It was easy to understand Botswana Institute for Development Policy Analysis (BIDPA) research fellow (and part time vegetarian) Dr. Molefe Phirinyane when he exclaimed on several occasions that the Chinese have been able to do the impossible – to move mountains.
Then there are occasional glides of TVR-type speed trains that quickly get swallowed by an opening at the foot of a huge mountain. Our host, Zhu Fagen of the Chinese Peoples Association for Peace and Disarmament would later give an anecdote that sums up the Chinese philosophy of ultra-ambitious development strategy. “In China we have a saying that where there is a road, there is fortune.” Fagen is probably right. Here in the world’s fastest growing economy, workers offer a dramatic illustration of how urbanisation is transforming China. All Chinese super highways lead to a breathtaking mega city, a sign of development and fortune in a country with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of over $7.8 trillion and fast-becoming a global political and economic powerhouse. Even Beijing super roads such as Fuxing Road are known to be major sources of economic power and a part of tourist attraction.
Beijing: Not for the duck-hearted
Within minutes of arrival in Beijing, Owen Isaacs from BOCONGO, Phirinyane from BIDPA, Metlha Mokwena from Botswana National Youth Council and I, together with colleagues from other Southern African countries were darting around our suite like excited children and admiring Beijing picturesque view through Wenzhou hotel windows.
When you are a non-Mandarin speaker, interaction with locals often results in a fit of laughter. Laughter becomes the best medicine when you realise that communication barrier has resulted in buying the wrong flu medication from a local pharmacy. However, no visitor to Beijing leaves without a quick dash to the Great Wall. A few steps up the wall convinced me that I am a less of an adventurous type. But the scaling was worth it, and unlike Isaacs and Mokwena, the vegetarian and I managed to summit the Beacon Tower. Not only is the scenery here – with the wall snaking up and down plunging cliffs and jugged ridges – the most dramatic, but also the crowds are also friendly and could offer a helping hand to slow climbers.
If you are interested in Chinese revolutionary and feudal politics, visit the Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City in central Beijing. Built in 1415 during the Ming Dynasty, Tiananmen Square is sand witched between Chinese museum of revolutionary history and the National Parliament Council, (Great Hall of the People) where Chinese politicians meet. The most interesting place at the Square is the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, the final resting place of Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Politburo, the Communist Party of China. Our guide tells us that although Mao had wished to be cremated, his body was embalmed and construction of a mausoleum began shortly after his death in 1976. The remains are on display for public viewing where people line up the whole day to see the former chairman and pay tribute.
Because of the language barrier, you need to hire an electronic auto guide when you visit the Forbidden City, a symbol of Chinese feudalism. Imperial China reigned between 221 BCE (Qin Dynasty) and ended with the fall of Yuan Shikai Empire in 1916. For over 500 years, the Forbidden City has served as a home for Chinese emperors.
Only the finest marbles and wood were used to build 980 houses and halls, which lasted for over 14 years. The Forbidden City is a place in which Chinese supreme leaders locked themselves in a nine-metre high wall and ruled the people of China. The auto guides provide an official view of the history of the Dynasties in China.
At the Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant, diners can choose from a long list of menu items, including duck soup, duck feet, duck heart and uncooked shark fin. Unless you are Dr. Phirinyane who intimated to me that the best way to stay away from suspicious dog meat, is to claim to be vegetarian. At dinner table, I could pity Phirinyane. Chinese restaurant and hotels offer tasty cuisines complete with the much-loved Chinese tea, Cucumber juice and snail. Roast Duck has a reputation for best Peking ducks in town.
Even the late Supreme Leader of the Democratic Republic of North Korea, Kim Jon Ill, former BDF Commander, Lt Gen Matshwenyego Fisher, Mali president Amadou Toumany Toure can testify.
Hangzhou – larger than life
The ten-day trip to six Chinese cities in three provinces was full of gush exclamations from delegates from Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Zambia and I saw most of China by bus. If eastern Beijing offers historic perspective of the country with its imposing Great Wall, iconic Forbidden City and the much-adored Tiananmen Square, Hangzhou and Shanghai resemble China’s modernity. Hangzhou, a highly industrialised city in Zhejiang province with nine million people has a GDP of greater than that of South Africa, demonstrating the sheer size of the Chinese economy. The 30-minute boat cruise at West Lake reveals the true identity of Hangzhou, with its lakeside buildings and iconic Baochu Pagoda (a Chinese religious structure). Hangzhou has many facets. One side resembles a modern industrial city akin to Shanghai and Hong Kong; the other is a rain forest, with greenery and large bodies of water. Hangzhou is also what Kasane is to Botswana with a twist of modernity to it. After a boat cruise, it dawned on me that to locals, West Lake offers more than shrimp and hake, it is a place of worship and Tai Chi.
In Yinchuan in Ningxia province, the Yellow River provides breath-taking scenery complete with families dipping fishing lines on the riverbank. In fact I saw most of Yinchuan, a largely semi arid multi religious city in the south eastern part of the country, on my feet. This is a modern industrial civilised city dotted with deserts, high mountains, rivers, lakes and gardens gathered together to constitute colourful natural scenery.
Boom or burst?
But if you want to witness China’s construction boom, visit the outskirts of Shaoxing in Zhejiang province. Here Chinese hunger for prosperity is more visible in every street corner, in every labourer working the streets and in every department store. The scenic stretch of high-rise buildings and residential flats attracts a universal gesture of delight and admiration. By five in the afternoon, you would not think the men who construct a new mall in downtown Shaoxing would have much spring in their steps.
