David Cohen and Peter Martin speak with the Director of African Studies at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, He Wenping. This is the first part of an interview conducted on behalf of partner site the Lowy Interpreter.
Angelica asks: Aid from China to African countries has been generous and forthcoming ever since the founding of 'New China'. But China is often criticized by the world about paying for political benefits (such as support on the Taiwan issue) and resources in Africa. Since the very beginning, Sino-Africa relations took a strong ideological thrust. In 2011, democratic movements in Africa are quite active, so now, is “ideological trust” still strong?
I think it's normal strong. The first period of China-African relations were very rich in ideology, because Mao and Zhou at that time were more interested in third world theory. So they offered very generous support to African countries, without considering economic benefits. A typical example is the Tanzania-Zambia railway — it cost almost one tenth of China’s foreign reserves at that time.
Since early 1980s, because China has begun its economic drive, and we were also trying to lure foreign investment, all the focus has been on economic development, so ideology has gradually faded away since the 1980s. So now China has been labeled an economic animal by the Western media. Actually, it's not true. I think our relationship is very balanced: political, economic, and cultural. President Hu Jintao has made six visits to Africa – can you imagine the junior Bush going to Africa six times?
Steve asks: In real (2008 price) terms, China received almost $71 billion in net ODA (official development assistance) between 1979 and 2009. To what degree, if any, does Ms He believe that China's previous experiences as a major recipient of foreign aid influences its engagement as a donor to emerging countries today?
Definitely. As China, we now have a dual role we can play in the development system, and also a dual identity. On the one hand, we are a recipient country, and on the other we are becoming a donor. So we have accumulated tremendous experience about being a good recipient, and I think we can share this with African countries.
So in the (2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness) they mention five principles for guiding aid, like mutual accountability, managing for results, and ownership. So on ownership, I think China has done extremely well. If USAID says “Oh, I will build a school over here!” but we have already developed our rural development policy in that province and we don't need a new school, we should get it into a different place. Normally our assistance to Africa is demand-driven. So we are not going and saying we are going to put a school here — they put their request first, so they say they want this school, hospital, and then we dispatch our team to do the feasibility study.
I can add another example: In China, we don't want foreign assistance if it comes with conditionality. For example, with the World Bank, there's no conditionality saying you must change your political system, you must set up an NGO, whatever. So when we offer our assistance it’s no strings attached.
Peter and David ask: How do you monitor aid to make sure it’s used properly?
China's aid to Africa is based on projects, not budget support. Traditional donors usually put their money into the recipient’s budget, so maybe it’s easier for corruption to happen. So if there’s a plan to build a hospital in a country, the money won’t go through that country’s financial system. It will be delivered directly to the company that’s building the project.
The original version of this article appeared here.