The First FOCAC Summit in 2006 is regarded as a milestone in Sino- African cooperation
Africa is much closer to China than people think. There is a little bit of Africa in Songzhuang, a town in suburban Beijing's Tongzhou District, where the African Art Village came up last year. The sprawling 1.3-hectare project showcases an eclectic collection of African art - Makonde sculptures from Tanzania, copper plate etchings from Zambia, masks from Malawi, and much more.
"All I have done is to [try to] enable my fellow Chinese learn more about Africa, and make more Africans realize China is a trustworthy friend," said Li Songshan, founder of the art village. "I hope to establish a platform for the promotion of African cultures and arts and Sino-African cultural exchanges."
Li, who learned Swahili in the 1960s, had worked in Tanzania for over 20 years. He has a passion to share with his fellow countrymen his love for Africa, African cultures and African people.
Li's Africa-centric work has grown alongside the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), a collective dialogue mechanism between China and African countries within the framework of South-South cooperation.
In 2003, when the Second FOCAC Ministerial Conference was held in Addis Ababa, Li established the Makonde Art Museum in Changchun in Jilin, a border province in northeast China, with over 500 art objects. When the First FOCAC Summit took place in Beijing in 2006, Li, supported by the National Museum and Ministry of Culture of China, organized an African art exhibition in the Chinese capital. Six years later, when Beijing hosted the Fifth FOCAC Ministerial Conference, construction of the African Art Village started. It was inaugurated by visiting Tanzanian President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete in 2014.
"We [the African Art Village and FOCAC] are growing up together," Li remarked.
This year is a landmark year for FOCAC, marking its 15th anniversary, with the Second FOCAC Summit and Sixth FOCAC Ministerial Conference to be held in Johannesburg.
According to Zhang Zhongxiang, Executive Director of the Center for African Studies, Shanghai Normal University, in the 15 years since FOCAC was established, the channels for Sino-African cooperation have broadened considerably. The result has been greater political mutual trust and rapid economic and trade cooperation. More importantly, people-to-people contacts have also been facilitated, he noted.
In the recent past, an increasing number of ordinary Chinese have visited African countries. A young couple, who spent their honeymoon in Tanzania and posted the photos on the web, not only got thousands of likes but were also mentioned by Chinese President Xi Jinping in his speech while visiting Tanzania. Also, an increasing number of Africans have visited China. Through them, more Chinese derived a better understanding of Africa, and vice versa.
"Like Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said, the economy and trade, together with people-to-people contact and cultural cooperation between China and Africa, are ‘the two indispensable wheels' driving China-Africa cooperation forward," Lin Songtian, Director General of the African Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Secretary General of the FOCAC Chinese Follow-up Committee, told ChinAfrica . "We will strengthen our efforts to improve people-to-people contact [between China and Africa] in the coming years."
In the wake of the forum, a series of other platforms such as the China-Africa Think Tanks Forum and China-Africa People's Forum have been founded to facilitate people-to-people contact between China and African countries. "Thanks to these platforms, people in China and African countries have more channels to learn about each other," said Zhang.
According to Lin, the Second FOCAC Summit in South Africa will be a milestone in Sino-African development.
Though cooperation between China and African countries has been in the fast lane, there haven't been many occasions for their leaders to sit together and discuss the future of their cooperation. "Holding the FOCAC Summit in South Africa provides that good occasion," he added.
"African countries have the desire to accelerate industrialization and agricultural modernization to realize economic independence and self-reliant and sustainable development," said Yang Jiechi, Chinese State Councilor. After more than 30 years of reform, opening up and rapid development, China has a large number of competitive industries and a strong production capacity. This puts China in a better position to work with other countries to achieve win-win development based on the complementarity of strengths.
Yang noted that given their respective strengths, China and Africa provide opportunities for each other and need each other for cooperation and development. "Against this background, the FOCAC Summit, the first of its kind to be held on the African continent, will have great and far-reaching significance for boosting comprehensive transformation and upgrading of China-Africa relations and promoting more balanced, inclusive and sustainable development of the world," he commented.
"Since the inception of FOCAC 15 years ago, China and Africa have had fruitful cooperation across the board," Yang told Independent News and Media South Africa.
In 2014, China-Africa trade exceeded $220 billion and China's investment in Africa surpassed $30 billion. These figures showed a 22- and 66-fold increase respectively over 2000 when FOCAC had just been established. The share of China-Africa trade in Africa's total foreign trade increased from 3.82 percent to 20.5 percent in the same period.
