Botswana takes on Beijing: Africa missed a chance to observe the Chinese dragon bare its fangs at one of its own in mid-August. Beijing issued a series of warnings against Botswana (population 2.25 million) when a local NGO and a university invited the Dalai Lama to visit the country from August 17-19. 

Botswana’s President Ian Khama, in an interview, later said the Chinese government had warned him that they would recall their ambassador or isolate Botswana within Africa. “We are not your colony,” said Khama, in a defiant message to Beijing. Botswanan officials called the Dalai Lama’s visit “purely private” but said Khama planned to meet the Tibetan spiritual leader. 

Ultimately, the test of wills never took place as the Dalai Lama, citing exhaustion and medical opinion, cancelled his visit. Beijing said immediately afterwards that the relations with Botswana would “progress.” Khama later said the Tibetan leader was welcome to visit Botswana in the future. 

Khama may have had other reasons to cock a snook at Beijing. His government is under opposition fire over the Chinese-financed and built a 600 MW Morupule B power station. Because of faulty boilers installed by the Chinese National Electric Engineering Corporation, the power station faced cost overruns of over 30% and has not been fully functional though it was officially completed in 2012. The power station is now being sold to a Chinese firm, a sale that is facing legal challenges from Botswana’s opposition parties. 

Ethiopia Express: The Botswana saga should be seen as a small ripple in a much larger sea of Chinese economic engagement with Africa. There is much excitement in Ethiopia, for example, at the scheduled opening in October of the country’s first trans-border electric train service running from neighbouring Djibouti to the capital, Addis Ababa. This train track had originally been built by the French in 1910 and fallen into disuse before being rebuilt by Chinese firms on the basis of Chinese soft loans. 

Eventually both Addis Ababa and Beijing envisage this 450 km long track to become part of a larger network of trains that would spread throughout East Africa. 

Presumably, Beijing was particularly interested in this specific corridor because it helps convert Djibouti into a commercial hub for the Horn of Africa region. China recently opened its first overseas naval base in Djibouti.
 
Digital China in Africa: Chinese trade and investment in Africa continues to be shown to be shifting from natural resources. A June report by McKinsey noted a shift among Chinese firms in Africa that focused on technology or a value added service. "Nearly half of Chinese firms in Africa have introduced a new product or service to the local market, and more than one-third have introduced a new technology." Recognizing the trend, China last year tied up with the World Bank to organise an Africa-China World Bank education partnership forum. The first such forum was held in July in Beijing and Shanghai and focussed on higher education in science and technology. 

Chinese firms have always had a large telecom presence in Africa. They are now piggy backing on that to move across the spreading digital sector. Firms like ZTE and Huawei have invested $3 billion in telecom services and hardware in countries like Ethiopia – and wholly dominate such sector. Chinese firms have also invested in data centres and fibre cable networks. China Telecom tied up with Djibouti Data Centre late last year and has spoken of makng it a cable and communications hub in eastern Africa. 

One of the more interesting developments has been in broadcasting. The Beijing-based Star Times Group has emerged in the past year as one of Africa’s most important media companies with over 10 million subscribers across 30 countries. In some countries, like Burundi, the pay TV firm has 95% market share. 

The firm is at the frontline of Africa’s transition from analog to digital television with some of the world’s cheapest cable/satellite TV packages – as little as $4 per month. The channel provides a mix of African channels and Chinese channels but has been criticized for portraying China in a noncontroversial and positive manner. 

China’s digital expansion in the continent has not been without its own teething problems. The online shopping platform Taobao, a subsidiary of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, recently had to drop an offer to provide vendors personalised videos and stills of African children promoting specific products for less than $20 after accusations of child exploitation. 

With over a million Chinese now working in Africa, it is no surprise that Africa has begun to achieve a larger than life profile in Chinese public’s eyes. The recent Chinese blockbuster film, Wolf Warrior 2, which has become the most successful box office hit out of the Middle Kingdom, is based in Africa. The story revolves around Chinese workers being taken hostage by Western mercenaries in Africa – and being rescued by a Chinese action hero. The movie’s tag line is “whoever offends China will be hunted down no matter how far away they are” and is suitably representative of a new and more aggressive Chinese nationalism. 

Botswana’s surprise defiance of China is a small reminder of how difficult it will become for Beijing to separate its economic investments in Africa, many of which are locally popular, with its strategic interests, many of which are certain to arouse public anger. 

The stereotype of Chinese investment in Africa – the metal mine or oil and gasfield with thousands of Chinese workers – is slowly making way for more sophisticated Chinese investments in the digital and technology sectors.

 

August 30, 2017 

About the Author

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri writes on political, security, and economic issues. He previously wrote for the Statesman and the Telegraph in Calcutta. He served on the National Security Advisory Board of the Indian government from 2011-2015. Among other affiliations, he is a member of the Asia Society Global Council, the Aspen Institute Italia, the International Institute of Strategic Studies, and the Mont Pelerin Society. Pramit is also a senior associate of Rhodium Group, New York City, advisor to the Bower Group Asia in India, a member of the Council on Emerging Markets, Washington, DC, and a delegate for the Confederation of Indian Industry-Aspen Strategy Group Indo-U.S. Strategic Dialogue and the Ananta Aspen Strategic Dialogues with Japan, China and Israel. Born in 1964, he has visited over fifty countries on five continents. Mr. Pal Chaudhuri is a history graduate from Cornell University.