Africa: Beijing in Charm Offensive to Recruit African, Asian and European Allies

Against the backdrop of a debilitating trade war with the United States and geopolitical competition for global influence and investments, China is on a charm offensive targeting African, Asian and European countries to fight in its corner.

Away from the much publicised top level diplomatic engagements with leaders of different regions, a subtle quest for the mind and soul of professionals, either in groups or as individuals is underway at a scale that in the case of Kenya, is comparable to the mid-1960s students airlifts to the US.

At a recent seminar sponsored by Chinese Ministry of Commerce for Kenyan media practitioners and regulators, journalists under the tutelage of Chinese academics, were taken through interpretations of Chinese society, culture, economy and politics.

The aim of the interaction facilitated by the Shandong Foreign Trade Vocational College was obviously to debunk the common Western view of China as a closed, dictatorial regime that tramples on human rights, free media, dissent and exploits diplomatic relations with partners to impoverish them through slanted exploitation of resources and indebtedness.

In between lectures where "Chinese characteristics" were emphasised in every discourse, participants were taken to leading tourists sites such as the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, shopping areas where the high quality of the country's products was a by-word, cultural experiences such as preparing dishes, media houses, film production sites, exhibitions and museums.

We met other groups going through similar excursions in the country from Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Comoros, Lesotho, Rwanda, Senegal and Gabon. They were drawn from sectors as diverse as agriculture, tourism, aviation, railways and transport.

During the travels--including one on the 305-kilometre per hour speed train--landmarks such as the Shanghai Center and China Zun, two of the tallest buildings in the world; the Bird Nest stadium which hosted the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Phoenix Media Center which is among the top 10 architectural designs in the world and webs of road interchanges brought out the advances China has made on the planning and futuristic infrastructure front.

It's these advances, presenters emphasised, which China wanted to share with the world through the Bridge and Road Initiative and a new form of Diplomacy with Chinese Characteristics which are hinged on a "shared and common destiny for mankind."

Self determination

"We do not say you should do that. Every country should have a right to determine its own road. We just share our experience. We want to be friends," said Belinda Ru Wang, associate professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance; the policy organ of the Communist Party of China.

She is serving for one year as a deputy mayor of a rural town in order to become a professor as is required to ascend to that academic rank in China.

But this see no evil, hear no evil approach to diplomacy has come under sharp criticism especially in Africa, after China and Russia, with the help of African members, blocked resolutions at the UN Security Council aimed at holding governments and political forces in Burundi, Cameroon, Libya, South Sudan and, until recently, the Sudan military junta, to be more accountable to their citizens.

Opening up and international publicity is one of the key challenges that according to Li Yan Lun, a director of research and information at Qingdao Party Committee, is facing China's reform.

"We face three challenges in our diplomacy; getting across, getting accepted and poor methods," he said of efforts to integrate China into the global system.

"We have to find common ground and share national values. Our content should take a global perspective and focus on localisation using all channels including new media," said Mr Li.

It is not only in diplomacy that China is facing challenges. Buoyed by the opening up of the economy in 1979 under Deng Xiaoping and deepening of reforms under successive regimes China has enjoyed steady economic growth averaging 9.5 per cent over four decades.

This has catapulted the country of 1.4 billion people into the second largest economy in the world after the United States. It is also the largest manufacturer, consumer and trader. That has come with significant steps in democracy and rule of law, international presence, higher living standards and environmental conservation.

The growth was, however, predicated on low factor costs such as wages while ignoring, environmental costs, high savings ratio which peaked at 51 per cent in 2005, cheap technology domesticated from developed countries and market demand--the country has a middle class of 400 million people--that assured high returns on investments.

Rising costs

According to Ms Ru, costs like labour are now rising, knowledge transfer gains are being exhausted and conservation demands on industries are more strict leading to declining return on investment as well as less cutting edge in external markets. That has put in jeopardy China's hopes of overtaking the United States as the top economy in the world by 2029.

