How to Write About China in Africa

KHARTOUM OR SOMEWHERE SIMILAR OR IN FACT VERY DIFFERENT: First up is to pick your major, billion-dollar infrastructure project built by the Chinese. Ideally it will involve oil processing, pumping, prospecting or some such. Failing that, a dam, road or power station will do the trick – but at the very least make sure it has a red lantern hanging from it. (A Chinese restaurant will not past muster.)

This is Africa remember, so the next par should contrast the shiny new oil processing plant with the backwards land all around. Mention the Nile, pyramids, Masai warriors, starving children, Aids, camels, the Congo, cradle of humanity, Jacob Zuma’s wives etc. This year, you have the added bonus of being able to mention the World Cup. For British papers you get a bonus for mentioning Livingston, Gordon of Khartoum or any other Victorian hero.

“Ah yes,” chuckled Mohammed, as he washed his cattle in the waters of the mighty Nile beneath the hot African sun, “by par three you need a quote. So make sure you find a simple local man engaged in a traditional task who can tell you that the Chinese are coming and how he would like a job in the new oil plant so he can sell his cows and buy a Land Cruiser, insh’Allah.”

With the local scene set, it is time to assume that the rest of the continent is much the same as the patch around the luxury hotel where you have vox popped three locals and found your Chinese project. The presence of a new road or oil plant is sufficient to declare a fresh “Scramble for Africa”. It’s OK if you miss this exact phrase as the subs will add it in for you.

So far so good, but this is Africa and we need a healthy dose of fear, despair and human rights abuses in order not to leave our reader confused and disorientated. Thankfully there is a whole industry of commentators in London, Washington and New York employed to condemn China and reinforce stereotypes. “China’s rapacious demand for resources is harming all the excellent work done by well-intentioned Western donors,” said a man who has never been to Sudan. “China is propping up dictators and despots by building roads and buying oil. They have no regard for human rights, undermining our own efforts to topple their leader.”

You may be tempted at this point to introduce some examples of development aid driven by Western donors by way of comparison. Don’t. Those are generally best forgotten. However, by this stage most people will have turned the page so feel free to improvise. Ideally quote a fat local politician proclaiming his fondness of the Chinese because their money doesn’t come with strings. But leave the reader in no doubt about whether or not this is a good thing by ending on either a description of the politician’s shiny Mercedes or the cattle-washing local who has no chance of ever buying that car.

Anyway, all of this is to say that there is another way of seeing China’s role in Africa.

And a massive debt of gratitude to the excellent Inanitites (and it goes without saying Binyavanga Wainana)


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