Lake Victoria East Africa Free Trade Zone vanishes

September 14, 2011

The Lake Victoria East Africa Free Trade Zone, also known as the Ssesamirembe Eco-City, has for a while looked like one of the largest Chinese concessions in Africa and one with the most intriguing portfolio of agricultural, industrial, residential, touristic, you-name-it development on 518 hectares and plans to attract 500,000 Chinese settlers. We even offered a PhD scholarship to do research on it. Although no news of its development ever transpired, the concession seemed real enough, with photos of its signing by senior Ugandan officials in Peking. It was also linked to that Phantom of Africa, Liu Jianjun.

Now our new student, Josh Maiyo, is ready to start his research. But in the meantime, references to the Chinese project, and to the free trade zone, have disappeared from Ugandan media. According to a May report on Ugandan radio, local residents were planning to reoccupy the area after development plans failed to materialize. Intriguingly, the report makes no reference to the Chinese role in the plans except that “residents have lost hope for Ssesamirembe after they discovered that China wanted to grab their land and use it to settle some of her people there under the guise of establishing a free trade zone.”

But Liu Jianjun himself refuses to go away. In August, the magazine 中国商界 (Chinese Business Circles) published a long, adulatory portrait of him, entitled “Liu Jianjun’s African legend” and enumerating his photos with Chinese leaders, his honorary African titles and his visionary ideas with even more fervour than the earlier reports. The only reference to the extensive questioning, also in Chinese media, of Liu’s credibility is a mention of a court case in which Liu supposedly won a libel suit against a newspaper. Point taken.

I can’t resist quoting some of the more extravagant Liuisms. All he wants to do, Liu says, is “to take China’s excess of peasants, standard technologies, machinery, products, and money to Africa, which has an excess of land, assembly labour, raw materials, market demand and natural resources.” Liu at his neoclassical best: straight out of Ravenstein’s Laws of Migration, A.D. 1889. Except that he adds that “the Chinese race’s stress on righteousness and neglect of profit” (中华民族重义轻利) guarantees the benevolent nature of the enterprise.

Liu also relates a meeting with Hu Deping, a deputy director of the Chinese Communist Party’s Únited Front Department six years ago, in the course of which Hu told him that “only by expanding the influence of Chinese culture in Africa can Africans’ [presumably negative] attitudes be fundamentally changed, because the industrious, honest, charitable, and enthusiastic character of the Chinese race is a great spiritual wealth.” It is this injunction, Liu claims, that prompted him to draw up the “Rules of Establishing Baoding Villages” 保定村组织颁发, the “Baoding Villagers’ Compact” 保定村民公约, and the “Charter of Temporary [Communist] Party Branches in Baoding Villages” 保定村零食党支部条例 and to commission a composer to write a Baoding Village Song, all of which used to be available on the Baoding Villages website, since closed down.

Liu is further claimed to have established a martial arts school in Kampala; to have brought youth from 42 African countries for training to Baoding, to have arranged for youth from Rakai to study Chinese and for young Tanzanians to study at a vocational school in Weifang, Shandong Province. Perhaps the most outlandish of all is his launching of the brand “Chieftain” (酋长), which covers products from motorcycles to wine and whose logo is adorned with Liu’s own head. (One of Liu’s favourite boasts is that he has been given the honorary title of chief in an African country.) An unnamed “former senior leader at the foreign ministry” is said to have encouraged Liu to expand the range of Chieftain products to one hundred, because “only when cultures come together is there sustainable partnership.”

Liu is obviously quite undeterred by criticism, ridicule, and official embarrassment. He just won’t tone himself down. What makes him happiest, he says, is “seeing Chinese people have 99-year concessions on thousands, tens of thousands of mu … ; seeing queues of dozens of metres in front of Chinese hospitals; seeing young people speak fluent Chinese … ; seeing Wuhan Steel’s brigades put up the frame of the 80-thousand-square-metre Chinese wholesale market; seeing Tanzanian gems, manganese ore, and agate packed into containers leaving for Tianjin; seeing Chinese planters, construction workers, the sounds of merriment and laughter at entertainment centres.”

That, at least, is a clear vision of development.

So once again, is it worth taking Liu seriously? It is hard to do so, and yet it is also hard to believe that he would dare to repeatedly make such outrageous boasts and take the name of senior officials in vain if there were nothing behind him.


Review of Chinese book on Chinese (in Africa)

May 16, 2011

The book review section of People’s Daily Online posted a review (originally published in 大众日报) of a book entitled The Wonderful Chinese People (了不起的中国人), edited by Su Dong 苏东 and published by Zhejiang University Press. The book, according to a blurb, argues the unoriginal point that the real reason behind China’s “economic miracle” is that “the Chinese people are the most industrious and frugal, possess the most hardy spirit, are the most obedient and law-abiding; moreover, the Chinese people have a more overwhelming craving of wealth” (更迫切的对财富的渴望).

