China's the new building force in Sierra Leone

Any piece on the changing geopolitical landscape:
China's the new building force in Sierra Leone
The Chinese in Africa

Published: 4 Jul 2005
By: Lindsey Hilsum

It's not in the G8, but China's busy investing in Africa's future in everything from the oil industry to luxury hotels. Lindsey Hilsum reports.

The civil war's over now and the people of Sierra Leone are living in peace. On a Sunday morning, Lumley Beach is packed with boys and girls playing on it - it's where the residents of the capital, Freetown, come to relax. The beach is free - but that might be about to change.

"A sort of gate will have to be erected, constructed where people come in and pay a token...."

It's the latest Chinese investment plan - a two hundred million dollar resort complex comprising pagoda-roofed holiday homes, golf course, five-star hotel and helipad.

"As my permanent secretary always says, the early bird catches the worm. Sierra Leone is ready for investment. We're a post conflict country. At this point we cannot wait." - Chernor Jalloh, Sierra Leone Tourism Minister

No doubt rapid investment is needed. The UN says this is the poorest country in Africa, seventy per cent of Sierra Leoneans live in poverty. Electricity is intermittent, many have no running water and sixty per of young men are unemployed.

To Tony Blair, Africa is somewhere which needs healing or saving, and Sierra Leone gets a lot of British aid. But the Chinese are looking at the continent through different eyes. They see it as a source of raw materials, especially oil, which they need for their own development. And somewhere like Sierra Leone, fresh out of war - they think it's ripe for trade and investment.

You can see who renovated the Bintumani Hotel when you walk around it. Everything in it is Chinese - all the construction materials and furnishings, even the signs on the toilets.

The management is Chinese too. The Beijing Urban Construction Group is a state-owned concern, they're building hotels like this all over West Africa. Its part of China's "Go Global" policy - a strategy to transform Chinese companies into multinational corporations.

"Africa is a very good environment for investment, especially at the moment. Europe and the USA are too competitive. But it's not yet very competitive in Africa, and there are certain business opportunities for Chinese businessmen to embark on. That's why we entrepreneurs have come to Sierra Leone, to Africa." - Yany Zhao, Manager, Bintumani Hotel

The new military headquarters; the new government office and parliament; the stadium - all Chinese built or renovated.

"They just come and do it. We don't start to hold meetings about environmental impact assessment, human rights, bad governance and good governance. I'm not saying that's right, I'm just saying Chinese investment is succeeding because they don't set high benchmarks. " - Sahr Johnny, Sierra Leone Ambassador to Beijing

And that's exactly what's worrying anti-corruption campaigners as China becomes the biggest new investor across the continent.

Thirty years ago China was building prestige projects in Africa, like the railway from Zambia to Tanzania trying to spread communism across the continent. It was the Cold War. The Chinese were wooing African leaders away from the Soviet Union and the West. Now, they need Africa to fuel their own growth, and as a proving ground for their new capitalist model of development.

In the last five years China's activity in Africa has swept the continent.

  • Nearly 700 Chinese companies operate in 49 countries
  • Trade has gone up three fold - to 30 billion dollars a year making China Africa's third largest rading partner - ahead of Britain.
  • Oil is the major interest - A quarter of Angola's oil goes to China.
  • And their stake's growing in Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, and Gabon.

But it's Sudan that's got the closest links. 60% of its oil exports are now bound for the People's Republic.