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.
This small outpost offers a glimpse of what may be the largest global trade-and-investment spree in history. Driven by economics (a hunger for resources and new markets) and politics (a longing for strategic allies), Chinese companies and workers have rushed into all parts of the world. In 2000, only five countries counted China as their largest trading partner; today, more than 100 countries do, from Australia to the United States. The drumbeat of proposed projects never stops: a military operating base, China’s first overseas, in Djibouti; an $8 billion high-speed railway through Nigeria; an almost-fantastical canal across Nicaragua expected to cost $50 billion. Even as China’s boom slows down, its most ambitious scheme is still ramping up: With the “One Belt, One Road” initiative — its name a reference to trade routes — President Xi Jinping has spoken of putting $1.6 trillion over the next decade into infrastructure and development throughout Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The scheme would dwarf the United States’ post-World War II Marshall Plan for Europe.
China’s relationship with Africa goes back to the 1960s, when Chairman Mao Zedong promoted solidarity with the developing world — “Ya Fei La,” as he called it, using the first syllables for Asia, Africa and Latin America. Though it was poor and mired in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, China won new allies in Africa by finishing, in 1976, a 1,156-mile railroad through the bush from Tanzania to Zambia. Aid continued to trickle in, but there were no other big projects for nearly 30 years, as China focused on building up its domestic economy, following its leader Deng Xiaoping’s prescription to “hide your strength and bide your time.” That ended in the 2000s, when Beijing, recognizing the need for foreign resources and allies to fuel its economic growth, exhorted the nation’s companies to “go out” into the world.
Today, if you take the red-eye flight from Shanghai to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, chances are you’ll be seated among Chinese workers heading to a construction site in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, a cotton-processing plant in Mozambique, a telecom project in Nigeria. China’s trade with African nations has increased fortyfold in the past 20 years. The workers and migrants carrying out China’s global vision are now so ubiquitous in Africa — as many as a million of them, according to one estimate — that when my wife and I wandered into a Hunanese restaurant in Addis, the red-faced workers devouring twice-cooked pork blurted out: “Ah, laowai laile!” “Foreigners have come!” It seemed rude to point out that they were foreigners, too.
China’s advances have come as the West seems to be retreating. United States engagement in Asia, Africa and Latin America declined after the Cold War, when the regions served as proxies for superpower rivalries. China’s rise and the wars in the Middle East also pulled away resources and attention. And now, with Washington raising doubts about global agreements on issues like free trade and climate change, Beijing has more leverage to push its own initiatives and show its capacity for global leadership. President Trump’s disdain for the Trans-Pacific Partnership has already made Beijing’s trade proposals, which exclude the United States, more appealing. “In certain parts of the world, the relative inattention of the Trump administration is definitely creating an opening for China to fill,” says David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University and author of the 2013 book “China Goes Global.” But “China remains very much a partial power — and only offers other countries an economic relationship.”
Still, for a nation like Namibia, China’s pitches can be irresistible partly because they’re rooted in historical solidarity. Beijing backed the black nationalist movement’s liberation struggle against apartheid and its white South African overlords. Sam Nujoma, the leader of the South West Africa People’s Organization (Swapo), visited Beijing in search of guns and funds in the early 1960s. When Namibia finally claimed independence in early 1990, with Nujoma as president, China became one of its first diplomatic allies, pronouncing the two countries “all-weather friends.” (Beijing was also desperate for allies to break its diplomatic isolation after its violent crackdown on the 1989 democracy movement.) – New York Times, fragment