Chinese Cheques - Issue 1 - Magazine | Monocle

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The Chinese characters on the grey concrete wall implore the workers of the Beijing Construction Engineering Company to “love the country, work for the country”. Inside a nearby building two workmen are watching the news on CCTV-4, Chinese state television. Another Chinese workman, an electrician, walks into the shop next door and buys a packet of Chinese cigarettes from the Chinese woman behind the counter.

Lin Wei, a short, skinny, bespectacled 25-year-old from Jiangxi province, waves his arms around the compound. “Look, this is China,” he laughs. “If you came here, you’d never think it was Tanzania.”

China’s influence in Africa is growing at an unprecedented rate. Across the continent the Chinese are building stadiums, parliaments, roads, offering their expertise as well as their wallet. But China is not just giving to Africa, it is taking too. By the end of next year China will have become the world’s largest importer of oil, and most of it will come from Africa. China is also in desperate need of minerals such as copper, aluminium and iron ore – and African nations are willing to provide them.

Richard Dowden, director of the Royal Africa Society, a leading think tank, says, “China’s non-interference policy means it deals with governments regardless of its treatment of their people’s. But it has also done many good things. Its infrastructure assistance is very helpful and it has challenged western multinational mining companies and forced them to compete.”

China’s relationship with Tanzania goes back more than 40 years. The east African country’s first president, Julius Nyerere, visited Beijing 13 times, and Chairman Mao sent Chinese contractors here to construct Tazara, the Tanzania Zambia Railway Authority, whose trains carried copper exports from Lusaka to Dar es Salaam. Now the contractors are back, this time to build a new stadium.

The gleaming steel frame of the Julius Nyerere National Stadium can be seen for miles. When completed it will be a 60,000-seat symbol of Tanzania’s nationhood, a stadium where presidents will be sworn in, political parties hold rallies, sports teams compete.

At present, though, it is more of a symbol of modern-day China. China has put in 60 per cent of the funding. Chinese workmen drive forklift trucks, weld metal frames and lay cables. More than 700 Chinese workers, supported by 300 Tanzanians, are toiling to complete the stadium within the next three months.

Wei, a quantity surveyor, has been in Tanzania since early 2005. Like the rest of his colleagues, or comrades as he calls them, he lives on the building site. Their meals are prepared by a Chinese cook, but sometimes Wei chooses to buy a pot of dried noodles to which he adds hot water. “It’s the noodle for the lazy man,” he says. Entertainment is limited. A bare recreation room contains a table-tennis table, a few chairs, a television and a DVD player. “We have little spare time,” says Wei. “We have to work day and night.”

Those with money to burn spend their nights at Dar es Salaam’s growing number of casinos. On a warm and muggy Tuesday evening, dozens of Chinese businessmen and construction workers sit hunched over card tables at the Las Vegas casino. Some bet with small piles of chips worth 2,000 shillings – the equivalent of €2. Others wager far larger amounts. One man, cigarette permanently hanging off his bottom lip, bets and loses 100,000 shillings in two swift hands of pontoon. He slopes off to try his luck at another table. Within an hour he returns to the first table with a handful of black 100,000 shilling chips.

By day, many of Las Vegas’s best customers can be found in Dar es Salaam’s sprawling Kariakoo market. The market, made up of hundreds of shop fronts crammed into a handful of streets in downtown Dar es Salaam, has been invaded by plastic. Red plastic chairs are stacked 10 feet high, plastic buckets sit alongside plastic sunglasses. Plastic flipflops compete for space with plastic plates and bowls. There is a flower stall – selling only plastic flowers. And on the back of every single piece of plastic crammed into the closely packed stalls is printed the legend: Made in China.

Zhu Lei has run the aptly named Chin Tanzania for two years. He arrived here with his wife, brother and sister-in-law and set up a corner shop. Everything they sell is plastic, everything is made in China and everything is cheap. “He says they have come here to sell their goods,” says Amos, a young Tanzanian man who works with Zhu Lei. Amos and a friend are employed to speak to the customers. Zhu Lei and his family have managed to learn half a dozen Swahili words – Amos has picked up the odd Chinese phrase. “It’s a difficult language,” he laughs.

