Thursday, November 6, 2008

Kaunda lauds Chinese role as 'force for good' in continent

CHINA'S AFRICA - ZAMBIA: Zambia's first president argues that China's push in Africa is well intended, writes Mary Fitzgerald

WHEN CHINESE president Hu Jintao visited Zambia last year he made sure to call on Kenneth Kaunda. The relationship between Zambia's first president and Beijing goes back more than four decades. In 1967 Kaunda travelled to China to seek Mao Zedong's help in building a railway that would link Zambia's copper belt to Tanzania's port of Dar es Salaam.

The Zambian president envisaged that such a railway, later to become known as the Tazara line, would enable the black-ruled states of central and southern Africa bypass the ports of apartheid South Africa.

Kaunda turned to China, he explains, after his request for assistance was rebuffed in Europe. "In Europe they dismissed it as a waste of money. But the Chinese said they would come. China has been very good to us," Kaunda says, sitting in his Lusaka home.

The man who presided over Zambia from independence to 1991 wears a dark green version of what is still known throughout Africa as the Kaunda suit. Single-breasted with four large front pockets, it is reminiscent of the suit popularised by Mao Zedong in China.

The Tazara railway marked one of Beijing's first major forays into Africa and it came to epitomise Chinese engagement with the continent during the cold war. Thousands of labourers and engineers arrived from China to build the 1,896km-long track.

Kaunda went on to become personal friends with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping. "The story of the friendship between Kaunda and Mao is very famous in China," one Chinese businessman in Lusaka told me.

Kaunda then liked to refer to China as Zambia's "all-weather friend", a term he continues to use today despite rising anti-Chinese sentiment among ordinary Zambians.

Not surprisingly then, Kaunda, now 84, defends China against criticism that its relationship with African countries sometimes falls short of the "win-win" scenario Beijing likes to portray.

"Propaganda from the West, no doubt about it," he mutters when asked about critics who argue China's current engagement with Africa has shades of neocolonialism. "It would be wrong to generalise when it comes to China's relationship with Africa and portray it as somehow devilish and out to exploit the continent," the former president argues.

"China can be a good friend of Africa and a good friend of Zambia if we know what we are doing." He admits, however, to misgivings over Beijing's role in Sudan due to the ongoing conflict in Darfur. "This is an area where even those who are best friends of China would have concerns. What the Sudanese government is doing there is wrong. China, just like any other country, has strong points and weak points," he adds.

But Kaunda uses the example of China's $9 billion (€6.1 billion) deal with war-ravaged Democratic Republic Congo to argue that it can be a force for good on the continent. "China has come there agreeing to build roads, airports, schools, colleges. In 10 years time Congo will be a different place."

He says the Zambian government is to blame for the rise in anti-Chinese feeling, arguing more effort should be put into ensuring Chinese companies operating there comply with its labour laws. "You can't blame China for these problems. It is the Zambian government's responsibility," he adds.

Overall, Kaunda believes China's push into Africa is well intended. "If they helped us [in the 1970s] at a time when no one else would, what reasons have I got to doubt them now?"

© 2008 The Irish Times / August 25, 2008