Chinese premier says China will establish environmental institute in Kenya

May 28, 2014

Among the pledges made by Chinese premier Li Keqiang at the African Union meeting in Addis Abeba on 5 May, increasing the credit line to African countries to $30bn by adding another $10bn was probably the one attracting the most headlines. (The full text of Li’s speech has been widely circulated in Chinese media, for example here.) Such promises, however, have been very hard to track. Some of the details of Li’s propositions were more interesting. To begin with, he talked about the “strategic complementarity” (战略对接) of Chinese and African industries in the context of helping localise labour-intensive garment and electronics manufacturing in Africa. This has, of course, long been talked about, but the phrasing is perhaps more explicit than before. Li also mentioned support for setting up a Chinese-African joint venture airline and funding a high-speed railway research centre.

For me, the most interesting proposition was setting up a “Chinese-African joint research centre” (中飞联合研究中心) devoted to biodiversity, desertification control, “demonstration of modern agriculture” and other issues and expected to help promote “clean energy” and “renewable energy.” Although this reads like nothing beyond a list of buzzwords, it has a proposed location (Kenya) and is part of a $10 million pledge for wildlife protection. Running a serious institute would of course easily eat up that budget. If this will indeed be a serious undertaking involving Chinese academics, then I am very curious about the extent to which Chinese environmentalists may be included in the initiative. Some years ago, the Peking-based Global Environmental Institute, closely related to the ministry of the environment, set up a branch in Vientiane, Laos. This has been a low-key operation, but to my knowledge, this was the first time for a Chinese research institute or a non-governmental organisation of any stripe to set up an affiliate abroad, and it has for a while recruited highly qualified young Chinese researchers, some trained in the West.

Li’s announcement of the new institute is an indication of the government’s desire to counteract the negative publicity around the issue of ivory and rhino horn poaching. (One Chinese journalist in Kenya told me that it was the only issue the Chinese ambassador felt embarrassed by.) It also fits into the strategy of “great aid” (大援外) promoted by some foreign ministry officials, meaning that foreign development assistance should involve more actors than just the government, notably the financing or even creation of NGOs (in large part to counterbalance Western dominance of the sector).

Of course, the whole affair may come to nothing, but it  may also conceivably produce more than mere window-dressing. There is a new generation of well-trained Chinese corporate personnel abroad who are not just aware that something must be done about corporate social responsibility (CSR) but are also personally interested in “doing good.” China House, an NGO set up in Nairobi early this year by the journalist Huang Hongxiang, who does PR for a local Chinese company and runs a website devoted to “China-South dialogue,” has already attracted over a dozen young Chinese interested in volunteering or interning as part of such projects. This is a significant development that is certain to become more visible in the coming years. The question is to what extent the government-initiated institute will be interested and successful in harnessing this popular interest, and whether such individuals will be able to influence its agenda.


Urban China issue on Chinese cities in Africa

March 22, 2014

The Shanghai urban design journal Urban China, based at Tongji University, is devoting its upcoming 63rd issue to Chinese urban design in Africa. As is often the case, architects appear to be ahead of social scientists in exploring the scope and implications of Chinese companies exporting not just buildings but entire master plans. A sample of the issue, which is the result of a collaboration with the Netherlands-based Go West Project, is available for download from Douban. It includes a reportage from Lekki Special Economic Zone, an article by the billionaire developer Dai Zhikang, who has vowed to build a new city centre for Johannesburg, and several Chinese architects and urban planners engaged in Africa. The lush illustrations are part of the issue’s draw.


Hungary wants to become regional hub for Chinese railway construction

November 26, 2013

Hungarian radio reported that the government’s spokesman said it was “not a secret” that Hungary wanted to become the regional hub for Chinese railway construction. Negotiations were underway with the Chinese and Serbian governments to upgrade the Budapest-Belgrade railway at a cost of $3 million.


Huawei taken to court in Zimbabwe

November 20, 2013

In the last year, regulatory challenges against Chinese companies in Africa have become increasingly commonplace, part of what seems to be a trend of greater African state assertiveness in dictating the terms of business with China as well as a more open competition between Chinese companies. In telecommunications alone, Chinese companies have faced investigations over corruption related to telecom tenders in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and Algeria, with both ZTE and Huawei being banned from tenders for two years in Algeria as a result,.

Nonetheless, the fact a $218 million telecom tender awarded Huawei to supply equipment to Zimbabwe’s state-owned telecoms operator NetOne has been challenged in an administrative court with allegations of corruption is significant because it questions the assumption that large Chinese companies do well in undemocratic states politically allied with China by integrating into the patronage networks of the ruling elite.


Chinese scholar suggests Africa learn from China’s party-building experience

October 24, 2013

Today, at the workshop “Fifty Years of China-Africa Cooperation,” held in Harare with FOCAC funding and organised by the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre, Zeng Aiping of the China Institute of International Studies, the Foreign Ministry’s think tank, gave a talk on how Africa can learn from China’s development experience. In addition to the usual discussion of agriculture, industry, opening up to foreign investment etc., he foregrounded social stability and the leadership of the Communisty Party, and suggested that African parties, especially ruling parties, can learn from the CCP’s experience in party building, party-state-society relations, and party-military relations.

There has been much discussion of whether China actually wants to export its political model to poor countries in Africa and Southeast Asia; i.e. whether it is consciously strengthening authoritarian regimes or whether this is an unintended by-product to which the Chinese government is largely indifferent but is sometimes forced to become sensitive to, as in the case of Burma. Most people, including myself, hold the latter opinion, but this talk makes me wonder whether at least some parts of the Chinese political establishment are in fact in the former camp.

The symposium’s main organiser, Phyllis Johnson, a long-time Mugabe supporter who blames the country’s problems on Western interference, also pointed in her talk to China’s National People’s Congress as a model of decision making, and  specifically suggested that Zimbabwe should learn from China’s approach to having the military under Party control but still allowing it to play a political role.


Chinese companies contract white Zimbabwean farmers to plant tobacco

October 20, 2013

Just had an interesting conversation with a white Zimbabwean shipping manager in Harare. He told me some of the white farmers who were thrown off their farms by Mugabe in 2002 have come back and are planting tobacco under contract for Chinese companies, which provide seeds and technical support. Would be interesting to know if anyone has done any reserach on this.


New Ethiopian presient has PhD from China

October 18, 2013

As PKU African Tele-Info reports this week (issue 159), the new Ethiopian president, Mulatu Teshome, an Oromo, has a PhD in international relations from Peking University, a department best known for the assertive nationalist Yan Xuetong. This must be the first African head of state — though ceremonial — trained in China.