Message to the West: Just Open Your Eyes

Living here in Kinshasa, it is immediately apparent that China’s engagement is re-shaping both the Democratic Republic of the Congo but the continent as a whole.    To anyone on the ground here, it should be obvious.   I said should be obvious because despite the massive infrastructure projects and the presence of tens of thousands of Chinese immigres in Kinshasa, most European and Americans still cannot seem to grasp the depth and breadth of the power shift that is happening right now.  Whenever the topic arises in discussion with Westerners here, even among development specialists and other professionals who should be acutely aware of these kinds of trends, there is this universal puzzled reaction that takes hold.  Sometimes I feel like the guy from the “Holiday Inn” commercial who just appears at NASA to help launch a rocket and after a successful take-off, the other space engineers ask the guy “do you work here?” and he answers “nah, I just slept at a Holiday Inn.”  Well, I it really feels like I am that guy.    The development business is well entrenched here and yet, whenever I inquire with any of these expat professionals about their impressions of Chinese engagement in either the DR Congo or Africa as a whole, they have nothing to say.  Nothing.  The entire subject draws a blank.  10 minutes later, this odd role reversal takes hold and the guy who’s been here for just 9 days is educating the institutional professionals with decades of experience yet appear to have little or no knowledge on this critically important phenomenon.

There is a massive knowledge gap among the vast majority of Americans and Europeans both here and in the West about the scale of  China’s foreign policy in Africa.    What so many Westerners appear to be ignore is how China is re-shaping international relations in this part of the world and that is leading to diminished influence for Washington and Brussels, potential severe climate change consequences and the likelihood that Beijing will have exclusive control of certain strategic raw materials.

The Chinese are engaged here.  They are on the ground in ways that Americans and Europeans could never conceive.  Moreover, the scope of that engagement is truly breathtaking and now researchers are beginning to get a grasp of the magnitude of their involvement in Africa.

USC China MapThe USC U.S.-China Center has produced an interactive high-level overview of where Chinese investment in Africa is flowing.   Mouse over the different countries to get a brief summary of China’s investment there.  It’s also interesting that they have highlighted the growing number of Chinese language and cultural centers known as “Confucian Institutes.”  This map is an excellent first step to better understanding the scope of Chinese investment across the continent.   What is astonishing is that the vast majority of the investment detailed on this map has happened within the past 5-7 years!  When you see firsthand the amount of equipment, people and supplies the Chinese have imported here, it gives you pause.  Simply put, the Chinese are bringing the same fanatical zeal for development that transformed their own society to the African infrastructure projects that are now reshaping dozens, if not hundreds of cities like Kinshasa.

While this is by no means a zero-sum game or Cold War-style face-off between China and the West, if the West continues to essentially ignore China’s aggressive, new global outlook, its already diminishing international standing will no doubt continue to deteriorate.

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