Out-screwing the inscrutable

Andrew Donaldson asks what President Jacob Zuma was up to in China

There is a faded photograph of me pinned to the wall near the cigarette machine in the Mahogany Ridge. It was taken in some tourist trap in Shanghai a few years back and it shows me in the company of two small, elderly women who're rubbing my belly and calling me the Happy Buddha Man.

I know it's strange -- the mysterious, exotic Orient -- but this sort of thing does happen out there and I mention it only because President Jacob Zuma would not, in all likelihood, have enjoyed this affirming experience during his Chinese visit.

He wasn't, of course, even in Shanghai, but in Beijing where he attended the Fifth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. A busy schedule of flesh-pressing and mutual exchanges of flattery -- with other heads of state, I mean -- would have kept him from the jade palaces and the tea rooms.

However, like me, Zuma would certainly have noticed the omnipresent image of the familiar, smiling elderly man on walls and buildings all over the capital. Despite the bold red, socialist tone of the portrait, the bland features are not at all aggressive or authoritarian, but warm and welcoming.

This, of course, is Comrade Harland David "Colonel" Sanders, founder of the KFC fast food chain and now the face of modern China. If it's Chairman Mao you want to see, well, his portrait is on all the yuan notes, a bunch of which you'd have to hand over for a bucket of the stuff with the secret herbs and spices. 

Personally, I see no need for fried chicken when they have so many restaurants serving our best seafood. But that is another story.

Internationally, China deals in dollars -- and on Thursday President Hu Jintao pledged  a loan of $20-billion to African governments in the next three years. This is roughly twice as much tom China offered Africa last time round, at the fourth ministerial conference in 2009.

There is, naturally, much that China wants from the continent, and many of its projects -- roads, pipelines, ports -- are intended to get resources out of Africa rather than actually help Africans. China is also roundly criticised for offering aid without such bothersome preconditions such as human rights conditions or governance.

Zuma was quick to shower (sorry) all manner of praises on the conference's hosts, saying Beijing's approach was preferred to the experience with Europe. "We are particularly pleased that in our relationship with China, we are equals and that agreements entered into are for mutual gain," he said.

The kow-towing was perhaps an attempt to strengthen SA's position in the Brics anagram -- and let's face it, in that association with Brazil, Russia, India and China, we are running a distant fifth, but hey, it's not an emerging economies competition.
Then, with barely a pause, he did a neat about-turn.

"Africa's commitment," Zuma said, "to China's development has been demonstrated by supply of raw materials, other products and technology transfer. This trade pattern is unsustainable in the long term. Africa's past economic experience with Europe dictates a need to be cautious when entering into partnerships with other economies."

As WTF moments go, it was a large one, we thought. What was he doing? Was he trying to out-screw the inscrutable? 

Chinese aid is very different to Western aid. There's a reason they don't insist on such things as governance -- they don't seem to need it. In fact, there is very little they need from those they've given money. (The payback comes later.) 

They bring in their own workers and unleash them on projects  -- and the job gets done. The locals, naturally, couldn't do that because, as the old joke goes, they're all a bunch of communists.

When he announced his African loan, the Chinese premier did go on to say that China would be training 30 000 Africans, offering 18 000 scholarships and sending 1 500 medical personnel to Africa. Hu also said they would be launching programmes to protect forests and improve drinking water. 

These, the New York Times drily noted, were "new endeavours" for China. As someone who has taken a night cruise on Shanghai's Huangpu River, I can attest to the latter. The city dumps most of its sewage into the river -- four million tons of it, according to 1990 figures, and just 4% of it is treated in any way. Let's just say you don't want to fall into it.

But more importantly, this Chinese aid was only going to go to those African countries with abundant energy and mineral resources. That, alas, is not us. And perhaps that is why the aid was unsustainable -- Zuma Inc wasn't going to get any of it.

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.

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