Jun 13, 2011

Book Review of the day: "The Dragon's Gift"

From The Independent:
The Chinese involvement in Angola counters claims they are just plundering Africa's wealth, only building infrastructure in order to ferry out natural resources. Angola's oil is deep offshore, but China has built hospitals, schools, irrigation systems and roads inland. Indeed, unlike Western donors, who tend to have their favoured nations, China has given aid to every country in sub-Saharan Africa - except those nations supporting Taiwan, with whom it has engaged in something of a bidding war across the continent. 
The case of Angola demonstrates two themes that emerge clearly from this important book. First, the endless hypocrisy of the West as it watches the long march of the Chinese through Africa. The critics, often woefully ill-informed, ignore the West's own history of exploitation, encouraging corruption and supporting unsavoury regimes. Even after 60 years of Western aid, there remains a reluctance to accept its failure to promote development or tackle poverty.
The template was set with the first involvement in Africa, which came in Guinea after the French were told to leave in 1959. An interest-free loan led to the building of factories, paddy fields, a plantation, a cinema and a conference centre. Seven years later, there were an estimated 3,000 Chinese aid workers, including 34 medical experts. Unlike Western aid workers, they live in similar style to the locals. "How can you reduce poverty but live in a five-star hotel?" asks one Chinese expert pointedly.
By the late 1980s, as Western companies pulled out of what was being branded as "the failed continent" and aid for infrastructure dried up, Beijing saw only a land of opportunity. The West failed to notice the Chinese teams managing state-owned factories, building bridges and repairing irrigation systems. Markets across the continent began selling textiles and metal bowls made in China. Their methods were rigorous. When Liberia asked China to rehabilitate a sugar-cane factory and plantation, it expected a rapid and positive response. Instead, a 50-man unit was sent over for a feasibility study, concluding that the project would need an annual £2m subsidy and telling Liberia to find better projects.
Some concerns are justified – there is clear evidence of Chinese companies importing the low standards common in their homeland, of violating minimum wage laws and destroying the environment. And even this author has qualms over Chinese firms taking over large tracts of agricultural land, although she is too forgiving of China in other areas, such as its support for Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.
The author concludes that China's embrace of Africa is strategic, long-term and still evolving – and that it is up to Africa's leaders to shape the relationship to serve their own ends. The West, she says, should admit the shortcomings of its own approach and learn from the way the Chinese use investment, trade and technology as levers for development. There is little doubt that while the dragon's gifts are cloaked in ambiguity, we would do well to stop believing in myths and start engaging with the reality of a rapidly-changing world order.

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