China's Involvement in Sudan

Criticism of the Red Giant

While China and Sudan have been celebrating record levels of trade, there's increasing unhappiness among the people of Sudan about China's role in the country. Human rights activists criticise China's behaviour in the Darfur conflict and elsewhere. By Marc Engelhardt

While the governments of China and Sudan have been celebrating record levels of trade, there's increasing unhappiness among the people of Sudan about China's role in the country. Human rights activists criticise China's behaviour in the Darfur conflict and elsewhere. By Marc Engelhardt

China's President Hu Jintao meets with Sudan President Omar al-Bashir in the 'Great Hall of the People' in Beijing (photo: dpa)
Is the relationship between China and Sudan really a dream partnership? - Outside the government palaces, there is increasing criticism of the China's Africa commitment

​​There was a sea of red flags flying at Khartoum Airport early February as the Chinese president Hu Jintao arrived for a state visit which was being described as historic even before it started.

The Sudanese president Omar Hassan al Bashir was waiting personally at the red carpet. "We've waited so long for this visit," gushed the Sudanese energy minister, Ahmed al Jaz, speaking on Chinese state media. And President Hu returned the compliment with a paean of praise for the "long friendship between our two countries, which we enjoy in spite of the great distance between us."

Sudan's economic miracle, made in China

The economic data seem to show that the relationship between the two states really is a dream partnership. Trade between China and Sudan in the first eleven months of last year amounted to nearly three billion US dollars.

China is the largest foreign investor in Sudan and, in its hunger for energy, buys two-thirds of Sudan oil exports, while helping Sudan to increase oil production. The Sudanese economy grew by 12% in 2006, and much of that is thanks to Chinese investment.

In many ways, Sudan is the showcase for China's Africa policy. Economic relations between China and Africa have boomed, with trade increasing twenty-five times from two billion dollars in 1999 to fifty billion in 2006.

In their conquest of Africa, the Chinese investors are helped by their ability to take the long view: the state conglomerates do not have to make profits – the main thing is that they win the hearts and minds of the rulers. Losses are covered by the Chinese state as long as the wider picture is in order.

In addition to the exploitation of much-needed raw materials like oil, the second aspect of the Chinese long march to Africa is its desire to win African support for its transition to world power status. With 53 countries, Africa is the largest block in the United Nations and other international organisations like the World Trade Organisation.

Discontent among the people

But once out of the government palaces, one hears increasing criticism of the red giant's Africa commitment. Ali Askouri, a critic of the Sudanese government, accuses China of carrying out a ruthless policy from which only the elites benefit.

"The Chinese government always says it doesn't want to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries," says Askouri. "That's a lie. China does in fact interfere actively in Sudanese politics, but only on the side of the regime in power."

View of the Riyad refugee camp in Darfur (photo: AP)
More than 200,000 people have died in Sudan's Darfur conflict, yet China has repeatedly vetoed resolutions in the UN security council

​​Miriam Kahiga of Amnesty International sees it in much the same way. "When Africa gets into bed with China," she says, "that can only mean that human rights will play a subordinate role, as they do in China."

It's no wonder, she says, that China is received with open arms by countries with authoritarian regimes, like Sudan or Zimbabwe. She quotes the Darfur crisis, with its 200,000 dead and its estimated two million displaced people, as an example. China has repeatedly vetoed resolutions in the UN security council, and thus shielded the Bashir regime from UN peacekeepers.

But that's by no means all, says Ali Askouri. "China and the Sudanese government work hand in hand to expel people from the oil-rich regions," he says. It's particularly bad near the Unity oilfields which lie on the border between northern and southern Sudan.

When Southern Sudan votes on independence in 2011, the people there will be able to decide in a separate referendum whether they want to be counted as part of Northern or Southern Sudan.

Those who have been driven away won't be able to vote. According to observers, China has a big interest in ensuring that the oil wells which are managed by Chinese firms land up in the North, where they have reliable contacts.

Violence on the Nile

Human rights activists also report expulsions from the banks of the Nile north of Khartoum. This is where China is building a dam which will supply Sudan's entire energy needs. The African human rights organisation "Fahamu" accuses the Chinese company involved of using a private army to intimidate residents who have protested.

Earlier, they say, Sudanese police had destroyed whole villages. Siemens and ABB, two companies which had been involved in the Merowe dam project, have recently announced their withdrawal. "We've decided not to take any more contracts in Sudan because of the humanitarian situation," said a spokesman. Siemens will lose tens of millions of euros per year as a result.

Some people believe that such steps, together with the discontent in the population, are signs of first small successes. "Diplomats are saying that China is slowly losing patience over Darfur," says Colin Thomas-Jensen, Sudan expert with the "International Crisis Group".

In a statement issued before President Hu's departure, the Chinese government expressed what was for Chinese standards a very clear position: they hoped that Sudan would find a solution for Darfur together with the United Nations. It's uncertain whether the Chinese were more explicit during their talks in Khartoum. The meetings all took place behind closed doors.

Marc Engelhardt

© 2007

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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