"What is particularly noteworthy is China's commitment to helping Africa break the two development bottlenecks of underdeveloped infrastructure and lack of competent personnel," Yang said. "The efforts have already made a big difference."
By June 2015, more than 3,800 km of rail lines and 4,334 km of roads had either been completed or were being built in Africa with Chinese financing. More than 200 schools had been established with Chinese aid or financing. Currently, the Chinese Government provides Africa with more than 7,000 scholarships each academic year. It also hosts more than 100 multilateral and bilateral technical and management training programs and workshops for senior African officials each year.
"Evidence shows that FOCAC has been serving as an important platform for collective dialogue between China and African countries and an effective mechanism for enhanced pragmatic cooperation," Yang added.
South African President Jacob Zuma believes an important part of this cooperation is implementing Agenda 2063, the plan for Africa's structural transformation drawn up during the African Union's (AU) golden jubilee in May 2013, and South-South cooperation.
"During our tenure as co-chair of FOCAC, South Africa will continue to ensure that the principles of South-South cooperation are realized and that special attention is given to assisting the implementation of the AU's Agenda 2063," Zuma told foreign envoys at a briefing on South African foreign policy in Pretoria in September. Agenda 2063 aims to empower women, boost industrialization and economically develop the continent.
"China-Africa cooperation has been in the fast lane after the establishment of FOCAC 15 years ago. But our cooperation is not exclusive and China would like to see more countries conduct cooperation with African countries," said Liu Guijin, Special Envoy on FOCAC Affairs of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Premier Li has said the same thing. In his address at the AU Conference Center in Addis Ababa last year, Li said China hopes to see Africa diversify its cooperation partners. It welcomes greater international input into Africa, and is ready to carry out cooperation schemes in Africa with third parties.
After the First FOCAC Ministerial Conference in Beijing in 2000, other Africa-related cooperation platforms such as the U.S.-Africa Leaders' Summit and India-Africa Forum Summit have emerged. Liu said these are important cooperation frameworks that can help African countries' development. "But FOCAC differs from others as [it] features pragmatic approaches, equality and mutual benefit, and joint management," he pointed out. "[Also] we usually over-fulfill the plans and goals put forward in the FOCAC conferences."
The First FOCAC Ministerial Conference proposed waiving more than 30 African countries' debts - totaling $1 billion - in three years. But it was done in two years. The Fifth FOCAC Ministerial Conference in Beijing in 2012 proposed a $20-billion credit line to assist African countries in developing infrastructure, agriculture, manufacturing, and small and medium-sized enterprises. It too was done within two years.
China's commitment to building primary schools, hospitals and agriculture technology demonstration centers for African countries has also been met before deadlines.
Despite the successes, Liu admitted there are challenges to Sino-African relations. These, he said, are expected to be discussed and addressed at the Johannesburg Summit.
"The biggest challenge still lies in soft power. We are not short of money, but short on people-to-people understanding," he said.
Despite the increasing people-to-people contact opportunities FOCAC has created, Lin Songtian of the Department of African Affairs said they are still not enough and should be further strengthened in the coming years.
According to Lin, many Chinese and Africans have only a vague knowledge of each other, with much of it coming from the Western media, which is usually biased.
"We should create conditions for more people from both sides to learn from each other directly," Lin said. According to him, in the past, China and African countries focused too much on bilateral political and economic cooperation and there was insufficient people-to-people contact. "In the coming years, China will do more in this regard so that Chinese research institutes, media, universities and colleges, youth representatives, local governments and social organizations can go to African countries and invite their African counterparts to China. This way, we can provide more channels for people from both sides to get to know more about each other," Lin told ChinAfrica . "This will be a priority in future and a key area in China-Africa cooperation."
However, political and diplomatic ties also need attention. Macharia Munene, an international relations lecturer at the U.S. International University in Nairobi, told Xinhua News Agency that the FOCAC Summit, while seeking to enhance economic cooperation between Africa and China, should also foster diplomatic and political cooperation.
"China will continue to be the global economic engine. Given that other big powers have to answer fundamental challenges on political economies and diplomatic practice, others will try to emulate China in terms of special policy formulation in those fields," Munene said.
Medical care is another area targeted for improved cooperation. After the Ebola breakout in West Africa in March 2014, China reacted swiftly, providing assistance worth over $120 million to 13 African countries in and around the epidemic region. It also sent more than 1,200 medical personnel.
"China has made outstanding contributions to African countries in fighting Ebola," said Special Envoy Liu. "In the future, it is expected to do more to help African countries improve their public medical care and health systems."
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