Last November, in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced a series of new pledges for Chinese assistance to African countries -- and in the process, made many observers in the West very uneasy. Westerners think they know what Africa needs to do in order to develop: liberalize markets, get prices right, promote democracy. And they think they know what China is doing there: offering huge no-strings-attached aid packages to resource-rich countries that prop up pariah regimes.
But a closer look reveals a somewhat different story. Over the past few decades, China has managed to move hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty by combining state intervention with economic incentives to attract private investment -- the kind of experimentation that the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping once described as "crossing the river by feeling the stones." Today, China is feeling the stones again but this time in its economic engagement across Africa. Its current experiment in Africa mixes a hard-nosed but clear-eyed self-interest with the lessons of China's own successful development and of decades of its failed aid projects in Africa.
The first prong of Beijing's efforts is to offer African states resource-backed development loans, an initiative inspired by its experience at home. In the late 1970s, eager for modern technology and infrastructure but with almost no foreign exchange, China leveraged its natural resources -- ample supplies of oil, coal, and other minerals -- to attract a market-rate $10 billion loan from Japan. China was
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