We had been kept waiting from more than an hour (that is conservative by the way). The date is 16th of June 2012. It had been a very tiring and long journey. This young and curious African’s excitement knew no bounds. When you dream of traveling the world, China is usually a long shot. So, the fatigue of the journey paled in comparison to one’s joy at finally being provided with the opportunity to experience and learn about one of the world’s oldest civilizations. So, I look around me; we are seated in a waiting area in the Immigration section of the Shanghai Pudong International Airport. I had wondered hours earlier why the immigration official told me to step aside after going through my documents. I had no doubt they were as perfect as they could be. So looking around me, I noticed a common factor. We were all African. In my head, I’m trying to look for another reason why we’d be accorded such “privilege”. My fears would be confirmed after what seemed like eternity. Each one of us was called forward, told to stand in front of a wall, and our picture was taken. Our national passports had pictures surely. And as I recall, there was a visa application process that required you providing more pictures. I would later find out that the Chinese found it necessary to take those pictures because apparently it could be sometimes difficult for their officials to distinguish African faces. I would also find out that some Africans had impersonated fellow Africans in the past to enter the country. Note the emphasis on Africans. It is not likely a mug shot would have been forced on a Briton or American of African descent. It is also likely the Chinese decided on this method for its cost advantages. The raison d’etre for their action is not unique. When you arrive at the Dubai International Airport, the immigration authorities demand a compulsory eye-scan for citizens of certain countries. Let’s just say, I had the road to myself on the way to my hotel. My fellow Emirates Airline passengers were probably long engaged in the activities of nature by the time I finally made it to my hotel.
None of that was going to spoil my party, however. Once I was settled in Shanghai, I couldn’t wait to see The Bund. Incidentally, it was a walking distance from our hotel. The other major attraction for me was the Oriental Pearl TV Tower in Pudong. As nice as Shanghai was, however, I couldn’t wait to get to Beijing. I was going to climb The Great Wall of China no matter what. So yes, after a week, off to Beijing at last. I made sure to visit the sites featured in the film, “The Last Emperor”. On the morning after my arrival in Beijing, my first point of call was The Forbidden City. Words cannot describe the sheer scale of that edifice. Of course, you couldn’t get there without passing through Tiananmen Square. And the crowds. I was like a drop of black ink on a white cloth, a familiar place to say the least. We kept walking from one gate to another. It reached a point when you simply wanted to ask, how many more gates? One thing I did observe was that the names of the gates were written in Arabic. Muslims are mostly in the Xinjiang Province, so I’m not quite sure how that came about. I’m sure there are answers to be found in history. Another addition to a long to-do list, I guess.
The Badaling Great Wall is an hour’s drive from Beijing. Of course, the tour operators make it worth your while by organizing educational stops along the way; museums mostly. There is a legend I’m told about those who climb the Great Wall to the very top. I gather you are supposed to live a very long life if you achieve the feat. There is a lift to the top if you can wait in what seems a never-ending queue. I climbed the Great Wall with some bravado. I managed to convince myself I’d be able to make it to the top. Well, I didn’t. After my knees began wobbling, I finally allowed reason to prevail after reaching midway up the Wall, got a friendly Chinese to take a picture and started on my way back down. The return trip wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. There were no steps for the greater length of the Wall. The moral of the legend certainly became writ large. If you could climb the wall, if you had the stamina to climb it to the top, then it is likely you had it in you to meander through the ups and downs of life. It was thus reasonable to expect that you’d live long! We’ll know in the fullness of time, I guess. Back in Beijing the same day, I finally got to rest my knees on one of the benches in the surroundings of the Summer Palace. On my way there, while still trying to get a cab, I was accosted by a Chinese woman who said she was a student and wanted to practice speaking English with me (most Chinese you meet on the street assume a seemingly self-assured black is American or British). Let’s just say, I politely declined. It was the wise thing to do. I had no doubt in my mind the entire trip was documented by the Chinese authorities. Being black and some would say tall, it was hard to be missed. What was my overall impression of the trip? Great! It is one thing to learn about a place in a book or movie, it is quite another to visit. The experience of the latter was worth all the trouble.
“The Chinese are our friends”. Kenneth Kaunda, the former President of Zambia is telling Zeinab Badawi of the BBC in April 2014. Africans have a romantic view of the Chinese. In Lagos, Johannesburg and other major African cities, you’ll find posh Chinese restaurants. We love Chinese food (I was hard-pressed to find similar restaurants in China itself!). That esteemed view is not misplaced, however. A civilization that has lasted that long should be admired, copied even. Most African leaders go to China as special guests. They are treated with pomp and pageantry. Whether as students or guests of the government, they returned to their home countries from China, with a favourable view. This is not by accident. The Chinese are some of the shrewdest people in the world. Without experience and knowledge, you do not stand a chance at a negotiating table with the Chinese, however. Africans have been lazy in their relationship with the Chinese. A country of very hardworking people, China is prevailing today because from the very beginning, it understood the singular objective of politics, whether international or local, is to achieve superiority. At the very foundation of this, is first the recognition that no one is responsible for guarding your interests but yourself. Africans cannot expect the Chinese to look out for their interests. In fact, it would be disrespectful for them to do so. So while the Chinese may be accused of neo-colonialism in their relationship with Africa, it needs to be pointed out that all of the hitherto skewed deals with them were not made by force. It was not done under the barrel of a gun. Africa willy-nilly signed away its resources for what seemed like good deals on the face of it, but were really very sub-optimal for the continent. It is the value-chain, stupid! The value chain!
In spite of all these, the Chinese have demonstrated greater will to help lift Africa up than most of our other so-called international “partners”. China-Africa trade reached USD210.2bn in 2013 from just USD10.6bn in 2000. In addition to increased foreign direct investment (USD2.5bn in 2012), it has been sponsoring the setting up of Special Economic Zones in various African countries, a model it used to spur foreign investments at a similar stage of its own economic evolution. China has been investing more in other parts of the world, however. Its USD2.5bn Africa direct investment in 2012 just constituted 4% of its total outward foreign direct investment. What is one’s point? No matter how hard the Chinese try to help us (if you take it their African venture is not self-interested, which it is), Africa would only be lifted up by African capital, African labour, and African innovation! There is no other way. Our friends can only help nudge us on the way. They cannot, however, take us to our destination. They are farther ahead on the road we are all travelling. On infrastructure alone, Africa needs more than USD75bn a year to address its deficit. That is more than twice the USD30bn capital of various kinds the Chinese plan to avail the continent in 2013-15. African financial and multilateral institutions have to start thinking hard about how to intermediate the continent’s own capital for its own development. That is the only way.