China in Liberia

“We like the Chinese. At least they don’t interfere in our internal affairs.”
Liberian Public Official

Last week, on our way back from Buchanan (Liberia’s third largest city) our car broke down. We stopped by a nearby village, asking for a mechanic. On the other side of the road, some dozen children gathered, screaming and waving: “Chinee’ woma’! Chinee’ woma’! Come come!” It took me an elbow from a colleague and a translation to realize that the cheers were directed at me. The road we were parked on links Monrovia to Buchanan, and was built with Chinese funding a couple of years back. The Chinese workers on that project were the only non-Liberian people to have stopped by these villages.

Chinese street signs and billboards are a frequent sight in Liberia. Rich in iron ore, rubber, cocoa, palm oil, the country is a magnet for primary-resources hungry China. The latest Chinese “gifts” to Liberia include a new University of Liberia campus, a research institute, a Hospital and a ministerial compound.

As I crossed the road to meet the children,* I thought of Hillary Clinton’s barely veiled warning of new colonialism in Africa last month. From this vantage point, the political blabber from DC (or in this case Lusaka) seems disconnected from the reality on the ground.
As Deborah Brautigam (author of The Dragon’s Gift and my previous professor) likes to repeat, “it is up to Africa’s leaders to shape the relationship with China to serve their own ends. [We] should admit the shortcomings of our own approach and learn from the way the Chinese use investment, trade and technology as levers for development.”

In the office at the Ministry of Planning, “Nihao” is the common way to greet those who have been to China on a study tour funded by the PRC – and they are many. Beijing now lends more to Africa than the World Bank does. And Liberia, who has long been the US’s little protégée, seems to be leaving the American sphere of influence into the Chinese one as fast as the rest of the continent.

* Question to readers: is it ethical to post picture of adorable anonymous children on the web without taking the explicit consent of their parents? In doubt I will abstain.

5 thoughts on “China in Liberia

  1. I was refraining from commenting on any post since i do not understand economics and laws, but in this one post i understood the beauty of cultural mix, countries helping others, even though in quest for resources, but it is still considered as help. And by the way i love the pictures you are taking and i love you 😀 .

    I wouldn’t say it is unethical to post the picture of the children since it is for showing how adorable they are, if you were posting it to show poverty, violence, etc. etc. in that case i guess it would be.

  2. Hala, this is a great post, raises many questions. The last time I was in Ghana, I drove with my parents through Togo to Benin and was not so much surprised but intrigued to see the growing Chinese presence. Their “gifts” of campuses, stadiums, clinics can be found everywhere now. I’ve heard my parents and their friends say over and over again that the one thing they appreciate about the Chinese is that they deliver when it comes to infrastructure without all the complications and restrictions that come with a World Bank loan for example…. I won’t get into my concerns about who is regulating these constructions and what we will find out in 5 years about what our governments gave away in exchange… but, I was definitely shocked to see a mammoth compound in Cotonou that is supposedly called the Chinese embassy: rows and rows of houses & an embassy surrounded by massive walls… looked a little like a slow invasion to me… But many Africans are excited about the Chinese presence
    I did research for Professor Brautigam’s book specifically looking at how long China has been investing in different African countries and the nature of the investments (too many painful hours spent in special sections of libraries around D.C but well worth it!). It actually looks very similar to what the colonizers did when they first arrived: focus on building infrastructure (roads, railroads, etc…) to link commercial ports. Is that a bad thing? I honestly do not know, after all many African countries are in dire need of improved roads. My main concern is who is regulating the relationship between African leaders and China? Do we have enough regulatory bodies set up for this? You mentioned in a previous post the deal that Firestone signed with the Liberian government, there are various cases around Africa of leaders signing such ridiculous deals, sometimes because they were cornered and had no choice, and sometimes I think greed played a role. How many of these deals are African leaders signing with China right now and do regular civilians in African countries have the regulatory/political power to have any say in the matter? How many African leaders have demonstrated that they can actually be trusted? It is the people negotiating with China that I mostly worried about…
    One of my good friend’s dad likes to joke that one day Africans will wake up and find out that we are now all Chinese… of course that is an extreme scenario, but really who knows, stranger things have happened on this continent…
    Hope you are having a good time! Loving your blog, I’ve been on here all morning =)

    • Medesse, so good to read your views on this! Like you, I have more questions than pre-fab answers about Chinese involvement in Africa. I agree that the question of regulation (both of quality and of governance) is at the core of the issue. In the absence of strong checks and balances (fair elections, free press +investigative journalism, etc.) the citizens are at the mercy of their rulers’ will and it’s not all rosy.
      But I do get irritated when politicians use black & white rhetoric, or conveniently confound investment money and aid money.
      Ps: the Chinese embassy is in construction here too – and it is very big. They’ve also started offering Chinese language classes here in Monrovia.
      Thank you for reading! Hope to see you in DC soon ☺

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