China-Africa: Riding the rails towards a future of shared prosperity
Note: The following is an edited translation of a commentary from the Chinese-language "Commentaries on International Affairs."
In the 1960s, newly-independent Tanzania and Zambia planned to build a railway. The two countries sought help from rich European countries and also from the World Bank. But their appeals for help were rejected. In February 1965, when Tanzania's President Julius Nyerere visited China, he raised this topic with China's leaders. At that time, China's economy was still in deep trouble. But China promised to help build this 1,860-kilometer-long railway because it had its own experience being a victim of colonialism, and understood the deep desire of African countries to pursue their national independence.
In July 1976, the Tanzania-Zambia Railway, known in Africa as TAZARA, was opened. More than 60 Chinese lost their lives during its construction. But the railway, called locally the "Road of Freedom", has made a major contribution to the economic development of Tanzania. The railway has become an important symbol of China's support for the struggles of African countries for their pursuit of liberation and independence. Forty years later, in October 2016, the first modern electrified railway in Africa was built by companies from China using the standards and equipment that have modernized China's national rail network. The new line from Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa to Djibouti's capital Djibouti City is the second major transnational railway built in Africa with help from China. And in May 2017, the Kenyan Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway, which was built by companies from China, officially opened to traffic. The project has created more than 46,000 jobs and driven Kenya's Gross Domestic Product up by 1.5 percent. In the future, the Mombasa-Nairobi railway is expected to connect with the railways of other East African countries including Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan. Together they will form the arteries of transportation across the region.
A cargo train is launched to operate on the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) line constructed by the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) and financed by the Chinese government in Kenya's coastal city of Mombasa, May 30, 2017.[Photo: VCG]
Following the establishment of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2000, and its Beijing Summit in 2006, eight policy measures were proposed that aimed to promote the development of China-Africa relations. This was followed in 2015 by the Johannesburg Summit, at which 10 major China-Africa cooperation plans were launched so as to help African countries break the three development bottlenecks of lagging infrastructure, talent shortages, and inadequate financing. Since then, cooperation between China and Africa has continued to develop as new projects have emerged to meet new challenges.
The changes that have taken place since 1976 when China completed its work on TAZARA have been truly extraordinary. This year marks the 40th anniversary of China's Reform and Opening Up policy that has helped lift 700 million people out of poverty, and turned the country into the home of the world's second largest economy. Over these same four decades, many African countries have borne the consequences of Washington's neoliberalist approach to international development, and seen the growth of their economies stall. But Chinese people believe that it is important not to forget your friends when you become rich, and this spirit is reflected in the relationship it has with Africa today.
In the five years after he became president, Xi Jinping visited Africa four times. What's more, Africa was the first leg of his trips overseas after he took office and again after his re-election. China has been Africa's largest trading partner for nine consecutive years, with investment topping 110 billion U.S. dollars. China abolished import tariffs on 97 percent of goods from the 33 least-developed African countries. In the last three years, it has offered over 20,000 government scholarships to African students. Medical aid from China has helped the people of West Africa cope with the latest Ebola outbreaks. And about 2,000 peacekeepers from China are working in Africa, making China the permanent member of the UN Security Council with the largest contingent of peacekeepers on the continent.
In a complex and multipolar world where unilateralism and protectionism are on the rise, it is now more than ever necessary for China and Africa to cooperate and strengthen their bonds. This is one of the goals of next week's Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. The summit provides a golden opportunity to promote the integration of the Belt and Road Initiative with the African Union's "Agenda 2063", the United Nations’ "2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development" and the development strategies of individual African countries. And above all this, the forum is a symbol of the lasting and unbreakable bonds between friendly nations working towards a future of shared prosperity.