By Chang Ailing, China Features
"This is really a dream coming true." Pointing at his picture on the bank of the Suez Canal, 70-year-old Zhang Boyin said in excitement. "Suez has been a textbook name to me for decades. But now, you see, I've really been there."
Zhang, a retired professor of Beijing University, was one of thousands of Chinese traveling to Egypt early this year. To most Chinese like Zhang, Africa was like a faraway and amicable relative.
"It is our African brothers that carried us into the United Nations." Zhang easily recalled late Chinese leader Mao Zedong's famous assertion when talking about China's connections with Africa.
In 1971, China resumed its legal status in the United Nations largely due to support from the developing world, including many African countries. Also thanks to the long-time adherence to the one-China principle by those countries, the attempts by Taiwan – an island province of China separated from the mainland after a civil war in the 1940s – to join the United Nations have ended in failure 13 times since the 1990s.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao summarized China's attachment to Africa during his visit to Egypt last June, saying that China "feels indebted to" the African people. "We should never remember the benefits we have offered nor forget the favor received," Wen quoted an old Chinese proverb as saying.
With their income increasing, the Chinese people begin to show increasing interest in Africa, which they were familiar with only from textbooks.
Lin Bo, director of the America, Oceania and Africa Department with the China International Travel Service, said so far Chinese tourists to Africa account for less than five percent of China's outbound tourists. "But the figure is soaring every year. Africa is obviously a great potential market for us."
The number of outbound Chinese tourists to Africa reached 110,000 in 2005, double that of the previous year, according to the Exit-Entry Administration Bureau of Public Security Ministry.
Currently 16 African countries have granted the outbound destinations for Chinese tourists. The Chinese government has promised to implement the program of Chinese citizens' group tour to some African nations and grant more African countries destination status for outbound Chinese tourist groups, according to the Chinese government's first-ever African Policy Paper issued on January 12 this year.
Meanwhile, China also took active measures to make itself better understood by the African people.
On February 27, 2006, China Radio International Friday launched its FM station in the Kenyan capital. The station is transmitting 19 hours of programs in English, Kiswahili (the language widely spoken in East Africa) and standard Chinese.
China Radio International Director Wang Gengnian said the station will broadcast the latest news from China and around the world, and focus on the friendly exchanges between China and Kenya. "I hope our program will enable the majority to have a more comprehensive and objective view of China."
China's growth has also made Mandarin Chinese an increasingly popular language in Africa. "Africa far from China also witnesses an increasing enthusiasm for Chinese learning," said George Magoha, vice-chancellor of the University of Nairobi of Kenya, which launched the first Confucius Institute in Africa.
The Confucius Institute is a non-profit public institute with a mission of promoting Chinese language and culture and supporting local Chinese teaching. So far China has set up three Confucius Institutes in Africa.
Magoha said cooperation between African countries and China has developed into a new era with fields of cooperation expanding to science and technology, culture, education, tourism, from merely economy and trade in the past.
"The establishment of the Confucius Institute in Africa marks a milestone in Africa-China culture exchange and friendship," Magoha said, adding that he believed the Confucius Institute will help young Africans have a broader view of the world and better participate in the global competition.
Analysts pointed out that behind the vibrant cultural exchanges are the rocketing economic and trade cooperation between China and Africa.
Statistics from China's Ministry of Commerce show that in 2005, Sino-African bilateral trade came to 39.74 billion dollars, double that of 2000, with China's exports to African countries standing at 18.68 billion dollars, and China's import from the African continent totaling 21 billion dollars. China's accumulated direct investment in the African continent reached 1.18 billion dollars by the end of 2005, with China-invested projects scattering in 49 African countries.
During a state visit to Nigeria, Chinese President Hu Jintao outlined China's Africa policy, saying that China hopes to improve cooperation with Africa in politics, economy, culture, security and international affairs to develop a new strategic partnership.
In his speech at the Nigerian Parliament, Hu appealed for the enhancement of mutual political trust between China and Africa. "This is the core content of Sino-African ties in the new international situation," said He Wenping, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Chinese President Hu Jintao, together with other state leaders from Asia, Africa and other regions, walks to the memorial place for the Bandung Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, on April 24,2005. The leaders attended the celebrating activities for the golden jubilee of the Bandung Conference.
