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.