PRETORIA (Reuters) - Beijing is worried about culturally naive Chinese companies damaging its image in Africa, but thinks the perception that it is only after cheap oil and minerals is unfair, its ambassador to Pretoria said on Tuesday.
Zhong Jianhua also said Africa was destined for an economic revolution similar to China’s, and that Chinese investment and its experience of the last 30 years would help the poorest continent achieve that end.
“We saw what happened in China in the last 30 years ... Probably, the African continent is coming to that sooner or later,” Zhong told Reuters in an interview. “We hope that China can give it some help.”
Chinese trade with Africa has increased ten-fold in the last decade, and last year China overtook the United States as the continent’s principal commercial partner, with two-way flows totalling $107 billion.
At the same time, its investment has widened from mainly resources and energy — the raw materials for its own rapid economic expansion — into areas as diverse as banking, telecommunications, and the building of roads and railways.
Zhong acknowledged that that expansion had not been without its problems, but said tensions were most often due to a lack of experience of foreign practices and cultures by Chinese managers working overseas for the first time.
“When Chinese companies come out of China, this world is strange to them,” he said. “There a lot of things for Chinese companies to learn about.”
In two incidents, five Zambians were shot and wounded in a 2005 riot over pay and safety conditions at a Chinese-owned mine, and a year later 52 were killed in an explosion at a Chinese firm making explosives for mining.
“In certain fields, we feel that Chinese companies sometimes work well, sometimes not so well,” he said. “Beijing is concerned about all these kinds of things happening.”
While China says its investment helped Africa notch up the pacy 5 percent growth it enjoyed in the five years leading up to 2008, some Western aid groups contend that its aims are purely self-serving and ignore misrule and corruption.
However, Zhong said the portrayal of Beijing as a plunderer of Africa’s natural resources to fuel its own growth was “not fair” and that African governments did not share the view.
“Fortunately, they don’t just follow that Western media perception of Chinese investment,” he said.
Prominent among those investments is Industrial and Commercial Bank of China’s (ICBC) $5.6 billion, 20 percent stake in South Africa’s Standard Bank, Africa’s biggest bank by assets.
The partnership has already produced an $825 million financing package for a power station in Botswana, and 60 other deals are in the pipeline, ICBC and Standard Bank bosses say.
Rather than serving as some grand plan to buy friends and influence, Zhong said this shift in Chinese investment patterns was simply a reflection of China’s economic evolution from exporter of manufactured goods to exporter of capital.
“It’s the sensible thing because selling goods does not prove to be very long-lasting,” he said. “It’s a quite natural development.”