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How China is changing Sierra Leone

Andrew Harding | 14:55 UK time, Monday, 26 July 2010

I'm writing this on a hotel balcony in Freetown, with a steep green hillside at my back, the Atlantic Ocean breaking on the rocks below and Chinese CCTV news blaring from the restaurant television.

It's a decade since I was last here, and Sierra Leone strikes me as an unusually vivid example of the changes that are now shaping so much of Africa.

On my last visit, in the immediate aftermath of a particularly vicious war, the headlines were all about disarmament, peacekeepers, and NGOs. The streets were clogged with white United Nations vehicles and a traumatised population was still wondering if they could ever put things back together again.

Today, Sierra Leone is still bogged down in the familiar developing country issues of poor governance, corruption, high infant mortality, and entrenched poverty.
freetownafp.jpg

But the unmistakeable scent of progress is in the air and business has taken centre stage. Mining in particular. And business with China above all.

I had dinner last night with some local journalists. Once we'd finished discussing the scandal of the moment - a 15-minute sex video featuring a local celebrity - Austin Thomas began explaining to me why he'd just spent the last two years in the chilly, north-eastern Chinese city of Harbin, studying journalism.

"I want to master the language," he said. "It is very important and can be an advantage in this world." When he first arrived in Harbin, the university told him he was "a guinea pig. "They were not sure we Africans could cope with the cold. It was minus 40 degrees. But now there are thousands of us there."

Austin, and the others at the table, had no illusions about China, or its role in Africa. "It's good, and it's bad," said Austin. There were angry complaints around the table about how Beijing was "buying up" Sierra Leone's government, flooding the country with inferior products, and building a new foreign ministry in Freetown just to curry favour with those in power.

"China's agenda in Africa is not just economic. It's looking to be a superpower and the more countries it controls, the more it can achieve that," said Austin. He wasn't too impressed with China's journalism either - "too many barriers, too many conditions, the opposite of western journalism," he concluded. But he and his colleagues reserved most of their scorn for attitudes in their own country. "We are failing - we want everything to be put on a plate," said Austin. "Politicians here are driving us crazy. They're self-centred. They only want to enrich themselves, not develop the country. Africa can learn so much from China's determination to succeed."

It's still far too early to judge China's impact in Africa - whether it is simply bleeding a supine continent dry, shoring up authoritarian regimes, providing essential infrastructure, injecting cash, fostering crony capitalism, offering a welcome alternative to failed western development models, giving countries a little economic breathing space, or simply inspiring people to work and study harder. My sense, right now, is that it's doing all of the above.

But Austin put his finger on something fundamental - education. "Right now we can't emulate China, or South Korea, or Singapore," he said. "They have education. We do not. That's what's killing Africa."

And that's why, in two months' time, he will say goodbye again to his wife and two children, and fly back to Harbin for three more years of study, and with luck, a PhD in international relations.

Comments

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  • 1. At 03:09am on 27 Jul 2010, Zifah wrote:

    Very apt in saying the Chinese are both good and bad for Africa. The major problem is a lack of quality in both their people and produce. As for shoring up repressive regimes, they still have a lot to learn from the West.

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  • 2. At 09:46am on 27 Jul 2010, sagat4 wrote:

    Chinese government = new empires of Africa which is all you need to know and is not a good thing as we can see on the ground.

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  • 3. At 11:05am on 27 Jul 2010, Alex weir wrote:

    China and britain both described my fraud proof voting system for the third world as dangerous. The british sent several hit squads to exterminate me. I conclude that there is little difference. Alex weir. Harare

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  • 4. At 11:14am on 27 Jul 2010, The_Revolutionary_Humanist wrote:

    The issue with Chinese investment in Africa is very sensitive. Yes it creates some jobs, but in most cases especially when it comes to raw materials and mining, they ship in thousands of Chinese workers. I think the BBC once did a documentary on Chinese mining magnates in the Congo?

    This documentary, if memory serves me correct, showed a total disregard for safety, environmental issues, and the sometimes brash attitude of the migrant Chinese population towards the locals. Communication was also an issue.

    China further finds opportunities mostly in the very unstable regions, allowing them to bribe the fat cats, and undermining international best practise. Which can be very detrimental to the environment. Also the issue with the local population when it comes to jobs, how can you justify bringing in a big Chinese migrant workforce when the local population remain jobless?

    We should remain aware of China's main interests, they are -

    1) China's hunger for cheap raw materials to fuel its own domestic growth.

    2) China's Foreign Diplomacy policies. China will not interfere in any other form of Governance outside its borders, as it expects in turn no other foreign Government to interfere into theirs.

    3) The issue with Human Rights, as in Africa so in China, mostly Human Rights are quite regularly ignored or curbed for the 'stability of the country'

    4) Garner greater international support on International platforms such as the UN on issues favouring China and its objectives.

    China in its approach towards Africa could be compared, maybe to a lesser extend as that of the erstwhile Colonial Powers.