Chen Wenhao refers to men like Zhu Lei as machingas – a derogatory Swahili word for a petty trader. Mr Chen – somewhat predictably known as Jacky Chen to his Tanzanian friends – came to the country in 1991. Sitting in his brightly lit Beautiful China Restaurant, Wenhao says he is sceptical about how successful most of the new Chinese migrants will be.

“There are some here who do not mix well,” he says. “There is a language problem. They have no English and can’t speak Swahili. It is not easy for them to make friends.” In some cases this has led to problems. In Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, attacks were carried out against Chinese businesses during last year’s presidential elections. The opposition candidate, Michael Sata, had promised to drive out Chinese investors if he won, claiming that too much of Zambia’s national income was disappearing into Chinese pockets. Sata lost and the Chinese stayed.

China’s influence is harder to notice in Kenya. Unlike in Dar es Salaam there are no Chinese at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta airport. But while there are fewer Chinese businessmen in Kenya than in neighbouring Tanzania, China has quietly created an economic and cultural foothold here. Every lunchtime the KTN station broadcasts a programme from CCTV-9 – Chinese state television’s English service, and it shows documentaries about China’s wildlife, arts and culture. Viewer figures for a daytime programme are not high, but growing numbers of Kenyans are able to watch it because growing numbers now have televisions. (Made in China televisions.)

Radio is also spreading China’s influence. Kenya’s national radio broadcaster recently started airing Chinese lessons for Swahili speakers. Peter Gaithuma Itibi, a Nairobi taxi-driver, started trying to learn. “We are experiencing a lot of Chinese coming here,” he says. “As a taxi-driver I have to understand their language, but it’s a difficult language to learn. I just know how to greet hello and say goodbye.”

Like so many African nations, Kenya is desperate to find oil. Chinese firms are currently drilling off the coast in the Indian Ocean. In return for this potential goldmine, China has agreed to fix the main road between Nairobi and the port city of Mombasa. Despite being the highway between Kenya’s two largest cities, the Mombasa road has long been in a state of total disrepair. Hundreds of millions of euros of aid money have poured into Kenya from the West, but somehow the Kenyan government has never quite got round to finishing the road.

The flight from Nairobi to Angola’s capital, Luanda, goes via Lusaka and Harare. A handful of Chinese businessmen join the flight in Lusaka. We change planes in Zimbabwe, another country which has benefited greatly from Chinese investment. A smattering of Chinese-made aeroplanes stand idle on the runway, and a shop assistant in duty-free knows enough Chinese to greet a businessman buying a newspaper.

More than a quarter of all China’s trade with Africa is done with Angola. The reason is simple – oil. A seemingly endless supply of oil. Within five years Angola is expected to supplant Nigeria as the continent’s number one oil producer; it has already overtaken Saudi Arabia as China’s largest supplier of crude oil. It pumps 1.3m barrels a day, a figure set to rise to 2m by the end of next year.

Angola was torn apart by three decades of civil war which came to an end only five years ago. Railways were bombed to pieces; roads, schools and hospitals fell into disrepair. In return for access to Angola’s oil, China has embarked on a massive reconstruction programme including new roads, three new major railway lines and a massive new airport large enough to cater for 30 long-haul jets every day.

Despite not even being finished yet the quality of both the roads and the railways put Kenya’s hotch-potch, patched-up excuse for a road and rail network to shame. Driving from Luanda on a perfectly smooth tarmac road to the town of Catete, some 30km further north, we pass a convoy of trucks with Chinese characters emblazoned across the front. Further on, a group of half a dozen Chinese workmen look on as a steamroller flattens out an extra lane.

