Maxwell Zeken is a 16-year-old Liberian who lives in rural Nimba County. Asked where he dreams of studying, he says: “I want to study engineering in China and come back to Liberia to build our roads and our cities. They say you must visit the Great Wall of China. I regret that my country didn’t build something like that.”
Western governments like to imagine that they have all the soft power in Africa. After all — if you put aside 100 years or so of colonial predation — for decades they have been providing emergency relief and supporting health, education and transparent institutions. What’s more, they are democracies, with systems worth emulating.
China, so this narrative goes, elicits no such goodwill. It has only ratcheted up its presence in Africa for what anyone can see is a naked grab for resources and influence. Sure, China has built roads, railways, sports stadiums and airports across Africa.
But, according to this mostly self-delusory narrative, such projects are of shoddy quality and alienate Africans because they employ mainly Chinese workers.
The problem with this version of events is that — if it was ever valid — it is woefully out of date. Certainly, you don’t have to go far in Africa to hear complaints against China, which is blamed for everything from enriching dictators to wiping out local manufacturing and entrapping governments in a new cycle of debt.
Another, more powerful, story is taking hold, however, that sees China as a mostly positive actor with a record — unlike the west — of getting things done.
Philibert Browne, editor of Liberia’s Hot Pepper newspaper, says China is winning admiration. In Liberia, it has built roads — ones of not obviously inferior quality — and a spanking new campus at the University of Liberia, replete with friendship tower and Chinese-style gate.
“You can see what they are spending their money on but you can’t see what the Americans are spending on,” Mr Browne says. “You don’t put capacity building on your meal table. Slowly but surely, the Chinese are winning in Africa.”
In Kenya, where a state-owned Chinese company is about to complete a $4bn railway from the Indian Ocean to Nairobi, you hear similar things. The line, which will eventually extend to Uganda and possibly Rwanda, has been criticised for costing too much. But many ordinary Kenyans appreciate a project that has been built on schedule, looks modern and will cut freight and passenger time.
This is anecdotal evidence to be sure. Yet according to a policy brief by the China-Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University, China’s more visible engagement is reflected in ballooning trade and investment.
One figure leaps out. From 2000 to 2015, China Eximbank made $63bn of loans to Africa while the US Eximbank made $1.7bn. China Eximbank contributed to almost all 54 African countries, while US Eximbank contributed to five.
Money and concrete do not guarantee a good reputation. In Ghana, Chinese citizens have been accused of running roughshod over local mining laws. In Zambia, where as many as 100,000 Chinese people live, local politicians accuse Beijing of flouting immigration laws by bringing in unskilled labour.
It is important to note that China has several actors, of varying proximity to the state, across the continent. Drawing a unifying picture or discerning a clear China Inc strategy is not always easy.
Still, you do not need to drink the Beijing Kool-Aid to see that China’s image is better than many westerners care to believe. Certainly, no country can engage with a continent on so prodigious a scale without ruffling some feathers and making some enemies. China is making friends too.