Construction and Christianity

I was particularly interested to read in the Kenyan Daily Nation this week that Chinese Religious Affairs minister Wang Zuoan was in Kenya to “copy good practices” that could help the country grow Christianity. There is increasing engagement between China and Africa in cultural areas such as education and arts, but religious cooperation strikes me as particularly unusual.

This from Charlie Humphreys of Asia House, a regular reader of the blog, “I would be very interested to learn if China are seriously liberalising their attitude towards evangelical Christianity, although I suspect the article is an indication of their desire to show a more positive attitude towards religious activity as part of a friendly foreign policy. The telling sign would be if other news comes out about the treatment of Christian groups in China over the coming months, which would indicate whether or not the ‘advice’ from Kenya will have made any difference. The comment that ‘religion’ is good for development is very interesting in the context that it is still prohibited for Communist Party members in China to profess faith of any kind, other than atheism of course.”

This story is right up there in PR terms with Chinese charity was to donate sweaters to abandoned, disabled African children, my all time favourite. Kenya along with much of Africa is very religious and this story has appeal in its humble position of learning from Kenya, and creating the impression that China is sympathetic to Christianity. Stories such as this demonstrate an extraordinary change in China’s PR policy in Africa. Having been allergic to media coverage in previous years, Beijing increasingly engages the media in innovative ways.

Another potential media play came from South African construction firm Afrimat. The story in question concerns the company’s successes this year and was published in South African, Business Report. However a brief quote by the Chief Executive about competition with China changes the entire focus and exposure of the story. This clearly exposes the power of the China-Africa story at the moment. The mere mention of China in a story will warrant the headline. Therefore the headline became the rather bland China ‘is a rival in construction’, which is rather self-evident.

However contained within this story is a real concern. China’s construction and infrastructure companies- which are now some of the biggest in the world- gained experience in the Chinese market during China’s boom years. The enormous domestic demand created large capable companies which now export their services around the world. It is important that African governments regulate how foreign companies enter their markets. Chinese companies are particularly relevant as they compete in lower value contracts, but it is true of all business areas. Although Africa’s resources are in great demand, Africa’s growing power is its domestic market. Governments must drive a hard bargain for foreign actors to enter either.

Africa’s growth has long been limited by substandard electricity generation and distribution capacity. China’s engagement with the continent is particularly associated with the infrastructure investment it has brought in exchange for mineral deals. The 2009 deal in the DRC has been held up for particular criticism over the last two years, accusing the Sicomines consortium, which includes the China Railway Group and Sinohydro of undervaluing the resources.

It was announced this week that China Rail would use $200m of the $6bn promised to help finance railway rehabilitation in the country. Interestingly the World Bank is also a funder of the project, making a $218.8m contribution to the project. This type of project is potentially transformative for the country.

Sinohydro meanwhile agreed a deal with the Rufiji Basin Development Authority (RUBADA) in Tanzania for the production of 165 megawatts of capacity in the next two years, aimed at solving intermittent power in Tanzania.