The Great Road of China

Blog 70 by Tan: Day 7 (pm) on the Dirt – The Great Road of China

Following on from the last post:

But first a bit on the Chinese in Africa. We have previously been asked by blog followers of our opinion on the ‘Chinese in Africa’ and now (and blogs to follow) seems a good time to answer. Chinese activity on the African continent is a hot topic at the moment and a subject I am quite interested in. Unfortunately a lot of what you come across on the subject is remarkably rubbish reporting – totally partial, wracked with hypocrisy and for this day and age surprisingly riddled with borderline or outright race based prejudices.

But what is certain is that China represents an alternative to the status quo of business, power and diplomacy in Africa. This makes them unpopular with many and results in accusations of ‘neo-colonialism’ rather hilariously levelled by actual former colonisers in Africa, aiming to do the same thing as the Chinese. But of course when they do it, it is called business or globalisation.

 

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We stopped for a bit of lunch, crackers and a tin of tuna. And soon enough some bike porters accumulated to check us out. One of them was a fella in a full-length coat and it was a scorcher of a day.

 

Personally, I am open-minded for the potential benefit of the closening of ties between African and Chinese governments. And this for me mostly boils down to 2 main reasons. Firstly, it seems that China sees and communicates a place for Africa in the world economy. China is in the midst of an ambitious project of physically linking world markets through its One Belt, One Road project. They plan to connect both ends of the Eurasian landmass, Africa and Oceania through an overland route (the road) and a maritime route (the belt.) They say these routes will promote trade and cultural exchange, regional cooperation, growth, development, prosperity and all that jazz. People who like the idea say it will allow poor countries to get infrastructure and a place in world markets. Critics say that it is China’s plan for economic and strategic domination of the countries along these routes and that they are just pursuing their own interests. It’s likely all these things. Given the Chinese plan to spend between 4 and 8 trillion dollars on the project perhaps it is not all that strange to imagine they may want to benefit from it.

Anyway that is all a bit heavy but what it means for Africa is pretty significant. The Chinese see the African market as crucial to their future prosperity and they have a great deal to gain from Africa’s economic development, East Africa especially. In this plan East Africa would become a crucial trade hub of the region.

People miss the mark when they depict China as wanting nothing more than to export Africa’s raw materials. Sure there is that, but then there is the not so small matter of Africa’s predicted population of 2.4 billion people by 2050. The Chinese didn’t fail to notice the Global Financial Crisis curbing Europe and the United States demand for Chinese goods. Relying on these increasingly debt-ridden and stagnating countries to continue their hitherto copious consumption is a risk the Chinese economy can’t bare. So they are looking for other markets. And Africa is a huge market in want of anything cheaply priced the Chinese might have to sell. China has a lot to gain from African’s doing well and with a planned 4-8 trillion worth of chips on the table perhaps we can believe them when they say it.

 

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Mick starting to look a bit rough.

 

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I was no better.

 

Contrast that with what the US and Europe want and imagine for Africa in the future. What vision are they selling? What place in the world do they see for Africa? They just don’t seem to be offering Africa another role other than that of permanent reliance. The Chinese are presenting an alternate to perpetual dependency and the respect of seeing a place for Africa in the global economy. Whether they can pull it off is a whole ‘nother matter all together… but from that point alone I understand the appeal of what the Chinese are proposing for Africa. Let us not forget that 40 years ago China was poorer than almost every African country of the time…

My second reason for being open minded about the Chinese in Africa is the way Chinese infrastructure deals are executed. Such deals are typically funded by a Chinese bank such as China EXIM bank (a government bank that is not run for profit but is supposed to avoid losses). Anyway the bank will come up with a deal to fund an infrastructure project such as a $500 million road project in Ethiopia for example, and that will typically (though not always) get granted to a Chinese construction company. And here is the kicker – the money goes directly from the Chinese bank to the Chinese construction company. The government of that country doesn’t get their hands anywhere near the cash. What they do get, however, is a road.

 

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The Chinese are afoot.

