An Equal Playing Field?

by Monish Shah:

Beyond the security point manned by Chinese personnel, an enormous concrete stadium topped by an imposing steel-lattice roof towers over an otherwise rundown and dusty Dar es Salaam neighborhood. Habibu Mbonde, the location commander for the Uhuru stadium, proudly holds out his hands and, face beaming with happiness, proclaims: “This is our national stadium.”

The source of Mbonde’s pride makes an especially impressive sight when juxtaposed with the former national stadium, which sits in its shadow. The Uhuru Stadium, with its mere 20,000 seats, is now used only for local games.

Tanzania's new National Stadium (Martin/TYG)

The new stadium is world-class, boasting an extendable roof, an electronic scoreboard, 114 closed-circuit television cameras and a posh VIP lounge. It cost $56 million to build, of which the Chinese government contributed $33.4 million. The stadium is only the first piece in a planned sports complex that will include a new national indoor stadium, swimming pool, and gym. The current indoor stadium is in an advanced state of disrepair, reflecting the inability of Tanzania to maintain a sports infrastructure on its own.

To build the stadium, the Beijing Engineering and Construction Group imported raw materials, machines, pipe work, and scaffolding from China. To Tanzanians like Habibu Mbonde, the Chinese involvement is less important than the high-tech sports arena itself: “Ordinary Tanzanians like me have not seen anything like this. It does not matter to me who built it.”

China’s “Stadium Diplomacy”

Tanzania’s stadium is not a standalone development but part of a much broader trend of Chinese “stadium diplomacy” in Africa. The Chinese have built or are in the process of building stadiums across a veritable A to Z of African states, including Angola, Benin, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Djibouti, the Gambia, Liberia, Mali, Mauritius, Mozambique, Niger, Guinea, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.

This unique brand of diplomacy builds goodwill with African states and is a subset of a much broader and more sophisticated geopolitical strategy for China. Mark Ashurst, director of the London-based Africa Research Institute explained: “China is building infrastructure and making trade deals in exchange for natural resources and market access.”

Many of these countries are rich sources of the natural resources that China requires to fuel its breakneck economic growth. For example, China receives timber and uranium from the Central African Republic; copper from Zambia; oil from Angola; and bauxite, the most important aluminum ore, from Guinea.

China is often ready to make diplomatic overtures without strings attached. Sahr Johnny, Sierra Leone’s ambassador to Beijing, was quoted by as saying: “If a G8 country had wanted to rebuild our stadium, we’d still be holding meetings.”

China’s resource rush serves purposes beyond the political or strategic. It pays remarkable dividends to its private sector, particularly to the construction industry. Africa is an important growth market for China’s overseas contracting business, which has posted strong year-on-year growth of 15 percent during the last four years, reaching $50 billion in 2010.

Early in the nations’ bilateral relationship, Tanzania was widely thought to be the main beneficiary, receiving infrastructural, technological, medical, and military aid. Now, China seems to be benefiting, gaining African market access for its consumer goods, construction contracts, and natural resources.

Ashurst points out that African states will need to play their cards shrewdly: “The question for African states is how to respond and manage the Chinese expansion in Africa. It will be the fault of Africa if this expansion is not managed, not that of the Chinese.”

Historic Sino-Tanzanian Friendship

The history of Chinese involvement in Africa goes back to the 1960s and 1970s, and from the beginning has been based on ideals of South-South cooperation in development. After decolonization, China provided significant aid in various forms to new African states.

Nowhere was this truer than in Tanzania. China was one of the first countries to recognize the United Republic of Tanzania, formed on April 26, 1964, and was the first to open an embassy there. In return, Tanzania endorsed the One China policy, recognizing China’s claim over Taiwan, and also backed China’s effort to rejoin the UN in 1971. As significant an investment as the National Stadium is, it remains second to the historic 1800-km-long $450 million TAZARA Railway, completed in 1975, which connects Tanzania with Zambia.

Yet Tanzania has failed to maintain this once cutting-edge rail system. Last year the Tanzanian newspaper ThisDay warned that the railway was “on the verge of collapse.” Workers had been left unpaid for three months and locomotives had fallen out of service. The Lonely Planet guide to Tanzania warns would-be TAZARA travelers that “breakdowns and long delays — up to 12 hours or more — are common.”

That same year, as Beijing proudly hosted the 2008 Olympics, the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games named Dar es Salaam as the only African pit stop in one of the 53 African countries for the symbolic Olympic torch rally. The route of the torch relay was carefully planned to include the landmark TAZARA railway and to end at the newly constructed National Stadium.

Unlike other places where the torch rally for the 2008 Beijing Olympics was marked by fervent anti-Chinese demonstrations, in Dar es Salaam, an estimated 1000 people turned out to cheer and show their support.

Ashurst explained that unlike in other African countries, such as Zambia and Lesotho, where anti-Chinese sentiments have erupted with opposition politicians running on anti-China platforms for various reasons such as job losses, unsafe mining operations, an influx of cheap goods, or fears of neocolonialism, Tanzania’s citizens are largely positive towards China. “It is a symbol of Tanzanian nationalism to look favorably on China. [Tanzanian founding father Julius] Nyerere is viewed as a father figure in Tanzania with a cherished legacy not to be criticized.” As Tanzania’s first president, Nyerere visited China 13 times — a record for any African leader — and famously described relations with the Asian giant as “a friendship between the most unequal equals.” His policy of ujamaa, which involved collective farming, was influenced by Maoist economic philosophy.

On his trip to inaugurate the National Stadium, Chinese President Hu Jintao re-affirmed China’s commitment to Tanzania, announcing a generous aid package of almost $22 million despite the economic recession as a sign of the “traditional friendship” and “exemplary relationship of sincerity, solidarity, and cooperation between two developing countries.”

Ashurst remarked: “This stadium can be seen as a symbol of the historic ties between China and Tanzania but also very much a symbol of the new commercial ambitions of the Chinese in Africa.” He added, “It would be a mistake to see this stadium as a philanthropic project. It is entirely rational from the Chinese perspective.” While “Tanzania’s natural reserves are not sufficient to determine geopolitical priorities for China, Tanzania’s strategic relevance to China is its location. The presence of a port at Dar es Salaam makes it a gateway to East and Central Africa, for example, making it possible to access copper and cobalt from the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

People-to-People Ties

While China has left an indelible footprint on Tanzania’s nationhood through strong official ties, people-to-people ties remain weak.

China sent hundreds of engineers and laborers to Tanzania to work on TAZARA from 1970 to 1975. The boast among the huge corps of Chinese engineers working in Tanzania was “Not One Baby,” referring to a determination not to father any babies with Tanzanian women. Chinese resistance to integrating with Tanzanians has not lessened with time. The TAZARA engineers constituted the second of three phases of Chinese migration to Tanzania. Even with the arrival of a third wave of merchants and entrepreneurs in the 1990s, Ashurst remarked: “There is still a long way to go towards integration.”

Leaving the National Stadium, Mbonde turned to talk about relations with his Chinese counterparts. He said, “I am about 40 percent happy with the Chinese. I thank them for building the stadium, but the local Chinese employees have been here for about two years now. We are still not friends.”

Monish Shah is a sophomore in Morse College.