Thu | Dec 5, 2019

Carolyn Cooper | What is China doing in Africa?

Published:Sunday | December 30, 2018 | 12:00 AM

At the inauguration of the Museum of Black Civilisations in Dakar on December 6, I was alarmed to learn that the building was a rather expensive gift from the Chinese Government. Approximately US$30 million! And that's not all. In July, another gift had been delivered: a purpose-built wrestling stadium, the only one of its kind on the continent. It cost about US$58 million! President Xi Jinping attended the opening.

According to the China Daily, Xi issued a statement ahead of his visit claiming that, "China is ready to deepen cooperation with Senegal in areas, including trade and processing of agricultural and fishery products, infrastructure construction, production capacity, industrial parks and human resources development as well as help the country improve its self-development capacity." This 'help' sounds like an afterthought.

I really can't see how China will truly help Senegal to become self-sufficient if it keeps on handing out what looks like gifts. China also built the Grand National Theatre of Senegal, which was completed in 2011. That was the venue for the ceremony marking the inauguration of the museum. The power dynamic in uneven 'cooperation' is always problematic.

When does cooperation become coercive? Or, at best, addictive? In addition to dubious gifts, China has offered loans for the development of Senegal's infrastructure. A highway is now being constructed to link Thies to Touba, a distance of approximately 115 kilometres. It's the biggest project of cooperation so far between the two countries.




Jean Binta Breeze, one of our finest poets, is a warner woman reminding us in both English and Jamaican that "Aid travels with a bomb":

They love your country

They want to invest

But your country don't get

When it come to the test

Dem gawn home with all the profit

Your govament left upholding a racket

They rob and exploit you

Of your own

Then send it back

As a foreign loan

Interest is on it

Regulations too

They will also decide

Your policy for you

The faceless 'govament' may appear to be a victim of a racket. But individual politicians often benefit from their complicity with foreign exploiters. They uphold the scam. And they don't give a damn about the debts they pile up in the name of innocent citizens who have no choice in the matter. We will have to keep on repaying these debts long into the future.

Not even gifts can be trusted. Remember David Cameron's offer of a prison! Not a hospital, nor a school, but a prison! That gift was intended to benefit the donor, not the supposed beneficiary. Jamaica would be taking on the burden of housing Britain's prisoners. In exchange for what? Perks for politicians?

And a hospital built by foreigners can turn out to be a curse, not a blessing. The Cornwall Regional Hospital is our classic example. Designed by Canadians who failed to take into account tropical conditions, the hospital has become a breeding ground for mould. Instead of facing facts and constructing a new hospital, successive governments have tried rehabilitation. They keep throwing good money after bad. It's a lost cause.

It's just like the case of my father who lived in New York and bought land, sight unseen, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We told him it was a scam and advised him to just give up. He said he couldn't because it would be an admission that he had wasted all the money he'd spent so far. We finally persuaded him to face reality. Who is going to get 'govament' to stop the haemorrhage at the Cornwall Regional Hospital?

Perhaps the Chinese government will give us a loan for a new hospital. According to one of my friends who lives in Asia, there are, allegedly, six essential requirements for getting a loan from China:

(1) You must be greedy.

(2) You must be unsophisticated in the world of politics and economics.

(3) You must agree to China's terms of arbitration for labour disputes.

(4) You must have infrastructure or natural resources near US assets.

(5) You should have local authority and power to sign away national assets.

(6) You must be willing to do a China vanity project, a local vanity project or, indeed, your own vanity project!




In my room at the Radisson Blu in Dakar, there was a magazine with this unsettling name: CHINAFRIQUE. In English, CHINAFRICA. The name brazenly suggested that China was extending its reach across the entire continent. A new form of colonisation! I was so disturbed, I didn't even open the magazine.

Last week, I visited the website. The magazine was launched in January 1988. Based in Beijing, it's published in both French and English. Its aim is "to present a real China to African readers". Is there another China? Is it less benevolent than the Chinafrica version?

Five decades ago, Leopold Sedar Senghor, first president of Senegal, conceived a museum of black civilisations. It was part of a much larger process of decolonisation: claiming the right to political independence. Senghor could not have anticipated that China would displace France as the face of colonialism. But Senghor was a philosopher who understood that each generation must fight its own battles for self-definition, guided by the ancestors. As he puts it, "In the smoky cabin, souls that wish us well are murmuring".

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to and