    Any investment into Africa is welcome, but that does not mean that Africa in turn, should carelessly put up its resources for sale. The relationship should not be a one way road coming from Beijing, but should remain bilateral. Africa should not be threatened with reduced investment if it so wishes to voice its concern towards China on issues with merit.

    A responsible, fair and transparent bilateral partnership with China can be positive, but with most of Africa's Governments I remain sceptical of the reality.

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  • 5. At 11:16am on 27 Jul 2010, JanMan wrote:

    Thanks to the Chinese that Africa is now more stable and wealthy than the past centuries under Western colonialism. Maybe the West should now forget about their leadership role in Africa.

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  • 6. At 1:23pm on 27 Jul 2010, Kriogal wrote:

    I remain ambivalent about China's interest in Africa. One of the major things I see as I travel around West Africa is how racist the Chinese are towards Africans and I find this unacceptable. African leaders should not tolerate this and should insist that Chinese workers going to Africa are sent on anti racism workshops to enable them to interact with Africans without displaying their racist attitudes. If Andrew's journalist friend Austin has a child with a Chinese woman that mixed African/Chinese child will treated as only half human in China. On the other hand I love that the Chinese are bringing some wealth and pride to Africa and that we are poking our erstwhile colonial masters (the Brits and the Europeans) in the eye. It's like when a cute guy dumps you and then he sees you in the street with an even cuter guy! Let's just hope this new relationship doesnt turn abusive but yes, goodbye Brits, your time exploiting our continent is over... a new boyfriend is in town!

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  • 7. At 7:22pm on 27 Jul 2010, Mze-djimba wrote:

    This topic again, I remember in one African language which said “if you send someone to buy things is not like if you go yourself” china and Europeans are not Africans and they always look for themselves first. However, there is much, much, much different between the Chinese greedy and the western greedy.

    Those minerals were there all over Africa but France and England was plundering to come and enjoy in their countries for long what we Africans got on that? Even our leaders could not have a bank or safe place to save the fraction they used to be given and they used to come to hid their money in the same Europe.

    It’s worst if you consider that we now even hate of been Africans and we dream Europeans than even the Europeans themselves, and that is because of the ways we been made by the white man. Many here refer to the point that we have no education; so guess why we have no education while these minerals was there flying to London and Paris every day and what fly back to Freetown only AK47s? I am sure that many here saw the movie blood diamonds.

    Guys the biggest poverty reduction on any country in the world are three, chine, Vietnam and Cuba. Capitalism it suck, Chine in the period of 25-30 years removed over 450 million people (bigger than the entire population of America or Europe) fro extremely poverty to extremely wealthy. And the eyes of the world is on china to see the biggest miracle she is been expected to do in the next 25 years.

    Yes when we were been formulating in the worms of our mums the Whiteman managed to contaminate our gins with a very dangerous and powerful virus which will forever links us to Paris and London even if the Whiteman say “I don’t like you ugly rubbish” but we will always say with joy on our face “I love you god”.

    We have to try to format our entire system and get marry with only the one who can love us. I saw many countries in Africa which have no any form of natural resource but yet the new china did the so many unforgivable things like airports, hospitals and even parliament.

    I know that on talking about the one who loves/like us or don’t is important but first we have to love our selves. The west is not happy on china in Africa because china use to say “We benefits and Paris-London say I benefit”

    Quality and not quality; you will be surprise that even in Europe you only get Chinese things for people like me and you, over 85% of electronic and cloths here is from china so guys don’t play fool. Until we are able to do it for ourselves Mr China is the best of the best.

    He bring in his workers while we are on dire need, yes he do that for the job to be done and in did used to be done. It need speed, skills and styles and the three the Chinese works provide them for the best price so we don’t have to complain.

    The only reason Europeans have so much lazy & luxury laws and rules is because they already have more than enough. We don’t and have to start fresh so we need to speed up and always do some extras.

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  • 8. At 11:28pm on 27 Jul 2010, Enny2012 wrote:

    China is not changing Sierra Leone, China is changing the whole of Africa. China is on slave raid but we do not know, we are pretending not to know. Where we have African Engineers, China is leaving them unemployed to bring in Chinese fore-men as Engineers. China is telling Africans that we are not good, and African Leaders are folding their hands because they are gaining from China's none interfering policy. He is dis-congesting her population into Africa. The whole world is watching, because the slave trade today is the agreement of China and the African Leaders. Dig the well, mine the copper, mine the gold, the diamond and iron ore, build some roads and schools for show, but please, put the rest of the money in a foreign bank account.

