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China has spent billions in Africa, but some critics at home question why

China has spent billions in Africa, but some critics at home question why
Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Mahamadou Issoufou, the president of Niger, meet in Beijing on Aug. 31. Issoufou is in China for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, starting Monday. (Roman Pilipey / Pool Photo)

China has promoted its massive global infrastructure plan, the Belt and Road Initiative, with dancing children singing a propaganda pop song, an animated rap and TV bedtime stories with tinkly background music on how “it helps everyone.”

“We’ll share the goodness now, the Belt and Road is how,” the children sing in a 2017 video about President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy cornerstone.

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But lately the government’s big spending in Africa and elsewhere faces a growing domestic backlash, from leading academics to everyday Chinese on social media websites.

“Why is China, a country with over 100 million people who are still living below the poverty line, playing at being the flashy big-spender?” wrote an influential Tsinghua University law professor, Xu Zhangrun, in a wide-ranging critique of Xi in July. “How can such wanton generosity be allowed?”

China has pumped more than $124 billion into Africa since 2000 and on Monday offered another $60 billion while canceling the debts of some poor African nations. It has spent $500 million on Belt and Road projects in dozens of countries globally.

Speaking at a summit Monday, Xi said China's new spending in Africa would deliver tangible benefits.

"China's cooperation with Africa is clearly targeted at the major bottlenecks to development. Resources for our cooperation are not to be spent on any vanity projects but in places where they count most," he said.

But the spending comes, many Chinese note, while there’s a doctor shortage, rampant pollution and people struggling to buy medicines or get a decent education at home.

Xu’s critique, which singled out what he called “vanity politics,” sent tremors through China’s elite because of its blunt criticism of Xi.

The projects and spending from China take many forms — sometimes infrastructure built by Chinese state-owned companies, sometimes by private firms. The funds tend to be distributed through low-interest loans.

Chinese officials have been on the defensive lately about criticisms, including Western accusations, that Belt and Road projects could snare nations into unsustainable debt, and a raft of senior officials from Xi down have been at pains to defend the plan and promote its benefits.

Domestic criticisms of Belt and Road come at an awkward time, with dozens of African leaders jetting in Monday to Beijing for a summit that many likely hope will lead to more financial promises this year.

China has built roads, railways, airports, stadiums and electricity systems in Africa, doling out loans without questioning governments about human rights, a policy that makes China an attractive partner to African leaders. The spending spree has offered many African nations development opportunities they would have otherwise never had.

Chinese activity in Africa expanded dramatically from around 2000, well before the Belt and Road era, far surpassing the U.S. and opening up access to African resources. In 2013, an official with the Export-Import Bank of China estimated that by 2025, China will provide Africa with financing — including direct investment, soft loans and commercial loans — totaling $1 trillion U.S.

But critics warn that African nations could be sinking into unsustainable debt, like the debts to Western and multilateral lenders in past decades that many African countries still bear. In recent years, many African nations have rapidly expanded their debt, prompting recent warnings from the International Monetary Fund of debt distress in 15 African countries.

Details of China-Africa loans are usually kept secret by both parties, but critics say the deals often involve African nations mortgaging their mineral and oil resources as collateral. U.S. officials have warned that African countries risk losing their sovereignty because of Chinese debt.

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The Chinese government has responded harshly to critics of its spending overseas.

Last month during a live radio interview, Sun Wenguang, a retired professor from Shandong University, was criticizing Xi’s spending in Africa and arguing that the Chinese president was overlooking China’s own poverty when six police officers barged into his apartment.

“There are so many other things for him to take into account,” Sun said in the Voice of America’s Mandarin service interview. “China has got a huge population, and there are still so many destitute people. If you don't actually have the capacity to meet the scale of things you are trying to do, just don't do it. [If] you still choose to throw money at other countries, a domestic backlash is almost guaranteed.”

The police officers forced him off air and took him from his house, even as he insisted that he had a right to free speech. He could be heard protesting, “Ordinary people are poor. Let’s not throw our money away in Africa. Throwing money around like this doesn’t do any good for our country or our society.”

The Belt and Road Initiatve, or BRI, is actually a “brand” designed to boost Chinese leaders domestically, according to Merriden Varrall, a China analyst at the Lowy Institute think tank in Sydney.

“This vast web of projects and deals around the world is less about China attempting to attain global domination than about desperately promoting, among Chinese people, Xi and the Chinese Communist Party’s right to rule,” Varrall wrote recently.

As critics see it, BRI projects are used by party officials to curry favor with their superiors by making them look good, according to Matt Schrader of the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based global affairs think tank.

“In the BRI, domestic critics see an extension of the Chinese Communist Party’s predilection for grand spending that disproportionately benefits connected insiders,” he wrote in a recent analysis.

On Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, some criticize China’s pride in flashing its “big money.”

“In recent years, China has invested heavily in foreign countries and provided a lot of assistance to many developing countries and poor countries and regions such as Africa and Asia. Is China a developed country? Most people don’t think so, because China's per capita GDP ranked around 70 in the world, and China still has tens of millions of people living below the poverty line waiting for poverty alleviation,” one user wrote.

Another said that if China was so strong that it had “spare money to invest endlessly in Africa, why can’t you help your own people at home?” adding that government officials could not survive on the minimum wage that many Chinese are paid.

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Foreign officials have pushed back on Belt and Road projects too. One embarrassing rebuff came recently when Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad halted two Chinese BRI mega-projects, saying they would bankrupt his country.

“We do not want a situation where there is a new form of colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries,” Mahathir said in China’s Great Hall of the People after meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

Crushing BRI debt might haunt some other countries too. A report in March by the Center for Global Development, a Washington-based think tank, warned that 23 of 68 countries were at “quite high” risk of debt distress due to Belt and Road projects, while eight others could have trouble servicing their debt — Pakistan, Djibouti, the Maldives, Laos, Mongolia, Montenegro, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Amid the Malaysian setback and domestic criticisms, Chinese officials have been talking up the project’s global good, its trade benefits to China, and its importance to developing nations with no other means to finance transportation infrastructure.

Xi said Tuesday that Belt and Road did not aim to create a geopolitical bloc, military alliance or China club. The trade volume with China and countries involved in BRI exceeded $5 trillion in the past five years, he said, according to the Communist Party-owned China Daily.

China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying denied China was luring poor nations into debt traps.

“I can't help but wonder why the money is ‘money pie’ when it is offered by the Western countries but ‘money trap’ when offered by China? Isn't it a glaring double-standard?” she said. “By funding infrastructure and other areas that lag behind for a shortage of money, we have helped the relevant countries break bottlenecks, enhance their capacity for independent development, realize social and economic sustainable development, and improve people's livelihoods.”

9:10 a.m.: This article was updated with Chinese President Xi Jinping announcing additional funding for nations in Africa.

This article was originally published at 3 a.m.

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