Among the pledges made by Chinese premier Li Keqiang at the African Union meeting in Addis Abeba on 5 May, increasing the credit line to African countries to $30bn by adding another $10bn was probably the one attracting the most headlines. (The full text of Li’s speech has been widely circulated in Chinese media, for example here.) Such promises, however, have been very hard to track. Some of the details of Li’s propositions were more interesting. To begin with, he talked about the “strategic complementarity” (战略对接) of Chinese and African industries in the context of helping localise labour-intensive garment and electronics manufacturing in Africa. This has, of course, long been talked about, but the phrasing is perhaps more explicit than before. Li also mentioned support for setting up a Chinese-African joint venture airline and funding a high-speed railway research centre.
For me, the most interesting proposition was setting up a “Chinese-African joint research centre” (中飞联合研究中心) devoted to biodiversity, desertification control, “demonstration of modern agriculture” and other issues and expected to help promote “clean energy” and “renewable energy.” Although this reads like nothing beyond a list of buzzwords, it has a proposed location (Kenya) and is part of a $10 million pledge for wildlife protection. Running a serious institute would of course easily eat up that budget. If this will indeed be a serious undertaking involving Chinese academics, then I am very curious about the extent to which Chinese environmentalists may be included in the initiative. Some years ago, the Peking-based Global Environmental Institute, closely related to the ministry of the environment, set up a branch in Vientiane, Laos. This has been a low-key operation, but to my knowledge, this was the first time for a Chinese research institute or a non-governmental organisation of any stripe to set up an affiliate abroad, and it has for a while recruited highly qualified young Chinese researchers, some trained in the West.
Li’s announcement of the new institute is an indication of the government’s desire to counteract the negative publicity around the issue of ivory and rhino horn poaching. (One Chinese journalist in Kenya told me that it was the only issue the Chinese ambassador felt embarrassed by.) It also fits into the strategy of “great aid” (大援外) promoted by some foreign ministry officials, meaning that foreign development assistance should involve more actors than just the government, notably the financing or even creation of NGOs (in large part to counterbalance Western dominance of the sector).
Of course, the whole affair may come to nothing, but it may also conceivably produce more than mere window-dressing. There is a new generation of well-trained Chinese corporate personnel abroad who are not just aware that something must be done about corporate social responsibility (CSR) but are also personally interested in “doing good.” China House, an NGO set up in Nairobi early this year by the journalist Huang Hongxiang, who does PR for a local Chinese company and runs a website devoted to “China-South dialogue,” has already attracted over a dozen young Chinese interested in volunteering or interning as part of such projects. This is a significant development that is certain to become more visible in the coming years. The question is to what extent the government-initiated institute will be interested and successful in harnessing this popular interest, and whether such individuals will be able to influence its agenda.