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China works on its global presence

In Cote d’Ivoire, too, Africa has its hands full, even as it tries to grapple with its role and function in the crisis in Arab countries which are part of the African Union by dint of geography.

Under such circumstances “small” developments get scant international media space: elections in Haiti, civil servants’ revolt in Swaziland, exhumation of war-dead in Zimbabwe, the FIFA president’s continued tenure at the helm of the world’s supreme soccer governing body, the list is endless. One of the most significant items to hit media desks in the last week was the visit to Zimbabwe by Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Qishan.

Why was it significant? While observing the visit a few weeks earlier by China’s Foreign Affairs Minister Yang Jiechi, a diplomat friend said Zimbabwe was now getting fully and firmly into China’s “real circle”. I raised an eyebrow and, in answer, he merely said:

“It usually means that the Chinese premier is not too far away. And the Chinese do not take visits at such levels lightly.”

Well, the Chinese premier may not have come himself but we are told the vice-premier is just as good. There is even strong speculation that he is going to be the next premier anyway. And, as if to emphasise the level at which the Chinese regard Zimbabwe as a “key trading partner” in this part of the world, the visit yielded nine economic, technical cooperation and loan deals worth more than US$700million.

That ought to raise the interest of Zimbabwe watchers in relation to China, the fast pace of whose movement towards the world’s largest superpower is fascinating in itself. Last week, we heard that Germany had become China’s biggest trading partner in Europe. Germany!

Once, when I asked US Ambassador Charles Ray whether America was worried about China’s forays into Africa and the speed at which they were doing it, he gave the typical diplomat’s response. America, he said, was watching the development of China “with interest”. Months later, I am still trying to decipher that response.

In the intervening period, however, the United States itself has hosted the Chinese premier. The leaders of both countries acknowledged well-known differences but spoke of increasing cooperation and closer links in other, more significant areas. Not that China has not been involved; many products around the world carry the “Made in China” tag.

Recent debate on news channels was whether the Chinese could actually manufacture their own passenger plane, which they announced they have done and will launch it a few years hence. One economist countered: “The parts of passenger planes flying today are manufactured in Chinese factories, so I don’t understand why there is skepticism over this matter.”

I had never been to China until recently. Like a sizeable number of ordinary Zimbabweans, I was skeptical, even apprehensive. But in the world of media and communications, you learn to take everything with a pinch of salt. You tend not to take whatever you hear at face value, so I decided to keep an open mind.

One of my main conclusions has been that things work in China.

 

The whys and wherefores of this assertion are a matter for longer debate and there is not enough space to go into that here. Suffice to say that our delegation was impressed by the architecture and technology, the work ethic and discipline of our hosts – and the cranes.

 

Yes, cranes: one of the yardsticks used to gauge the economic vibrancy of a growing nation is the amount of construction work going on in its cities. In the Chinese cities we visited, there were lots of construction workers practically everywhere, either on the road and rail networks or in buildings of one sort or another.

Our hosts were sticklers for timekeeping and detail, which we learned was part of the culture and discipline there. Embarrassingly, we would invariably turn up late for tours and functions, as befits our own culture!

The Chinese premier’s visit to Zimbabwe must not be scoffed at but looked at in the global context of the growth and development of that nation, which is causing jitters even among its critics. Here is a glimpse of news from the Communist Party’s national congress, itself a highly regarded occasion where policy and direction is crafted and approved:

Mines: “Jiangxi Copper Corporation, China’s largest copper producer, is looking to explore more mines abroad as it aims to increase its annual output from 900 000 tonnes in 2010 to 1,5million tonnes during the 12th Five-Year Plan period (2011-2015).”

Investment: “China’s private conglomerate, the Fosun Group, will raise more funds this year to put into the luxury, consumer goods and food chain sectors overseas, a move in keeping with the company’s ambition to expand its overseas presence… The company, which has business interests ranging from real estate to medicine, formed a (US)$600 million private equity fund in January with Prudential Financial of the US to invest in Chinese companies listed overseas, foreign firms with operations in China and domestic companies.”

Logistics: “While China is pulling ahead in the global race for high-speed railway construction, Changchun, the nation’s main production site for locomotive and rolling stock, is increasing efforts to develop into a global railways transportation industry and export base.”

Shipping: “Ningbo Port Co., the operator of the country’s second biggest port by throughput, still intends to go public in Hong Kong – after its debut in Shanghai in September – to raise capital for the tens of billions it plans for future investment,” a top port official said Sunday.

All these stories, captured in one edition of the China Daily, are only a microcosm of the work done by the Chinese government and other Chinese companies to expand its reach globally. Beyond that, there are lessons for developing countries such as Zimbabwe especially with regard to focus and prioritization.

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