AFRICANGLOBE – After days of coordinating with me over patchy cell phone connections, Hao Shengli arrived in Mozambique’s capital city of Maputo. He’d come to load up on supplies and to collect me for the long ride back to the farmland he owned in a remote southern part of the country.
When his white Toyota pickup stopped in front of my hotel, Hao was barking into his phone. He was in a hurry, and he was angry. There was a brisk handshake, followed by a lot more shouting in salty Chinese as he struggled to make himself understood by a country man from whom, I could grasp, he wanted to buy goods.
“China is a big f*cking mess with all of its “f*cking dialects,” Hao said to me in English after hanging up.
As I stood there, already sweating in the midmorning heat, Hao began to train his abuse on John, his tall and sinewy Mozambican driver, who had been coolly smoking a cigarette while rearranging the supplies on the Toyota’s flatbed to make room for my bags.
“You, cabeça não bom, motherf*cker,” he said. The final curse came in Chinese: he’d employed three languages in one short and brutal sentence.
Having overheard me speaking Spanish to the driver and assumed it to be Portuguese, he pleaded with me to help him translate. “Could you please explain to this motherf*cker where we need to go? We’ve got to get out of here. We need to be on the road.”
For more than a decade, the Chinese government has invested hugely in Africa. The foundation for this partnership was laid in 1996, when President Jiang Zemin proposed the creation of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in a speech at the Organization of African Unity headquarters in Addis Ababa. Four years later, FOCAC convened triumphantly for the first time, gathering leaders from forty-four African countries in Beijing. China pledged, among other things, to double assistant to the continent, create a $5 billion African development fund, cancel outstanding debt, build new facilities to house the OAU (later replaced by the African Union), create “trade and economic zones” around the continent, build 30 hospitals and 100 rural schools, and train 15,000 African professionals.
Fitch Ratings estimated that China’s Export-Import Bank extended $67.2 billion in loans to African countries between 2001 and 2010-$12.5 billion more than the World Bank.
Although there are no official figures, evidence suggests that at least a million private Chinese citizens have arrived on African soil since 2001, many entirely of their own initiative, not by way of any state plan. This “human factor”has done as much as any government action to shape China’s image in Africa and condition its tics to the continent. By the timeI met Hao, in early 2011, merchants in Malawi, Namibia, Senegal, and Tanzania were protesting the influx of Chinese traders. In the gold-producing regions of southern Ghana, government officials were expelling Chinese wildcat miners. And in Zambia, where recent Chinese arrivals had established themselves in almost every lucrative sector of the economy, their presence had become a contentious issue in national elections.
As we left the capital, we passed the new national stadium, nearing completion by Chinese work crews at the edge of town. Built to support the country’s bid to host the 2013 continent-wide Africa Cup of Nations, it was a showcase gift from the Chinese government, intended as a statement of generosity and solidarity. China has become an avid practitioner of this kind of prestige-project diplomacy. I asked Hao whether a $65 million stadium was the best sort of gift for Mozambique, one of the ten poorest countries in the world.
“Chinese government projects in Mozambique have all failed,” he said. “That’s because the Chinese ganbu [bureaucrats] don’t know how to communicate on the same level with the Blacks.” He shook his head and wagged a stubby index finger excitedly.
I asked him about his early days in the country. A prior attempt to do business overseas, in Dubai, had gone bad. Chinese agricultural experts there who had been on African aid missions planted a very powerful idea in his mind: Go to Africa, where you can acquire good land cheaply. He had flown to Maputo alone, and no one had greeted him at the airport. “I didn’t understand a f*cking word that was being said to me.” On his own, he made his way into town and found a flophouse. Making little headway-he spoke neither Portuguese nor English- he soon gave in to the temptation to call up some fellow Chinese he had found online while still in China.
“I thought if I met a few people I could distract myself a bit, learn about the situation from them, and then figure out how to get some land. But I quickly discovered that not all Chinese people are your friends. The Chinese folks here, or at least a portion of them, a big portion of them, are really bad characters. They arc looking for a way to get hold of your money. Yeah, they’ll do any thing for you, but they won’t do anything for free. It’s all about money.”
Hao had naively loaned money to various Chinese people he met who seemed to have fallen on hard times and offered to help guide him. A few months later, having been burned by several such encounters, he left for the countryside, following the very route we were taking northward.
When he reached the southern part of Inhambane province, he said, he contacted the provincial government about acquiring land, and they directed him to local officials. He found some who were receptive, and he set about ingratiating himself by helping on road and bridge-repair projects.
“I took charge of the work all by myself,” he said proudly. “In the end, 1 was able to secure a piece of land.”
Hao had scored big, but before long there were other things to worry about. He hadn’t thought much about the people who lived on the land or controlled it before he came along,or even who his neighbors were. After a period of warm enough hospitality, people from nearby villages began to ask him how he had gotten the land and to demand compensation,with some of them, claiming the area was an ancestral holding.
“The local people are really not friendly. They arc peasants, and they resent the idea that the government took their land and gave it to us. They have no land for themselves. They’re not comfortable. They are working for us, and they arc not comfortable with it. In fact, the Mozambique government has given us land, but it’s not forever. After a few years, once we’ve put the land to good use, perhaps they will take another tack and try to reclaim it from us. But we’ve got our own ideas. We’re also making plans.”
The first-person plural had been creeping into his banter, but only now did its significance become clear.
“I have been bringing my children here,” he said. “My older son, my younger son, eventually my daughter. I’m taking them out of school in China and bringing them all here. Within the next ten or so years we need to raise enough money, and then if my son has a lot of offspring with local girls-my two sons, in fact, if they’ve had lots of children-well, what do the children become! Are they Chinese or Mozambicans?”
Hao told me his older son already had a live-in African girlfriend. Then he proceeded to answer his own question. “The mothers are Mozambicans, but the land will be within our family. Do you get it! This means that because the children will be Mozambicans they can’t treat us as foreigners. If need be we can even put the property in their name, protectively, but it will remain ours. It will be in my clan.”
Hao said that his older son had been with him on his newly acquired land for about half a year now. His younger son, who was 14, had ‘joined them a few weeks earlier. “The older boy is doing fine already,” he said, with evident pride. “He’s doing a lot of training.”
“I’m guiding him,” he said. “It’s not hard physical labor. I have to encourage him, have him fool around a bit, catch some fish, shoot a gun, hunt some birds. Boom, boom! That way he’ll be happy. He already shoots well.”
I told him that his son’s experience seemed to mirror the way youth were treated in the Cultural Revolution, when schools were closed and young people were “”sent down” by the millions to work alongside peasants in the countryside.
“That’s how I was raised. Young people in China today no longer learn bow to chiku,”he said. The expression means to “eat bitterness,” to endure great hardship. “I want my son to become a real man, a worthy person.”