China's new export: farmers

China has a shortage of land, Africa a shortage of food. So one entrepreneur had the bright idea of persuading Chinese farmers to emigrate.

Liu Jianjun is wearing a brightly coloured African tunic, the tall hat of a tribal leader, a string of red beads round his neck and carrying a stick with a secret knife in the handle. Beside him sits a portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong. It is a slightly incongruous scene but one that mirrors the ever-closer relationship between Asia's economic giant China and the world's poorest continent.

"The African people yell, 'Mao Zedong is all right' and they are very warm-hearted when I'm there," says one of China's most prominent private sector ambassadors. "The minute Chinese people get off the plane, the Africans are friendly. Chinese do not bring rifles and weapons; they bring seeds and technology."

China's Ministry of Commerce triumphantly announced this month that its bilateral trade with the continent is set to hit $100bn (£67.8bn) by the end of 2008, two years ahead of schedule. Africa's plentiful oilfields and rich mineral deposits are top of China's imports, and in return the world's most populous nation is exporting tens of thousands of its countrymen.

By some estimates, 750,000 Chinese people have spent time on the continent or have moved to Africa permanently to do business and take advantage of the natural resources. And Hebei, the province from where the middle-aged Mr Liu hails, is no exception. He reckons 10,000 farmers from Hebei alone have gone to 18 African countries in the past few years.

They work in "Baoding villages", named after the dusty township where Mr Liu lives; he likes to point out that Baoding means "Protection and peace". The villages, ranging in size from 400 to 2,000 Chinese, have been set up across the continent, from Nigeria to Kenya, from Sudan to Zambia.

Mr Liu started the Baoding villages when he was head of Hebei province's foreign trade bureau in 1998 and was seeking ways to boost the local economy, which had been dampened by the Asian financial crisis. He discovered Africa.

"We found Africa was not affected by the crisis, and we went there, and found that local people were short of food, even though there was lots of land not in use for farming and plenty of animals," he says. "So I decided to switch from exporting goods to exporting agricultural expertise."

It is a winning formula for China, which has more than 20 per cent of the world's population but only 7 per cent of its arable land. "China has too many people and too little land," Mr Liu ponts out. "In Africa, they have plenty of land and too few farmers. Places such as Ivory Coast are short of 400,000 tonnes of food a year, and the local people cannot farm enough to feed the population. Local farming skills are not developed."

In the kind of comment you do not hear in public in the politically correct West any more, Mr Liu describes African farmers as "a little bit lazy, happier to pick the fruits off the trees than grow it themselves". But he obviously loves the place.

One of the Baoding villagers who went to work in an African namesake is farmer Zhang Xuedong, who spent about a year in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast capital. "I'm fond of African culture and I find the people there quite lively," the farmer says.

Although China has witnessed astounding economic growth, albeit slowing in recent months, there is a yawning gap between the city and the countryside, and the largely rural hinterland remains poor. So for Chinese farmers in places such as Hebei, the prospect of earning up to £7,000 a year in Africa is remarkably attractive, allowing them to send home vital remittances. "My family stayed in Baoding while I went to Africa on my own to teach the Africans how to plant vegetables," Mr Zhang adds.

Li Zhu, chairman of Dafei International Investment, first heard about the opportunities in Africa through the internet and the papers. "Before going there, I was very worried," says Mr Li, who bought 2,000 acres in Mbale in Uganda and is running a Chinese club there. "My family also felt worried. We all heard there were wars, conflicts and diseases. But finally I went there in August last year." A friend of Mr Liu, he hopes to set up a farm and a tractor factory, and is teaching Africans planting techniques using machinery.

"I don't like the food – it's always Western cuisine – but I do love Africa," Mr Li says. "The weather is nice, comfortable and warm. The people are kind and they live in a harmonious society, and are full of passion. I visited Kenya and Uganda. I ultimately chose Uganda, because the country is steady. The local government is very eager to develop the country, but they don't know how to do that. So they want to learn from us. We provide ideas such as development zones. I also heard that there are some good mines, gold mines and quarries, in Uganda. The downside is that we don't know the countries and their local customs; corruption is a problem."

It is not just individuals who are capitalising on an abundance of workers to send over to Africa. The head of China's Export-Import Bank, Li Ruogu, pledged to help finance emigration to Africa as part of a rapid urbanisation scheme in the western Chinese city of Chongqing, already reckoned the world's biggest metropolitan area with 32 million people. "With the establishment of the rapid urbanisation project, several million farmers will have to move," Mr Li told the People's Daily.

But critics of Chinese expansion into Africa see plenty of downsides. Beijing is willing to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses, and is widely accused of helping prop up unpopular leaders, including Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, with arms shipments. China has also been widely condemned in the West for not doing more to pressure the government of Sudan – from whom it buys two-thirds of the national oil output – to end the conflict in stricken Darfur.

Now two Chinese destroyers and a supply vessel are to set sail to Somali waters to help international efforts to fight piracy. Somali pirates off east Africa have taken an array of shipping vessels hostage, including at least seven ships flying the Chinese flag or carrying Chinese crew, in the past 12 months. Now Chinese warships will be deployed to Africa for the first time in 600 years.

Mr Liu largely skirts these broader geo-political concerns, focusing more on the positive impact of Sino-African relations. He notes that the cultural exchange can even extend to marriage. "Some Chinese men marry African women; they like African girls because they are very slim."

With that, he stands up beside the portrait of Mao, and gathering his chiefly African robes, he quotes a Chinese proverb. "People are scared before they go, they are surprised when they arrive, and they miss it when they leave."

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