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.)
In addition to offering its own history as a model for climbing out of poverty, China provides no-strings financing that, unlike Western aid, is not conditional on such fine points as human rights, clean governance or fiscal restraint. “We welcomed China very much because, for the first time, it gave us a real alternative to a Western-driven agenda, whether it was South Africa or the Western world,” Calle Schlettwein, Namibia’s minister of finance, told me. “The Chinese say, ‘We want you to be masters of your own destiny, so tell us what you want.’ ” But they have their conditions, too, he says. “They want de facto total control over everything, so it’s difficult to bring about a situation that is truly beneficial.”
China’s leaders insist that its influence is entirely benign, a global exercise in what they call “win-win cooperation.” And indeed, many of the projects Chinese companies are pursuing — roads and railways, ports and pipelines, mines and telecom networks — might never be built without them. China’s investment in the Husab uranium mine, in which C.G.N. subsidiaries hold a 90 percent stake and the Namibian government owns 10 percent, is doing its part to stave off a recession. “We helped Namibia gain its political liberation,” Xia Lili, a former Chinese diplomat who now works as an executive at a Chinese company in Windhoek, the Namibian capital, says. “Now we’re helping it fight for economic emancipation.”
For some Namibians, however, the flood of Chinese loans and investments doesn’t look so much like freedom as it does a new form of colonialism. The infrastructure is welcome, but as projects made possible by loans — financed by the Chinese — they have saddled the economy with debt and done little to alleviate the nearly 30 percent unemployment rate. Over the last few months, moreover, a series of scandals involving Chinese nationals — including tax evasion, money-laundering and poaching endangered wildlife — has soured locals on a foreign presence that can seem largely extractive: pulling uranium, timber, rhino horns and profits out the country without benefiting a population that, because of apartheid’s legacy, ranks among the most unequal economically in the world. In January, a Windhoek newspaper captured the rising sentiment with an illustration on its front page of a golden dragon devouring the Namibian flag. The headline: “Feeding Namibia to the Chinese.”
The question of how China is changing the world is often framed as a binary proposition: Is China the savior for developing nations, the only world power investing in their future — or is this the dawn of a new colonial era? The question itself, however, is misleading. In Namibia, as in much of the rest of the world, the narratives live uncomfortably side by side, impossible to disentangle. “You can argue that China is the best thing to happen to Africa — or the worst,” says Eric Olander, the co-host of the weekly “China in Africa Podcast.” “The beauty is in the complexity.”
The sign on the lime green cement wall outside the restaurant, written in Chinese, read “Ye Shanghai”: “Shanghai Nights.” Inside, the lunch crowd was already gone, but six middle-aged Chinese men and women — including James Shen and his wife, Rose, the proprietors — crowded around a table peeling prawns and sucking heartily on the shells. Nobody spoke. Blaring from the flat-screen television on the wall was a special report on CCTV-4, a channel from China’s state television broadcaster, breathlessly describing the powers of the People’s Liberation Army. When a double row of explosions erupted in the sea, Rose exclaimed, “Wah, our China is so strong!”
The couple’s restaurant is in Walvis Bay, a port surrounded on three sides by the Namib Desert, which some consider the oldest in the world. James and Rose are part of the early wave of Chinese immigrants who landed in Africa 20 years ago and never left. The Chinese diaspora has a long history of finding a foothold, and then thriving, in some of the world’s most remote places: I’ve bumped into Chinese merchants everywhere from the Arctic tundra of Siberia to mining towns in the Andes. In Africa, entrepreneurs like James and Rose found a new frontier with the space, freedom and opportunities that many early settlers saw in the American West. “My husband came to look at business here, and he fell in love with the wide-open spaces,” Rose told me. “But we’re still Chinese first and foremost.”
Like many Chinese immigrants around the world, the couple began by opening a small mom-and-pop shop, filling the shelves with cheap clothes, shoes and bags shipped by container from China. Their store, James and Rose, still stands at a central intersection of Walvis Bay, even as their ventures have expanded to include a hotel, a restaurant, a karaoke bar, a massage parlor and a trading company. Today there are such Chinese-run stores in nearly every town in Namibia — and thousands more across Africa.
On a recent Sunday in Windhoek’s Chinatown, where dozens of shops occupy a series of long warehouses in the city’s industrial district, Namibian families strolled the lanes, haggling over everything from knockoff Nikes and plastic children’s toys to solar panels and secondhand mobile phones. One man told me he liked the low prices, even as he complained about the goods’ poor quality — and the harm they did to the local garment industry. Wu Qiaoxia, a Chinese entrepreneur whose real estate business began with a simple store in the northern town of Oshakati, waves off such criticism. “Many Namibian children didn’t even have shoes before we got here,” Wu says. “The people here needed everything, and we sold it to them, cheaply.”
One of the most influential Chinese immigrants in Namibia, Jack Huang, parlayed a small textile business into a mining, real estate and trade conglomerate. A backslapping 49-year-old native of Nantong, a city located about two hours northwest of Shanghai, Huang moved to Namibia nearly two decades ago. Early on, he helped transform Oshikango, a sleepy town on the Angolan border, into a raucous Chinese trading post anchored by his properties. Angolans made rich by a boom in oil production flooded in to buy things like stereos and S.U.V.s, paying with United States dollars or, at times, diamonds. The collapse of oil prices has turned Oshikango into a ghost town. But Huang, through his Sun Investment Group, has diversified into many lucrative businesses, including a mining venture that has identified other uranium deposits close to Husab.
