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Through Chinese eyes: He Wenping (Part 1)

24 November 2011 10:20

Armed with your questions, Peter Martin and David Cohen from Sinocentric speak to the Director of African Studies at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, He Wenping. Part 2 here, Part 3 here.

Angelica: Aid from China to African countries has been generous and forthcoming ever since the founding of 'New China'. But China is often criticised by the world about paying for political benefits (such as support on the Taiwan issue) and resources in Africa. Since the very beginning, Sino-Africa relations took an strong ideological trust. In 2011, democratic movements in Africa are quite active, so now, is ideological trust still strong?

He: I think it's normal strong. During the first period of China-African relations were very rich in ideology, because Mao and Zhou at that time were more interested in third-world theory. So they offered very generous support to African countries, without considering economic benefits. A typical example is the Tanzania-Zambia railway — it cost almost one tenth of China's foreign reserves at that time.

Since early 1980s, because China had begun its the economic drive, and we were also trying to lure foreign investment, all the focus has been on economic development, so ideology has gradually faded away since the 80s. So now China has been labeled an economic animal by the Western media. Actually, it's not true, I think our relationship is very balanced: political, economic, cultural. Hu Jintao has made six visits to Africa – can you imagine Junior Bush going to Africa six times?

Steve: In real (2008 price) terms, China received almost US$71 billion in net ODA (official development assistance) between 1979 and 2009. To what degree, if any, does Ms He believe that China's previous experiences as a major recipient of foreign aid influences its engagement as a donor to emerging countries today?

He: Definitely. As China, we now have a dual role we can play in the development system, and also a dual identity. On the one hand, we are a recipient country, and on the other we are becoming a donor. So we have accumulated tremendous experience about being a good recipient, and I think we can share this with African countries. 

So in the (2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness) they mention five principles for guiding aid, like mutual accountability, managing for results, and ownership. So ownership, I think China has done extremely well. If USAID says 'Oh, I will build a school over here!' but we have already developed our rural development policy, in that province we don't need a new school, we should get it into a difference place. Normally our assistance to Africa is demand-driven. So we are not going and saying we are going to put a school here — they put their request first, so they say they want this school, hospital, and then we dispatch our team to do the feasibility study.

I can add another example: In China, we don't want foreign assistance if it comes with conditionality. For example, with the World Bank, there's no conditionality saying you must change your political system, you must set up an NGO, whatever. So when we offer our assistance it is no strings attached.

Pete and David: How do you monitor aid to make sure it's used properly?

He: China's aid to Africa is based on projects, not budget support. Traditional donors usually put their money into the recipient's budget, so maybe it's easier for corruption to happen. So if there's a plan to build a hospital in a country, the money will not go through that country's financial system. It will be delivered directly to the company that's building the project.

In parts 2 (tomorrow) and 3 (next week) we talk to He about aid competition with India, and the appeal of China's political model. Photo courtesy of the World Economic Forum.