What are we to think of the recent Forum on China-Africa Cooperation? Or, rather, about China's involvement in Africa generally?
The international financial institutions are, of course, worried by the lack of conditions on China's deals with the Africa. They say this may undo efforts aimed at promoting "discipline" and "good governance" on the continent--patronizing words, but with some merit. Others, like economist Jeffrey Sachs, see China's investment in Africa as a development tidal wave, which will do more for the continent's poor than decades of Western aid--even if a bit of the money is siphoned off by corruption.
I'm most concerned with solidarity.
Under Mao Zedong, China, with its advocacy at the Bandung Conference and later its "Three Worlds Theory", proposed a special role for de-colonizing nations, beyond superpower rivalry.
In Africa, Beijing gave rhetorical backing to South Africans, Algerians and others shaking off Western rule. It also supported wars of "national liberation" against both colonial regimes and post-colonial governments--with guns, training, and money.
Unfortunately, despite Mao's grand rhetoric, this support was often as much about wearing down and distracting the Soviet Union as it was about the substance of the African insurgencies. In Angola, for example, China (and the United States, South Africa and Zaire!) sided with UNITA and the FNLA--not the more progressive but Moscow-backed MPLA.
More unambiguously positive were the scholarships China gave to thousands of African students to attend its universities. These students sometimes encountered racism from their Chinese peers (there were riots over African men dating Chinese girls in the 1980s). But bonds were established such that young people in China viewed their lives and those of Africans as part of one historical movement.
What will China's new engagement with the continent mean for CHINESE people? How will this help them situate their country?
Will the ordinary exchanges between African workers and Chinese migrant workers toiling thousands of miles from Hunan or Sichuan matter the most? Or will the neo-colonial actions of companies, like the Chinese mining firm in Zambia that shot its strikerst? Will China eventually distance itself from governments like Sudan's? Or will it use Sudan as a rallying point for "non-interference" and "sovereignty"?
And what will this mean for democracy back home?