The Asian giant is so eager to develop that some structures are being replaced by new ones even when, according to a Chinese contractor, they have not reached “old age” or are “still in sound shape.” “This shows how eager some local governments or their leaders are to have new construction projects. This is done at the expense of resources, but are motivated by corruption,” said a local contractor in Shaoxing reluctant to be identified. China’s drive to develop has seen the Asian giant – a leader in the Brics group of five developing countries - hiring private companies to flatten 700 mountains in Big Wave Gully in Lanzhou province to make way for development.
“It shows China power,” remarked Feng, in relation to mountain moving project that started in 2009. Shaoxing too in Zhejiang province is on the steps of Big Wave Gulley as it provides a scenic stretch of cranes and diesel excavators.
China is not about to hold breaks on its development agenda, despite Eurocentric pessimism that the Asian giant will overheat and finally cool off. Now China watchers see growth declining to below 7 percent in the second half of the year citing downside risks to the world’s second largest economy’s outlook. Chinese economists are willing to temper their ultra ambitious growth trajectory with pragmatism. I asked Foreign Affairs economist in Yinchuan when China will surpass the US. He chides shyly: “To be frank with you, it is difficult to say, 20, 30 years, I think,” says US and Japan – educated Dr. Chen. However, one thing is certain, Japan will never surpass China. But much like Japan, China has an ageing population and unless the Communist Party revisits its one child policy, China will continue to slow down owing to a declining labour force.
Liberalising the economy helped propel China’s economy from a GDP of US$200 billion in 2000 to US$7.8 trillion in 2012, surpassing Germany and Japan to become the second biggest economy by GDP. This has created its own challenges. The western part of China prides itself as the heartbeat of China’s economic growth with a GDP per capita of US$10 000 in Shanghai and Hong Kong, while other parts such as Ling Wu and inner Mongolia are known for poverty and deprivation. However, Duanhui Tain, vice president of the CPAPD remains optimistic and, without elaborating, says his government is doing something to correct such tendencies. “Our goal is to narrow the gap in different stages, then move from communism to socialism.”
Mr. Chen: Man of cloth
There is nothing particularly impressive about Jose Chen’s boardroom. A rectangular room with stark white walls and few framed pictures are the only indicators that this is a boardroom for a multi million dollar garment export factory dealing with African attire. Situated in Shangyu Lianghu Industrial Park, Shangyu Hanjia Embroidery and Garment is a living testimony of hard work and perseverance in super-competitive China. As director and manager, Chen, a petite youthful manager briskly walks the length of the tiny boardroom as he explains the practicality of running a medium sized business that exports to Togo, Nigeria and Senegal.
His English is minimal at best but Chen, with a youthful disposition is least bothered. “We do business here and English does not matter,” he would later joke as he revs his BMW X6 SUV. Like many Chinese, his love for German luxury cars is visible. He had tried eking a living in Lagos but was disappointed by the work ethic. Having established a business opportunity in 2007, Chen would later return to Shangyu to start a business in garment embroidery and lacing. The textile industry is big business in China and Africans have fallen for his embroided cloth. He designs and exports “traditional” costumes to Africans in Lome, Dakar, Accra and Lagos. It makes business sense to Chen; labour is cheap and in abundance in Zhejiang province and the available infrastructure allows him to send his textiles to Yiwu for export to Africa. He had attempted to open a factory in Lagos, but was greatly discouraged. “No water, No electricity,” he tells me, confirming the well-known barriers to doing business in Africa. “Again they (Africans) did not work hard,” he says about Africans’ work ethic and adds frantically, “…and there are too many strikes.”
Chen is certainly right. With a population of about 1.1 billion, Africa produces less than seven percent of global electricity. Water seems to be gold in many parts of the continent and UNICEF estimates that at-least one in every six Africans lack access to safe drinking water. Almost all African countries have experienced incidences of industrial action and strikes in the past 12 months, some kind of taboo in China. Back at the embroidery firm, Chen’s 300 employees work in shifts. “I pay them well,” he explains as one youthful embroiderer dashes out of the factory to smoke a cigarette.
A hero is born
However, when anyone asks me about my ten-day wonder in China, I do not talk about eating bamboo branches, or China’s obsession about flattening mountains or drinking rice wine in five star hotels. It is my visit to Baijitan sand forest farm in Ling Wu city in Ningxia province that will never escape my mind. Ling Wu has striking similarities with Botswana.
Much like many parts of Tsabong and Ghanzi, there is acute shortage of drinking water, of food, of grazing area and a desert is attempting to swallow up the city in northwestern China. This is an area man and nature have been fighting a century-old war, but one man, Wang Youde has an ingenious fish-out-of-water plan to fight back desertification. In the distance the sandy stretches of the Mao Wu Su desert glint in the mid-day sun but for kilometres surrounding the hill an oasis of green forms a protective belt. Wang is chief of the Baijitan Forestry Centre of Lingwu City in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Over the last 30 years, award-winning Wang has led his staff in planting nearly 40 million drought resistant trees to form a 42-km-long and 10-km-wide buffer, successfully checking the process of desertification along Ling Wu city’s borders.
Unlike in Tsabong, the nearby Yellow River provides for drip irrigation in a barren place that has transformed into a green forest. This is but one example of the massive efforts that China is undertaking to fight desertification, an environmental phenomenon that is little understood given that it is a long-term process both in its development and impact. But it is also a process that the United Nations estimates costs China a hefty $6.5 billion a year in economic losses. According to China’s government, the livelihoods of 400 million people or 30 per cent of the population are threatened by the spread of the Gobi and Taklimakan deserts, which have eaten away at scores of cities along the historic Silk Road. On the final day, we gathered at the luxurious Leidisen Winning Hotel in Shangyu and sampled the local cuisine that included a giant crab and a few snails. I rewarded myself with a glass of rice wine before returning to rolling blackouts and water rationing in sleepy Gaborone.