By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) – As President Xi Jinping gathered together leaders from almost all African countries for a summit in Beijing in recent days, some former Chinese officials and state media were busy mounting an unusually strong defense of China’s role in the continent.
China has long bristled at accusations, mostly from Western nations, that it is solely interested in Africa’s raw materials, and that its no-strings-attached approach to loans and aid has only encouraged graft and brought unsustainably high debt.
At the few news conferences during the summit, African reporters peppered Chinese officials with questions about corruption, environmental problems and concerns about a lack of Africans employed in some of China’s projects.
Cheng Tao, a former head of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Africa division and previously China’s ambassador in Mali and Morocco, said it was unfair to blame China for supporting governments accused of corruption.
“An African friend told me, our government is extremely corrupt. How come you’re still involved with them? Our government has asked the Chinese government to build a bridge and a hospital, but the Chinese government shouldn’t help them,” he said, without naming the country.
“I told him – you voted for this government. It’s the only government we can deal with. But the bridge and the hospital are not built for the president or officials, but are for the common people. So I think this is another perspective that can be considered when looking at this issue.”
Of the 10 bottom-ranked countries in last year’s corruption perceptions index by Transparency International, four of them sent their presidents to the summit – Equatorial Guinea, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan.
Since Xi took office six years ago, he has mounted war against deeply-ingrained graft in his own country, and the government has been keen to show it is not encouraging similar problems overseas where China in involved.
Liu Guijin, China’s former special envoy to Africa, said China did not want its money frittered away through corruption.
“China’s engagement in Africa is focused on its people and we do not give our money to corrupt governments or officials,” said Liu, who was previously deeply involved in efforts to end Sudan’s civil war and still advises China’s government.
Indeed, a declaration adopted after the summit, released on Wednesday, said China and Africa would continue to take a “zero tolerance” approach to corruption.
Another area of rising concern has been the amount of debt African countries now owe China. Xi offered Africa another $60 billion on Monday.
Speaking in Ethiopia in March, then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said African countries should be careful not to forfeit their sovereignty when they accept loans from China and carefully consider the terms of those agreements.
A senior Chinese official denied before the summit opened that his country was engaging in “debt trap” diplomacy, and on Tuesday China’s special envoy to the continent said China is helping Africa develop, not pile up debt.
The overseas edition of the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily wrote in a commentary on Saturday that certain people it did not name never tired of trying to attack China-Africa cooperation under the guise of concern about debt or neo-colonialism.
It cited what it said was an African expression that there was “nothing scary about a loan”.
“The crux is what you do with it. Do you go buy oxen and sheep to expand production, or buy booze for a moment of fun?” the paper said.
African countries say China generally offers better terms, and is more willing to provide money than the United States or Europe.
Liban Soleman, general coordinator of the Bureau of Coordination and Planning for an Emerging Gabon, told Reuters on the summit’s sidelines the idea that China is saddling African countries with debt they can’t repay is “unfair”.
“I think that what the Chinese system has offered Africa is something that is … probably the most flexible, specifically with the system between the grace periods and the very low interest rates,” he said.
“I think that the main element that people misunderstand is the competitiveness of the infrastructure prices that the Chinese companies are giving to African countries.”
China has acknowledged there are some problems it is working to fix. Xi told a business summit on Monday that Chinese funds are not for “vanity projects” and Chinese firms must respect local people and the environment in Africa.
By the end of this year, China would have provided technical training for more than 200,000 Africans, Chinese Commerce Minister Zhong Shan told a China-Africa forum on Sunday according to a Commerce Ministry statement.
Jiang Zengwei, Chairman of the government-run China Council for the Promotion of International Trade, said as Africans became increasingly technologically able, there would be less need for Chinese workers to be flown in.
“This is what we must do or we cannot foster a long-term cooperative relationship,” he told reporters.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Tom Daly and Christian Shepherd; Editing by Lincoln Feast)