Last month, some observers groaned loudly after a shooting incident at a Chinese-run coal mine in Zambia. They accused China of just being interested in exploiting Africa’s resources.
But I always believe that time will tell if Chinese presence is good for Zambia and the whole of Africa.
I was 10 years old when I saw a color film for the first time. It was not in a movie house. It was shown in a basketball field in a village in northern China. It was a documentary film about the groundbreaking ceremony for the Tanzania-Zambia Railway (TAZARA) in 1970.
In the film, people were beating drums and dancing like the steps of a rhinoceros, powerful and spontaneous. It was also the first time I saw men and women dancing together, which was what impressed me most.
Like building the Great Wall 2,000 years ago, 56,000 Chinese workers took part in the construction of the TAZARA, which runs from Kapiri Mposhi, just north of the Zambian capital Lusaka, to the Tanzanian capital and major east African port of Dar es Salaam.
The railway allowed Zambia to avoid dependence on transport routes through apartheid South Africa, and connected the vast interior of Tanzania with its coast.
In July 1976 the TAZARA opened. The 1,860-km railway still shows the long brotherhood between China and Africa.
China’s brotherhood with Africa has its roots in policies pursued since the mid-1950s, when China’s leaders saw Africa as seeking national liberation and freedom from Western colonial rule. China provided political and military support in southern Africa for national liberation and the construction of the Railway.
Moreover, Chinese leaders recognized that, with their numerical advantage in the UN General Assembly and anti-colonial perspective, independent African states held the key to removing Taiwan from its status as occupant of the permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
By the end of the 1970s, 44 of the 50 independent African countries had entered into diplomatic relations with China.
China’s UN seat, its defeat of US backed anti-China resolution in the UN, and the successful Beijing Olympic Games were not achieved without the support of African countries.
China’s presence in Africa can also be seen from its building schools, hospitals, stadiums, sending teachers to Africa, running workshops training professionals and building radio stations and satellite TV station in Africa.
But China’s emergence as a key player in Africa, the impact of its presence and its challenges to traditional Western pre-eminence in Africa have now been termed a new “China Threat.”
In recent years, there has been a debate about the motives behind Chinese investment in oil-rich Sudan, Nigeria, Angola and mineral rich Zambia. Critics doubt that China’s investment in Africa will trickle down to local people.
Sensing increasing international concern, China has launched public diplomacy in an effort to rebuild its traditional brotherhood and mutual trust with the local people. For example, since China sent its first medical team to Algeria in 1963, China has sent over 16,000 medical workers to African countries, treating over 260 million patients.
China has competitive advantages when operating in unreliable and even dangerous areas in Africa. Chinese companies have been active investors in the African infrastructure and energy industries including oil, gas, hydropower plants, pipelines, factories and hospitals in countries, such as Sudan, where high-risk situations keep Western companies from coming.
At the peak of the recent economic crisis, many Western investors fled Africa, leaving the economy hurting. The departure of the Western investors at the height of the recession saw Chinese investors taking up the abandoned positions. In 2009 alone, China invested over $400 million into Zambia’s mining industry.
But even outside of the West, there is growing criticism of China’s operations in Africa. The Chinese government and Chinese businessmen need to work harder to charm African people by using the strategies of public diplomacy, such as building more schools, more hospitals, sending more volunteers and providing jobs for local people.
Centuries of mineral exploitation in Africa has left the people of the region poorer than they were before the discovery of the minerals.
Let’s hope that Chinese investment into Africa can break that pattern and open an optimistic era of development and human progress.