Of China, BRI and the Road Ahead

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The Verdict By Olusegun Adeniyi, Email: olusegun.adeniyi@thisdaylive.com

On Tuesday, I joined journalists from 25 countries across Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America, Middle East and Eurasia for the inaugural session of the Belt and Road News Network (BRNN) Council. Coordinated by Peoples Daily, the official newspaper of the central committee of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC), with membership from 182 media organisations in 86 countries, the objective of the BRNN is to build an open and cooperative platform under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in a bid to promote “mutual assistance, collaboration and exchanges among members.” The council will serve as the decision-making organ of BRNN.

In his congratulation letter to us read by Mr Huang Kunming, member of the political bureau and head of the publicity department of the CPC central committee, President Xi Jinping said he expects the platform to further boost people-to-people exchanges and promote the BRI. Charging BRNN council members to tell stories that will help shape healthy public opinion and advance the initiative, President Xi said the idea may have been conceived in China, but its opportunities and achievements belong to the world. The inaugural council meeting held as a sideline event of the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation being hosted by President Xi scheduled for today and tomorrow. All BRNN Council members have also been invited to attend.

As I said during the discussion session preceding the signing of the council charter, the BRNN could not have come at a better time given ongoing debate about whether China’s credit activities, especially in Africa, will in the long run prove to be harmful or helpful. Presenting the International Monetary Fund (IMF) fiscal monitor report last April, Vitor Gaspar, Director of Fiscal Affairs Department, warned that with a deluge of Chinese loans, Africa might be headed for a new debt crisis. Two weeks ago, the IMF senior resident representative for Nigeria, Amine Mati echoed the same sentiment about our country. And shortly before he was relieved of his job as the American Secretary of State while on a visit to the continent last year, Mr Rex Tillerson spent most of his time expressing concerns about China’s activities in Africa.

While the United States authorities have never disguised their distrust of the Chinese for her “opaque financing practices, poor governance, and disregard for internationally accepted norms and standards”, that the BRI seems to be gaining acceptance even among some countries in Europe, is perhaps what riles them. Launched in 2013 by President Xi, the initiative has become a powerful economic and political tool for China. As at the end of March 2019, the Chinese had signed 173 cooperation agreements with 125 countries and 29 international organisations. By the end of 2018, trade between China and other BRI countries reached $1.3 trillion, an increase of 16.4 percent from the previous year. Gradually but surely, China is helping to create a new international economy order by investing its resources abroad and reaping enormous rewards in the process. That cannot be pleasing to America.

On the political front, China is using BRI to project global power and many of its officials are no longer subtle in admitting it. Releasing a progress report last week, Director General of the department leading BRI promotion, Mr Xiao Weiming said the achievement of the initiative thus far confirms an old Chinese saying that “peaches and plums do not have to talk, but the world beats a path to them.” Lang Hailing, Dean of Hainan University Belt and Road Research Institute was no less bullish: “The more complicated the world is, the more countries will join the BRI” which he described a counterpoise to the “troubled economic model” of the West. Even President Xi said in his book on BRI that “China has become a major factor in changing the world political and economic landscapes.”

The question now is, as China throws its weight around, where does this place Africa as a continent and how does my country derive the possible maximum benefits from BRI?

President of the African Development Bank (AfDB), Dr Akinwunmi Adesina and former Nigerian Coodinating Minister for the Economy, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who now sits on the board of Twitter and Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), provide useful insights. Africa, Adesina said recently in Johannesburg, should learn from the experience of China that has lifted about 700 million people out of poverty. “African countries are mature enough to negotiate with China about their needs, which is to close infrastructure gaps. Sometimes there is too much hullabaloo about it,” said Adesina. Chinese investment in infrastructure could help unlock the continent’s potential, argued Okonjo-Iweala who added that “ultimately, it is for Africa to forge its own path, with self-determination, towards a more sustainable future.”

That precisely is the point. African leaders must take responsibility and go beyond begging for loans to seeking a more beneficial partnership with China. When I spoke at the 2018 edition of the Media Cooperation for Belt and Road in Boao, Hainan Province of China, last October, https://www.thisdaylive.com/index.php/2018/11/01/of-china-africa-and-colonial-master/, I addressed some of these issues.