Projections released a week ago by the International Monetary Fund reviewed China's growth this year to 6.2 per cent from 6. 4 per cent; days after the country's premier Li Keqiang said it would "not be very easy" for China to achieve a GDP growth above six per cent this year.

After nearly missing out on hosting the 2008 Beijing Olympics over environmental concerns, Beijing embarked on an aggressive clean up that saw air pollution cut by a third by 2015.

Much of this was achieved through vehicular fumes management by limiting the number of vehicles (number plates are allocated via a lottery after which the winner has to pay up to $10,000 besides the cost of buying a car).

A public transport system consisting of BRT, normal trains, high speed rail and public bicycles was refined to obviate the inconveniences of not having a car while every public space imaginable was forested to offset carbon miles of human and industrial activities.

Industries were shut down or forced to install modern technologies. Improvements on surface water quality cost up to $650 billion, equivalent to the gross national income of Portugal and Austria.

Still, piped water is not drinkable in China and tour guides do not recommend visits to the beach because of harmful effluents. Another challenge has been the demographic where the country's population peaked in 2012 with its structure showing an aging trend.

"The labour force is falling and average factory salaries are edging up to between 4,000 and 5,000 yuan per month; about $6,00 and $700 per month," said Ms Ru.

In comparison, the average factory wage in Kenya is $180 per month explaining why Chinese enterprises are looking to go global and set shop in more competitive economies.

China had hoped that by relaxing the one-child policy, it would address the emerging labour force issues. Official data, however, shows that less than 10 per cent of married couples are going for a second child and that about 200 million people are "single dogs," a local term for people not considering having a family.

While a similar scenario in Europe set the stage for labour migration, which has now hit crisis proportions, Chinese officials insist its large population will provide a bulwark for labour in the foreseeable future.

Market needs

"The solutions lie in innovation, balancing external and internal market needs, greening, international co-operation and sharing," Ms Ru said.

China has already crafted domestic policies in this direction such as entrepreneurship, buy made in China, supply side reforms such as on taxation and red tape and reducing factory inventories.

Beijing further hopes taking infrastructure and industrial investments abroad, resource extraction, trade and financial partnerships will help cushion a slowing down domestic economy.

Last year, the economy registered a growth of 6.6 per cent, the slowest since 1990, and in August manufacturing output fell by 1 per cent, the first time it had not increased since the reforms.

In response the People's Central Bank reduced the cash ratio requirement to spur more lending in rural areas and also removed the 60 per cent ceiling on the proportion of shareholding foreigners can have in stocks listed in China.

The fall in growth rate and manufacturing output was in line with expert projections that the trade war with the US would cut a percentage point in China's growth.

In the US, the impact of the trade war has been evident in soya bean exports--mostly to China which mostly uses them to make pig feed--falling by 50 per cent over the past two years.

The no-win situation has spurred government officials across the Pacific into action with technocrats from the US and China sitting from September 16 to thrash out areas of tariff conflicts ahead of a meeting between President Donald Trump and Premier Xi Jinping in October.

"Great politicians need great hearts as great politics is not always great business. They have to think globally and act locally through collaboration and coordination as confidence is key to solving problems," said Yan Guohua, vice president at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Resolving the dispute, he said, was key to bringing confidence in the global economy which has been hit by other trade rows between the US, India, Japan (a trade deal was announced last Wednesday), Mexico, Korea and Europe as well as economic sanctions on countries like Iran.

Ahead of the talks, a flurry of diplomatic activity saw Premier Xi meet the leaders of Turkey, Germany and Philippines where deepening trade ties and implementing the Belt and Road Initiative were at the core of discussions.

BRI aims to create a double loop value chain connecting the developed economies of Europe, Japan and US with the advancing countries of Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe with a goal to realise an all inclusive globalisation.

"We will never seek hegemony and expansion," Mr Yan said of China's all dimension diplomacy. In the week that China launched the world's biggest single terminal airport and the longest sea rail-road bridge only time will tell what China's long term ambitions are.

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