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Leading Africa expert in China: French intervention in Mali “was necessary”

Leading Africa expert in China: French intervention in Mali “was necessary”

The China Africa Project conducted the following interview with Dr. He Wenping, director of African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, as a follow-up to our podcast discussion with her.

CAP: It seems that many Chinese social scientists conduct research that mainly focuses on China’s development experience and the Chinese economy. Is there a lot of interest among Chinese scholars about African issues and what made you interested in China-Africa relations?


Dr. He Wenping is the director of African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in international relations and her doctorate in law from Peking University, and has been a visiting scholar at Yale University and the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Her research interests include African countries’ foreign relations and human rights and democracy in Africa. Image by He Wenping.

Dr. He: Our institute was established in 1963, so we have been doing research on Africa for a long time. Before “China-Africa” became a hot topic, our research had been focusing on Africa, looking at Africa’s political development, democracy in Africa, African countries’ economic re-adjustment programs, African ethnic groups, African culture, African philosophy, conflict resolution in Africa, African integration and so forth.

Recently, our research has focused more on China-Africa issues because “China-Africa” became an important issue in the past 10 years or so, and there has been a lot of demand for research on that issue from the government, entrepreneurs and other parts of society.

In terms of why I am interested in Africa, I started looking at African issues under the guidance of my master’s degree supervisor, who was at that time the deputy minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was in charge of African affairs in the Chinese government. He wanted me to focus more on African issues and this is why I started writing my master’s thesis on Africa.

After I graduated from my master’s program in 1989, I started reading more literature on Africa and I became more interested in African people and African issues. I traveled to Africa and I became more and more interested in Africa. That’s why I have continued doing research on Africa. Africa has many rich cultures and there is a lot going on there. Even though I have spent most of my life studying African issues, there are still a lot of things I don’t understand.

CAP: Do you know how many Chinese scholars do research on China-Africa relations or are involved in African Studies research?

Dr. He: I cannot give you an accurate number. First, if you focus only on scholars, you will exclude the many Chinese journalists that have been covering African issues. There’s a society in China called the China African Studies Association that is open to people from all works of life who are interested in African issues. The members of that society include not only scholars, but also businesspeople, journalists and ordinary people who are very interested in African issues. The association has about 500 people, and maybe half of them are scholars.

In the past five years, the number of researchers who focus on China-Africa relations has increased because a large number of PhD students are now studying this issue.

CAP: Looking at how China-Africa relationships are presented in the media, what do you think are the most widely held misperceptions of China’s engagement with Africa?

Dr. He: Briefly speaking, I think the biggest misperceptions about China’s engagement with Africa include the so-called “neocolonialism” argument, the idea that China is plundering African resources and the accusation that China dispatches criminals to work in African construction sites — this is total nonsense.

Also, there may be specific cases of low quality Chinese products and fake Chinese drugs in Africa, but it is not accurate to consider these cases as representative of all Chinese companies in Africa. These cases have been exaggerated to a great extent, and this is a misperception as well.

So, basically, there are two kinds of misperceptions about China’s relations with Africa. In some cases, the general judgment is wrong, like “China is neo-colonizing Africa” or “China is plundering resources in Africa.” In other cases, specific cases are exaggerated.

CAP: From a government perspective, what is the guiding principle of Chinese policy towards Africa?

Dr. He: The guiding principle is written very clearly in the White Paper on China’s Africa Policy, which was issued in January of 2006 when there was a China-Africa summit in Beijing.

A few years later, in 2010, we published another White Paper on China’s Aid Policy. Of course, this White Paper did not deal specifically with Africa: it talked about China’s aid policy towards all developing countries including South Asian countries, Latin American countries and others. But the majority of our aid, about half of it, goes to Africa, so that White Paper also elaborated on China’s aid policy towards Africa.

So these are the two significant documents that set out China’s policy towards Africa. In general, I think China’s policy towards Africa follows the principles of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit.

We also have a no-strings attached policy when we offer foreign development aid. This is fundamentally different from Western countries’ aid policy.

In addition, we have a policy of non-interference in domestic affairs. For example, when there is a civil war in some country, particularly between rebel forces and a sitting government such as what happened in Côte d’Ivoire last year, it is impossible to imagine that China will voice support for any party in that war.

However, China will participate in operations called for by multinational platforms such as the UN. We regard the UN as the sole authority that can conduct peacekeeping operations. So whenever the UN gives the mandate for a peacekeeping operation, China will actively join UN peacekeepers in such operations. That’s another difference with the Western approach.

