PhD students inspired by China’s success
Africans studying in Beijing see Asian giant as role model for overcoming poverty, boosting cooperation
African PhD students at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing say the achievements of China-Africa cooperation in the past are significant in their home countries, and enhanced ties will bring greater benefits to the locals.
They also say they believe that the 2018 Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, which was held in the Chinese capital on September 3 and 4, will create more understanding, mutual trust and confidence, as well as more opportunities for cooperation.
Idris Salim Dokota from Kenya turned down the offer to study in European countries and decided to learn the secrets of China’s development path and, more important, what the future holds.
After spending less than four years studying in the university, the 33-year-old says he believes he has figured out 40 percent of the secret. He hopes that by the time he completes his PhD in international economics and trade in four more years, he will have learned more about China’s economic growth.
“I’d heard a lot about China’s fast economic growth in Kenya before I set foot in the country. For me, that’s not enough at all. I want to see the practical side of the story of China’s economic growth, especially how it gets started,” says Dokota, who wears a braided bracelet with the pattern of Kenya’s flag.
China’s ties with Kenya have been strong since the beginning. China was the fourth country to open its embassy in the capital, Nairobi, after Kenya became independent in 1963, Dokota says.
The bilateral economic and trade cooperation is particularly strong. China is the largest foreign direct investment source for Kenya. In addition, Kenya’s trade with China has been on the rise in recent years. Between 2011 and 2015, the average growth of exports from China to Kenya was 27 percent, according to Dokota’s research on China-Kenya economic ties. “The figures speak louder than words,” he says.
Chinese companies have built transportation, communication and electricity infrastructure in Kenya. The Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway, completed in June last year, is the biggest infrastructure project in Kenya since independence, Dokota says. “Trust me, so many lives have been transformed because of those projects.”
“Our (China and Africa) relationship will lead to a position where Africa will stand on its own and will be at par with other partners on the global stage to compete in the market,” he says.
As a planning officer for Kenya’s Ministry of Sports, Culture and the Arts, Dokota has also noticed an obvious increase in the number of Chinese tourists going to Kenya in recent years. “People can feel that the ties between China and Kenya have become closer at government, company and people levels,” he says.
There is still room for improvement, especially in letting the Chinese public and companies learn more about the continent, Dokota adds. “The Chinese people tend to associate Africa with disease, unrest and poverty. They need to be shown more information on Africa. What’s more, Chinese companies need to learn more about local culture so they can better cooperate with the local people.”
Dokota, who is also the president of the Kenyan student union in Beijing, says the number of African students at UIBE has increased rapidly.
W old eh aw ari at Miheret Debebe, an Ethiopian engineer as well as a PhD student in China, says China is a model from which Africa can learn to overcome poverty, benefit the people and narrow the gap between the poor and rich. He also expects win-win cooperation in the future.
“The development, culture and tradition of China, its key role in the global economy and its growing academic excellence are some of the main reasons,” he says in explaining his decision to pursue his doctoral degree at UIBE.
“China’s role in Africa is exemplary,” he says. “China’s engagement in the past decade in Ethiopia is major in infrastructure, transport, railway and manufacturing — these are key economic factors which determine the development.”
On Oct 5, 2016, a 759-kilometer railway began operation, connecting landlocked Ethiopia with Djibouti and thus with the maritime trade routes of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. The Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway was built with the help of China under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative.
Debebe praises Chinese companies’ growing sense of social responsibility, saying that some are criticizing the partnership between China and Ethiopia.
“China’s investment is becoming more and more socially responsible, supporting local communities, education, health, creating jobs and protecting the environment,” he says, adding that Chinese companies have been constantly creating jobs for local people. “About 40 to 50 percent of the management positions are taken by local professionals.”
For example, Huajian, a Chinese shoemaker that produces for brands like Guess and Calvin Klein, has already provided direct jobs to more than 8,000 Ethiopians with its two local factories, according to an earlier report in China Daily.
Debebe says the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway is also a big contribution to the environment because it uses electricity for fossil fuels.
According to Ethiopia’s Ministry of Trade, the bilateral trade volume between China and Ethiopia reached $5.4 billion(4.6 billion euros; £4.2 billion) in 2016.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s exports of goods to China amounted to $240 million in 2017, accounting for 8.25 percent of Ethiopia’s total exports to China that year.
It is the second-largest export destination of Ethiopia. The exports include agricultural products, clothing textiles and leather products, mineral products, flowers and building materials.
“The data shows Ethiopia is one of the leading beneficiaries of China’s investment,” Debebe says. “The fastest growth in African investment is leading to Ethiopia. Now, especially, the public sector and private sector investments are growing, which is very important. And I hope this will continue.”
He adds, “I’m sure that the partnership will continue in this direction with more capital injection, foreign direct investment and private sector involvement, as well as more benefits for both sides.”
Studying in China was not the starting point for Debebe’s tie with the country. It has been 20 years since his first visit to Beijing.
“There were not many buildings and big malls at that time,” he says. “So you could imagine this is what we could learn from China, who is Africa’s typical model.”
Debebe now speaks some Chinese and writes basic Chinese characters after staying in the country for three years.
“We (China and Ethiopia) have many common factors, such as family value, culture, respect to all and taking care of women,” he says. “And some of the food styles — spicy food, like Sichuan cuisine.”
Prisca Kyalisiima recalls feeling frazzled when she finally landed at Beijing Capital International Airport from Uganda after more than 20 hours in the air. But when she stepped off the plane and entered the terminal to claim her baggage, her fatigue was immediately erased by what came into her sight.
The airport was nothing like she had imagined it would be. It was big — about four times bigger than the airport in her country — and the architecture was beautiful.
She has been pursuing her PhD in economics and finance at UIBE since 2017 after earning a scholarship from the Chinese government.
Now, apart from daily research and lectures, Kyalisiima also works for the university’s publicity department. She aspires to work for a renowned banking organization such as the World Bank, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or International Monetary Fund.
Kyalisiima says that wherever she ends up working, she will remain an ambassador for China-Uganda relations. She once wrote a letter to the Ministry of Commerce in Uganda, asking if it was possible to have more teachers from China, who could start teaching Chinese.
“I want to learn more Chinese so I can transfer the Chinese culture and the language,” she says. “As an economist, I can be leading forums and conferences and would be the first person to run to give China my assistance.”
Two African students of Changchun University of Chinese Medicine study in the library on Sept 1 in Changchun, Jilin province.
Woldehawariat Miheret Debebe
Idris Salim Dokota