Africa and the Chinese Way

The Kamba people of Kenya claim they were warned about the evils of colonialism long before the first colonialist arrived. The legend goes that the prophet Syokimau, back in the early 19th century, told her people of “a long narrow snake spitting fire” that would make its way up from the East African Coast, bringing with it “red people” who would take away their land. She was right; it was the railroads more than anything else that enabled European colonialists to exploit Kenya’s people and extract its wealth during the first half of the 20th century.

The 1,000-kilometer track stretching from the Kenyan port of Mombasa to Uganda was Britain’s most ambitious project in Sub-Saharan Africa. The railroad, begun in 1895, was famously disrupted by the so-called man eaters of the Tsavo, two lions that stalked and attacked construction workers. More than 130 people are said to have been killed — the exact number is uncertain — before the animals were finally hunted down. Within the next five years the railroad was completed and the way opened to British domination of the region.

Although portions of the original railroad are still in use, the British no longer call the shots. The Chinese are the new game in town. Beijing has signed off on rail projects across the continent, from Angola in the South, Ethiopia in the East and Nigeria in the West, heralding an infrastructure-expansion boom on a scale never seen in Africa.

On Nov. 28, presidents of four African nations gathered in Mombasa for the inauguration of what was billed as the largest single project in the region’s history: a $13.8 billion standard gauge rail line that is expected to link five East African countries and replace the line built by the British. The massive rail networks, almost all of them leading to the sea, will doubtless reinforce the image of a resource-hungry China eager to extract as much as possible from the continent.

In a June 2011 interview in Zambia, Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the U.S. secretary of state, warned Africans to beware of colonial powers that “come in, take out natural resources, pay off leaders and leave.” Yet this focus on China’s appetite for raw materials misses a more subtle challenge.

In the 20 years since the Cold War’s end, free-market, multiparty democracy has been held forth as the ideal form of government (and a key to obtaining support from Washington). But now, drawn to the example set by the fast-growing economies of Asia like China, Singapore and Malaysia — all of which achieved phenomenal growth under modernizing authoritarian governments — a group of African leaders has emerged that openly declares its admiration for this mode of government.

Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian leader from 1995 until his death in 2012, was perhaps the most forthright advocate of a system that emphasizes economic advancement over democracy. Speaking at the opening of the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa in January 2012, Mr. Meles was effusive in his praise of China. Lauding Beijing for its aid in building the center, he declared that “the people of China and Africa share similar backgrounds that helped them to stand for one goal today, which is economic development.”

Other African leaders, from Rwanda’s Paul Kagame to Ali Bongo in Gabon, now speak in similar terms. Yet the growing appeal of the statist model has not drawn nearly enough attention in the West. In a talk in June sponsored by TED, the nonprofit organization that holds conferences on ideas, the Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo warned that Western powers need to pay attention to the growing admiration for the Chinese economic miracle.

Pointing to Beijing’s success in moving millions of people out of poverty, she added: “It’s not just in economics, but also in terms of living standards. We see that in China 28 percent of people had secondary school access. Today it’s closer to 82 percent.”

The statistics are impressive, but not everyone buys the idea that Africans should follow China’s path. Critics note that while the leaders of Rwanda and Ethiopia have delivered considerable improvements in their people’s livelihoods, neither Mr. Kagame nor Mr. Meles brooked any dissent and the repression in both lands is notorious.

Besides, other countries, notably Botswana and Mauritius, have demonstrated that economic progress does not necessarily come hand in hand with authoritarian rule.

Perhaps no country sums up the clash of ideas more clearly than Kenya, the commercial and transportation hub of East Africa and one of the most open nations on the continent. Yet Kenya’s new president, Uhuru Kenyatta, who counts China as a top ally, has a clear authoritarian streak.

His allies in Parliament have moved to restrict press freedom and are seeking greater control over the judiciary. But Mr. Kenyatta, who faces trials for crimes against humanity in The Hague for his alleged role in the political violence of 2007, confronts a strong and vibrant media and an activist civil society. How Kenya resolves its tensions will have strong influence on its neighbors.

Africans are often reminded that Malaysia and Singapore had roughly the same G.D.P. 40 years ago as Kenya and Ghana have today. What is less often noted is that the Asian economic miracle was achieved by market-savvy rulers who were nonetheless authoritarian in every sense. The counterargument is that Africans will secure equitable economic growth only by replacing kleptocratic, power-hungry rulers with the checks and balances that democratic systems provide.

Will this be China’s century? The answer won’t be found by toting up trade figures or measuring the length of railroads. The great prophet Syokimau may have been right about the coming railroads when she predicted that the fire-spitting snake would have its tail in the Indian Ocean and its head in Lake Victoria, but alas she said nothing about how Africa’s battle of ideas would play out.

Murithi Mutiga is an editor at the Nation Media Group in Kenya.

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