“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.