 

Compare that the experience of the Marsibit-Moyale road in Kenya that had been paid for in full by the IMF and European Union and never got built. What happened to the money, you ask? It disappeared, as large cash sums have been known to do in Kenya from time to time. With the road still wanting, what did the foreign donors do but fund the project once more, this time one would assume with the added request that “umm, seriously don’t just steal the money again, hey!” And guess what happened? That money also disappeared, and the road didn’t get built once more. But as of last year it seems that third time is a charm and the road is recently completed. I’ll let you guess where the money came from and who constructed it. I know the debt involved in these projects could be a huge problem in the future. But rather have debt and a road than debt and no road.

 

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I am not saying that Chinese are benevolent and great and doing totally above board things in Africa. I’m just saying a lot of published opinion is really skewed on the issue. Ask an African what they think on the Chinese and it is bound to be far more reliable. They’ll tell you what’s good (the affordable goods, the infrastructure, that they work hard) and what’s bad (the government back-handers, they often don’t pay the correct wages, they seem to take way more than they give).

 

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And then…we came across a pristine bit of tar. It was as surprising as it was annoying. We had been running low pressures and not knowing how long the tar would go for figured we’d better break out the compressor as the last think we wanted in this heat and humidity was a pinch flat. Thankfully the tar road was about 8km in length so justified the effort of pumping up the tyres.

 

Anyways back to us. As the day rolled on we came across the centre of Chinese road building activity. The scale of the work was huge and it was clear that the famed Kinshasa-Lubumbashi route was on the verge of never being the same again. A two-lane tar highway is well in the works. We were glad it wasn’t ready for us and we were instead following sandy, muddy tracks past the hive of activity that Sino-Hydro, one of the world’s largest construction companies, had gotten under ways.

Through the afternoon we had passed two 4WDs full of Chinese guys a couple of times. Each time we passed each other we would wave, such was the excitement of having a vehicle to share the trail with. A whiles later we started to scout for a good place to camp before the heavens opened.

Despite the lovely two nights spent with hospitable villagers we were both hoping to avoid another village stay. We really didn’t feel up to the overwhelming experience of excited hosts. After the exhaustion and stress of the day, I wanted nothing more than to find a quiet place to camp in secret. But the populated area we were still in seemed more likely to serve up an audience of a hundred rather than the glorious anonymity our minds needed.

 

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The road building was well underway. Not long now and people will be crossing the DRC on BMW 1200GS and wondering what all the fuss of the route is about.

 

But then another possibility presented itself as we rode past the Chinese road construction camp. I suggested to Mick that we might be able to camp on their grounds for the night… if we were lucky. I didn’t know if they would go for it as Chinese state owned enterprises in Africa tend to be rigid and privacy focused; fiercely so, which doesn’t help to dispel the ridiculous rumours they are Chinese prisoners at work or that more generally they were up to ‘something’/no good. I’d heard of other travellers making such requests and getting rejected out of hand. However I thought we might be in luck as I speak pretty decent Chinese from years spent living with a Chinese family in China. Mick can understand a lot and can turn more than just the odd phrase too.

 

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Hot and tired and scouting a place to camp for the night.

 

After Mick had egged me on for a bit “Come one, just go and ask, the worst they can say is No”, I decided to give it a shot and approached the well-dressed Chinese men who could only have been the boss men.  Greeting them in Chinese I explained that we needed somewhere to pitch our tent for the night that would give us some privacy and security. I must confess the reference to crowds of locals and concerns for safety was strategically placed to appeal to the average Chinese consciousness abroad. I need not have worried at all. They were only too keen to host us. And if they were shocked at finding an Australian chick on a motorbike in the middle of nowhere Congo speaking to them in their language, they hid it remarkably well, I must say.

In true Chinese style one of our hosts went immediately to the kitchen and told the chef to cook something for us to eat.  As we parked the bikes we saw the chef run out of a the kitchen bearing a huge meat cleaver and no small sense of excitement, urgently requesting to know “what flavours do they like?”

So there we found ourselves, within 15 minutes of arriving, in an air-conditioned dining hall, facing a mountain of Chinese food, drinking gloriously cold cokes and thinking we had died and gone to heaven.  It was hard to reconcile the scene before us with those of the previous few days. We had been in the depths of Congo travelling thorough mud, sand and rain, sustaining ourselves on little but nuts, biltong and canned sardines and the promise of well-stocked patisseries awaiting us in Kinshasa. And then this! It was utterly unexpected and I was holding back tears of joy.

