I arrived in Sierra Leone in June 2005, at the height of the rainy season. Mud washed down the pot-holed streets of the capital, Freetown, and knots of beggars, some without arms or legs, huddled under trees and against battered shop-fronts. It was a fortnight before the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, where Bob Geldof and Bono were to celebrate a huge increase in aid to Africa, but in the Bintumani Hotel no-one spoke of this. Gusts of rain-filled wind blew through the hotel’s porch to set the large red lanterns swinging. Cardboard cut-outs of Chinese children in traditional dress had been stuck on the windows. The management had just celebrated Chinese New Year.
It was my first visit to Sierra Leone in more than twenty years’ reporting from Africa, and I was to make a film not about the normal issues covered by British televisionÃ³orphans, war victims, corruptionÃ³but about something few outside Africa seemed to have noticed: the rapidly growing influence of China in the continent.
The hotel’s manager, Yang Zhou, was pleased to show me round, helped by his spiky-haired young translator who introduced himself as Maxwell. While Chinese businessmen stick to their real names, Chinese translators in Sierra Leone give themselves English names to ease communication with Africans and visiting Europeans.
The Beijing Urban Construction Group, which is owned by the Chinese government, started to rebuild the Bintumani Hotel even before Sierra Leone’s civil war ended in 2002. The wall opposite the manager’s office had been decorated with glossy photographs of China’s economic progress: one showed the Three Gorges Dam, another a group of pretty young Chinese women throwing their mortar boards in the air to celebrate graduation. The captions were in Chinese and English, as was the sign for the toilet which featured a girl with pig-tails sticking out horizontally from her head and the word ladie’s. The clocks above reception gave the time in Beijing, Freetown, London, Paris and New York. London was out by an hour.
‘Africa is a good environment for Chinese investment, because it’s not too competitive,’ Yang Zhou said as he ushered me into the Presidential Suite, the hotel’s best room. Shower: made in China. TV: made in China. Kettle: made in China. The doors to the rooms were designed for the Chinese as well as by themÃ³the six-foot-four Danish cameraman with me had to stoop to get inside.
Sierra Leone epitomizes the British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s vision of Africa as a ‘scar on the conscience of the world’. By most calculations it is the poorest country on earth, with seventy per cent of the population living in poverty. UN troops keep the peace, after a brutal conflict over power and resources in which child soldiers amputated people’s arms and legs with machetes, and rape was widespread. Sierra Leone, a former British colony, is one of the largest recipients of British aid, but the benefit is hard to see. Few homes have electricity or running water, and sixty per cent of young men are unemployed.
Most European companies abandoned Sierra Leone long ago, but where Africa’s traditional business partners see only difficulty, the Chinese see opportunity. They are the new pioneers in Africa, andÃ³seemingly unnoticed by aid planners and foreign ministries in EuropeÃ³they are changing the face of the continent. Forty years ago, Chinese interests in Africa were ideological. They built the TanZam railway as a way of linking Tanzania to Zambia while bypassing apartheid South Africa. Black and white footage shows Chinese workers in wide-brimmed straw hats laying sleepers, and a youthful President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia waving his white handkerchief as he mounted the first train. As an emblem of solidarity, China built stadiums for football matches and political rallies in most African countries which declared themselves socialist. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Middle Kingdom withdrew to concentrate on its own development, but in 2000 the first ChinaÃ±Africa Forum, held in Beijing, signalled renewed interest in Africa. Now, the Chinese are the most voracious capitalists on the continent and trade between China and Africa is doubling every year.
On the outskirts of Freetown, on the site of an abandoned centre for disabled refugees, the privately owned Chinese company, Henan Guoji, has created the Guoji Industrial Entry Zone, a small complex of workshops and factories. In the city centre, a new multi-storey government office-block, military headquarters, and refurbished stadium are all the work of the Chinese. The British say future aid will depend on Sierra Leone’s progress towards democracy. China, which follows a policy of ‘non-interference’ in African politics, and is scarcely in a position to tell any other country to be democratic, has nonetheless built the modernistic, brown bunker tucked into a hillside which serves as the country’s new parliament.
Xu Min Zheng (translator: Lucy), the Henan Guoji representative in Freetown, told me that his company was following the Chinese government’s injunction to ‘Go Global’. The first part of the twenty-first century is dubbed ‘the period of strategic opportunity’. Chinese companies are preparing themselves to become multinationals, and Africa is their proving ground. ‘The Chinese are very diligent,’ said Mr Zheng, who wore a jacket and tie despite the humidity. ‘We are good at learning, and our equipment and raw materials are cheap.’ Many companies bring even their labour force from China. Africans watch in surprise as buildings are erected in weeks. (‘The Chinese don’t seem to rest,’ Sierra Leone’s Information Minister told me. ‘We could learn from that.’) Managers and translators live in barracks-style accommodation. No spouses, no children, none of the comfort and expense Western expatriates demand.
‘I never thought my life would be so exciting,’ Lucy the translator said. ‘My mother wants me to go back to Beijing and get a boyfriend and have a child, but I want to be here for a few years. Then maybe I’ll get to go somewhere else in Africa or even to Britain. With a company like Henan Guoji, if you speak English, you can go anywhere.’
When I first went to Africa in the early 1980s, it was rare to see a Chinese face, other than in embassies or Chinese restaurants. Now, the Chinese are everywhereÃ³building the new State House in Uganda, starting joint businesses in South Africa and, most significantly, establishing themselves in countries with natural resources. Chinese companies are involved in mining, timber, fishing and precious stones. Above all, they are involved in oil.
