Liberia: Nothing is for Nothing – Influence and China’s Rising Quick-Impact Infrastructure

New Democrat (Monrovia)



China’s ambassador here, Zhou Yuxiao, in begging another multi-million dollar project- the construction of the country’s Health Ministry–has made it clear that his country has no vested interest in Liberia.

From Cold War perspectives, when China and other powers sought ideological partners across Africa and Asia, that could be true. But his declaration is an understatement. China has embarked upon expanding its influence, cultural and economic, and there is nothing wrong with that on today’s global political landscape, indicating that there is nothing for nothing.

China’s relations with tiny Liberia have taken some dramatic and fascinating turns. In the 1980s when the military climbed to power, Beijing was sent packing in preference for Taiwan, China’s considered colony that has competed with it on the African continent for influence. The sphere of this influence was divided in two parts. One sphere was composed of African leaders who saw cash as the requirement for diplomatic ties. The other side consisted of largely non-corrupt, nationalistic, visionary leaders who saw the global political reality, which is that China is world power, a member of the UN Security Council that cannot be ignored for a bundle of dollars.

President Sirleaf at an event marking investment by Buchanan Renewable.

On the Liberian political stage, the choice was clear as dictated by the outlook and character of its leaders. Both Gen. Samuel K. Doe, and the man who ensured his bloody fall, Mr. Charles Taylor, preferred Taiwan for clear reason–personal cash pumped in their pockets. As the current trial of Mr. Taylor has revealed, the Taiwanese government stuffed in US1m for his electoral bid and much more. Mr. Doe and his entourage received similar personal benefits. There were no doubts as to who was the good guy.

Taiwan’s Africa policy, therefore, was tied to bribing corrupt and self-serving African leaders to choose between them and the non-bribing People’s Republic of China. For such people, the choice was easy. It was Taiwan, with bribe money.

But Beijing and Africa have come a long way, dating from the traumatic years of liberation struggles when China, the Soviet Union and the west competed for influence and allies. Then, what dictated alliances was adherence to the controlling power’s ideology. In Zimbabwe, for example, China was viewed as siding Joshua Nkomo against Robert Mugabe, seeing as a Chinese ally. In Angola, China again was viewed as an ally of the Union for the Total Liberation of Angola, Unita, with the late Dr. Jonas Savimbi, later gunned down, as the head, against the Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), now in power. Mozambique’s late charismatic president Samora Machel, shot down in a light aircraft with fingers pointed at Apartheid South Africa, was considered a Maoist, meaning his political agenda and ideas were in tune with China at the time. Zambia’s Dr. Kenneth Kaunda was also considered a Maoist, amongst many others.

Here in Liberia, a staunch US ally, any idea of China getting a chance, under a military regime with no clear idea where it stood on anything, was ruled out. Suspected links with China or the Soviet Union received harsh punishment. University students suspected of seeing good in China were arrested and jailed, and any one who questioned the excesses of the regime was condemned as a Communist and severely treated as such jailed if lucky.

Chinese ingenuity has won. Beijing no longer sees compliance with its political system as precondition for relationship and economic assistance. It has, wisely so, adopted non-interference in the affairs of other states as a standing policy in dealing with Africa and other region. This has led to severe criticism of its links with the government of Sudan, condemned for serious human rights violations in Darfur with the indictment of president, Omar Bashir, in The Hague. But China says what happens in Sudan is none of its business.

And here, the landscape has now immensely transformed, one on which China can teach its language at the University of Liberia, beam its radio broadcasts directly here on an FM station, all platforms for selling its culture and influence.

The astounding aspect of the changed relationship without personal cash stacked in pockets of corrupt officials is the mushrooming of infrastructure with Chinese stamp. For years, for example, the Ministry of Health structure the Chinese began stood as a home for squatters, with no one, including the government, attempting to complete it. The Chinese had to return, with US4m to do the job. It would have been inconceivable 10 or 15 years ago to imagine that this country’s first modern university campus would be gift a from Communist China, or that strings of other key infrastructural development projects would be Chinese gifts. But if many officials were pooled to select between cash-giving Taiwan and the “mean” People’s Republic’s non-cash policy, there is no doubt the doors would flung open for Taiwan to re-enter.

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