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  • 9. At 00:15am on 28 Jul 2010, Enny2012 wrote:

    No one can tell me that human right is not important. We should not see China as a god sent into Africa. People of conscience should ask themselves one question. Why is Tibet in slavery under China? Why is China closing her eyes to evils in some African nations she is trading with. Europeans were bad and greedy during colonial era, but some have conscience and will not because of money or worldly gains close their eyes to human right abuses as China does. Something the Chinese enjoys as long as the raw materials are available. China could have helped stopped blood shed in some African countries, but the power of raw materials is over-whelming, China cannot stick her nose into stopping the human right abuses in case the country withdraws their contracts.When we talk of China, talk of a nation who would do anything to build big mansions, and show off as it will never end.

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  • 10. At 03:47am on 28 Jul 2010, Baffeh wrote:

    China's non-interference policy on Africa is a fallacy and only temporary; after China had invested enormous amounts of money in Africa it will then move to protect those investments: interference. It is already doing so in the Sudan by supplying arms and ammunitions to the Sudanese Muslim-Arab government to exterminate its Christian and African people. What we are witnessing is a full frontal invasion of Africa by the Chinese: it's cheap goods, it's near-slave labor force and the relocation of some of it's billion and a half people. As we entered the 21st century Africa stood a better chance of dusting itself off the ills of slavery, colonialism, imperialism and dictorship and firmly place its foot on the first rung of endogenous development. But so called "help" from China is threatening to take us back another 60 years by resuscitating an almost exterminated breed of African rulers with its socalled non-interfering policy: the Big Man. These were the African Dukes to their imperial kings in Europe and America. But at least civility compelled those kings to keep their dukes on short leashes.

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  • 11. At 05:27am on 28 Jul 2010, fatmed wrote:

    what a great discussion by andrew harding.continue the great coverage in Africa.whatever the motives of the chinese, we have to learn from their deepest belief in hard work.since independence,African leaders have failed us. Sierra Leoneans have to continue to believe in the power of the ballot box. when the leaders fail to deliver, they should not hesitate to boot them out next time around.

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  • 12. At 3:49pm on 28 Jul 2010, Mze-djimba wrote:

    The problem is I think we forget quickly, but before I go any further please read this pathetic written article http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-10767692. Many things you can consider on it including the point that the writer intentional avoided to explain and the attempt to occupy the position of been the mouthpiece of the victims while he or she is protecting and promoting the victor.

    I don’t think it need anyone to have PhD to understand that guys like Rhodes and Harry Oppenheimer they got their fortunes on exploitation much, much worse than this of china today. He will be an idiot the one will try to advocate of abuses by anyone even by Mandela, here we are just saying “IF” we have to take one of the 2 (west & chine) then china is much, much, much better.

    Those who travel can say that nearly everywhere you go in Africa you see a sign of china small or big while the signs of the western you can found all over Africa is western language, culture and second had things which is out of use in Europe, they export it to Africa.

    The only reason today an African can afford to have two new pairs of underwear is because of the news china. Yes you wear it today and will tear tomorrow but I don’t think there is humiliation than to buy second hand underwear in the market.

    While debating on the other thread a whitesupremacist poster said RSA is overdue and no one should be worry about going there and invest.
    so my apprehension here is that if minerals can finish and in did what is under the African fetes is getting finish and surely we are going to be treat shit than how we are experiencing now then better we get something for our minerals.

    If you pay closer look to the example of what is going in a place called Sangaredi in Guinea, china invested direct 7 billion dollar there from 2002, and the money went direct to build roads, hospital and a soccer stadium.

    Better the Chinese do the infrastructure themselves to cut Bureaucracy and if the building didn’t comes up we will know who we can hold accountable; While every year over 13 tons of sand from the same town is shipped to Europe and America to be turn to aluminium and then planes, cars and anything else.

    If you visit that country you see nothing signs the existent of the Europeans there and plundering that tremendous wealth for the last 50 years beside hungry Africans speaking broken European languages.

    And the schools, hospitals, roads and airports soccer stadiums etc the Chinese are building in Africa is shaming the Europeans in African for five hundred years. The link up there is telling you that blue-eyed guys didn’t end their business and certainly won’t end softly until minerals ends or the sleeping giants stand up.

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  • 13. At 5:27pm on 28 Jul 2010, Mze-djimba wrote:

    To the one who removed my comment number 12 here, that comment is one of the cleanest comments I posted here. It never carry anything wrong on it but also went deep in the subject probably that is why you feel that people should not been allow to talk like that although you still claim the prise of been advocate of freedom of expression. I saw some of my comments kept on “referring for further consideration” for the whole time nearly a month, you have no clear accusation on it while you still don’t want it be here, you keep it on the dark for the whole time, thank you.

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  • 14. At 01:18am on 30 Jul 2010, JSEN wrote:

    To Andrew Harding,
    Andrew, I have a good friend in Freetown who has dedicated his life to serving Africa. His name is Father Themi Adamopoulos, an Orthodox Monk. I emplore you to seek him out, if you ask for him at the Freetown Orthodox Christian School on Syke Street (in Western Freetown)you will find him. I guarantee it will be worth your while.
    Regards, JSEN

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