The power, impact and influence of China was evident last Friday in Johannesburg when it met over 40 African leaders. It is instructive that a single country which in the 1980s was still considered a Third World country, could convene what was virtually a meeting of the African Union, AU, and so many Heads of State attended. This was no gathering of some old colonial master holding a Francophone summit with its former subjects, or some illusory ‘commonwealth’ of an ex-slave master giving his former servants the opportunity to take tea and have a handshake. Nor was it some summit of international lenders or do-gooders dishing out interest loans with slavish instructions and conditionalities. Rather, it was a gathering of people with shared colonial memories of forced occupation, exploitation and underdevelopment. A people with a common past whose gathering exuded self- respect and dignity for all, and a shared vision of a non-exploitative world.

To me, the issue about the Forum on China – Africa Cooperation is not the huge $60 billion funding for infrastructure and industrialisation; providing 200,000 Africans technical skills and an additional 40,000 training opportunities in China. Rather, it is the spirit; that spirit that respects the sovereignty of other countries. The spirit that built the new African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa.

One project which exemplifies China’s attitude to Africa is the TAZARA Railways which runs from the Port of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to Kapiri Moshi in central Zambia. Africa in the 1960s faced a dilemma. The White colonialists ruled Rhodesia (now Zimbabawe) and, landlocked Zambia, a country at the frontline against racist Rhodesia and Apartheid South Africa, had to move its goods through racist territory. It meant that the White supremacists could squeeze or economically strangulate Zambia anytime it wanted. The alternative was for Zambia to take its imports and exports through an African port which would require some 1,860 kilometre-railway. The African countries could not afford it, and their traditional Western friends were unwilling to assist.

Mohammed Babu, a young Tanzanian Minister suggested China should be approached. China was then a poor country, and Tanzanian President, Julius Nyerere, thought it unwise to ask aid from another poor country. However, during a visit to China in February 1965, a hesitant Nyerere broached the issue and Chinese leader, Chairman Mao Tse-Tung responded in what has become the Chinese spirit of partnership and brotherhood: “You have difficulties as we do; but our difficulties are different. To help you build the railway, we are willing to forsake building railways for ourselves.”

The railway which was built from 1970 -75 required China sending a 50,000 workforce from 1965 to 1976 while about 60,000 African workers participated. Without the needed capital and machinery, this remarkable workers brigade, exposed to wild animals and hunger, sacrificed to build the friendship railways. The construction cost $500 million, 64 Chinese and about 100 African lives. Given the motive, human sacrifice and determination, the railway was referred to as the Great Uhuru Railway. Uhuru meaning independence in Swahili.

When I went to China last year, I made enquiries about the families of these Chinese workers who came out to assist Africa, and paid the supreme sacrifice. I intend to do a follow up and also trace the families of the African workers who lost their lives. My intention is to do a documentary or write a book.

Humanity has known extreme poverty and hunger. These are some of the addictive drugs fuelling crimes, conflicts and violence. One of the greatest gifts China has made to humanity is that it feeds 1.357 billion people or 19.24 percent of the world’s population. The Chinese are quite ingenious when it comes to food as they eat virtually anything that is not poisonous.

To be able to cater for themselves, they took hard decisions, including a One-Child Policy which has now been relaxed.

Their strategy of development was to be self-reliant, eat what they produce, be visionary, programmatic and pragmatic while holding on to their culture, language, ideas and ideals. After internal development, they blossomed and stepped out into the centre stage of globalisation outpacing almost all other countries.

In the process they put a lie to the religion that the private sector is the engine of develpoment. They also rejected the theocracy of market forces and pragmatically fixed the value of their currency, and control the stock exchange. That has not stopped them producing some of the biggest companies in modern history like Ali Baba.

Yet, the road was rough for this country with a 4,000-year written record. Of those said to be humanity’s four greatest civilizations; Ancient Egypt, India and Babylonia, China is the only surviving.

Its existence was threatened by Britain which produced opium in colonised India and off-loaded it on China, turning it into an ocean of drug addicts. When the Chinese Qing (Manchu) Dynasty decided to criminalise opium and rid the country of the drug, China was invaded and defeated by Britain in what became known as the First Opium War (1839 – 42). Britain then imposed the 1842 Nanking Treaty under which China legalised the opium trade, exempted imports from transit duties and made the English version of all treaties, superior to that in the Chinese . The Second Opium War was in 1856 when an angry Britain again invaded China for seizing a pirate ship flying the British flag.

When the Chinese Revolution of 1949 removed the pro-West Chian Kai-Shek government, China was not allowed to sit in the United Nations for 22 years. But it overcame its adversaries; retook its seat in both in the General Assembly and Security Council as a permanent member, and, displaying deft diplomatic moves, repossessed Hong Kong from Britain. Taiwan remains the major Chinese territory outside the control of the Peoples Republic of China.

I borrowed the title of this piece from my solidarity message as the Secretary General of African Workers, to the 2013 Congress of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) in which I challenged other underdeveloped countries: “Go to the Chinese, you sluggard, consider their ways and be wise.”

By  Owei Lakemfa


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