The stadiums' diplomacy
Dr. Gilles Klein, 12 May 2017
18 May 2008. We leave the Grand Hotel of Independence in Conakry and head in the direction of the large stadium, located in the western suburb of the city. We pass Koloma 1 and turn left before Simbaya Station. We go through extremely poor neighborhoods. Young people are playing soccer on a spit of land alongside a river carrying waste. We cross a small hill and discover the first scaffolds of a hoop that seems huge in that setting.
We arrive at the Nongo stadium. The Ministry of Youth and Sports representative in charge of the sports infrastructures explains: the Nongo stadium is the result of the Chinese-Guinean cooperation decided by General President Lansana Conté. It is fully financed by the People’s Republic of China at the level of 50 million US dollars. Our guide ushers us into a yard surrounded by high palisades and introduces us to the works supervisor. He is a Chinese citizen who works for the Chinese building company Shanghai Construction. He provides us with the main elements: 50.000 seats, athletics track, possibility of shows, large car parks. The works started eight months before our visit. The structure is already well advanced. But it won't be inaugurated until 2011.
The Nongo stadium is far from being the first stadium to be built in Africa by the Chinese. Ibrahima Bayo Jr. shows that the construction of the large stadiums in Africa by the People’s Republic of China falls within what he calls as “stadiums diplomacy”. After Mao Zedong’s diplomacy through ping pong, the Chinese diplomacy through sport then continues with the construction of major infrastructures, of which the journalist recalls the main steps.
The first initiative is launched in 1970 with the 15,000 seats of the Amaan Stadium in Zanzibar. Then China built more than fifty stadiums in almost all of the countries of the continent between the 1970s and the 2000s: Stadium of friendship in Dakar - Senegal, Olympic stadium of Nouakchott - Mauritania, Stadium of friendship of Kouhounou in Cotonou - Bénin, Amahoro Stadium of Kigali - Rwanda, « Moi International Sports Centre » in Kasarani – Kenya.
To follow up its diplomatic strategy, over the 2000s, China undertakes renovations of the stadiums built about twenty years before. The African Cup of Nations (ACN) of which we talk frequently in these columns is a major issue of the Chinese-African cooperation. Thanks to this cooperation, Ghana, Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon have been able to organize the Cup. In 2012, for the ACN jointly organized by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, the Bata stadium has been refurbished and enlarged by the Chinese. The Angondjé stadium is a gift of the « Middle Kingdom », baptized Chinese-Gabonese friendship stadium. In 2017, except Franceville stadium, all the fields that have welcomed the 2017 CAN matches in Gabon, are Chinese.
New sites are announced. In Cameroon, the construction of the Limbe and Bafoussam stadiums will be ensured by the Chinese for the ACN 2019. This year, Ivory Coast welcomes the Games of Francophonie at the Félix-Houphouët-Boigny stadium in the city of Plateau Abidjan. The following events will unfold at the new 60,000 seat stadium offered by the Chinese in Ébimpé in the suburb of Abidjan.
In his paper abstract, Ibrahima Bayo Jr. presents the situation thus: “For several years, China launched a major trading and economic offensive towards Africa with multi-direction investments. Far from the occidental paternalism, China developed a parallel diplomacy that favors the bilateral cooperation. This new diplomacy is also expressed through the construction of infrastructures of which the more visible are the great number of stadiums financed, built, renewed and turnkey delivered to the African countries. Stadiums diplomacy: the new weapon of massive seduction by China in Africa”.
When arriving in Kinshasa, in June 2011, I understood the Chinese stadiums' diplomacy. More generally, I understood the diplomacy of presidential palaces, infrastructures, in return for mines, land. We were visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo to negotiate a partnership related to the sanitation of the capital, the production of electricity and biofertilizers. We proposed the reconstruction of the national institute of sports and sports centers for young people throughout the country.
Our contacts with the ministry of agriculture indicated to us that this project could be integrated within the DRC reconstruction program based on which the President Joseph Kabila was elected in 2006. There were the famous “Five sites” in several sectors: infrastructure, health, and education, housing and electricity, employment. In the framework of these ambitious sites, our partnership seemed to be modest compared to the huge contracts signed in this country by China and its companies.
