With Gifts of Palaces, Dams, China Guarantees Africa's 'Friendship'

China paid for the marble and tile parliament building soaring above the crumbling homes in this former Portuguese colony, and is also promising a dam and a military hospital — all with no strings attached.

Intent on cementing ties across Africa, China is active even in impoverished Guinea-Bissau, a small nation with little industry, no oil and few exports.

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing ended a two-day visit to Guinea-Bissau Thursday, part of a tour that includes Chad, Benin, Central African Republic, Eritrea and Mozambique. He came to Guinea-Bissau from Equatorial Guinea, Africa's third-largest oil producer, where Li agreed to forgive about US$75 million in debt, according to state radio.

Some of the nations on the itinerary already are sources of the raw materials China's booming economy craves. Countries like Guinea-Bissau may not have much to offer today, but could a generation from now. In courting them, China has turned on its head the Western aid formula that for decades has tied public works projects to progress in good governance.

"China is not like the World Bank, they don't attach all these conditions on the money," said Edmundo Vaz, a former adviser to the Guinea-Bissau finance ministry who now runs a local bank.

"The West makes us wait, but we're a poor country — we don't have time wait," he said.

It's an especially troubling strategy for countries like France, traditionally a major power in West Africa, said Valerie Niquet, a director at France's Institute for International Relations. France has a particular interest in Chad and Central African Republic, two countries on Li's tour where stability has been undermined by violence in Sudan's Darfur, which both border.

"China is not listening at all to the concerns that are being expressed by Paris on these development strategies," she said.

When asked about China's investment in countries which have a record of human rights abuses — most notably Sudan and now, the Central African Republic, where the military is accused of setting fire to more than 2,000 homes — Li replied curtly: "Do you know what the meaning of human rights is? The basic meaning of human rights is survival — and development."

Inside the marbled halls of the parliament building, security guard Feliciano Balde said his country is better served by the Chinese form of aid.

"In a corrupt country, it's better to come and build something big like this where the people can come to discuss politics," said Balde, 42, standing inside the hushed assembly hall. "At least this is something we can see. Other countries give us money, but the politicians eat it, and so people like me never see any of it."

Africa has become a crucial part of China's growth strategy. Trade between Africa and China has grown fourfold since 2001, topping US$45 billion in the first 10 months of last year. At a two-day summit attended by 35 African heads of state in Beijing last fall, Chinese entrepreneurs signed deals worth US$1.9 billion with African governments and firms.

In Africa, China has found a seemingly limitless market for its cheap goods, while in oil-rich countries like Nigeria and Angola, it is finding the natural resources it needs to sustain its fast growth.

The imbalance between a superpower like China and a struggling country like Guinea-Bissau has prompted some to describe China's overtures as the latest chapter in Africa's history of exploitation.

Twenty-year-old Ivan Nhuqui watches a Chinese construction crew working on another gift — a small subdivision of cinderblock homes for the country's military elite in the capital of Bissau.

"It hurts me to see this. The construction is bad. It has no quality. And although the buildings are big compared to what we have, they're small compared to our sea," he said.

He's referring to the maritime treaties signed with China in recent years, which give Chinese fishing vessels access to the country's rich waters. Some say those treaties are the unofficial price for the new parliament building. It's a claim both Chinese and Guinea-Bissau officials deny, but one which former U.S. Ambassador to Guinea-Bissau John Blacken says is not far-fetched.

"These buildings and things are basically tokens in return for the fishing agreements which are extremely beneficial to the Chinese," said Blacken, who estimates that the Chinese have netted US$85 million worth of fish in the country's waters.

By contrast, the cost of the parliament building was roughly US$6 million.

"What the government doesn't seem to understand is that they're being systematically robbed," Blacken said.

Guinea-Bissau Prime Minister Aristides Gomes acknowledged an imbalance of power, but argued that the government can hold its own.

"It's true that we come to negotiating table from a position of weakness," he said. "But we can't be fearful to the point of paralysis."

What is clear is that Chinese influence has seeped deeply into the African soil.

On the pavement outside the building where the Chinese and the Guinean foreign ministers met to discuss the latest building plans, 39-year-old Una Dang ekes out a living selling salted purple yam for 20 cents a serving.

"I don't really understand what they're doing here," she said, nodding toward a group of Chinese embassy officials awaiting Li. "But why would I? My eyes are always gazing down, serving."

In her line of sight are her yams, arranged on a metal platter. The oval plate, adorned with orange roses, was stamped: "made in China."