On April 11, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang finished his four country tour of Africa, making stops in Ethiopia (including the African Union headquarters), Nigeria, Angola, and Kenya. China’s activities in Africa are increasingly gaining media attention around the world, particularly as speculation heats up about a competition for the continent between China and the U.S. (or even China and Japan). Li’s trip promoted the traditional theme of China-African friendship, with an extra touch of defensiveness resulting from increased global scrutiny.
While speaking at a World Economic Forum in Nigeria, Li promised to devote “more than half of its foreign aid to Africa,” with no conditions attached to the funding. Li pledged China’s friendship to Africa, and reiterated Chinese support for Africa playing a larger role in world politics as it continues to develop. Li also stressed that China “will never attach political conditions to its assistance to Africa and will never use its aid programs to interfere in the internal affairs of African countries,” a tacit criticism of Western countries who often refuse to provide funding to countries seen as human rights violators.
Li Keqiang also acknowledged in a speech that China-Africa relations have encountered some “growing pains,” a nod to tensions in some African countries over issues such as illegal Chinese mining operations and resentment against local Chinese traders. But Xinhua was quick to emphasize that these “growing pains” are “problems that inevitably occur during the development of relations” — meaning no one (especially not China) is to blame.
Like Xinhua, Li was at pains to combat perceptions of China acting as a “neo-colonial” power in Africa. His tour largely ignored the question of resource exploitation, and instead emphasized China-Africa cooperation in fields such as infrastructure, training and education, poverty reduction, environmental protection, and cultural exchange. When discussing Chinese projects within Africa, the focus was on how China was reducing unemployment. “China has always tried to transfer the industries best suitable for Africa, especially the labor-intensive ones, so as to create more jobs in the continent,” Xinhua said in a review of Li’s trip.
China’s emphasis on infrastructure was especially strong during Li’s visit. Li promised that China will help develop high-speed railways, highways, and regional airports in Africa, citing infrastructure construction as a top priority for Africa’s continued development. Li and Uhuru Kenyatta, the President of Kenya, witnessed the signing of deal that will have China and Kenya co-finance a railway linking Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, with the coastal city of Mombasa. Also present at the ceremony were the presidents of Uganda, Rwanda, and South Sudan, whose attendance Li called a sign of the “common desire to develop [a] railway network in East Africa.”
Li promised that, during the construction process, Chinese companies will provide training to locals. He also pledged that China would share infrastructure technology, including railway and aviation tech, with African countries as a sign of friendship. These assurances will help counter Western criticisms that even China’s infrastructure development in Africa provides little benefit to the continent, as construction is often done by imported Chinese work crews.
Despite years of denouncing Western criticisms of China’s involvement in Africa, Li’s visit shows just how sensitive Beijing is to these charges. Li’s promises were carefully designed to combat accusations of exploitation by emphasizing cooperative projects such as infrastructure development rather than deals regarding resources. For example, coverage of Li’s stop in Angola, a major oil supplier, barely mentioned China’s oil deals. Instead Li focused on more general Chinese investment in the country, including plans to expand cooperation in infrastructure and agriculture.
From the early days of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing’s relationship with Africa has always been based not only on political rhetoric but also on a unique sense of brotherhood and friendship between these representatives of the developing world. Starting with Mao Zedong, China forged a strong bond with Africa based on their common identities as victims of colonial exploitation. Beijing continues to highlight this “South-South” friendship as the foundation for China-Africa ties, making accusations of neo-colonialism a particularly touchy subject.
Accordingly, on this tour, China wanted to emphasize its altruism, playing up the unconditional nature of its aid money, and emphasizing the real-world benefits its investment and technology transfers would bring to African people. Chinese media coverage of the trip was crammed full of quotes from African experts praising China’s commitment to Africa and rebutting accusations of neo-colonialism. China whole-heartedly denies these accusations, but is sill taking extra care to prevent such perceptions from spreading further.