China pledge of $60bn loans to Africa sparks anger at home

Xi Jinping’s pledge of $60bn in new loans to Africa has triggered a wave of grumbling in China, the latest sign of popular hostility to the president’s international ambitions and to the tightening of political controls at home.

Censors quickly moved to delete critical posts that proliferated online after Mr Xi announced the fresh commitments at the triennial Forum on China-Africa Co-operation on Monday.

The president’s largesse prompted rare criticism among Chinese on social media over why their government was not spending the money on them, with one blogger suggesting that $60bn could fund China’s cash-strapped ministry of education for three years.

“China is a poor country as well . . . Is there any country that can provide China with $60bn in aid?” asked another blogger named “tinyfool” in a post that was promptly deleted.

In his speech announcing the $60bn package — addressed to representatives from 54 African countries, including several heads of state — Mr Xi countered a separate barrage of criticism from abroad, where some analysts have accused Beijing of trying to ensnare African governments by engaging in “debt diplomacy”.

“Only Chinese and African people have a say when judging if the co-operation is good or not between China and Africa. No one should malign it based on imagination or assumptions,” Mr Xi said.

Mr Xi’s pledges involved a combination of grants, low-interest loans, financial investment and trade finance. But in China’s state media on Tuesday, such overseas commitments were presented as “aid” or “support”, implying that the country would make no profit.

The Global Times, a state-controlled tabloid known for airing forthright views on China’s foreign policy, fired back at Mr Xi’s domestic critics. “Chinese people should also be aware that major powers must fulfil their obligations. Otherwise they can hardly stay where they are for long, not to mention going forward.”

With Mr Xi’s latest measures, concessional loans from China to Africa have jumped to a record $5bn a year, according to an analysis by Deborah Brautigam, director of the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University.

However, the total Chinese government commitment of grants and loans to Africa, including commercial lending, has declined. Beijing has shifted more of its engagement on the continent to Chinese companies, as African states have lobbied for more investment in manufacturing and services.

Behind the public grumbling lies a deeper unease as China gears up to renegotiate loans. Mr Xi’s announcement that Beijing would offer debt relief applies to a programme to forgive interest-free loans to the poorest nations. But it does not appear to address concerns over China’s exposure to countries such as Zambia, home to vast mining investments, which faces about $10bn in debt restructuring.

Chinese displeasure with overseas aid has boiled over in the past, most notably in 2011, when Beijing donated 23 school buses to Macedonia despite rarely providing them at home. The donation came shortly after a crash that killed 19 children in a retooled van, the most common form of school transport in the Chinese countryside.

A similar controversy flared in May after a letter circulated online that accused Beijing of spending more on scholarships for foreign students than on domestic primary and high school education. The ministry of education said the article was based on a misinterpretation of official figures.

China has expanded its funding for foreign students in recent years as part of a “soft power” drive. In the first half of 2018, China spent more than Rmb270m ($40m) on “Silk Road scholarships” for students from developing countries, according to state media.

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