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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.

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.


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