 

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THIS. ACTUALLY. HAPPENED!!!

 

Over the meal we spoke about the project and its challenges with the company’s 27-year-old head of logistics for DRC. It was exciting to meet a young member of the China-Africa diaspora and Guan was its embodiment. He worked in Africa throughout his university degree and at 21 came to work in Africa full time.  He had worked in Republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo, becoming fluent in French in the process. It is partly due to this and his legacy of years in Africa that he has been able to reach such a lofty position at such an early age.

 

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Seriously would you let people that looked like this into your house? Mick looks like a zombie about to tuck into a nice plate o’ brains.

 

We spoke about our opinions of Africa’s/Congo’s develop prospects.  Like most Chinese we met in Africa his opinion fell to the less optimistic end of the spectrum. Guan said the corruption was a huge impediment to Africa’s growth, but also rather astutely I thought, he identified the attitudes of the local population and lack of education as major obstacles to development.  Indeed the typical heard ‘black people are lazy’ comment was uttered but it was more nuanced than that. Also I should mention that the average Chinese thinks anyone not willing work 7 days a week and through holidays and perhaps the first few hours of childbirth, are lazy… i.e. all of us.

Anyway Guan said such things as, (and I paraphrase): “How can you motivate people to work hard when they have little concept of how that might pay off for them?” He said, “these people’s lives are so hard and so far from development they can’t imagine a better life because for so long things have been this way?” “How can you tell them work hard and you can one day have a television and nice house if they have never even seen these things before? Many have never even seen electricity?” “How can you tell them you can have a good life when they haven’t seen anyone have a good life before?” “They need education first.”

 

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Where we set up camp for the night.

 

He also lamented the lack of productivity and the high incidence of theft they had to deal with.  He shared that they had had workers crash company’s cars and just run off to avoid the consequences and other workers that had simply taken off with the cars never to return. Guan also spoke how he thought that anything could happen in this country at anytime.  He said they were probably safe at the camp but felt that ‘anything-anytime’ could happen to them there too. He said their few security guards would be no help, if they were to remain at all.  I asked if he felt unsafe in DRC. He didn’t say yes or no, just said once more ‘anything could happen.’ The phrase in itself was the mark of a real Africa-hand.

Guan told us that the project had recently overcome some opposition from the people of a number of small villages along the route that didn’t want the road constructed. With the road in its current bad state, these villages have come to sustain themselves by selling goods to bike porters and high clearance truck drivers and their human cargo. With so few ways to attract money, another business opportunity is to set up road traps near the village then receive payment to dig people out of their troubles. The new road therefore threatened their livelihoods. But Guan said that opposition had largely settled down. I would have loved to know how this was achieved. Perhaps they communicated that the road might bring more car and truck business and would reduce the cost of goods considerably. Perhaps they agreed to construct public works for the villages or gave the chief some money.   I don’t know.

What still concerned Guan however was the broader political climate of the country. He said he was very nervous about the upcoming elections (or potential non-elections). Joseph Kabila, the president of DRC, is in the process of changing the constitution to allow him another term… or two or three… or leadership in perpetuity, who knows. We talked about how many African presidents were currently in the process of fiddling with the constitution in this way (at the very least there were 4, I could immediately think of). I then made what I thought to be the rather hilarious joke of saying “See, you can’t say African’s are lazy… look how much those guys like working, they are going to great effort to keep their jobs.” It went down like a lead balloon. In all my years of grappling with the language I have never successfully cracked a joke in Chinese. I have no idea why I thought now in the middle of Congo would be the time and place and politics with racial undertones would be the subject matter. Anyways…

 

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The construction camp.

 

Guan said how earlier in the year in DRC the opposition party was using anti-Chinese sentiment to undermine the ruling government by targeting Chinese business people. In the face of this, 50 Chinese businesses were destroyed.  He encouraged me to search for these news stories on the Internet.

He is adamant that he will move across the river to Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, in the lead up to the elections and will stay there until it was safe to return to Kinshasa. I learned many foreign business people in Kinshasa kept a house on the other side of the river in ‘Brazza’ in case of any ‘flare-ups’ of DRC’s ever-present troubles. I mentioned that anti-Chinese sentiment has been used as a rather effective political tool in Zambia as well. He nodded in agreement.  He knew this already. He had his finger on the pulse of the continent and was far from a hapless opportunist fumbling along in the foreign land. He also spoke of the loneliness and isolation of their lives there.

