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One of the key characteristics of China’s foreign policy is mutual respect and non-interference towards Africa’s internal affairs, but should China step in to resolve conflict where human rights violations occur?

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EDDIE CONWAY: Recently, there was a number of reports of the Chinese government building, OAU headquarters I believe, in Ethiopia, spying on the OAU, Organization of African Unity. Can you kind of explain what happened there, how it was resolved, and what kind of relationship China has with the OAU?
ZHIQUN ZHU: Yes, the OAU building was built by China as a gift to the African Union, African continent. This spying case was first reported a few weeks ago, but I don’t have the latest status on this. I don’t think this, if proven true, I don’t think this will negatively affect the relationship. I think this most likely is an isolated case and I’m not sure whether these bugs placed in the buildings, whether they were even approved by the government. I don’t know the details, I have to say. But again, you will have to look at the broad picture, you know, because China’s investment is not just infrastructure; making stadiums, or railways.
China has also lots of investment in agriculture, helping all these countries to develop their local agricultural economy. China’s investment is also in public health. I think actually since the 1960s, China has constantly sent medical teams to many African countries to help them fight against all kinds of diseases. I think again, if you look at the broad picture, you see more positive sides. And are they any problems? I’m sure there are problems, there are dark sides, but I think again it takes efforts from both sides to address those issues.
CONWAY: Well, now, of course it’s clear that China has a non-interventionist kind of policy with Africa. How does that play out in relationship to the Western conditional policies where they attempt to tweak and control the governments? Why is China in a non-interventionist position there when it’s given aid, technical aid, military, and economic aid?
ZHU: Yes, that’s a complicated issue, because this non-interference policy has been one of the foreign policy pillars of China since the 1950s. These so called five principles of peaceful coexistence. And one of the principles is non[interference]. These principles were actually first signed, agreed upon, between China and India. And those principles were also later adopted by many African and Asian countries. So, today the question is, today, China as a growing power, and with huge influence, should China get more heavily involved in international affairs?
I think China is in a dilemma now because China still wants to follow this non-interventionist policy, but at the same time, because of its growing interest in Africa and other regions, it almost becomes inevitable that China will become somehow involved in local businesses. And already we heard reports from countries like Nigeria, for example. Chinese diplomats were kind of involved in local elections, publicly favoring one political candidate. That’s evidence of getting involved in local politics. But I think, you know, on the other hand, maybe China should get involved in promoting good governance, and better human rights conditions in those countries, environmental issues. I think if China works with NGOs and civic society of these countries, I think it will be a win-win for China and for those countries. And in the process, yes, people will charge China with interfering in local affairs, but I think that might be a good kind of interference, you know. If I may say so.
CONWAY: And I guess one of the things that concerns me obviously, being African-American, is the slavery in Northern Africa, in Sudan in particular, which I understand China has a very strong relationship with. And now in Libya and across that stretch there, to some degree in Mauritania and so on. China has a strong relationship up there, what’s their actual position on the slavery of black Africans in Northern Africa, in those countries that it has a relationship with?
ZHU: Again, this goes back to China’s so called non-interventionist policy. I think the Chinese government has refrained from publicly commenting on these kind of issues, because they, you know, they think that this might be evidence of interfering in African countries’ internal affairs. But as I mentioned earlier you know, yeah, those kind of issues probably China should stand up and voice its view and criticize human rights violations in those countries. But, I haven’t seen much of that kind of activity from China, and that’s something I think China will have to do a better job.
CONWAY: In the past, a colonial relationship has always been a railroad from the raw materials, the resources, to the ports, etc. I’m asking, is China leaving any kind of physical infrastructure in Africa, or where they can process their own resources, or manufacture their own goods, and that kind of stuff? Is anything being left behind other than mobile transportation of the resources?
ZHU: Yes. I mean, it’s complicated. I think, you know, if you talk about, let’s say, the new railway linking Ethiopia to Djibouti, yes. And the railway, first of all, was built by Chinese, was the first electrified railway in Africa. But also the trains that are operating along the railway are also provided and manufactured in China.
And if you’re asking whether the Chinese businesses are turning some of these African countries into a manufacturing centers, I think probably not. I mean, there are some Chinese businesses that have operated and have opened factories in African countries, but I think China’s activity, China’s investment, typically takes the form of investing and building infrastructure and providing financial support. I don’t think there’s a huge wave of Chinese movement; moving people into facilities, manufacturing into Africa. I don’t think that’s the case.
But yes, in terms of legacy, of China’s investment, you do definitely think, everywhere you go, I mean, you will see the traces of China’s investment in terms of the facilities used, the projects they build. Even in cultural activities I think China has built many so-called Confucius Institutes in quite a few countries. Those Confucius Institutes basically provide teaching materials about China; China’s history, China’s culture. The teaching materials are also provided by the Chinese side. And even the language instructors are from China.
So, you do see many cases of strong Chinese presence in the region but on the other hand, I think the Chinese activities in Africa, are also limited, in the sense that they are not really a colonial power trying to document, dominate, and occupy the whole continent. I think there are some nuances, I guess. We have to take a more holistic approach to observing and analyzing what is happening in Africa.
CONWAY: Okay, I know I said that was the final question, but one final question, I was thinking about it as you were talking. In the foreseeable future, it seems that Africa still won’t have its ability to manufacture and support its own processing of raw materials and its citizens with creature comforts or goods, whether it’s manufacturing or whatnot, with this relationship. How does this look in the future for Africa and China if the stuff that’s being given is educational and the stuff that’s being taken away is raw materials? How does this differ form how the Western powers are interacting with Africa?
ZHU: Yes, I think this is a very good question. I think, you know, the question is really about how we can all work together to help African countries to develop. I mean, I think what China’s doing in Africa offers a different model; an alternative to the Western model, to American model. I think, you know, if China and other powers work together, they can really create these conditions for African countries to grow. For example, I think China has a lot of financial resources, so that’s why you see a growing Chinese investment in all African countries, but China has probably done a poor job in developing technological skills of workers, and providing technical support of these countries.
And right there, I think Western countries, including the United States, can perhaps help, because Western countries in general have better technology, are more skilled in management. I think, you know, if you combine these two resources with the financial power of China, with the technological power of the Western countries–again, I think Western countries, I mean African countries, would really benefit from this external support and help. But I don’t see that right now because many Western countries tend to view China’s investment in Africa as a threat to their own interest over there. They tend to see these as a zero sum game, but my argument is that no, I think you know, we can turn this competition into a win-win game for everybody.
Everybody can benefit from these new economic activities. For China, of course, it needs resources, it needs a market, but for African countries, they need help, they need economic development, and they need to improve their governance, human rights, environmental standards. Western countries, they can continue to invest and provide technical support. They can continue to form a strong relationship with African countries. So in end, if we all work together, I think it will be a beneficial relationship for everybody. I think really, Western countries and China should walk together to form this new 21st century relationship with African countries.

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Dr. Zhiqun Zhu (pronounced as Gee-Train Drew) is a professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. His teaching and research focus on Chinese politics and foreign policy, East Asian political economy, and US-China relations. He has published over 10 books, including China's New Diplomacy