Investment May 2010

The Next Empire

All across Africa, new tracks are being laid, highways built,ports deepened, commercial contracts signed—all on an unprecedented scale, and led by China, whose appetite for commodities seems insatiable. Do China’s grand designs promise the transformation,at last, of a star-crossed continent? Or merely its exploitation? The author travels deep into the heart of Africa, searching for answers.

Many Chinese agricultural initiatives are shrouded in mystery. In 2006, for instance, China offered a $2 billion soft loan to Mozambique for a project to dam the Zambezi River Valley, amid some of the continent’s most fertile soils. The following year, Chinese and Mozambican officials reportedly signed a memorandum of understanding allowing 3,000 Chinese settlers to begin farming in the area. But following a local uproar, Mozambique’s government denied all reports of the plan, and little has been heard of it since.

Officials in Chongqing province—home to roughly 12 million farmers whose land either has already been lost in the flooding that accompanied the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, or is under pressure from urban growth in the province—have publicly encouraged mass emigration to Africa. In September 2007, Li Ruogu, the head of China’s Export-Import Bank, told the South China Morning Post,

“Chongqing is well experienced in agricultural mass production, while in Africa there is plenty of land but food production is unsatisfactory … Chongqing’s labour exports have just started, but they will take off once we convince the farmers to become landlords abroad.”

Li pledged full financial support to those farmers at the time, but has since distanced himself from those remarks.

“China’s interest in agricultural investment—in land—is a hot-button issue,” wrote Deborah Bräutigam, a professor at American University and a leading expert on China’s economic relations with Africa, in a recent paper. “For many, land is at the heart of a nation’s identity, and it is especially easy to raise emotions about outsiders when land is involved.”

The stop-and-go quality of major Chinese farming deals and the strong feelings that they’ve produced suggest that the honeymoon between the Chinese and Africans may not last long. During the course of my trip, land issues seemed to bring out the ugliest biases in the people I spoke to. “If you gave this land to Chinese people to work it, this place would be rich overnight,” said one Chinese woman immigrant, a middle-aged trader in southern Congo: “They’re too lazy, these Africans.” Many Africans, for their part, were intensely wary of Chinese immigration; Daniel told me that this was a particularly raw issue among many of his friends. Conspiracy theories echoed frequently. In Dar, for instance, rumors had spread that the new national sports stadium was part of a secret deal to grant land to Chinese farmers in Tanzania.

Ultimately, the combustibility of Chinese farming initiatives may limit the plans’ reach. Even so, Chinese investment in other industries has not slowed, and there’s no reason to believe it will. The acquisition of the ores and oil underneath African soil is more easily hidden from public view than that of the land above.

To fully grasp China’s economic approach in Africa, one must study European imperial history—as Beijing itself has been doing. “Recently, a very interesting Chinese delegation visited Brussels,” I was told by Jonathan Holslag, head of research for the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies. “And they asked to see all the old colonial maps of the Congo. These are the only maps that reflect reasonably accurate surveys of Congo’s underground, and they want to use them for development plans in Katanga and elsewhere. If you look at Chinese policy documents, it is very obvious that they are focused on opening up the heart of the continent. There is clearly a long-term strategy for doing this, and it seeks to break up the north-south flow of minerals, to build east-west lines that will allow them to bypass South Africa.”

Jamie Monson, a historian of the Tazara line, writes lucidly about this strategy:

To construct a railroad was to command a region—the most famous manifestation of this being Cecil Rhodes’s dream of linking “Cape to Cairo” through a continent-wide rail connection. To control a region in turn was to keep rivals out, or at least to restrict their trade participation through tariffs and other regulatory interventions.

The truest intellectual forerunner of China’s strategy seems to be a plan once pursued by Germany. Before its defeat in World War I, Germany’s leaders had dreamed of a continental empire, a Mittelafrika stitched together by railways stretching from Dar es Salaam to the Atlantic Ocean. A northern line from Dar to Moshi was completed in 1912. German surveys of a southern route, essentially the forerunner of the Tazara line, were carried out between 1904 and 1907, but the project was abandoned after a local rebellion against German rule.

Germany’s railway schemes were driven by intense competition with Britain. Although China may claim to be a new kind of power, its plans, too, have always had a strategic component, including rivalry with the West, and lately a desire to circumvent the regional economic powerhouse, South Africa, and ultimately control the markets for key African minerals.

To succeed, Germany’s Mittelafrika would have required cooperation from Belgium and Portugal in order for its trains to traverse the expanse of Congo and Angola on their way to the Indian Ocean. In five short years, China has solved this problem, rebuilding Angola’s Benguela railroad and laying the groundwork for a vast new rail-and-road network to be built in Congo, Zambia, and other peripheral countries. China will not turn these railways over to African governments, as it did with the Tazara. Rather, it will retain majority control of its rail investments, operating the railways until its money is recouped by ticket and cargo revenues and by other fees.

The Zambian end of the Tazara line, Kapiri Mposhi, roughly marks the southeastern edge of southern Africa’s vast copper belt, one of Mittelafrika’s choicest prizes. The Kilimanjaro Express pulled into town 72 hours after leaving Dar—we’d had two big delays along the way, but had been lucky to suffer no major breakdowns.

A scrum of porters and drivers beset the weary, baggage-laden travelers on the platform, competing noisily for the chance to haul the merchandise brought from Tanzanian ports. I met Daniel’s wife and son as we disembarked, and we eventually said our goodbyes (Isaac had gotten off the train farther north).

The town itself is a dismal backwater. A desolate market sits behind the giant train station, a jumble of cinder-block storefronts, almost all abandoned and strewn with rubbish. The commerce, such as it is, takes place in a muddy square facing these deserted buildings. There, a handful of crude stalls have been made by lashing rough-hewn wood planks together with cord. Women sit wanly before little pyramids of tomatoes, onions, and oranges. The train, evidently, has not brought prosperity to this place.

Nonetheless, Kapiri Mposhi is a gateway to perhaps the most significant hubs of Chinese activity on the continent. About 120 miles to the south lies Lusaka, where Beijing’s presence is long established and Chinese businesses abound. And about 45 miles to the north lies Congo, the stage for China’s grandest experiment—and biggest bet—on the continent. I was heading to Lubumbashi, a Congolese mining city of 1.2 million people, where billions of dollars of Chinese investment are, for good or ill, just beginning to make themselves felt.

One of the largest and most populous countries in Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is also perhaps the most star-crossed. It gained independence from Belgium in 1960 and promptly became the site of Africa’s first coup d’état. It then suffered for 32 years under the dominion of the American-backed dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, the continent’s most corrupt and influential despot. Over the past 10 years, it’s been the scene of the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II.

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Howard W. French is an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is the co-author, with Qiu Xiaolong, of Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life.

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