 

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Second dinner – This time a banquet.

 

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Here I am in the dress Mick loves so much. Funnily enough the Chinese guys commented on how nice it was. See Michael…its fabulous.

 

Anyway after feeding our faces on authentic Sichuan cuisine and downing a couple of cold cokes each, we went outside and set up our tent on the basketball court. The DRC project manager expressed disappointment that they didn’t have a room to give us in the camp as all the rooms were occupied with the management visit currently taking place. Heads from the Republic of Congo arm of the company were visiting the road-building project and it was all of these guys we had passed in the 4WDs earlier in the afternoon. We told them we were very happy to camp.

That night (a mere 2 or 3 hours later) we were invited to a banquet with the big bosses. It was a night of feasting and stretching my Chinese skills to the limit as the excessive whisky drinking led the conversation down some strange tangents. We went from talking about the company’s mining interests in Australia near the city of Darwin to Darwin’s theory of evolution in the space of 3 seconds. One of the men wanted to know if I believed in Darwin or God? “What was it?” “Monkey or God?” I replied I was a scientist so I had to go with the monkey. Whisky smiles all round.

 

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64 The fellas getting trolleyed.

 

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The most important fella at the banquet was the guy in white Adidas shirt (the DRC head of the company) and the fellow to his right (the Republic of Congo head of the company). You can always tell the seniority of people at a Chinese banquet by the seating position. The big man is always at the head of the table, farthest from the door. The second most important to his right, next to his left with decreasing important closest to the doors – which was us. They meant no offence. We were just ring-ins after all. We were just stoked to get food!

 

During the banquet we were struck by the pure focus of the Chinese on the project. The men were lamenting the time the project was taking. They spoke not so much of the low productivity but more of the challenges of the weather and the lack of good rock for foundations in the local area that required trucking of rocks from on far. They said that in China the same 500km project could be done in 1 year but here the same job is taking 2 ½ years. I said that to me 2 ½ years seemed fast for a 500km section of terrible sandy track. He shook his head and had a look of seriousness when he said… “No. It is too slow.” He looked to be already thinking of the next section of road they would be moving on to (west toward Mbuji-Mayi) and how slow that work would no doubt go.

 

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The fellow on the left wanted to know our thoughts on the evolution. The rest wanted to know about our time in China and where we had travelled there. When we rattled off the different provinces we had visited the guys couldn’t believe we knew the names of any of these places. They were extremely gratified by this.

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They were a super nice bunch of guys.

 

It started raining and our hosts were getting worried about our plans to sleep in our tent.  Once more they expressed regret that they couldn’t give us a room as the camp was full.  We assured them we would be perfectly fine in the tent. However when it started to rain more heavily they would hear no more talk of us sleeping in the tent as the big boss man had determined that to stay in the tent in the rain would be ‘uncomfortable’. They inspected the tent in order to confirm. It was unanimous. It would be ‘uncomfortable’. They then arranged to move someone out of their room to share with another so we would have a room for the night.   Resistance from us was futile. And with that we found ourselves sleeping on beds, beneath clean sheets and cozy blankets, in air-conditioned comfort and enjoying our first shower in days. A hot shower no less.

 

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Our room for the night! Can you believe it? We found it interesting to note that everything we saw was sourced from China; soap, toilet paper, toothpaste – you name it.

 

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The rooms from the outside. Note the air-conditioner AIR-CONDITIONERRRRRR!!!! INGLISH TEECHAR! AIR-CONDITIONERRRRRR!!!!!!

 

The room really came into its own later that night when we paid the price for unleashing whisky and copious amounts of authentic, spicy, oily Sichuan cuisine on a digestive system most recently powered on crackers, nuts, biltong and not all that much of it. We made full and extensive use of the en-suite bathroom that night.

Yet despite these personal difficulties we both agreed the booze and two rounds of Chinese meals was worth it. We went to bed exhausted, full as ticks, clean as whistles and pissed as parrots. Both Mick and I reported waking multiple times in the night from the awareness of how incredibly comfortable we were.

 

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Packing up our wet and unused tent the next morning.

