David Cohen and Peter Martin speak with the Director of African Studies at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, He Wenping. This is the second part of an interview conducted on behalf of partner site the Lowy Interpreter.
Junni asks: Whilst the scale and nature of Chinese and Indian involvement in Sub-Saharan Africa remain quite different, increasing attention is being paid to competition between the two countries on the continent. Thinking specifically about issues such as the growth of Chinese/Indian soft power in Africa and competition for influence and diplomatic support, how do you see the relationship between China and India in the region evolving in the future? Also, what might developing countries in Africa be able to learn from comparisons between China and India in terms of their different approaches to economic development and political reform?
At the moment, I don't see tough competition between China and India in Africa. Actually, I’ve seen a lot of complementary action. When I spent time in Rwanda, for example — I was based there for two months — I visited a project supported by India, a long-distance education project. Universities in India offer courses in English. So, because they share the British education system with some African countries, they feel they can study with them. And then we set up our Confucius Institutes in African countries, so that’s kind of complementary.
India is a democracy, and of course they are also a very heterogeneous society, so how they maintain stability for a long time, how they can balance rich and poor — I think that experience is very attractive to African countries. But I think China’s experience is also unique, because we have made such economic progress in a single generation. There are now seven Special Economic Zones in Africa receiving Chinese aid. We originally planned to set up five, but then African countries were quite enthusiastic, so now the total number is seven.
Peter and David ask: What about China's political model?
Right now, I think the Chinese model is at least on an upward trend. Its appeal is increasing, especially since the financial crisis. They noticed that China’s model can quickly mobilize all the social resources to deal with the crisis, even though the crisis isn’t generated within the country, so it’s very efficient, the system itself, and it can maintain social stability even though so much social and economic reform has taken place in such a short time.
In South Africa, the ruling party is now sending party leaders, even from the provinces, to join some courses from the Central Party School, and to visit our government at the provincial level, to exchange some ideas about how to run the government.
Frances asks: How does China view its relationship with and approach to Libya now? How have China’s relationships with North African countries changed since the Arab Spring?
I think our relations with post-Gaddafi Libya are back on the normal track. Some people say that’s because China didn’t support the bombing, maybe our interests will be hurt. But China couldn't — you can’t imagine China would support any bombing. It’s against our principles. I think because we were neutral at the very beginning, once things became clear, and we knew that even the people in Tripoli supported the NTC (National Transitional Council), there was no reason for China not to support the NTC, and then we recognized the NTC and gave them assistance.
And also we got the promise guaranteed from the NTC as well, they promised all those deals we have signed with the previous administration will be guaranteed. Those deals, those contracts, are all good for the people themselves. The house-building is almost finished, which is houses for the people, not palaces, not parliament buildings. So all those contracts, some half-finished, some maybe 80 percent finished, if they are continued I think it’s a good thing for the Libyan people. Actually, you know, our contact with the NTC wasn’t so late. At that time, Gaddafi was still in charge of all of Tripoli, and we made contact with the NTC, we even invited key members of the NTC to Beijing.
Even some of our private companies like Huawei were doing business in Benghazi. Without Huawei's contribution, the NTC couldn’t have had very good communications. Now they are trying to organize the new coalition government. If security can be guaranteed, I think Chinese workers will return to continue their work. And also, I think there will be new contracts, because the war caused lots of damage. I don't think it’s good policy to say “whoever helped me, I will give so many shares to them.” I think a transparent, open system is good for the people of Libya themselves. And I see no reason why Chinese oil companies won’t join the bidding.
Hillel asks: How is China navigating through its principle of non-interference in domestic affairs of other conflicts when dealing with African countries? Is China solely relying on the governments in power, or does it make exceptions in cases where power is fragmented due to ethnic/civil war?
I read a recent speech by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, and he said this policy isn’t only a part of the past, but also the present, and it will remain so long into the future. I don't think non-interference is a stubborn or outdated policy — actually I think it’s very flexible. Obviously, in the era of globalization, it’s very hard to say what is domestic and what is global. I do think we need to have some kind of definition of domestic and international, maybe when a conflict has been escalated to such an extent that it’s time for all responsible parties to step in. So when a conflict is beginning, we push diplomatic means. But if the case has been escalated to a very high level, then all the international organizations, especially the U.N., and the regional and sub-regional organizations, they know things better. If you watch closely, when they make decisions, we never say no. The decision made by the Arab League about Libya, even Russia said it wasn’t so suitable. But our foreign ministry spokesman has never said so.
Hillel asks: How would you assess China's capacity to serve as mediator or honest broker in inter-state and ethnic and civil wars on the African continent? Is there room for China to serve as a unique mediator, or is China bound to work only as a supporter of United Nations/African Union peacemaking endeavors?
Well, we have some capacity, because normally our stance is quite neutral. For example in the Libya case, we never said we support Gaddafi — there were no weapons there, no special forces, no material support. So this neutral stance can offer us some advantages to be a negotiator or mediator. But otherwise, if you are fully behind some party, then the role of being a mediator is quite different. But I think we also have quite a lot of disadvantages, because the non-interference policy constrains us. If we want to do some interference, it will be a very positive interference. I think bombing is very negative interference, and in Libya, once the opposition parties felt that they had very strong backup, it made negotiation difficult.
And then there’s intelligence — the United States, Canada, and other countries have lots of people in those zones, both civil society and even intelligence agents, so if the opposition party has organized a committee, they know who they are. But we have no idea, we don’t have the information. So we have that potential capability, but non-intervention makes it hard to get information on the ground.
Matthew asks: To what extent are Chinese state owned enterprises interested in partnering with other countries in Africa, for example using Australian technology and skills in their projects (given that in excess of 200 Australian companies are already active in Africa, according to DFAT)?
I think of course, the longer they are based in Africa, the more willing they'll be to cooperate with other partners, especially with big multinational companies. For example, last year, I spent half a month doing interviews with Chinese companies in Uganda and I asked them why they were interested in joining workshops with Norwegian companies? And they said they thought they could learn advanced management skills, and advanced technical knowledge from the Norwegian companies, because the Norwegian companies had been based there for many years. But so far, we haven’t seen so much cooperation in reality. In part, because China's experience in Africa isn’t so compatible with Australian or U.S. companies, and also because of the area they are in — the majority are in infrastructure. I think they have the willingness.
Peter and David: How have popular impressions of Africans in China changed recently?
If I talk to a taxi driver, or sometimes my students, still of course they think Africa is a poorer continent with a lot of conflicts. When the news reports on Africa, it’s always the bad stories — war, refugees, AIDS. But the Forum of China-Africa Cooperation, especially when it was in Beijing in 2006, that summit has been like a big PR campaign for Africa in China. When it was in Beijing there were decorations everywhere, all the streets were decorated with African scenery — giraffes, elephants, and so on. So that served as a public education about Africa for Chinese people. So I think people now, even though there are lots of conflicts, people think there’s lots of potential there. Otherwise you can’t explain why so many businesspeople rush there.
Peter and David: What about racism?
Of course, I think this prejudice does exist. Even my very close friend mentioned to me, his son is studying the in United States, and he said that if he marries a white girl, that’s all right, but not if he marries a black girl. So it does exist. But I think you know, China is not a mixed pot like the United States, because the U.S. is a society with many people coming from different parts of the world, and there are many African-Americans. But China was historically a very closed society. Now, at least in Guangzhou, quite a lot of Africans are there. So it’s gradual, but I think now we are in the process of becoming more globalized.
The original version of this article appeared here.