CAP: On the issue of non-interference, what would have been China’s ideal solution to the crisis in Mali? The government was about to be taken over by rebel forces. What would have been China’s ideal resolution to that situation?

Dr. He: Mali is a very specific case that is different from Côte d’Ivoire because the militias based in the north of Mali are not simply opposition rebel forces — they also include terrorist groups. The UN passed a resolution on Mali at the end of last year, which China voted in support of. We fully supported having ECOWAS forces in a leading role, stepping in and protecting Mali’s sovereignty and returning Mali’s territorial integration to what it originally was.

That’s why I think that during the Addis Ababa conference — the international aid conference for Mali, China will definitely make contributions through financial support, training support or logistical support for ECOWAS forces and also for the African Union’s forces.

CAP: Does China oppose France’s intervention in Mali?

Dr. He: You can’t say that we oppose the French intervention in Mali. I don’t think any of our officials have said that China opposes France’s intervention in Mali.

I think the French military intervention was necessary. It was necessary because the situation was very urgent: militias in the north of Mali were attacking strategic strongholds not far from the capital city of Bamako. The French intervention was necessary at that time, but we have some concerns about the intervention.

These concerns are based on problems that have arisen as a result of foreign interventions in other countries such as Libya and Côte d’Ivoire. The whole African continent now has a heavy foreign military presence, with increasing numbers of military bases and drones. Terrorist activity is also increasing as a result of these interventions. That certainly is not beneficial for Africa’s economic development.

CAP: How much aid does China give to Africa?

Dr. He: I don’t have a specific number because different bodies give different amounts of aid. But you can go back to that White Paper. The White Paper gives a total number for how much we were giving to all countries at that time, and African countries made up half of that. But now, I don’t remember the specific number.

CAP: A criticism that has been made of China’s aid programs is that the government’s Department of Foreign Aid, which is part of the Ministry of Commerce, has a small staff compared to USAID and aid programs run by other countries, such that this staff cannot adequately oversee the Chinese government’s aid projects. What is your response to these criticisms?

Dr. He: You are right that we have a small staff that runs the aid program compared to USAID, AusAID, DFID, and so on. That’s a fact. We don’t have an independent agency running the aid program, so that’s one of the reasons why we have a small staff.

There have been many discussions and debates about how to improve Chinas’ aid program among academics and officials, but it is difficult to implement changes because doing so would not only affect the aid program, but would also require a re-shuffling of the whole bureaucratic structure. So it takes time to make changes.

In terms of supervision, it is also true that we are not so good at monitoring aid programs and this goes back to the first problem: we are short of personnel. We are still in the process of perfecting the mechanisms of our aid program, but it doesn’t mean that we have zero capacity to supervise the program. Our aid program has been running for years and most of our aid projects have been successfully completed to a high quality. You cannot say that our aid program is a 100 percent failure — it functions very successfully.

In addition, the Ministry of Commerce and other government bodies such as the Ministry of Finance sometimes organize independent teams to check and monitor our aid projects. Sometimes they hire independent organizations to do the monitoring. So there are mechanisms by which we monitor our aid programs.

CAP: Earlier you mentioned that one of the misperceptions about the relationships China has with African countries is that the issue of low quality products characterizes all Chinese companies. Are there any studies that compare, for example, infrastructure built by Chinese companies to infrastructure built by companies from other countries?

Dr. He: As far as I know, Chinese scholars haven’t done that type of study yet. There are studies that focus on China’s infrastructure projects and some that generally discuss Western companies’ development assistance programs, but so far I haven’t seen any research that compares Chinese and Western infrastructure projects in Africa.

CAP: A report that was recently released by Friends of the Earth criticized the China Development Bank of funding natural resource and infrastructure projects in Africa that fall short of international environmental and social standards. Do Chinese policymakers ever discuss the environmental and social impact of China’s state-funded natural resource and infrastructure projects in Africa?

Dr. He: Discussions about the environmental and social impact of these projects began just recently. Even in China, when I look out through my window here in Beijing, the pollution is very serious. We have been suffering from bad air quality for almost a week now. So, economic development in China has not been very environmentally conscious as it just focused on the speed of development. Now, we realize that it’s time to change this type of development pattern. The domestic development pattern is not very environmentally conscious, so you cannot say that when Chinese companies are doing projects overseas, they have to have very modern and forward-looking approaches to environmental issues that are far beyond their domestic behavior.

