This week we start off with news that the Chinese government has agreed to cancel half of all debt owed on the Tazara railway. Regular readers will know Tazara is a particular interest of mine having been the subject of my MSc research. Late last year I interviewed Managing Director Akashambatwa Lewanika and was impressed with his plans to reform the line. It was reported late last year that China would be providing wagons and rolling stock for a fresh attempt by Lewanika to set the railway on a sustainable path.
However one of the key points Lewanika made was that while revenues went to paying down debt, new investment was often swallowed by debt repayment before real investment could be made in the capital stock. This move by China is immensely positive for the line and demonstrates China’s soft power at work.
While in many projects China’s policy seems driven by Machiavellian expediency, it is worth noting the sentimentality which drives their interest in Tazara. China has no hope to recoup its investment in the line, and there is not some great oil bonanza which China hopes to gain here. Rather as China’s first large project in Africa, with immense significance in its spirit of Bandung solidarity with African countries, Tazara represents China’s solidarity and friendship to the continent. Their commitment and continuing support here is certainly laudable.
While in the case of Tazara respect for the independence of African government meant helping to free Zambia from an oppressive relationship with colonial Rhodesia, Mozambique and Angola, respect for the wishes of host governments can and does go too far. Peter Bosshard in his blog cites the continuing issue with Chinese Dam building, especially in its displacement of local communities. He explains that continuous dam building on the Nile has led to flooding of practically all the traditional land of Nubian pastoralists who have not been sufficiently protected by vested interests in Khartoum or even Juba.
It is China’s respectful relations with leaders who trample on minority groups which brings the China-Africa relationship the greatest criticism.
Large Hydro-power projects have proved popular in Africa, producing vast wattage for the national grid, without the requirement of expensive fossil fuels. Essentially the decision on whether to provide electricity for some people at the expense of others is a domestic government decision. At some stage the benefits provided by electrifying communities of hundreds of thousands must outweigh the cost of relocating the few hundred. It is democratic government that provides the legitimacy to do so, and compensation that remedies the cost to the unfortunates.
Business Day this week highlights an article in Xinhua claiming that the current violence in Cote D’Ivoire shows that democracy is not always the best route for developing countries. This is particularly interesting in conjunction with previous featured articles highlighting the increasing reverence shown in some African media for Chinese methods of governance and justice.
Binary views of democratic vs. nondemocratic development are unhelpful. While there have been abhorrent episodes in China’s development it sees churlish to argue now that one party governance was the wrong choice for China. Having brought 800 million people out of poverty, in terms of development the policy has been successful.
However due to the specificity of each culture institutions can not be exported and rarely imported. The focus on Washington vs. Beijing Consensus is dangerous in that it ignores the specific and nuanced internal differences of each and every developing state, and therefore the need for a bespoke system on each occasion. Cote D’Ivoire’s problem is not one of democracy, but of divisive party politics set upon ethnic lines. Every country needs a legitimate, representative and authoritative state in order to be successful, in whichever form that takes. China’s success should be proof of the many different paths to development, rather than of the Chinese model for developing countries.