Angolan Prime Minister Fernando da Piedade Dias dos Santos welcomes Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the airport on June 20,2006. Wen paid a two-day official visit to Angola at the invitation of Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos as part of his seven-nation Africa tour.
Zhang Dong, Chinese ambassador to Sudan, and the Sudanese International Cooperation Minister sign documents at the handover ceremony upon the completion of the China-sponsored International Leaders Meeting Hall project in Sudan, on April 5, 2005.
A worker reaps wheat on the Sino-Zambian Friendship farm. The Sino-Zambian Friendship farm is a modern farm under cooperative management by China and Zambia. Thanks to the application of advanced farming technologies, the farm got a bumper harvest of wheat in 1996.
China honors and supports the wish of African countries to preserve their independence and sovereignty and to choose their own development path in accordance with their domestic situation. "Such an attitude is more acceptable to the African countries compared with some other countries pushing for their concept of democracy in a unilateral way," He believes.
But China's closer economic and trade ties with Africa have also led to accusations of "neo-colonialism". Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao refuted this during his visit to Egypt, stating that "the hat of neo-colonialism simply doesn't fit China."
"For over 110 years after the Opium War in 1840, China was the victim of colonial aggression. The Chinese nation knows too well the sufferings caused by colonial rule and the need to fight colonialism. This is a main reason why we have all along supported the national liberation and resurgence of Africa," Wen said.
He said in developing relations with Africa, the Chinese government adheres to the principle of mutual respect, equality, mutual benefit and non-interference in each other's internal affairs.
"China supports the development of democracy and rule of law in Africa. But we never impose our own will on others. We believe that people in every region and country have the right and ability to properly handle their own affairs. The international community should respect the choice independently made by African countries in terms of model of development."
Wen said China's oil cooperation with several African countries is "open, transparent, natural and mutually beneficial". "China's oil import from Africa in last year was less than one third of the number of certain countries."
Chinese scholars said that some western countries have misunderstood China's policy on Africa. "They believed that China became interested in Africa only because of oil. But the fact is that Africa has always been a focus of China's foreign policy over the past half century," said Xu Weizhong, a scholar with China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.
China has provided aid to 53 African countries with no political conditions and has helped African nations build nearly 800 complete sets of projects in the past five decades, even during the period when China itself was in economic difficulties, according to China's Ministry of Commerce.
"The fact is China has broad cooperation with African countries, including both energy-rich countries and resource-lacking ones. Western media's accusation against China was not objective," Xu said.
A young Tanzanian is working under his Chinese teacher's guidance. The Coal Mine Bureau of Hunan Province, China, formed a coal mine building team to help people in faraway western Tanzanian regions build coal mines and power stations. This was the first China-sponsored heavy industrial enterprise in Africa.
Gao Jie, one of the leading doctors in the Chinese medical assistance team to Tanzania, is examining a heart disease patient in the clinic. The 14th Chinese medical team to Tanzania have, as their predecessors, exerted great efforts to treat the patients, and have won high praises and great respect from the local people.
The year 2006 marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of China-Africa diplomatic ties. At the beginning of this year, China issued its first policy paper on Africa. In April, Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Morocco, Nigeria and Kenya. In June, Premier Wen Jiabao visited seven African countries including Egypt, Ghana, the Republic of Congo, Angola, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.
In November, Chinese and African leaders are expected to meet in Beijing for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. The forum is seen as an effective mechanism for group dialogue between China and African countries as well as an important platform for enhancing cooperation.
Within the framework of the Forum, China has canceled debt of 10.5 billion RMB yuan (1.3 billion U.S. dollars) incurred by 31 Heavily Indebted Poor Countries and least developed countries in Africa, and has given zero-tariff treatment to 190 categories of import commodities from 29 least developed countries in Africa.
During the Second Ministerial Conference in Addis Ababa three years ago, China pledged to help train 10,000 professionals for Africa. The training will be completed as scheduled this year.
During the upcoming Summit, the leaders will focus on economic cooperation, training of professionals and business investment, according to sources with China's Foreign Ministry.
The objective of the Summit is to build a new type of China-Africa strategic partnership featuring political equality and mutual trust, economic win-win cooperation and cultural exchange, the sources say.