US & World

How China and the US pave different roads to development in East Africa

China's influence is visible on the streets of Kampala where Chinese contractors are building several high-rises.
China's influence is visible on the streets of Kampala where Chinese contractors are building several high-rises.
Shirley Jahad/KPCC

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just wrapped up a 10-day tour of Africa, in part an effort to counter China’s growing influence on the continent.

She delivered her first speech at a university in Dakar Senegal, emphasizing "the link between democracy and development is the defining element of the American model of partnership" with Africa.

"The U.S. will stand up for democracy," she said. "Even when it might be easier or more profitable to look the other way, to keep the resources flowing. Not every partner makes that choice. But we do and we will."

It’s an interesting question for any developing country: Build high level democratic ideals and institutions or build roads, bridges and buildings. The U.S. and China are taking different paths on this question.

In Uganda, China’s influence dots the landscape. Uganda is about half the size of California, with almost as many people. In the capitol, Kampala, beeping boda-bodas or motorcycle taxis whiz by, carrying daring passengers across often rough roads in the city center.

Two brand new, twin high-rise buildings stand tall as a testament to China's giving. They will house the office of the president, vice president and prime minister. China funded their construction.

"They are everywhere, in everything. It seems the rest of the world hasn’t woken up yet," says businessman
Elly Karuhanga of China's growing interest and influence.

Karuhanga is an oil company executive and has dealt with both Chinese and U.S. officials. He says China is building roads, hospitals and government buildings. Some projects are outright gifts and others are funded by long term loans from China. Sometimes, Chinese contractors do the work.

"The Chinese are bringing what the rest of the world failed to bring to the table," he says. "The rest of the world brings aid for governance. They want multi-party elections. They want terms office fixed. They want this and that about how to organize society along the western style," he says. "The Chinese have nothing to do with that. They don’t talk about politics."

Journalist Joachim Boembo puts it simply:

“The people see China as real. Because it is things you can see," he says. "The West is abstract. Western aid is abstract,"

He said there's another advantage to China's support.

“It doesn’t enter into some bottomless hole in government. It goes into projects." he said "In that sense, money from China represents something tangible, unlike America and World Bank and IMF money which is intangible. And that money ends up being stolen."

Or eaten. That’s how Ugandans describe the way money gets gobbled up by corruption. The money gets eaten, they say.

Chinese officials call their approach a win-win strategy.

Xiaoming Zou is Commercial Counselor at the Chinese Embassy in Kampala. He says as an example, China is offering to loan Uganda $350 million to build a 20-mile highway from the airport in Entebbe to Kampala.

“Uganda benefits a lot," Zou said. "Because that is the first highway Uganda ever had in history."

How does China benefit? He says China gets jobs for engineers and others working on the projects. He points out that building infrastructure in Africa "will lay foundation for further Chinese investment" in the future.

China’s involvement in Uganda’s economy goes from top to bottom. It goes from big ticket projects to small household items at the street market. Chinese products are everywhere in the markets, from plastic shoes to cheap electronics.

Some Ugandans are critical of China’s so-called win-win strategy. Critics like professor of international political economy Yunus Lubega Butanaziba from Nkumba University.

"It is a lose win situation that I see. Not a win win situation. It sounds nice to hear, but it does not take place in the real world," he says. “I do not see a situation in which Uganda gains in relation to Chinese markets or projects of development.”

He says Uganda is not winning enough jobs or trade and is getting flooded with low quality goods — from household items to appliances to building materials. Those cheaply made products undercut local merchants.

All of that may be true. But in the high stakes political and economic game of global influence, China surpassed the U.S. in recent years to become Africa’s largest trading partner. Last month, China announced plans to give a $20 billion credit to African governments for infrastructure projects. That's double the amount China gave three years ago.

KPCC's Shirley Jahad recently returned from a trip to East Africa as part of a fellowship from the International Center for Journalists funded by the Ford Foundation and the Brooks and Joan Fortune Family Foundation.