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When East and West Meet in Africa
The Belt and Road Initiative offers a different set of development patterns for the continent
By Fan Yongpeng | NO. 31 AUGUST 3, 2017

The Mombasa-Nairobi Standard-Gauge Railway is ready to depart from Nairobi Station on June 1. The service was inaugurated on May 31, 18 months ahead of schedule (XINHUA)

Boosted by the Belt and Road Initiative, infrastructure construction in Africa has achieved remarkable progress with the participation of Chinese companies, a trend that is grabbing increasing world attention.

The newly built Mombasa-Nairobi Standard-Gauge Railway in Kenya, put into use in May, is one such example. The 471-km line is meant for passenger and cargo transportation between Mombasa, the largest port in East Africa, and Kenyan capital Nairobi. It is the first phase of an ambitious railway project that aims to connect Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan.

While most Africans have welcomed these infrastructure projects, some in the Western media have different opinions.

What will Chinese investment in infrastructure bring to the African continent? The boost to the economy is one of the benefits. More significantly, these infrastructure projects will help African countries in their nation-building, promoting political stability and improving domestic governance, laying the foundation for becoming successful countries.

The price of colonialization

While to many, Africa still evokes images of poverty and famine, it is not a poor continent as one might have imagined. On the contrary, it has abundant natural resources though they have brought not prosperity, but turbulence. Fundamentally, Africa's problems can be attributed to the dearth of a mature nation-building model.

Until modern times, most of sub-Saharan Africa remained in a stage of primitive civilization. While civilizations in Eurasia were developing for thousands of years, especially in national integration and state establishment, Africa was still at an early stage.

Its development process was interrupted by European colonialists who flocked into the continent. Though they brought their advanced technologies and institutional experience during their colonial rule of Africa and built infrastructure, such as the Uganda Railway, promoting connectivity, it was not based on a natural process. Instead, everything that the colonialists established in Africa was to serve their own interests: Territories and populations were divided into different states not according to ethnicity or religion but by the will and contest of the colonial powers. After the independence of African countries, such divisions created development barriers and have been followed by conflict, turbulence, civil war and even genocide.

Since African countries couldn't get rid of what they had inherited from their colonial period, they had to accept reality and pursue development on the basis of the existing conditions. Under such circumstances, it is more challenging for African countries to build their nations. In other countries, it usually took centuries or over 1,000 years to finish the process of ethnic and cultural integration, unify the domestic market and establish an effective government and state system. In Africa, the process was manipulated within a much shorter time, causing a series of chain reactions.

To build a country, the most fundamental and important condition is infrastructure. In ancient China, as early as the rule of the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.), there was a unified measurement system and a large-scale road network across the country was built. The same goes with the Roman Empire: It managed to maintain control over its vast territory via its extensive road network. The United States became an integrated society after it was linked by the transcontinental Pacific Railway connecting California on the Pacific coast and cities on the Atlantic coast.

After achieving independence, infrastructure construction in many African countries came to a standstill, which became the biggest impediment to development. The future of Africa must start with infrastructure construction. Then it would be possible to realize a unified domestic market, social integration and modernization, and finally finish the nation-building process.

 A Kenyan attendant serves food on the train from Mombasa to Nairobi on June 1 (XINHUA)

Redefining 'condition'

The Western therapies for African countries after the Cold War have proved ineffective.

While many African countries are struggling with fostering social cohesion and unifying their domestic markets, the West is engaged in planting the so-called "liberal values" in the continent and confining it to the end of the global value chain. While Africa needs to concentrate on poverty reduction, the West is indoctrinating the continent with the mantra of limiting the power of the government and developing numerous social organizations. Though Africa is weak in political order and public security, the West is exporting the so-called democratization which is derived from "mob rule" in ancient Greece.

Africa, in exchange for foreign aid, has to accept the political preconditions attached by Western countries. The Western interference has been backed by grandiose theories, such as non-governmental governance and the Washington Consensus—10 American policies that are touted as necessary for reform in crises-torn developing countries. All this has steered Africa on the wrong path.

In recent years, with more and more Chinese companies investing overseas, some media outlets have started complaining about Chinese presence in Africa. They argue that China offers assistance and loans with no strings attached, leaving many Chinese wondering since when respect for sovereignty has become a problem.

Regardless of Africa's development stage and Africans' interests, the West has been imposing political preconditions on Africa to knit a safety net for its own capital.

China, however, emphasizes a different kind of precondition: the prerequisites for the development of a country, including infrastructure. Chinese history, as well as the history of all successful countries, shows that creating necessary development conditions is paramount for all-around development of any nation.

As an old Chinese saying goes, it is better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish. A philanthropist figure like Mother Teresa may help save several or even several hundreds of people, but a railway can benefit tens of thousands of people or even millions. A human rights program may change the destiny of the children of a village, but a single market supported by infrastructure can provide more children with incredible opportunities. A civil organization may claim legal rights for a few or a community, but a successful country can better safeguard the rights and interests of all of its citizens.

China is trying to work with Africa to develop on a fundamental level and on a large scale.

China respects the objective conditions and historical process of African countries during its investment and assistance. It is willing to help African countries enter a new nation-building process on the basis of equality and mutual benefits. If African countries have an interest in learning the Chinese way of promoting social and economic development, they are most welcome; if not, China will not walk away and will remain committed to its cooperation with its African counterparts.

Alongside the Mombasa-Nairobi railway line lies an old track designed by the British colonialists. The new standard-gauge and the old meter-gauge rail lines are symbols of two different times, standards and development patterns. When Eastern African countries shift to the new standard-gauge railways, they choose a new development pattern.

The author is deputy dean of the China Institute of Fudan University

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

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