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February 7, 2013

Could the Gibe III dam be a turning point for China's soft power in Africa?

China’s exploration in Africa is frequently either portrayed by western media as “the rise of new colonialism” or acclaimed by Chinese and African governments as a “win-win” investment. The reality contains far more sophisticated implications beyond the two above mainstream opinions.

As a Chinese journalist who visited Africa I see a particular case could become a turning point for China's soft-power expansion into Africa. In August 2012, Kenyan paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey and Goldman Environmental Prize-winner Ikal Angelei held a press conference in Nairobi claiming the Gibe III dam project in neighboring Ethiopia was a threat to the livelihoods of impoverished Kenyans living near Lake Turkana, a vast desert lake downstream that is fed by the Omo River.

The massive $2.2 billion dam is being financed through Chinese banks and will be completed in 2013 on Ethiopia's Omo River. To someone like me, the controversy over Gibe III, recalls China’s own domestic controversy surrounding the Three Gorges Dam. In late 1960's Chairman Mao wrote a poem, "Gorges stood above flat water," to express his ambition to conquer the biggest Chinese river, the Yangtze, through the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. One man made a decision and millions of people carried out his wishes. For nearly two decades, the government poured $30 billion into the project and relocated millions of Chinese in the process. In the end, Three Gorges contributed only 5% of China’s electricity production and caused serious damage to China’s environment and cultural heritage.

To understand the Gibe III dam and other large infrastructure projects that China is pursuing in Africa, it helps to remember the history, background and national pride involved in the story of the Three Gorges Dam. In fact, China’s foreign policy in Africa dates back to that era, when “South-South Cooperation” was promoted by Chinese leaders in the 1970s to maintain friendship with African countries.

Today, however, China’s goal in Africa is to expand its soft power. In 2006 China announced its African Policy after holding the African Summit in Beijing. In 2007, Chinese President Hu Jintao made soft power expansion a matter of national policy at the 17th national congress address. From then on exploring Africa was marked as an important aspect of China’s soft power policy. In July 2012, China announced $20 billion in loans to Africa. The amount of Chinese loans to Africa ‘roared twice’ compared to China’s $10 billion pledge of aid in 2009.


In practice, China’s African strategy is a part of China’s mission of realising a “harmonious world” by building infrastructure, providing health facilities and training, and enhancing professional and cultural exchanges in Africa. As a result, China now becomes the largest trading partner with Africa surpassing the United States and the Europe, while the bilateral trade from 2000 to 2011 rose 10 times to over $100 billion.


Interestingly, among African societies there are split views on China’s role in Africa. African governments and the elites tend to welcome China’ investment and value the Chinese aid which feeds Africa’s economic development. The working class and poor African people view China negatively for the reason that it brings its own labor to build infrastructure and causes pollution and environmental damage to the continent. According to research on China’s soft power from Yale Globe, out of the 67 African officials from six countries across the continent, 63 expressed quite positive views about China. In contrast, out of the 98 non-government affiliated African peoples, 73 expressed highly negative views about China.

Ultimately, the old means of pouring massive economic aid on African governments will not help China’s image in the long term. By now, China should realize that money alone will not buy the hearts and minds of the African people, whose goodwill is essential to China’s influence there.

“China is rapidly turkanawomen.WNrecognised as the superpower, not one of the superpowers but the superpower. I say to my Chinese friends, colleagues and the leadership of China: don’t let your activities destroy Africa. The west tried to destroy Africa. Don't let China to be the next following the pattern,” Dr Richard Leakey said to me. Dr Leakey has worked in the Lake Turkana area for over 45 years studying the origins of humanity and is famous for discovering the oldest known fossil of a human, ‘Lucy’.

I spent a week last winter talking with villagers and nomads living near Lake Turkana. To them, the jade green body of water is vital for survival, a source of irrigation-fed produce and fish. Their story of the struggle for survival is no different from any vulnerable groups in any other society.

After all, the unfinished Gibe III Dam might give China an opportunity to adapt its long term winning strategy in Africa, to evaluate the potential social and environmental impact before they invest in large infrastructures in Africa, to consider the Africans’ need besides their governments demand, to build long term influence instead of gaining myopic benefits.

 Wu Nan was a 2012 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and travelled to Africa in 2011 as part of the Wits China-Africa Reporting Project. This op-ed was originally published by Caixin.

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