[Note: This item comes from friend Robert Berger. DLH]
Is China the World’s New Colonial Power?
The rising superpower has built up enormous holdings in poor, resource-rich African countries —but its business partners there aren’t always thrilled.
By BROOK LARMER
May 2 2017
Every weekday before dawn, a morning migration takes place near the desert on Africa’s southwestern coast. At 5:30 in the Namibian enclave Swakopmund, whose century-old buildings still bear the imprint of German colonization, solitary men in khaki uniforms emerge from houses and apartment complexes, the white reflective strips on their pants flashing as they walk briskly through the darkness. They are not African but Chinese. No one else is stirring in the Atlantic Coast town as the men converge on a tidy house on Libertina Amathila Avenue, the only one in the neighborhood with its lights ablaze.
Dylan Teng, a boyish 29-year-old engineer with a brush cut and wire-rimmed glasses, is among the last to arrive. Just as he has done nearly every day since landing in Namibia three and a half years ago, Teng joins the others in wolfing down a breakfast of steamed buns and rice porridge. He picks up a packed lunch prepared by a company chef and at precisely 6 o’clock, with stars still glimmering overhead, he boards a bus emblazoned with the letters C.G.N. — China General Nuclear, a state-owned behemoth that owns the biggest Chinese project in all of Africa.
An hour later, as the sun clears the horizon, the bus winds through a craggy moonscape and descends to the Husab Uranium Mine, a $4.6 billion investment that is the second-largest uranium mine in the world. Teng has made this trip nearly a thousand times, but Husab always seems like a mirage: a virtual city stretching seven miles across the desert floor, from two vast open pits being gouged out of the rocky substratum to a processing plant that, on the last working day of 2016, produced its first drums of U₃O₈, the yellowcake that can be used to generate nuclear power (and also to make weapons). “We had a big ceremony that day,” Teng says.
One of the few university graduates from his village in China’s southwestern Sichuan Province, Teng is keenly aware of Husab’s significance. It is not simply a lifeline for Namibia’s struggling economy, one that the country estimates will increase its gross domestic product by 5 percent when the mine reaches full production next year. The uranium itself, almost all of which will go to China, will also help turn Teng’s homeland into a world leader in nuclear energy and reduce its dependence on coal. In Beijing, where he worked before coming here, Teng lived under the gray blanket of coal-generated pollution that hangs over much of eastern China. Now he is working for the future — his own and his country’s — under an endless African sky of cobalt blue. “I never imagined,” he says, “I would end up halfway around the world.”
China’s gravitational pull can be felt today in every nook of the globe. Few countries feel the tug more strongly than Namibia, a wind-swept nation with a population of 2.4 million — barely a tenth the size of Beijing’s — some 8,000 miles away from the Chinese capital. The desert where the Husab mine has materialized in recent years used to be known only for the presence of Welwitschia mirabilis, the short, droopy national plant that grows just two leaves — and can live for more than 1,000 years. Now, in little more than 1,000 days, China’s reach has spread far beyond the uranium mine.
Just north of Swakopmund, a Chinese telemetry station sprouts from the desert floor, its radar dishes pointing skyward to track satellites and space missions. Twenty-five miles south, in Walvis Bay, a state-owned Chinese company is building an artificial peninsula the size of 40 baseball fields as part of a vast port expansion. Other Chinese projects nearby include new highways, a shopping mall, a granite factory and a $400 million fuel depot. Chinese trade flows through the port: shipping containers filled with cement, clothing and machinery coming in; tiles, minerals and — in some cases — illegal timber and endangered wildlife heading out to China. The activity is so frenzied that rumors of a proposed naval base in Walvis Bay, though vehemently denied by Chinese officials, do not strike locals as implausible.