It is here, 80km inside Angola, that you realise exactly why Chinese aid is so appealing. It comes not simply in the form of a cheque, but also in the form of men like Shao Quon, a supervisor on the new railway linking Luanda with the city of Malanje, 180km to the east. Wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat to keep out the unbearably bright afternoon sun, Mr Shao does his best to explain the scale of the project. “We make everything for the train,” he says, gesturing to the massive outdoor factory behind him. Towering piles of concrete sleepers surround the railway, ready to be loaded on to lorries. Chinese technicians make the concrete and place it in the mould, while a couple of dozen Angolan workers do the manual labour. According to Mr Shao, more than 3,000 sleepers are made here every day.

There is little communication between the different nationalities. The Angolans speak no Chinese, the Chinese no Portuguese. At one stage, a Chinese technician starts throwing small rocks at one of the Angolans. One rock the size of a fist bounces off his knee. The technician turns to me and grins; his victim doesn’t move his eyes from the ground. In a country with shocking poverty levels, one steady job can be the difference between life and death for an entire family.

Dionsio Alberto cleans the moulds that make the sleepers. “It is simple work,” he says. “It’s OK.” He glances warily at his Chinese supervisors watching him talk to us. “We have no problem with Chinese people here. Everything is cool.” With its new-found wealth, Angola has been able to almost double its national budget in the space of a year, from $13bn to $25bn. In order to guarantee access to the oil China has handed out one $2bn loan and is set to deliver another one this year.

China’s loans have been criticised in the West for having no strings attached. While similar-sized loans from the IMF would require strict adherence to good governance and a proper anti-corruption strategy, China offers a blank cheque to be spent however Angola’s government likes. In a country ranked one of the most corrupt in the world by Transparency International, where the president has a personal budget running into the billions which has no parliamentary oversight, it could be a recipe for disaster.

Despite the country’s rapidly increasing oil income, 70 per cent of Angolans still live on less than €2 a day. Many live in slums like Boavista (“beautiful view”). Never has a name been less apt. Open sewers three feet deep in thick green and black sludge run through the slum. Children play alongside rivers of stagnant water filled with rubbish. The putrid stench is overwhelming.

Repairs carried out on the port last year blocked off the sewers. Unable to flow out to sea, the sewage washed back into the slum. It was the height of the rainy season. Houses were flooded – mothers, waist-deep in sewage, held their children above their heads. There was a cholera epidemic with 500 cases a day.

One year on it is hard to see how Boavista’s residents have gained from the oil money or Chinese loans. “In any city there is rich and poor,” says Richard Veermans, a Dutchman working for Médicins Sans Frontières in Luanda. “But I’ve never seen anything like this.”

In his plush, air-conditioned office overlooking the waterfront, Dinho Chingunji, Angola’s tourism minister, agrees. “Redistribution of wealth is really an issue in Angola,” he says. “What do we do with this money? The poverty level this country has is scary.”

The air-conditioning keeping us cool is a case in point. The rest of the building goes without because electricity is so scarce. Chingunji estimates that for at least three-quarters of the time, his own house has no electricity. “If a person like me is in that situation, can you imagine what it is like for someone else?”

Chingunji, a cheery 42-year-old, freely admits that China’s interest in Angola is all about oil. But, he argues, Angola has been right to turn away from western institutions and instead look east for large-scale loans. “Each time Angola meets some conditions, the goalposts are always shifting. People are dying. We need hospitals. People want schools. Farmers want roads so they can sell their produce. We want a solution. The Chinese say they will give us the money, build the infrastructure, then they will get out. When they say this road is going to be built in six months they usually meet it.

The Chinese will continue to come. The Chinese government published a paper last January outlining its official African policy, from economic support to cultural exchanges. But China has been reticent about answering questions about this policy in public. The country has been criticised for giving blank cheques to corrupt governments and supporting oppressive regimes in Zimbabwe and Sudan, watering down UN resolutions dealing with the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. China’s president, prime minister and foreign minister have all embarked on whistle-stop tours of the continent in the past 12 months but have limited public comments to bland statements about investment and friendship.

Officially, Chinese embassies across Africa refused all our requests for interviews. But in one country a senior official is prepared to talk. He does not want his name or position to be used and even requests that we make no mention in which country he is based. “The foreign ministry has not sanctioned this,” he smiles. “I could be fired.”

