China takes up civic work in Africa
It's sending 1,809 UN peacekeepers and 300 volunteers in a new Chinese 'peace corps' program.
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"China has real interests there [in Africa] and will, of course, be engaged on the continent, as is the United States," Deputy Assistant Secretary of African Affairs James Swan said in a February speech at Columbia University in New York. "US policy is not to curtail China's involvement in Africa, but to seek cooperation where possible and continue efforts to nudge China toward becoming a responsible international stakeholder."Skip to next paragraph
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Whether or not this largess has ulterior economic and strategic motives behind it, or whether it is propelled by nothing more than a desire to boost China's international image, the bottom line is that it is welcome by many on the continent.
"The Chinese interest in Africa ... their coming into our markets is the best thing that could have happened to us," says small-business contractor Amare Kifle, during a recent meeting with a Chinese investor in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. "We are tired of the condescending American style. True, the American government and American companies have done and do a lot here, but I always feel like they think they are doing us a favor ... telling us how to do things and punishing us when we do it our own way.
"These Chinese are different," he says. "They are about the bottom line and allow us to sort out our side of the business as we see fit. I want to have a business partner and do business. I don't want to have a philosophical debate about Africa's future."
Indeed, China's commitment to a hands-off approach is in stark contrast to the West, and some experts say the lengths to which China goes to be seen as a benevolent partner with Africa is unprecedented.
"China is the most self-conscious rising power in history and is desperate to be seen as a benign force as well as to learn from the mistakes of the existing major powers and previous rising powers," says Andrew Small, a Brussels-based China expert at the German Marshall Fund, a public policy think tank. "It sees its modern national story as anticolonial – about surpassing the "century of humiliation" at the hands of the colonial powers – and still thinks of itself, in many ways, as a part of the developing world."
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Liu, who is in charge of the UN police force's administrative personnel work, spends her days in a trailer office with four other peacekeepers keeping track of personnel sick days, home leaves, and other special requests.
Previous to this mission, Liu only left her home province once – to go on her honeymoon to Hong Kong.
Today, she shares a small apartment in Wau, Sudan, with six other UN personnel. They have no running water and no electricity.
She does her shopping in the market (the store owners know her and yell out ni hao ma – "How are you?" – when she passes by) and reads at night with the help of a Chinese government-issued rechargeable lamp.
She calls her husband and daughter once a week for three minutes and tries to also communicate throughe-mail, but it's complicated, as her UN-issued computer keyboard does not have Chinese characters.
It is less exciting than she had hoped, she admits. The insecurity, heat, food, bug bites, and loneliness test her. And above all, she misses her baby Siwei, she says, showing off a picture of her now 2-year-old child.
But Liu nonetheless has a clear sense of why she is here.
"Peace is giving [the South Sudanese] a chance for development. I believe the future of Wau will be brighter," she says, untangling her long dark hair, knotted by the hot afternoon wind. "We Chinese come from a different country, far away, but we are in harmony with Africa."
Maj. Mutacho Shadrock, a Kenyan commanding officer with the UN forces in Wau, says the Chinese peacekeepers "keep to themselves and the vast majority doesn't speak English, even the commanding officers." But, he adds, "They are good workers. They have repaired bridges and roads and are doing good work. And that is what is important."
"I am hardly an apologist for China," says Harry Broadman, an economic advisor on Africa at the World Bank. "But people tend to forget that China itself is a developing country that has had global leadership thrust upon it.
"People ascribe a lot of power and knowledge to them without understanding that they are climbing the learning curve themselves," he says, adding that China wants to be seen as a force for good on the continent. "They want to give Africa a fair deal. I believe that."
Liu is finishing her day in the office and going out to join some of the other Chinese peacekeepers for a table-tennis tournament at the engineering corps camp.
She is a terrific player, she says, and will probably win. "But it's not just about winning, of course," she says. "It's about playing the game with – with ..." Liu searches for the word in English, and then smiles, "with dignity."
That, she says, is the way things are done in China.