China in Africa: A narrative glance from a bullet train
Recently, the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said China’s economy will overtake that of the US by the end of 2016, cutting the standard estimates by almost 15 years. But with the influence of the People’s Republic growing on this continent by the day, what will Africa look like when that happens? KEVIN BLOOM offers a suggestion by way of a ride on a bullet train out of Beijing.
“Can you say post-apocalyptic?” I ask Richard.
From Nanjing through to well south of Hangzhou, a stretch of around 400km, the view from our berth on the bullet train has not altered: more power pylons per square kilometre than there are varieties of organ cancer, more apartment blocks under construction than there are ways to default on a housing loan, more polluted rivers than there are years since a dolphin was last spotted in the Yangtze.
My traveling companion makes a half-hearted attempt at context; he’s seen worse in Siberia, he says. But he’s drained, de-coloured, grey like the landscape, and I know him well enough to know that he is arguing only for argument’s sake.
I ratchet up the tension. “If China is going to remake Africa in its image, I don’t want it,” I say.
“That’s not their goal,” snaps Richard.
“Right, except this is what unbridled economic growth could bring to a future near you.”
The next three hours are passed mostly in silence, me contemplating the smog and the burnt-out sun, Richard cocooned in the alternative reality of his iPad. At 7pm, nearing half a day’s travel since embarkation in Beijing, we call a truce and repair to the dining car. They have no Tsingtao, the crisp local lager we’d enjoyed during our stay in the capital, and so we’re forced to settle for what they do have: American import Pabst Blue Ribbon, the Big Mac of the beer world. Nobody speaks English, so there is nobody to tell us how long we have until journey’s end in Fuzhou.
We’d started out more hopeful than this. After Beijing had blown our minds, after the scale and symmetry of the Forbidden City, the delectableness of the dinner menus in Sanlitun and Wangfujin, the candid generosity of our interviewees, the unexpected entrée we were granted to the foreign ministry –where we spent a morning in the company of China’s ranking diplomat on African affairs – we’d been riding a wave of research euphoria, reveling in the feeling that came from seeing our “China in Africa” book project coalesce before our eyes. The bullet train had seemed the next logical step, a decision to take our good fortune and propel it on a trajectory south.
And until early afternoon, the feeling had lasted. If anything is a metaphor for the new China, it’s Zhongguo gaosu tielu, the rail network introduced in 2008 that shunts citizens between cities at speeds to match the cars of Formula One.
At 13,000km of track, the People’s Republic has more high-speed lines than the rest of the world combined. Standing on the platform at Tianjin, the first stop after Beijing, I could properly appreciate the trains’ force – the air-shattering crack with which they announced themselves and shot past as I took quick pulls on a Double Happiness cigarette, a uniformed attendant commanding me in urgent gestures to return to the interior of my own bullet.
Of course, as with all good metaphors, there are layers to this mode of transport. Track expansion was curtailed in 2011, after railways minister Liu Zhijun was suspended in the wake of a corruption investigation, and an accident near Wenzhou claimed 40 lives. The accident was the result of a collision, but more than a year later the underlying cause remains open to speculation – in the immediate aftermath, Communist Party officials ordered journalists not to investigate and, giving new meaning to the term “cover up”, quickly buried the wrecked carriages beneath mounds of dirt.
So when our train finally rolls into Fuzhou, it’s a journey we’re relieved to be done with. In the following order, we need a Tsingtao, a decent meal, and a bed.
“Let’s head straight for the Jinjiang Inn,” I say to Richard, as we emerge from the bowels of the station to confront a street scene that is strangely familiar, almost African, in its plaintiveness. We have been set upon by touts, dozens of men and women who tug at our shirts to flaunt laminated signboards, the Mandarin characters as unintelligible to us as the escalating crescendo of pleas and commands.
“Sure,” my friend responds, “lead the way.”
I hoist my backpack onto my shoulder and proceed down the main boulevard, certain that our pre-booked hotel is located somewhere in the neon glow. An hour later, one unshakeable tout still in tow, we are back where we started. And soon enough we are once more reminded of home.
“Be careful,” says a policeman in broken English. “Not safe here.”
The policeman, who is clearly stunned to have encountered a pair of Westerners, ushers us through a maze of alleyways, past betting shops and brothels and drinking holes. Everywhere, people gape in amused surprise; vendors tease us with unidentifiable varieties of street food, late-night revelers stop to point and stare. Even the Jinjiang Inn’s receptionist, when we are deposited at her desk by the officer, wears an expression that transcends language: it’s been a while, her smile suggests, since the likes of us last graced this establishment.
What she doesn’t know, what we’re unable tell her, is that Fuzhou is a key destination on our itinerary. The capital of Fujian, it’s the entry point to the province from where more than 90% of the new Chinese traders in southern Africa hail.
In 2011, we’d spent days researching the murder of four Fujianese traders in their store in Ganyesa, a remote township in South Africa’s North West province. We’d learned from the brother of one of the slain men that the family came from Fuqing, a “village” two hours south of Fuzhou by bus. For a year we’ve been waiting to find out what the brothers left behind, why they’d chosen to forego their home for a hostile country on the far side of the world.
But the answers are not forthcoming. Our fixer, a former employee of the state broadcaster CCTV, is blocked the next morning at the first hurdle. In his attempt to get information out of the news agency Xinhua, he is told: “It’s better if you don’t touch this issue.”
The warning is clear, any attempt to contact the father will be met with the Communist Party’s wrath. We decide we will visit Fuqing and refrain from asking direct questions.
The ride out of Fuzhou is a revelation, the highway an intricate system of bridges and flyovers that negotiate shimmering inlets and breathtaking mountains. The development here is more in tune with the landscape, less intrusive than the unending concrete eyesore witnessed the previous day from the train. And when we come into Fuqing, we are greeted by manicured parks, public artworks, an abundance of 30-storey apartment blocks that combine an Eastern aesthetic with a projection of China’s new wealth.
This “village,” we learn, is home to 1.2 million souls. Its existence enables us to relearn a lesson we have been learning since we first embarked on the book project in 2010: where China meets Africa, there are no easy theories. DM
Co-authored by Kevin Bloom and Richard Poplak, Whiteout: An Investigative Journey into Africa 3.0, will be released in 2013. Until then, updates from their travels can be accessed at http://africa3point0.tumblr.com/
- “China’s economy to overtake US in next four years, says OECD,” in the Guardian
Photo: A female construction worker watches a train pass on the new high-speed railway line between Shanghai and Hangzhou on the outskirts of Shanghai October 26, 2010. REUTERS/Carlos Barria