 

The next morning we hung out in the kitchen with the chef while the big bosses were sleeping off hangovers from a night that raged on for a long time after we retried to bed. The chef was a gregarious fellow who had good relations with his kitchen staff. He had taught them a lot of Chinese language and proudly told us that his two Congolese assistant cooks knew how to make every Chinese dish he prepared in the camp and their Chinese names.  He also spoke French, once again challenging the stereotype that the Chinese don’t learn the language when they settle over here.

 

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Mick, the chef and his top assistant. The chef told us to name anything we wanted cooked.

 

We observed him sharing jokes and photos on his phone with his assistants throughout the morning.  He was a man at ease and appeared to have a dual role of chef and camp manager. He certainly had more seniority than the average chef would have back in China. No doubt a product of being the only Chinese chef for hundreds of kilometres.

 

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Then the quickly got to work on it.

 

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While preparing our favourite Chinese foods for breakfast he told us about his time in Republic of Congo and DRC where he has been working since his son’s birth some seven years.  His plan was to stay in Africa for 10 years to earn money to help his family get ahead. At 7 years in, he has had malaria 15 times and it remained his greatest concern about living here.  He was worried about the long-term affects of the illness and treatment on his health. When I expressed alarm at his 15 bouts of malaria he told me it was nothing. There were fellas there who were who had had it more often. One fellow Chinese was up to his 18th case of malaria in less than 7 years.

 

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This caused problems later on.

 

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81

 

Like most Chinese we meet working on large projects he returns home once a year and works every day outside of that 4 to 6 weeks window. But even that time is up for grabs. He said they get paid double for their holiday time if they choose not to go home.  He was just a couple of months off visiting his family for the first time in a year.  He told us how he works seven days a week from before sunrise until the evening meal is finished. But he has the chance to rest between meals. We thanked him for everything and wished him well.

 

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The Chef. He has worked in the Congos for 7 years and has a 7 year old son. He told me he had not returned home each year as he is entitled. But if he had, and for the full 6 weeks each time (again he didn’t) it means he has seen his son for a mere 36 weeks of his son’s life. Pretty rough, but migrant workers in China might only see their children (left with parents in the countryside) for less than 2 weeks a year.

 

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82 The end result.

 

Our experiences at the camp made us regret the narrow view that people have on the Chinese working in Africa. Over dinner I mentioned to the road building managers that after such difficult riding we were extremely thankful for the work they have done on this section of the road. It was a quick comment that I did not expect to gratify them nearly as much as it did. It stuck me that they might not have heard this before. I wondered if they’d hear it again.

If only more people could share similar interactions as ours with Chinese people at work in Africa. I regret the negative discourse of many newspapers and politicians that depicts the Chinese in Africa as little more than the soulless, faceless foot soldiers of the Chinese government’s will. It is inaccurate and de-humanising and obscures the reality of Chinese migration to Africa. Most Chinese come independently to Africa and have no one to prop them up but other members of the Chinese community. If shit hits the fan in these countries they get no support from their government… not like the rest of us. I promise you, you have more in common with the average Chinese worker in Africa than you do anyone that tells you to fear him.

 

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Enjoyed with some Chinese State television.

 

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Me saying goodbye to some of the fellas.

 

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Mick saying goodbye to some of the fellas. Jesus would you look at his pants.

 

But enough of the Chinese in Africa. What of the Australians? After eating our fill once more and saying our goodbyes to our generous Chinese hosts we were on the road again. This was to be our last day of off-road riding of the crossing. Congo had served us up an intense, sweltering, tiring, supremely unpredictable day the day before. We were excited to see what would come next.

4 Comments on “The Great Road of China

  1. Enjoyed thoroughly – I read bits to my daughters, who love it too!

  2. As a South African who has seen the Chinese build roads through our favourite neighbours country
    ( Mozambique) and then rape the seas offshore as payment with gill nets and leave a wide swath of destroyed coral ( I’m a scuba diver) I have a intense dislike for their ‘cavalier’ attitude towards ‘exploiting’ whilst ‘building’, the two ideals clash with my moral compass. It has to be said however that all the good things you mentioned that they do bring roads, access to goods, opportunities for the locals etc which unfortunately due to the poor access to education in most towns and the excessive corruption have had unintended consequences like visitors being exploited, harassed and being ‘fined’ for all sorts of trumped up on- the-spot charges. We as neighbours to a country we feel is almost our second home have become disenchanted as the legacy of this ‘Chinese invasion’ become apparent in a multitude of ways. That being said thank you for telling such an amazing story and putting the whole Chinese expansion into Africa into context, I for one have a slightly more ‘chilled’ feeling towards them since reading your blog and realise if not for them the Africa would remain backward, undeveloped and cut off from the world and it’s opportunities ( good or bad), cheers and we love your pics, your stories and your insights..

