For some time now I’ve been on a quest to better comprehend the many layers of the China – Africa relationship. I’m confident that my understanding of China and the Chinese will deepen at this weeks’ World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions or ‘Summer Davos’, as it is widely known. The theme, Creating the Future Economy, will be a vibrant global platform for leaders in business, academia, government, civil society and media. It will be held in the modern city of Tianjin, China’s sixth largest, which is just south of Beijing.

I want to bolster my limited first-hand knowledge of a country that I’ve avidly read about and only briefly visited once in the early 80s and whose presence and influence grows daily across Africa – where I’ve lived and worked for 24 years.

As a young professional fresh out of university, I joined a small and tightly structured tour group out of Hong Kong that travelled into what was then called Canton Province. Today it’s known as Guangdong, China’s most populous province with a population roughly the same size as Mexico’s at 104 million.

We drove through the New Territories in a mini-bus, where water buffalos tilled farmland as they had done for millennia. After customs formalities, the ten of us boarded a Cultural Revolution-era coal powered steam train for the short journey. It was green with shiny chrome handles and one class of service. We sat on varnished wooden planks.

The train chugged across the border into the PRC. Out the window I watched old Hakka women dressed in Mao-era black trousers and tunics amazingly balance bamboo baskets on either side of their shoulders on a pole as the hobbled alongside the train. Their feet had been bound as children. Our guide instructed us not to photograph them. Foot binding, which is permanently deforming, was officially banned in 1912, however, it obviously continued in this area for longer.

While seated on a park bench in a pleasant fishing village on the Pearl River Delta, writing post cards back home, in no time I was surrounded by dozens of giggling onlookers. Western handwriting and female Westerners were still a novelty. They queued up to politely touch my waist length blonde hair.

The road teemed with the identical model bicycles pedaled at a steady pace, while most vehicles were small working trucks and vans. I can’t recall seeing a building more than two stories tall. The rolling hills, endless rice paddies and scenic river delta make for tranquil memories. I remember what I thought were half-built warehouses and plots of land being cleared. Little did I realize that this would become the economic engine of China’s industrial revolution, Shenzhen.

That fishing village now has a population of more than 14,000,000 and is the world’s toy and consumer electronics workshop. Factories in Shenzhen also manufacture Lifeline Energy’s Prime radios and Lifeplayer MP3s to a high standard.

I’m looking forward to learning more about Africa’s biggest trading partner up close and personal – from the Chinese themselves – and to comparing the go-go China of today with the serene images from my past.

 

Author: Kristine Pearson, Chief Executive, Lifeline Energy, United Kingdom; social entrepreneur, Schwab Fellow of the World Economic Forum

Lifeline Energy addresses energy poverty for poor and vulnerable women and children through the distribution of solar and wind-up prime radios, MP3-enabled lifeplayers, lights and energy sources. Since its inception in 1999, the organization distributed over 450,000 self-powered products, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, providing continuous access to information, education and light to more than 10 million people. Lifeline Energy owns Lifeline Technologies Trading Ltd, a new product development and trading company which designs, manufactures and sells clean energy products to the humanitarian sector. Read More

 

Image: China Rice field with farmer. Photographer: Markus Raab