How I wish Samia could extend her visit to China

President Samia Suluhu arrives at Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing yesterday at the start of her three-day state visit to China. The visit seeks to strengthen bilateral cooperation between Tanzania and China. PHOTO | STATE HOUSE

Summary

  • Tanzanians have a reason to keep President Hassan in their prayers. A visit to China is a time of great trials for African officials. China’s hospitality comes at a price. This time around, the Chinese must have the multibillion-dollar Bagamoyo SEZ and Tazara SGR projects firmly in their sights.

President Samia Suluhu Hassan is on a three-day state visit to China at the invitation of her Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. The visit is intended to strengthen bilateral ties and finalise contracts between the two nations.

Coming shortly after President Xi’s re-election for the third term, the trip carries huge symbolic importance. The Tanzanian delegation has undoubtedly taken note of that.

Any visit to China by a leader from a developing nation is usually something to look forward to. The Chinese have perfected the art of diplomatic flattery, taking a page from the Soviets. Leaders are greeted with elaborate ceremonies and awarded dubious honours. Many of them succumb to such tricks, selling their people’s birthrights as a result.

Tanzanians have a reason to keep President Hassan in their prayers. A visit to China is a time of great trials for African officials. China’s hospitality comes at a price. This time around, the Chinese must have the multibillion-dollar Bagamoyo SEZ and Tazara SGR projects firmly in their sights.

Xi visited Tanzania barely a month after assuming office in 2013. With his emblematic Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in mind, his goal was to secure Bagamoyo port for China. His priorities are unchanged: the port will connect eight African markets to China’s economy. It remains to be seen whether the Chinese conditions will be better than those Magufuli rejected.

Tanzanians will have a few things on their wish list as well. They have been quite adept at accumulating loans. And they are not done. They still need more funds for SGR, DART, and so on. The current cash crunch in China notwithstanding, China is still a solid bet for most of these projects.

But the Chinese are not just good at massaging people’s egos so that they can smoothly rip them off. They excel at so many other things. Lately, they specialise in producing “world’s firsts” and “world’s biggest” in many fields. As a result, a trip to China presents a marvellous opportunity to observe how serious others are about the business of development.

For example, the Chinese have built the most comprehensive high-speed railway network in the world. It can accommodate trains travelling at speeds of up to 430kph. The network not only helps to decongest cities by allowing people to live far from heavily crowded places, but also allows for investment in distant locations.

Tanzania is similarly making valiant efforts to improve its transport systems. However, its priorities are all over the place. One is often left wondering what the point of what is being implemented is. Ultimately, vast sums of money are squandered on pointless projects.

China is also constructing a network of canals to carry water from the wetter south to the dry north. When complete, the project will transport 12 trillion gallons of water to 45 million people living thousands of kilometres away. It is the most ambitious and costliest undertaking of its kind in the world.

On the other hand, Dar is reeling from yet another round of water rationing, once again blamed on Mother Nature. The depressing sights of women and children walking about with empty water buckets have returned. Worse still, Dawasa issued a timetable saying that water would be cut once per week, but it is now a sixth day since I last saw a drop of water from Dawasa.

This madness must end.

President Hassan and her delegation should stay in China longer to see how things are done if that means things will improve here. The Chinese are doers, not talkers; they are strategic, not pathetic. Tanzania might benefit from a few leaders like that.

But China was not always like this. Once upon a time, China was all talk and no walk. Its leaders, particularly Deng Xiaoping, had to instil an entirely new leadership mindset. Even when China was the fastest-growing economy in the world, Deng wanted it to do more. That prompted him to come out of retirement at the age of 87.

“All I see on TV are ceremonies—our leaders must think they’re TV stars,” he declared. “The meetings are excessive, the speeches are repetitive, no new ideas. We should give priority to deeds, not to words.”

Doesn’t this sound familiar? Nevertheless, the tours that Deng made turbocharged China. The decade that followed was unprecedented in Chinese economic history.

In The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs captures what happened well:

“We arrived at night and drove for miles past campfires. Each of these was a building under construction. There was no crane in sight. The multi-storey buildings were going up by hand. I learned what a 9 percent growth rate means: an economy that is growing around the clock, making up for 550 years of lost time.”

On this side, doesn’t it feel like our leaders have conspired to lose those 550 years first before they get serious?

In 1978, Deng commissioned four study tours to Europe, Japan, and Hong Kong. The reports became the cornerstone of his economic policy. Deng asserted unequivocally that “we are backward, many of our ways of doing things are inappropriate, and we need to change”.

Common sense is the most valuable asset that any leader can possess.

Tanzania could use its own Deng Xiaoping. That is why I hope President Hassan will take her time in China. Probably a month or two. We could use a massive dose of Chinese economic pragmatism.

But just that, if you catch my drift.