China ups its game in Africa

Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang reviews an honour guard at the presidential villa in Abuja, Nigeria.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — When Chinese premier Li Keqiang announced a laundry list of pledges to Africa this week, there was an unexpected item: $10 million for preserving African wildlife.

It comes at a time when Chinese demand for elephant ivory has pushed poaching to record highs. The pledge is an example of Beijing’s efforts to recast its relationship with African countries, under a strategy that appears to reflect a newfound sensitivity toward criticisms of Chinese demand for the continent's resources.

This PR-savvy approach is also evident in government language around Li’s first official visit to Africa, which began Sunday and includes stops in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Angola, and Kenya. The official Xinhua news agency described “an ‘upgraded version’ of China-Africa cooperation,” while Zhang Xiangchen, the deputy minister of commerce, said China will be “paying more attention to livelihood issues” in Africa, and “issues relating to the public.”

More from GlobalPost: Obama in Africa: China 1, US 0

“This is what the African nations need,” Zhang told a press briefing in Beijing ahead of Li’s trip. “They believe that economic and livelihood development are equally important.”

In many African countries, there is longstanding resentment over Chinese companies' importing their own workers for large projects and using local laborers for only the lowliest jobs. Chinese salaries often go straight back to the motherland, meaning there is little benefit to local economies.

China has also been criticized for poor treatment of workers on projects in Africa, as well as for harm to the environment — charges that have frequently been directed at mines, factories and construction projects in China, as well.

Premier Li has acknowledged “growing pains” in the Sino-Africa relationship, addressing head-on the accusations that Beijing is engaged in “neo-colonialism.”

“I wish to assure our African friends in all seriousness that China will never pursue a colonialist path like some countries did or allow colonialism, which belonged to the past, to reappear in Africa,” Li said, according to Xinhua.

Yun Sun, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, writes that the Chinese business community’s aggressive pursuit of economic gains, with little regard to the impact on African communities, has fueled perceptions of China as a new “colonial power.”

“There is a constant tension between the narrow, mercantilist pursuit of economic interests in Africa and that pursuit’s impact on the overall health of the Sino-African relationship and China’s international image,” she wrote in a recent briefing paper.

Meanwhile, China’s business interests in Africa are continuing to rise, with trade volume expected to double by 2020 from last year’s total of $210 billion. Direct investment will likely quadruple to $100 billion during that time, Li said in a major speech Monday at the Chinese-financed African Union (AU) headquarters in Ethiopia.

But apart from these big numbers, Li also spoke of an economic partnership that should be broadened and deepened beyond current cooperation, announcing an extra $12 billion in aid for Africa.

Li is accompanied on his trip by wife Cheng Hong, an academic who specializes in American nature literature.

Under China’s new administration, the wives of top political leaders have been taking far more public roles, part of a strategy to present a softer, friendlier image in international diplomacy. When President Xi Jinping visited Africa last year on his first overseas trip, he also brought his wife, the popular singer Peng Liyuan, who toured a music school and a women’s charity.

On the ground, Chinese embassies are trying to improve public diplomacy by reaching out to African media and seeking collaborations with local NGOs on training and education projects, under the awkwardly named “China-Africa people to people friendship action” plan.

Apart from these feel-good efforts, China’s government has been upping its involvement in African security issues, a response to the instability and conflicts that threaten China’s economic presence in some African countries.

Most notably, the People’s Liberation Army sent 170 combat troops to Mali last year — a first for China, which traditionally sends only non-combat army staff. Chinese officials have also been involved in trying to mediate the South Sudan conflict, where the country has significant oil interests.

“Given China’s considerable oil stake in the unstable South Sudan, many believe that China is gradually abandoning its long-term ‘non-interference’ principle to protect its overseas economic interests,” wrote Yun.