    • Hey Shane.

      The whole issue is so complex and as you mention the bad aspects of Chinese involvement in Africa are outrageous. I chose just to present the potential positive side as I feel the negative side does get a good amount of attention in the media – as it should. The side that discusses potential benefits and what Africans think about it is a lot harder to come by.

      The whole ‘Chinese in Africa’ thing is a difficult thing to assess because it really isn’t a homogenous group of Chinese with aligned intentions and interests. I actually think at the State level things are actually more generally interested in mutual benefit for Africa and China – you know the whole win-win (but with China winning more naturally). One of the big reasons for me thinking (and hoping) this is the case is that China has actually taken one of the biggest steps to helping Africans that has ever been undertaken by anyone at anytime I think. China once applied an average tariff on African agricultural goods of around 40% then several years ago then dropped it to under 15%. Now a huge range of African agricultural products receive zero tariffs. That is such a huge deal when you consider the amount of Africans involved in primary industry. Meanwhile EU applies (last time I looked) 106% duty on sugar, 118% on cereal, 147% on tobacco and 191% on animal products. And then there are the huge subsidies they give their growers, all of this stops African countries infiltrating their markets. They are left with small local demand and infrastructure too shitty to sell their gears elsewhere.

      The big problem however has to do with the independent Chinese business people in Africa. They are the biggest sources of dodgy operations, rape and pillage, environmental destruction and horrible behaviour. The totally crazy thing to me is that the Chinese government has been so incredibly slow in doing anything about these guys. Everything the Chinese government is trying to do in Africa and spending billions to do is totally undermined by them. The Chinese however are inexperienced in international diplomacy after so many decades of being a closed country. They can be pretty naive on a diplomatic level in that they have failed to see that the dodgy private Chinese operators are hurting their cause so badly. They see it like ‘but they have nothing to do with the government, we are helping Africa, we have nothing to do with these people, why wound people think that?’ They failed to see that outsiders are easy to paint with the same brush.
      In the last couple of years they have made steps to do something about these dodgy Chinese business people, but not enough. However I think that will continue to change as the stakes get higher and they realise the negative affect these guys are having. I really hope this day comes because the Chinese government doesn’t benefit from these shitheads enriching themselves by illegal fishing and logging and Africans suffer for it. The promising thing to me is that when the Chinese government decides to act on an issue they can make full and swift work of things. For example China used to not have much of a renewable energy sector some decades ago. Then the government made the dicision to become a leading green energy producer. In something like the space of 5-10 years they went from barely any wind generating capacity to the world’s largest producers of wind power and solar. In this case it was like flipping a switch. It is my hope that they will flip the switch on the bad operators in Africa – the one’s illegally mining, logging, fishing, poaching.

      But then there is the whole separate issue of African government complicity. (Groan).

      Mozambique is one of the countries in Africa (that we visited) that we feel the least optimistic about. That and DRC. There really are a ton of bad Chinese operators running riot there. And the debt that country is getting into is outrageous. Things don’t look good long term for that place which is sad because it was one of our highlights and a country that has suffered enough.
      In the next blog we might discuss a bit the Chinese deal in DRC where they are swapping infrastructure to be paid by minerals in the ground. That new road is part of the deal. Its been depicted as the Chinese getting a great deal at the expense of the Congolese. But it not so straight forward. They have gone out on a massive limb with this deal and there really is a decent chance of them getting shafted on it. They are already spooked by how things are going.

      Anyway thanks for you awesome comment and insight. I definitely get where you are coming from. It makes me think of the thing Mick and I have been saying for a while now. Before we did this trip we ‘knew’ so much more than we feel we currently do. The more we’ve learned it feels the less we know.

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