Second only to the United States in its oil consumption, China needs Africa’s resources to fuel its own phenomenal growth. In oil-rich countries like Angola, Chad, Nigeria and Sudan, the influence of former colonial powers is waning. The Chinese government imposes no political conditions on African governments before signing contracts for exploration or production. No Chinese pressure groups lobby Chinese oil companies about ‘transparency’ or environmental damage. Not surprisingly, African governments welcome these undemanding new investors.
I employed a young Sudanese journalist, Nima Elbagir, to find out how Chinese investment was changing Sudan, 2,500 miles from Sierra Leone on the other side of the continent. She got hold of the Sudanese energy ministry video archive of Chinese activities in the oil sector: earnest seismologists on their knees tapping the dry, brown desert for the latest oil find; the Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir, and the head of the African division of the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) at a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new oil refinery at Al Jaily, north of Khartoum. She filmed billboards across the capital showing smiling Sudanese and Chinese oil workers in yellow hard hats shaking hands, with the legendÃ³in Chinese, Arabic and EnglishÃ³CNPC: YOUR CLOSE FRIEND AND FAITHFUL PARTNER.
Sixty per cent of Sudan’s oil goes to China; twelve per cent of China’s oil comes from Sudan. No wonder the Sudanese government is untroubled by the oil sanctions which prevent American investment. ‘With the Chinese, we don’t feel any interference in our Sudanese traditions or politics or beliefs or behaviours,’ Awad al-Jaz, Sudan’s energy minister said when Nima interviewed him on camera in Khartoum. He smiled as if trying to suppress a laugh. ‘Business is business. There is no other business but the business.’
In 2004, when Britain and the US pushed for a punitive UN Security Council resolution against Sudan for the mass killing of civilians in Darfur, China threatened a veto. The weaker resolution which passed with Chinese approval had little impact. Chinese companies have built three small-arms factories near Khartoum; most of the weapons used by government forces and militia in Darfur are manufactured there or in China.
Human rights workers have a new problem here. As their economic interest in Africa has declined, Europe and America have gone along with calls for ‘good governance’ and an end to human rights abuse in Africa. It is easy to moralize at regimes which you have no reason to cultivate. But such regimes will not cow to this new moralizing if China is offering practical support without conditions. In May 2005, President Robert MugabeÃ³regarded as a pariah by Europe and the United StatesÃ³told the crowd celebrating twenty-five years of Zimbabwe’s independence: ‘We have turned east, where the sun rises, and given our back to the west, where the sun sets.’
When white farmers dominated commercial agriculture, Zimbabwe used to sell tobacco at international auction. Now the auction houses in Harare are silentÃ³tobacco goes directly to China’s 300 million smokers, as payment in kind for loans and investment from Chinese banks to Zimbabwe’s bankrupt state-run companies. As Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector collapses, the Chinese are taking over land the Zimbabwean government confiscated from white farmers, and cultivating the crops they need. On a recent visit to Beijing, President MugabeÃ³who was armed by the Chinese during the bush war against Ian Smith’s Rhodesian forcesÃ³was given an honorary professorship at the Foreign Affairs University for his ‘remarkable contribution in the work of diplomacy and international relations’. The same week, a UN report condemned his government for demolishing 700,000 homes and businesses ‘with indifference to human suffering’.
In Freetown last June, rainstorms made the electricity cut out even more frequently than usual. The hi-tech console controlling the lights and TV in each room at the Bintumani bleeped in the night, as the power surged and faded. The new casino, a joint venture by a Chinese man called Henry and an Irishman called Derek with collar-length hair and a 1970s wide-lapel suit, was not busy. Chinese businessmen spun the roulette wheel, while a few glum Lebanese played slot machines, gambling with money they may soon lose anyway, as the Chinese break their traditional monopoly on trade in West Africa.
Sierra Leone’s ambassador to Beijing, Sahr Johnny, was hosting a Chinese delegation planning investments in hydroelectric power and agriculture. ‘The Chinese are doing more than the G8 to make poverty history,’ he said. ‘If a G8 country had wanted to rebuild the stadium, we’d still be holding meetings! The Chinese just come and do it. They don’t hold meetings about environmental impact assessment, human rights, bad governance and good governance. I’m not saying it’s right, just that Chinese investment is succeeding because they don’t set high benchmarks.’
Like most African diplomats, Mr Johnny sent his children abroad to study. The two girls work in Britain, but his son is in Hong Kong, learning Mandarin and Cantonese.
Africa looks to China and sees success: according to the World Bank, the Chinese have lifted 400 million of their own people out of poverty in the past two decades. All the while, no one forced the Chinese government to have elections or allow its opponents to start newspapers. Many African leaders would love to do to their oppositions what the Chinese did to theirs in Tiananmen Square, but if they want Western aid money, they must abide by Western conditions.
Like most Western journalists and aid workers who have spent time in Africa, I frequently despair at the continent’s problems, veering between blaming the aid donors, the African governments, and even at times the people. Western aid hasn’t worked, so why was everyone demonstrating near Gleneagles so convinced that sending more would make things better? It cannot be good that African governments persist with human rights abuse, or perpetuate their rule against the desires of their peoples, but poverty remains Africa’s greatest problem, and liberal concerns have not helped Africa’s poor.
The Chinese come to Africa as equals, with no colonial hangover, no complex relationship of resentment. China wants to buy; Africa has something to sell. If African governments could respond in a way which spread the new wealthÃ³a large if, of courseÃ³then China might provide an opportunity for Africa which Europe and America have failed to deliver.
– Granta 92: The View from Africa