While I fully subscribe to the ideals of BRI, for Africa to develop and thrive, building physical infrastructure should go with human development and building a vibrant social sector, especially education and health. That has been the path of countries that moved from poverty and underdevelopment to prosperity, including China. President Xi said as much in the English and French versions of his BRI book launched yesterday. “We need a mind that is broader than the sky as we approach different civilizations, which serve as water, moistening everything silently,” he said even as he admonished, “We should not only think about our own generation, but also take responsibility for those to come.”

That forward-thinking will serve African leaders. In yesterday’s edition of Global Times, the largest circulating English newspaper in the country, there were two interesting stories. In the first, a Kindergarten in Xinjiang now uses a robot called Xiaopang that integrates man-machine communication, motion sensing and image projection to aide teaching in a pre-primary education. “Children don’t make trouble and noise in class any more…as Xiaopang attracts their attention and gives good classes in a simple way,” attested one of the parents. The second story is about a hospital in central China that developed toy cars with which children drive themselves into surgery. “The car makes them feel like they’re playing a game instead of going under the knife. It also relaxes them because they feel more in control of the situation, and that will help their recovery” said the head nurse at the hospital.

The two stories illustrate how China is building for the future beyond brick and mortar by also focusing on the development of the human mind and the nurturing of a healthy body. That is where African leaders fail most miserably. According to most estimates, no less than 60 percent of Africa’s total population is between the ages of 15 and 25. Sadly, there is little or no plan for the education and health needs of this young population that keeps growing. So invariably, in most countries in Africa including Nigeria, we are breeding a liability for the future. Yet, as a Yoruba adage says, it is the child you refused to build that will eventually mortgage the house that you built.

For African countries to benefit from the BRI, they need to be more strategic in their approach and not continue to pile up debts for future generations. As at 2015, according to the China-Africa Research Initiative (CARI) at John Hopkins University, no fewer than 17 African countries were identified with risky exposure to Chinese debts. By 2017, the IMF said Chad, Eritrea, Mozambique, Congo Republic, South Sudan and Zimbabwe were considered to be in debt distress while Zambia and Ethiopia were at high risk of debt distress. In the same year, Zambia’s debt amounted to $8.7 billion out of which $6.4 billion was owed to China. For Djibouti, 77 percent of its debt is from Chinese lenders. CARI estimated that Congo’s debts to China was around $7 billion.

The analysis by McKinsey and Company should compel serious thinking by the authorities and stakeholders within the continent. Chinese companies, it is revealed, already earn $180 billion annually from their investments in Africa and this revenue is projected to hit $440 billion by 2025 yet only five African countries have been able to record a trade surplus with China. Notwithstanding, “more than 100 senior African business and government leaders” were interviewed, “and nearly all of them said the Africa–China opportunity is larger than that presented by any other foreign partner—including Brazil, the European Union, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States” reported McKinsey which also highlighted a serious problem that has for decades held our continent down: “In five of the eight countries in which we conducted fieldwork, 60 to 87 percent of Chinese firms said they paid a ‘tip’ or bribe to obtain a license.”

Certainly, the responsibility for the viability of the projects being funded by Chinese loans is that of African leaders who must also consider whether they can deliver value. But it is important for the authorities in Beijing to pay attention to the continent’s nuances. Either as a result of its experience or a deliberate policy that may turn out to be counter-productive, I warned on Tuesday that China seems to prefer dealing more closely with African governments rather than the African people. That ultimately may have adverse consequences except there is a new policy rethink.

However, the lesson from China is that visionary leadership matters and that comes with quality education. It is only such leaders that can dream big and use symbols to instil national pride while galvanising the people for peace and prosperity. In a chapter in President Xi’s book which I completed reading last night, he explained the significance, in contemporary sense, of some 20 artefacts, dating back to the Byzantine era, that were exhumed in 1987. “Marvelling at these exotic relics, I was struck by the thought that we should appreciate their cultural significance rather than simply admiring their exquisiteness, and bring their interesting spirit to life instead of merely appreciating the artistic presentation of life in the past,” he said.

Meanwhile, the consensus at our inaugural council session on Tuesday is that for countries within the BRI, we require new narratives to dispel mutual distrusts and seek common ground while exploring the prospect for shared prosperity with China. As I told the Peoples Daily President, Mr Li Baoshan at the appreciation dinner he held for us last night at the Yushengtang Museum of Chinese Traditional Medicine, the opportunity for interactions through the unique media collaboration that the BRNN offers can serve as a catalyst not only for the promotion of harmony and development within the BRI implementing countries but also for a better understanding between our diverse peoples.

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