Outside the Box
BLOG: Why Africa is in love with China
In Anhui Province in Central China, there’s a story told in hushed tones at dinner tables.
It is that of a leader from an unnamed African country, who went to China and asked the provincial government there to give him a “free tractor”.
The details of the high-brow request arose out of a question posed by one of the curious journalists in our party –Mgaya Kingoba of Tanzania—to one of the people in the province, who’d hosted African journalists to a banquet.
“What is it that African leaders tell you when they get here?” Kingoba asked.
The record in their memory is the “free tractor” that one of those many African leaders, who have been to China on a “fact-finding mission” sought.
There were actually muted laughs across the table. That was on Monday night at Lu’an City, in Anhui, China.
The impression I got was that perhaps China had realised that what most of African politicians needed was an ego massage. With that, possibly with the exception of Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, they’d open the doors of their respective countries to Chinese investors.
Today (Wednesday), at dinner in Shanghai, hosted by the Foreign Office of Shanghai, the prescription for Africa’s development, or as they put it “the secret” to Shanghai’s” development, is “development, study and reforms”.
Mr Fu Ji Song, from the Foreign Affairs Office, who happened to have hosted Prime Minister Raila Odinga on Saturday, said the growth of Shanghai, was one of the fruits from the ground prepared thirty years ago, when China embraced reforms..
“You’ve got to find your own characteristic even as you reform,” said Mr Fu.
The diplomat said the “political policy” of China had been crucial in spurring growth in Shanghai.
As I listened, I recalled that in Nairobi, I’d left a raging debate about the word “reform” and arguments that what Kenya needed was “development” because “you can’t eat reforms”. I am not sure what kind of conversation Mr Odinga and Mr Fu and their respective teams had, but if the word “reforms” came up, then they must have talked about it.
Nonetheless, Shanghai is a great city to learn a bit about development of a crowded city. It is full of skyscrapers, in thousands, and then there’s the massive road, rail (a high-speed train and a meglev) and air transport network (two international airports) and a vibrant nightlife.
Of course, it would be futile to judge a book by its cover, and expect that just because the city is rich, then its 23 million inhabitants have money in their pockets. Social equality, Mr Fu said, was the goal that his government was pursuing in the growth of Shanghai.
Every other corner, there are pimps ready to give you a “girl for massage”; there’s a square for dance lessons and yes, there are fakes sold around corners. It reminded me of the constant message when the African leaders met in Beijing last week and complained that goods from China were flooding their markets.
And yes, I met hawkers too.
With 1.34 billion mouths to feed, China has to work extra hard to keep its economy going and kind of, immune, from the vagaries of the global financial markets. And Africa being the new growth point, China will splash billions of dollars to reap trillions of yuan.
It is just business. It’s like they just tell the African leaders: “We’ve got what you need, come and see it. If you like it, I will also do it for you and then you pay.” That’s why African leaders flock to China.
They like what they see, the bargains are so good for them to resist –no one cares about democracy and human rights credential or governance.
The thing that has stuck to my mind every time I hear the bureaucrats here speak, is the way they talk about “win-win co-operation between China and Africa”, when it is clear that the playing field is not level.
They put Sh180 billion (USD2.1 billion) in the fifty African countries as Foreign Direct Investment last year. They said the trade between Africa and China has grown and it is now at USD166 billion. But they won’t readily tell you what -- apart from the USD93 billion worth of imports and having 2,000 Chinese companies doing business in Africa-- they are gaining from the win-win co-operation.
Oh, they have built hospitals, schools and libraries, and taught farmers how to grow food and yes, many people in Africa, in countries such as Botswana and Kenya, are having a ball learning Chinese. That's "mutual cooperation". No?
China has a way of mesmerising people, especially those, like me, who just want things said straight up. And it all has to do with the way their politicians don’t shoot straight, but couch their language in officialdom.
Such simple things as giving aid and colossal concessional loans to African countries, with the only condition being that Chinese companies do the job, is now called “mutual cooperation, with friendship and respect”.
But then again, isn’t it the nature of business for the buyer to feel (s)he’s got a good bargain, while the seller smiles for making a handsome kill in profits?