percent on their own staff.”

The Congressional Research Service reported that total United States foreign assistance to Africa in 2009 was $8.2 billion. Under the Obama administration a new emphasis has been placed on health care, and more than half the $8.2 billion went to health-related programs.