Huang’s success has come, in part, from cultivating connections with Namibia’s political elite. Swapo, the guerrilla-group-turned-political-party, has dominated Namibia’s elections since its independence — the kind of stability that appeals to China’s rulers and to entrepreneurs hoping to make long-lasting connections. Huang has referred to Sam Nujoma, Namibia’s founding father, as “my special adviser.” During the 2014 election campaign, Huang and the Swapo candidate Hage Geingob (then the prime minister, now the president) attended a gala dinner at which, according to local reporting, the Chinese businessman pledged Geingob’s political party a donation of 1 million Namibian dollars — about $90,000. (Huang denies this.)
Huang’s friends prefer to emphasize how much he has given back to his host country through his charity, the Namibia-China Loving Heart Organization. (Huang was out of the country at the time of my visit, but he authorized two deputies to speak with me on his behalf.) Over the last seven years, Huang’s charity has awarded more than $2 million in scholarships to Namibian students to attend medical school in China (in Nantong, naturally). Some critics, however, claim that a few recipients of Huang’s philanthropy were not needy students but children of the ruling elite. Last year, moreover, the local media revealed that before Geingob was elected president in 2014, Huang was the owner of a majority stake in a real estate venture whose only other shareholders are Geingob’s family trust and ex-wife. The men tried to distance themselves from each other in the press, and Geingob professed to have no operational control of the company. Still, Huang’s friends worry about his courting of the powerful. “I kept warning Jack,” says one businessman who occasionally socializes with Huang. “ ‘Don’t get too close to the fire. You’ll burn your fingers.’ ”
The exact number of Chinese living in Namibia remains the subject of contentious debate. No definitive data exist, and the constant ebb and flow of contract workers muddies the picture. Last fall, Namibia’s home-affairs ministry raised alarms when it claimed that 100,000 Chinese nationals live in Namibia — a figure that would be equivalent to 4 percent of the population. More conservative estimates run between 10,000 and 20,000. It is clear, however, that in Namibia and all across the developing world, the older generation of long-term immigrants is being eclipsed by China’s new diaspora: younger, more educated workers going abroad to get experience — and make a small fortune — before returning to China. “We were among the first ones here,” Rose Shen says, “but now there are Chinese everywhere.”
Sean Hao, a young telecommunications engineer in Windhoek, is part of that diaspora. Raised in a cave dwelling in central China’s Shaanxi province, he wasn’t expected to venture far beyond his village’s orchard of jujube trees. But Hao was accepted by a university, a first for his family, and worked after graduation installing networks for a Chinese telecom giant. Renting a room for just $15 a month helped him squirrel away most of his $500 monthly salary, but his savings were hardly enough to buy the apartment he would need to marry. In a country where young men far outnumber women — a legacy of the government’s restrictive family-planning policy — an apartment is seen as a prerequisite for attracting a wife and avoiding the fate of a “bare branch” (an unmarried person). But real estate seemed an impossible aspiration for a young man who grew up in a cave.
When a headhunter told Hao about a job in Africa that would pay more than $6,000 a month, Hao figured it was a swindle. “I thought this must be a case of human trafficking,” he remembers, laughing. The offer was real, but the job was in Nigeria, which he thought was unsafe. So Hao instead signed a contract to work on building the telecom system in Angola for more than $5,000 a month, more than 10 times his previous salary. After a year in Africa, Hao put a down payment on an apartment in Xi’an, a city in central China, and persuaded his girlfriend’s parents that he was financially secure enough to marry their daughter. Hao and his wife soon had a baby girl, but his job in Africa meant that he saw her for only one month out of her first 15. “She didn’t even recognize me,” he said. His wife and daughter joined him in his new posting in Namibia, but they lasted one lonely year before going home, leaving Hao stuck between his longing to be with his family in China and the opportunity to make money in Namibia.
On a warm Saturday night in late March, Hao joined a dozen Chinese colleagues under the thatched roofs of Joe’s Beerhouse in Windhoek. Two of the men were headed back to China after finishing their short-term contracts, and the group was sending them off by knocking back pints of German-style lager. By the time I arrived at the bar, three men had already passed out, their heads planted on the table, and a few others were listing badly. Hao, the designated driver, had barely sipped any beer at all. Celebrating his colleagues’ return to the motherland had put him in a contemplative mood. “I’d like to go home, too,” he said, “but there are no jobs in China that could pay me even close to what I’m making now.”
In the hardscrabble hills of Sichuan Province, the parents of the uranium miner Dylan Teng still work as farmers, growing rice and maize in a hillside hamlet where most families share the same surname. Their village, called Tengjiayan (or Teng Family Rock), had only a primary school, so Teng left to study in nearby Guang’an, the birthplace of Deng Xiaoping, and then went on to college in China’s northeast. It was a long road that was about to grow longer. “I never thought I’d go abroad,” he says, “so I didn’t even try in my English classes.”
In Teng’s first job after graduation — at the Beijing-based Uranium Resources Company, a C.G.N. subsidiary — he learned about the company’s mining interests in Kazakhstan, Australia and Namibia. The rural kid knew nothing about these foreign lands. But soon he was flying off to the most distant of the three to work in one of China’s largest and most strategic mines. And one where C.G.N. was fully in control.
As a load-and-haul engineer at the Husab mine, Teng helps choreograph 26 gargantuan trucks whose wheels stand twice as tall as he does. So far, the trucks have hauled more than 100 million metric tons of rock out of Husab’s open pits. As production increases this year, far more will be needed to process the 15 million pounds of uranium oxide that the mine aims to produce annually. “The pressure is always on to stockpile enough so the processing plant never runs out of rock,” Teng says.
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