The review is subtitled “Are the Chinese all over the African continent?” The reviewer states that “no matter whether in terms of industry or economic brains, the Chinese have an overwhelming advantage” over Africans, who are “harder to get to work overtime than to ascend Heaven: even if you ask them to do overtime just for a few minutes, you have to pay them several extra salaries, otherwise they might sue you.” Yet the reviewer also opines that although the Chinese may be the most hard-working, they are not the most positive or optimistic people. Furthermore, in his view, ethnic Chinese, whether in China or elsewhere, are yet to catch up with their countries’ economic development: their personal behaviour (implying ethics and manners) is stuck at a third-world level.

This piece is only worth noting here because it signals that the familiar discourses of social evolution and of “population quality,” along with fairly crude stereotypes, are alive and well even on such politically prominent sites as People’s Daily Online. So is the story of Liu Jianjun and his Baoding Villages, mentioned again in this review despite claims that it is no more than a hoax.

Baoding Villages — again!

February 20, 2010

Just when I was about to be convinced that the Baoding Villages were, after all, a hoax, The Independent revived the story, written up by Clifford Coonan (“China’s new export: farmers,” 19 February 2010). If Coonan’s interview with Liu Jianjun is recent, then it seems that, despite all the flak he got, he is unwilling to keep quiet. But the article contains obvious inaccuracies that make the rest of it suspect too: Liu is promoted to former head of Hebei province’s foreign trade bureau, whereas in previous interviews he had only held that job for Baoding City. Coonan also mentions the story now apparently referred to under the sinister code name “The Chongqing Experiment”: remarks made in Chongqing by the head of China’s Export-Import Bank, Li Ruogu, suggesting the bank would provide loans to Chinese who want to  open agricultural enterprises in Africa. This story is a few years old, the remarks were later retracted and no evidence of such loans exists, but for Coonan, the bank is “helping finance emigration to Africa as part of a rapid urbanisation scheme in the western Chinese city of Chongqing, already reckoned the world’s biggest metropolitan area with 32 million people.” Well, that’s clearly just rubbish, but then Coonan sails over to the deployment of Chinese warships in Somalia. You get the idea.

Coonan, who did not go to Africa, also interviewed returned “Baoding villager” Zhang Xuedong, “who spent about a year in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast capital,” and Li Zhu, chairman of Dafei International Investment and a friend of Liu’s. Li “bought 2,000 acres in Mbale in Uganda and is running a Chinese club there … he hopes to set up a farm and a tractor factory, and is teaching Africans planting techniques using machinery.”

I visited Kenya and Uganda. I ultimately chose Uganda, because the country is steady. The local government is very eager to develop the country, but they don’t know how to do that. So they want to learn from us. We provide ideas such as development zones. I also heard that there are some good mines, gold mines and quarries, in Uganda. The downside is
that we don’t know the countries and their local customs; corruption is a problem.

 My guess: Baoding villages remain a mystery, and in the form described by Liu probably do not exist. But buying 2000 acres in Uganda is probably real, as are the development zones and mines.

Baoding Villages 3

January 3, 2010

I received an email from Li Guangyi at UCLA with an update on the Baoding Villages. The email was sent in June last year but I only read it now. Since it was intended as a post, I am posting it here:

Hi All,
Liu’s old website is closed, but he has a new one:
The recent striking news is, thanks to Liu’s effort, the Lake Victoria Free Trade Zone is now in in partnership with China and the Uganda Government.
Paradise Investment Ltd. promised to invest 1.5 billon dollars on this free trade zone. The ceo of Paradise, Liu Jinlong, is an intimate friend of Liu Jianjun.
There are some astounding words in the report of Chinese media. After reading the news, many Chinese netizens are wondering if now China has an oversea colony or concession, like Hong Kong. But such words are not available in the speeches of Ugandan officials. I think the Chinese journalists are exaggerating. But I don’t know if Liu asked them to do so.

The latest on the Baoding Villages

August 6, 2009

Today at the International Convention of Asia Scholars in Daejeon there was a panel on “Exporting China’s Development.” Yan Hairong and Barry Sautman presented a paper on their fieldwork at the Chambishi copper mine in Zambia, which I had much anticipated. In response to a question, they told me that they thought the Baoding Villages were a total hoax. Yan Hairong has visited Baoding and interviewed Liu Jianjun (the self-styled founder), and he repeated his story, but refused to share any contacts in Africa. In the ten African countries Yan and Sautman visited, no one has heard about Baoding villages.

Li Guangyi, a PhD student at UCLA, came to the same conclusion in his presentation. But he affirmed that the East Africa Trade Development Zone does exist, and Ugandan officials gave a press conference in Peking about it. The 518 square kilometers and the 99-year lease seem to be right, although it is less clear whether the legislative rights, the Chinese policing and judiciary structures will exist, or indeed if the zone has any investors. Liu Jianjun and the other main investors were, apparently, adamant that residents and workers of the zone will have to obey its rules, giving the specific example that three (sic) prayers a day for Muslims will not be allowed as they disrupt production. A flag of the zone has been circulating on the Internet, very similar to Hong Kong, with five red stars at the centre.

Li also discussed the reactions to this on Tianya. According to him, some expressed suspicions that this too was a hoax. Others wrote that China should be more equitable and fair in its dealings with Africa and not repeat Western colonialism and brutality. But most expressed satisfaction about the Chinese “concession,” saying it demonstrated that Chinese civilization has stood up again.