In December 2007, Malawi ended its 41-year-old relationship with Taiwan and betrothed People’s Republic of China in search of the economic gains the Asian giant has achieved across the continent. The new ally has financed many development projects ever since, but is it really a win-win cooperation? JACOB NANKHONYA writes.
Construction of the long-awaited Karonga-Chitipa Road. The imposing Umodzi Park. The immaculate Bingu National Stadium. The footprint of China in Malawi has been deepening since former president Joyce Banda, then Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation under her predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika’s command, announced the diplomatic switch from Taiwan.
“We have decided to switch to Mainland China after careful consideration of the benefits that we will be getting,” she declared on December 27 2007.
In Lilongwe, the high-rise Umodzi Park—comprising the President’s Hotel, Bingu International Convention Centre (Bicc) and Presidential Villas—pointedly proclaims the trickledown from Beijing.
The influx of Chinese traders in rural and urban markets confirms their inroads. Some Malawians are opposed to foreign traders doing small-scale businesses instead of investing big. They fear the Chinese ‘investors’ will push indigenous entrepreneurs out of business.
Some Chinese nationals are going underground to re-register their businesses using local names. As a rule, they disguise themselves as suppliers of merchandise.
At Kamwendo Trading Centre in Mchinji, a Chinese trader who only identified himself as Luka finds Malawi a friendly nation where business competition is less stiff than in his highly populous country.
Nearby, John Marko, a local who sells plastic ware, wants government to stop foreigners from trading in the rural localities.
“Government must protect its citizens from unfair competition from those who come as foreign investors and end up opening very small-scale businesses,” he says.
The outcry subtly interrogates the slogan of Lin Songtian, the second Chinese Ambassador to Lilongwe, who branded Malawi-China connection a “win-win cooperation”.
But how is China really benefiting from this affair?
China insists that it is no Santa Claus and some wonder whether it is reaping benefits from the diplomatic partnership.
But it is no secret China is consolidating its economic advantage globally.
In Beijing, they are talking about a One Belt, One Road initiative connecting Asia with Africa and Europe.
Malawi is not left out.
The economic belt, which resembles The Silk Road linking China to the two continents, has spurred China’s economic growth for almost 2 000 years.
The Chinese are knitting a network of roads, ports, railways and other links from East China through southeast and central Asia, all the way to Europe.
Its scope and ambition is believed to be bigger than the Marshall Plan which guided the reconstruction of Europe after World War II. Experts in China are excited, but some remain sceptical if Beijing will provide the enormous funding needed, whether big debt-finances will benefit the recipient countries and if the projects makes sense in the long run.
Chinese-built railways, ports, roads, dams and industrial corridors are subtly expanding that country’s economic and geopolitical sway across Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.
This is the bigger picture.
But does it matter to Malawi’s ailing economy?
Chinese Ambassador Shi-Ting Wang says China finds it necessary to help developing countries.
Explains Shi-Ting: “Malawi does not have many resources, but the Chinese investors still come. Of course, they make profits here. But more importantly, we want to help Malawi to achieve positive development.
“We never refuse to help a country simply because of its lack of natural resources. The world can become a better place only through a common development.”
The envoy alluded to an ancient Chinese philosophy: enjoying happiness alone is not as good as sharing it.
China has made tremendous achievements in economic growth for the past decades, but Shi-Ting censures what he calls “isolated prosperity”.
“The world can become a better place only through common development,” Wang says. “China is willing to contribute towards building a beautiful world with common prosperity.”