African churches examine the impact of Chinese investment

By agency reporter
November 23, 2007

A coalition of African and US Methodist church leaders have met to ask how African people and nations are being affected by Chinese long- and short-term investments in the region, often in exchange for mineral and mining rights.

The discussion took place earlier this month as part of a gathering of African and US leaders seeking to strengthen United Methodist ministries in Africa. The Holistic Strategy on Africa task force met in North Carolina prior to the worldwide United Methodist Council of Bishops meeting - writes Linda Green.

Bishop Fama Onema, a retired bishop from the Democratic Republic of Congo, reported on China's $5 billion loan to his country under an agreement signed in September. According to Asia Economy Watch, the loan will pay for enhancements to the Congo's extraction infrastructure and give China access rights to extract significant natural resources.

In their conversations about eradicating poverty in Africa, the African bishops noted that China has made similar investment deals across the continent. The bishops expressed concern about the costs to the people of Africa.

"Africa is not a poor continent," said West Angolan Bishop Gaspar Domingos. "Many people come to the continent to look for riches to obtain. They take resources back to their countries and then bring them back to Africa to buy," he said, reporting that Africa is purchasing more Chinese-made goods that are industrially manufactured.

"Education is the No. 1 key for the fight against poverty in training engineers and people who can be responsible for the wealth of the continent," Onema said.

Bishop Benjamin Boni noted that, during the civil war in the Ivory Coast that ended five years ago, the region was exploited for gold, diamonds and other minerals. "How can we explain that?" he asked. "It is a very serious problem."

Analysts say China's financial muscle is providing an economic alternative to African leaders, since traditional partners like European nations and the United States are consumed by their own economic and social issues. China also has cancelled debts owed by some African nations.

"I am unclear about the motivation of China and the way in which they are now appearing on the scene and interacting with several of the countries that are related to (The United Methodist Church) and our work," said Bishop Felton May, task force chairman and interim top executive of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

Zimbabwe, he said, has experienced an influx of Chinese people over the past seven years. The number of Chinese people in the restaurant and hotel industry has increased significantly, and a large number work in Zimbabwean mines while many in Zimbabwe remain unemployed. "My question is why?" May asked.

May wondered if Zimbabwe felt abandoned by the West, namely Great Britain and the United States.

"I would like to know whether the U.S. State Department has clear and unmistakable knowledge of what China is doing in Zimbabwe and what the proposed outcome would be in terms of the growing presence," he said.

May noted that the United States has invested in Zimbabwe in various ways over the years and that USAID, a government agency providing U.S. economic, developmental and humanitarian aid worldwide, has invested in United Methodist-related Africa University. "For that we are grateful," he said.

But in terms of trade, he said, it is "problematic" that Chinese workers are perhaps displacing Zimbabweans in certain jobs and that textiles and other products previously made in Zimbabwe are being manufactured in China and glutting the market.

"The price for these items has forced Zimbabweans to ask for little or nothing for what they are doing. For me that is a problem," May said.

Another concern cited is the US debt to China. The United States has borrowed money unilaterally or through secondary banking systems from China to shore up deficits.

"Is there a relationship to the indebted of the United States to China and China's encroachment on the social and political scene of Zimbabwe and other subSaharan African countries?," May asked.

"Should China do something that we are not pleased with, are we able to morally and ethically speak to them about what they are doing or will be silenced by our financial relationship to them?"

May expressed hope that the U.S. State Department would give The United Methodist Church or any faith-based organization in Africa an assessment of the US relationship to China and the effect of China's presence on the economic future of Africa.

"As we are concerned about the economic future, we want to know if our investments will be to naught or will they help people come out of poverty," May said. "We certainly do not want China to come in and possibly move toward domination of these countries economically and socially."

The African bishops said if money generated from the sale of African products were being mined and invested in the countries where the mines are, the residuals would help to fight poverty.

"Poverty is something we can't understand in a country that has everything," said Bishop David Yemba of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

May expressed a desire that the US government or a research department at a United Methodist-related university would provide a clear picture of what is happening socially, economically and medically in African countries where China has invested.

"We have underutilized the tremendous academic strength of our institutions of higher education," said May.

The Holistic Africa task force provides the African bishops with an arena to share hurts, dreams and aspirations for their respective areas and allows churchwide agencies to share programs, projects and initiatives that can benefit Africans and the church in Africa. The task force also provides an arena to identify common issues that affect the way the African bishops do mission and ministry.

With kind acknowledgments to the United Methodist News Service

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