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China in Africa: The Real Story

Michael Gerson on "China's Aid Invasion"

Deborah Brautigam

The Obamas with the Equatorial Guinean dictator.
This morning's Washington Post had a critical op-ed on China's aid (or is it investment? the online version has "investment" in the title, the print version says "aid") to Africa by conservative columnist Michael Gerson. While less hyperbolic than columns on China's "aid" by Freedom House and others over the past few years, Gerson nevertheless falls into some of the same pits: the double standard; and the mixing up of aid and business.

Gerson writes "in Africa today, America consistently promotes economic liberalization and good governance..." Just how consistently we do this is open to debate. For example, the US provided -- each year -- about $1.6 billion in aid (economic and military) to repressive Egypt under Mubarak. 

Referring to China, Gerson says "African governments have a rich friend with low standards." I wonder how he would describe America's friendship with tiny, oil-rich Equatorial Guinea? Check out Harvard group Human Rights in Equatorial Guinea for a portrait of the deep problems with repression and torture in that country, or read Peter Maass's piece in Slate: "Who's Africa's Worst Dictator?". Yet as the BBC has noted,
"[t]he US finds it hard to criticise a country which is seen as an ally in a volatile, oil-rich region. In 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hailed President Obiang as a "good friend" despite repeated criticism of his human rights and civil liberties record by her own department. More recently President Barack Obama posed for an official photograph with President Obiang at a New York reception."
There is plenty to criticize in China's human rights record at home, and plenty of room for improvement as Chinese leaders take uncertain and inconsistent steps toward being a "responsible great power". But let's get our own record straight, Mr. Gerson. Your op-eds will be more credible to Africans if you do so.