The Chinese and Congo take a giant leap of faith

Letter from China
Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
Published: September 21, 2007
SHANGHAI: The entire world may not have sat up and taken notice in the last week, and that is probably just fine with China, which has just made a major move into central Africa.
With its agreement to lend $5 billion to Congo, what might have often looked like a grab-bag approach to the African continent by a country with only sporadic involvement there has finally taken on a distinct outline.
It turns out that China, which since the time of Deng Xiaoping has discouraged talk about its rise or its might, has a blueprint for Africa, and with the Congo deal, what we are witnessing is the shift of the Chinese embrace into high gear.
What will $5 billion buy? Quite a lot, should all of the projects in the announced deal materialize. Imagine Western Europe without practicable roads or functioning trains and you will begin to get a sense of Congo and its realities.
For half of the year, when the rains are heavy, the grandly named Route Nationale 1, which follows a path of about 260 kilometers, or 160 miles, between the capital, Kinshasa, and the country’s sole ocean port, Matadi, cannot be said to connect the two cities.
Trucks sink up to their cabin doors in mud and must wait for weeks to be winched out. Mind you, this is arguably the most important road in the country.
Add to the lack of infrastructure an equatorial climate in which tropical diseases proliferate and thrive, and no education system worthy of name, forcing children by the millions to grow up without proper schools.
It is a dark picture, made all the more dire for the persistence of a low-grade civil war affecting large swaths of the country.
The $5 billion that China is plunking down promises a great leap forward for Congo, and this begins with about 3,200 kilometers of new rail lines and an equivalent amount of new roads. The money will also pay for 31 hospitals and 145 smaller health care centers, along with two large new universities and 5,000 new government housing units.
The Chinese promise not to dilly-dally, too. Most of this will be accomplished in a mere 36 months, they say, and I for one believe them, having seen the pace of change even in the most remote Chinese backwaters. If war or political upheaval doesn’t get in the way, Congo stands to experience more progress in 36 months than it has in 47 years of independence from Belgium, or as a colony of Brussels for that matter.
The Chinese move is impressive on many levels, none more so than the fact of the immense vacuum in Africa they are moving to fill, and there are few characteristics more distinctive of an emerging superpower than filling vacuums.
When Laurent Kabila overthrow Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, American companies like Bechtel rushed up blueprints for Congo’s reconstruction, anticipating huge civil engineering deals.
No country is more richly endowed in minerals, and the world’s mining giants, too, flew executives in on private jets, hoping to win big contracts. More war intervened, though, and all of this came to naught, leaving Congo’s 65 million people mired in poverty, with little real development ever since.
China now has its eyes on the same prize: the world’s richest assortment of minerals, from copper to cobalt to uranium to diamonds and gold and on and on, but its game plan reflects a truly Chinese perspective on the world.
The new roads and rails are meant not merely to revive Congo’s prospects. Nor are they simply intended to facilitate extraction, as much as that remains part of the plan. China is redrawing the economic map in central and southern Africa, linking the copper zone of the south with the port at Matadi, and redirecting other portions of the country’s huge mineral potential to Chinese-built networks in Zambia and Angola.
In doing so, it is largely avoiding South Africa, a potential but now badly outstripped competitor that is perhaps seen as too deeply involved with the West.
It must be said that China has chosen a daunting proving ground for its long-held ideas about engagement with the developing world, which could be summed up as “it’s the economy, stupid.” It is not merely for lack of good faith that the West has nearly abandoned this part of the world, despite its immense riches. History has shown this to be an extremely hard place to build lasting, productive enterprises.
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