He has a message for the western governments that have expressed concerns over China’s accelerating economic power in Africa: take it easy. “Africa continuously needs more investment,” he says. “They don’t care what country it comes from. You can invest more than China if you want.”

On the issue of human rights, the official is equally forthright. “These are internal problems. We do not interfere. Sudan, Zimbabwe – we cannot interfere. We have profits here. Let them settle the problem inside. We just stay at the side and let them talk.” Nor does he believe China can do much to tackle corruption. “Corruption is a very popular problem around the world. Also in China, also in America, but in different forms.”

China’s influence in Africa, he predicts, will continue to grow. Within the next decade China will increase its investment here 50-fold, becoming the world’s largest importer of oil. And there will be more Chinese people in Africa. There are now 16 countries across the continent approved as official tourist destinations with 110,000 Chinese tourists visiting Africa each year.

Even the region’s airlines have cottoned on to the growing number of Chinese visitors. Films on the South African Airways flight from Luanda to Johannesburg offer Chinese subtitles. Two rows in front of us a Chinese man was engrossed in X-Men III: The Last Stand.

The Chinese embassy official recalled a conversation he had had with an Indian businessman. “He said to me, ‘Why are you bringing this “Chinesalism”? You want to change everything and control it?’ I said, ‘You are getting stupid.’ But nowadays it is an economic world. Economy will play a bigger role than politics. Right now, our effect in Africa is not that strong. But in 10 years our economic influence here will be big. Very big.”

Building bridges

Unlike western aid agencies, the Chinese have a hands-on approach to African redevelopment projects. Many thousands of hands.

From national stadiums in Tanzania to parliaments in Guinea-Bissau, Chinese construction firms are rebuilding Africa’s crumbling or nonexistent infrastructure. The projects will not turn a profit. In fact, China will lose money.

But this is considered aid, and it is very different from any type of aid that western countries, the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund have ever given to Africa. China is not just donating money. It is donating labour. Vast armies of Chinese workmen have moved to Africa to work on construction projects managed by Chinese firms.

Of course, nothing comes for free. China has become the world’s fourth-largest economy, expanding at a faster rate than any country before it. With its good deeds China is able to get access to Africa’s vast supply of natural resources, especially the continent’s supplies of fuel.

China needs minerals and it needs them fast. Copper and iron, bauxite, uranium and manganese – all are playing a crucial role in China’s rapid economic development. And then there is the biggest of them all. Oil. China is not able to produce enough oil and gas domestically to keep up with the economy’s unprecedented growth.

Although China has long had links, both political and economic, with many African nations, those relationships have changed dramatically since the turn of the century. Trade between China and Africa was valued at just $2bn (€1.5bn) in 1999. By 2005 it had risen to nearly $40bn (€31bn) and by 2010 it is estimated to soar to $100bn (€77bn). China is now Africa’s third most important trading partner, after the US and France.

Within the next decade China will overtake America to become the world’s largest importer of oil. Aside from South Africa, all China’s main trading partners in Africa are oil-producing states.

The strategy has its critics, particularly in the West. China does not take much notice of human rights or corruption when it chooses where it will invest. Its third largest trade partner is Sudan, and China has played a major role in preventing the United Nations from taking any form of action to end the mass killings in Sudan’s Darfur region. A recent report for the British think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy and Research, said that managed well, China’s growing interest in Africa could bring real benefits. However, “managed badly, China’s role may lead to worsening standards of governance and more corruption.”

Economic Aid
In a continent where western aid has had little significant impact in reducing poverty, China and its open wallet have been widely welcomed. China’s leaders have visited 22 African states in the past 15 months, handing out aid packages and loans, negotiating oil and mining contracts. Nearly 50 African heads of state and ministers attended a summit in Beijing in November at which China pledged to double aid and trade with Africa.

Such is China’s growing economic interest in Africa that the African Development Bank is set to hold its next annual meeting in Beijing.

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