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The red-eye from Beijing to Delhi was sold out, as usual, the other night, and I squeezed into my seat beside a young Chinese scientist who struck up a conversation. He wore glasses and a short-sleeved blue button-down shirt, and he was fidgeting anxiously as the plane took off. â€šÃ„ÃºWhere are you headed?â€šÃ„Ã¹ I asked. â€šÃ„ÃºCongo,â€šÃ„Ã¹ he said and gave me a weak smile.
The red-eye is operated by Ethiopian Airlines; it stops in Delhi and then Addis Ababa, where passengers like my seatmate would fan out across the continent. Someday, I thought, archeologists will look at the passenger manifest from a flight like this and learn all they need to know about what China meant to the world in the early moments of the twenty-first century: about a third of the passenger list was composed of Indians and other visitors like me; another third comprised African businesspeople and diplomats, heading home from the country that has emerged as arguably Africaâ€šÃ„Ã´s single largest investor; the final third encompassed the Chinese sojourners, wiry laborers, in cotton shoes and military surplus pants, heading to construction sites and road crews, and a scattering of technical personnel like the scientist seated to my right.
He was a pharmaceutical researcher by training, but he had been picked by his company to join an agricultural project in Congo. They would be growing rice to ship back to China, he said. Being a part of the project made his company look good and patriotic in the eyes of local Chinese officials, and the scientist had â€šÃ„Ãºbeen volunteered,â€šÃ„Ã¹ as he put it, to be the company representative. â€šÃ„ÃºTo be honest, I didnâ€šÃ„Ã´t want to go, but itâ€šÃ„Ã´s the right thing to do,â€šÃ„Ã¹ he said and stared at the darkness outside his window.
China has stepped up the growth of large-scale agricultural projects in Africa over the past five years. As Howard French described, in The Atlantic, in a terrific piece in May, large Chinese-run farms designed to export rice and other staples to China are one of the new and least-understood elements of Chinaâ€šÃ„Ã´s push into Africa. Two years ago, the Chinese government earmarked five billion dollars for farm projects in Africa, intended to ease Chinaâ€šÃ„Ã´s concerns about food security. But ceding land to foreigners, to manage it and claim the products, are acutely sensitive issues in Africa. In 2007, French notes, Chinese and Mozambican officials reportedly agreed to have three thousand Chinese settlers begin farming the fertile soil in Zambezi River Valley, but the news prompted an uproar, and Mozambiqueâ€šÃ„Ã´s government now denies all reports of the idea.
My seatmate, the scientist, had his own reasons to be concerned. â€šÃ„ÃºIâ€šÃ„Ã´ll be expected to communicate in French, but Iâ€šÃ„Ã´ve only had three months of French training,â€šÃ„Ã¹ he said. â€šÃ„ÃºIâ€šÃ„Ã´m not very confident in it.â€šÃ„Ã¹ He pulled out a hand-held electronic translator with the name â€šÃ„ÃºThe French Kingâ€šÃ„Ã¹ stamped in Chinese across the top. He spent much of the flight thumbing words into the French King, and silently mouthing the results. In front of us, a screen showed stats about the flight, listed in French and English. He glanced at the screen, typed â€šÃ„Ãºvitesse au solâ€šÃ„Ã¹ into The French king, and held it up for me to see the Chinese: â€šÃ„ÃºGroundspeed.â€šÃ„Ã¹
His assignment would last twelve months, he said, with no vacations or trips home. He had told his wife that he felt he had no choice but to go. To their six-year-old daughter, he explained, â€šÃ„ÃºIâ€šÃ„Ã´m going on assignment, and Iâ€šÃ„Ã´ll call you from Africa.â€šÃ„Ã¹ A few hours into the flight, he punched a Chinese phrase into the French King and held up the results for me to read in French: â€šÃ„ÃºThe time will pass quickly.â€šÃ„Ã¹
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