As the 2008 Summer Olympics closed with all the expected fanfare, this international multi-sports event represents an even more significant milestone for the People's Republic of China (PRC), which has shelled out tens of billions of dollars to host what can accurately be called their "coming out" party. This caps two decades of prosperity involving a political shift from strict communism to what can be called "market socialism," in which capitalist element systems are introduced as incentives or stimuli to encourage production.
In the interim, the government's "growing pains" have been on display for the entire world to see, including its perennial rivalry with the island nation of Taiwan, and perhaps most notably, 1989's Tiananmen Square protest and massacre. Mainland China's unprecedented economic growth has earned it membership into the World Trade Organization, the United Nations (UN) Security Council, and most recently of course, the right to host the Olympics.
This latest milestone might be seen as China's symbolic entrée into the ranks of the world's super powers, and also revisits the issue of its internal human rights concerns, and its questionable interventions into the affairs of others, most notably Tibet.
Not nearly as well covered in the press have been its activities on the continent of Africa, a potential source for sustaining the phenomenal economic growth displayed over the past few decades. China desperately needs an abundant source of natural resources to offset the fact that it has few indigenous stockpiles to rely on. America and the traditional powers it directly competes with already have well-established infrastructures in the Middle East, while the Dark Continent, rife with civil unrest though it may be, offers a more pliable objective economically, especially since the Americans have their hands full with their commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Friendly persuasion: a Sino-African primer
While far less is known to the general public, forays into the Dark Continent by the PRC have been common knowledge to those in the international community for years, and may have been at least a partial motivation behind the American military's formation of a new African Command (AFRICOM) this past year (see Our Weekly cover story "Marching to Africa," dated 8-9-07).
Chinese-African relations have been rife with racial overtones since the influx of African exchange students in the 1960s as part of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung's push for "Third World Solidarity." Similar to the animosity directed toward black and other minorities during the era of affirmative action in the United States, many Chinese resented the (comparatively) generous stipends given to the foreign students, who'd been encouraged to study in China since the 1960s. At least some of the friction may have stemmed from the romantic liaisons formed between African men and Chinese women.
Part of China's appeal as a trade partner to Third World countries, especially those in Africa, is its insistence on respecting each country's sovereignty and in the process refusing to insinuate itself or even criticize the domestic affairs of the nations it does business with. This policy is mutually attractive to the Chinese, who have their own shoddy reputation regarding human rights violations internally. This in turn raises concerns by humanitarian groups who suggest that China's primary objective is the exploitation of African raw materials to sustain its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), while ignoring the genocide raging in places like the Darfur region of Sudan.
Towards that end, they point to the Chinese tendency to invest in only those infrastructures necessary for the extraction of the raw materials, while giving little thought to the development of fledgling industries (i.e., they're not committed to nurturing self-sustaining businesses). Thus the past decades have seen the modernization of state-of-the-art airports across the continent in places like Mozambique and South Africa, with a brand-new one under construction in Sudan, tentatively to be called the Khartoum New International Airport (KINA). They often build up their own urban "China Towns," centers of commercialism, which usually exclude the indigenous Africans.
As far as China's commitment to a policy of "non-interference" in domestic affairs, it curiously does not apply to the provision of arms and military equipment which leads the way to the continuation of the ritual of violence, instability, dictatorial rule, and corruption that has characterized the African continent since colonialism ended.