A New Model: Infrastructure for 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 donates sweaters to abandoned, disabled African children', a favourite of mine. Religion plays an important social and political role in Kenya along with much of Africa, 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 interesting 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 demonstrates 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 I would have thought was 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 while China’s construction market was booming. Enormous domestic demand and limited foreign supply 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 foreign companies.

Although Africa’s resources are in great demand, Africa’s growing power is in its domestic market. Governments must drive a hard bargain for foreign actors to enter either. This bargain must include native capacity building so that Africa can catch up in its capabilities. Although many foreign companies would prefer to use domestic suppliers, often they are incapable of meeting technical specifications. Forcing companies to build domestic infrastructure in exchange for resources meets this capacity building stipulation.

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. However 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 resources. The dialectic generally flows between the position that some infrastructure investment is better than none, to the position that China abused the DRC’s weak governance to get a favourable deal.

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. What’s particularly intriguing is that a Chinese project which has faced so much criticism from organisations such as the World Bank is now receiving tacit support. 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.

A final interesting story this week came from Perth where Australian iron ore firm Sundance Resources is looking for a Chinese partner. This would follow the footprint of the Simandou project in Guinea, and might represent a pattern of collaboration between Western and Chinese firms. This is a sure sign that Chinese companies have entered the mainstream. No longer fringe actors in pariah states, Chinese companies are the partners of choice for a Western audience wowed by China’s progress in Africa. 

Comments or opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors only, and do not necessarily represent the views of FRANCE 24. The content on this blog is provided on an "as-is" basis. FRANCE 24 is not liable for any damages whatsoever arising out of the content or use of this blog.
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