The process has started, though: several years ago we established the Ministry of Environmental Protection, which was an important step that shows that we take environmental protection as a priority. Domestically, environmental consciousness is high on the government’s agenda. Internationally, when Chinese companies want to do some projects abroad in the future, the environmental and social impact of these projects will also be monitored.

CAP: A criticism that has been made of the Chinese government is that it deals with authoritarian regimes in Africa. Does China have a policy on human rights issues in Africa and how does it take criticism that it deals with authoritarian regimes?

Dr. He: As I mentioned before, one of China’s policies is non-interference in domestic issues. China will not criticize other countries’ political regimes or political systems because China thinks it is up to the local people to make their own judgments about their country’s political system.

It doesn’t mean, however, as foreign media often try to say, that China’s policy of non-interference means that China favors dictators. Non-interference in a particular regime’s politics does not mean you favor that regime. I think that’s quite easy to understand.

In terms of human rights and social progress, I think China’s development experience proves that if a country can’t develop itself first — offer food, clothes and shelter to its people, but only talks about political rights, then that will be an empty promise because people will fight over access to food and other necessities in the name of political rights. Of course, people need rights, but in reality political rights come after a certain stage in a country’s development. That’s our approach.

Some Western countries criticize China saying that China abuses its people’s human rights, that China is a one-party system and that China is ruled by an authoritarian-regime, but all of those things haven’t stopped Western multinational companies from investing in China.

So, Western media now criticize China for investing in countries that these media also accuse of human rights abuses. I think this completely hypocritical.

CAP: Another accusation is that China is promoting censorship and unbalanced reporting in Africa because of the expansion of CCTV, Xinhua and other Chinese state media outlets in Africa. What is your response to these accusations?

Dr. He: First, I think Chinese media go to Africa to try and set up a platform for directly enhancing mutual understanding between African people and Chinese people. In the past, China did not have the financial means to set up news bureaus in African countries, and the reverse was also true. During that time, we had to get information about each other through third-party media like CNN or the BBC. Now, we have the financial means to send our journalists to Africa and bring African journalists to China, so why shouldn’t we? This is direct communication, which can give us a better understanding of each other.

Second, I watch CCTV Africa’s program quite frequently, and I was impressed with their conclusions on what is happening in Africa and predictions for what will happen in Africa in the future. All those programs are of very high quality and are very informative and insightful.

I think because of China’s aid — we offer technical support and staff training — journalism in some parts of Africa has improved. When I go to the CCTV studios in Beijing to be on a program, I meet African journalists who are there to gain technical knowledge. When I go to African countries, I often switch on the radio and television when I’m in the hotel, and honestly speaking, the quality of the programming needs to be improved. So, the joint exchange programs between Chinese and African journalist that CCTV and other Chinese media run are ways of mutual improvement. Many Chinese journalists don’t really understand much about African issues, so for them, they get to know more about what is happening in Africa. For African journalists, they get to know more about how to make high quality TV programs.

CAP: There have been clashes in Guangzhou between Africans and Chinese people, and Africans in Guangzhou and other parts of China have complained of racism. Is this something that is talked about in Chinese scholarly or policy circles?

Dr. He: There were protests in Guangzhou over a Nigerian businessman’s clashes with the police. I think this issue cannot be exaggerated. I’ve been in “African Town” in Guangzhou twice, and there were many Africans who were doing business there. Frankly speaking, some of them did not have legal documents. For example, some of them did not have visas or their visas had expired. I heard some of them don’t even have passports at all. If you choose to do business in any country, you should abide by local laws and you should have the required legal documents. That is true no matter if it’s an African working in China or a Chinese person working in Africa.

I heard that the Nigerian took a ride on a bicycle taxi or something like that and did not pay the fee. Clashes because of things such as this have been happening everyday all over China. Everyday, I see people fighting or quarreling because of some minor issue. I don’t think these are serious issues — they are taken seriously just because they happen between a Chinese person and an African. Actually, there have been many cases of this happening between two Chinese citizens. So I think we need to take these accidents and incidents as individual cases. I don’t think these cases show that Africans in China have been discriminated against or are treated unfairly.

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About Tendai Musakwa

Tendai Musakwa is a Zimbabwean journalist and researcher. Currently based in Shanghai, Tendai regularly translates Chinese news articles and microblog posts for the China Africa Project.