From The Economist print edition
By coddling Guinea’s dictator, China again mocks human rights in Africa
BARELY a fortnight after soldiers loyal to Guinea’s military junta butchered at least 150 demonstrators calling for civilian rule, a deal for oil and mineral rights worth around $7 billion has been struck between China and Guinea. That, at any rate, is being trumpeted by Mahmoud Thiam, Guinea’s mines minister. He says the China International Fund, a large Chinese firm, will be a strategic partner in an array of projects throughout Guinea. It seems that China’s commercial march across Africa will continue unabated, however vile the human-rights record of the governments it seeks to befriend.
Guinea’s ruler, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, has been widely castigated for crushing the opposition. France, Guinea’s traditional ally and former colonial power, has distanced itself from him, cutting military ties and decrying his “savage” treatment of the protesters. The European Union followed suit. The African Union deplored the situation. Mohammed Ibn Chambas, head of the Economic Community of West Africa States, better known as ECOWAS, a regional group that has intervened to help bring back civilian rule in Liberia and Sierra Leone, grumbled that Guinea could slip into dictatorship.
Many workers went on strike in Conakry, Guinea’s capital, after the massacre. So the deal would be a boon to Captain Camara. China, however, has yet to confirm it. So Guinea’s government may have announced it to give itself a boost. Guinea’s opposition has condemned China for canoodling with a brutish regime and denies that the deal, if it comes off, would benefit ordinary Guineans.
The agreement, if it does materialise, will certainly disappoint those who think that China is becoming warier of doing deals that fortify dodgy dictators. Guinean ministers stress that this one is with a private Chinese company, not China’s government. But it is bound to reinforce an impression that China cares little about human rights in Africa. The Chinese government has long proclaimed a policy of non-interference. But there were signs that it might be growing more sensitive on the subject, after human-rights campaigners decried last year’s “genocide Olympics” on the ground that China was turning a blind eye to atrocities in Darfur carried out by the government of Sudan, where it has large commercial links. Seemingly chastened, China began to back UN intervention in Darfur. If the Guinean deal is done, it would suggest China respects human rights only when shamed into doing so.
In any event, its influence in Africa is still growing fast. China is now Africa’s second-biggest trading partner after the United States. Last year Angola became its second-biggest source of oil; the Chinese ambassador said it had become China’s largest trading partner in Africa, with last year’s bilateral trade worth more than $25 billion. China is eyeing Nigeria’s oil too. It is in the early days of trying to buy 6 billion barrels, around one-sixth of Nigeria’s estimated reserves, worth $450 billion at today’s price.
Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s president, recently praised the Chinese for investing in Africa’s infrastructure—in contrast, he said, to the West, which doles out aid. Mr Kagame is sensitive to growing Western criticism of his increasingly autocratic ways, so he too may start looking east. As Guinea may show, China’s unconditional approach to doing business may reap benefits, except perhaps for Africans who cherish democracy and human rights.