The issues of a cooperation with the DRC are enormous. By the way, our Congolese collaborator, an adviser to the minister of agriculture, liked to recall this sentence of Frantz Fanon’s that qualified the country thus: “Africa has the shape of a revolver which has its trigger located in the Congo”. A forceful abstract that was consistent with the risks of a warrior and diplomatic disorders. Indeed, the DRC is the place of all the risks for the origin of devastating bangs of all Africa. An abstract that was also consistent with the importance of economic challenges. Challenges that were quickly understood by China, in the DRC, more generally in Africa. Of the relationships between Africa and China, I have kept from my experience and my readings at least three processes: isolate, reconnect, negotiate.
To understand the diplomacy of this country, the fantastic history of the Admiral Zheng He was interesting. Between 1405 and 1433, this Chinese and Muslim admiral led the Emperor’s fleet, with more than three hundred vessels, which explored the world's oceanic spaces. He reached Ormuz, the Red Sea, and the West African coast. He would even have circumnavigated Africa and would have gone all the way to the Antilles. Then, the Chinese diplomacy was totally reversed. The end of the Ming dynasty (1358-1644) saw China abandon the open sea and forget the expeditions of the XVth century. The construction of seagoing vessels was even punishable by death. China isolated itself from the rest of the world for several centuries.
How would China reconnect with the world? A memory from childhood put me on the path. My grandfather told me of China’s return to the world without my understanding, then, of the sense. A story that a posteriori helps to understand the stadiums' diplomacy, more generally China’s economic diplomacy. From 18 to 24 April 1955, there was, in Bandung in Indonesia, the first international conference gathering Asia's and Africa’s countries newly coming out of decolonisation. Twenty-nine countries, characterized by the economist Alfred Sauvy as “Third World”, which were just achieving independence and intending to weigh on international policy. Through the Bandung declaration, they solemnly called for a general decolonisation of Africa and the creation of a space for mutual help between the developing countries.
Ahmed Soukarno, the Indonesian leader was the inviting power of this summit. In his introductory address, he did not beat around the bush: “we are united in our hatred of colonialism, in its various forms in which it can appear; we are united in the hatred of racism and in the common determination to preserve and stabilize peace in the world”. Among Soukarno’s distinguished guests, three major leaders of those who will become the “Non-aligned”. Gamal Abdel Nasser for Egypt symbolizes Arab nationalism. Jawarharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s successor in India who continues on the unity and pacifism path. And especially, could I say related to the affair that we are dealing with, Zhou Enlai, Chinese Prime Minister who brings prestige and power and the People’s China.
These nascent powers share the wish to bring the Third world’s countries together to tackle the colonization and to start an economic cooperation. The Bandung charter, signed by the participants, constitutes a non-aggression pact between the attendee countries while respecting the sovereignties of each. They want to realize it in front of the United Nations. They decide on meeting regularly to be able to pursue the Bandung’s dynamics.
From the 1970s, the Chinese authorities closely linked their diplomacy to their economic strategy. We previously recalled Mao Zedong’s diplomacy through sport. But, the “Great Helmsman’s” cultural revolution devastated the Chinese economy. With Deng Xiaoping back in power, a consensus emerged to replace Mao Zedong’s ideological extremism, based on the class struggle, with a pragmatic line focused on economic development.
China then undertook a reform of its controlled economy and opened it to technologies and foreign capital. A strategy summarized by two of Deng Xiaoping’s preferred proverbs: “Irrelevant whether a cat is gray or white provided that it really catches the mice” and “Cross a river by touching the stone”. Beijing removed itself from its traditional allies in the third world, but while promoting an economic diplomacy in Africa. China has seen in Africa a source of energy and mining raw materials. For Africa, China is a partner who does not impose particular political conditions and who even ensures them a diplomatic support. It is a boon to escape from the Bretton Woods’ constraints.
To understand the Chinese diplomacy, let us come back on the field, in Kinshasa and the five sites. To finance his reconstruction program, the President Kabila called on the Chinese. In 2007, he signs with them a “century contract” that troubles the international economic and financial spheres. Indeed, he reinvented the barter, this exchange good against good, very well used in Africa, but that time on a large scale. The State mining company Gécamines provided China with concessions to produce over thirty years 10 million tons of copper, 200,000 tons of cobalt and 372 tons of gold. In return the Chinese companies China Railway Group and Sinohydro Corporation should be able to develop the mining sector and build infrastructures: 3 600 kilometers of roads, 31 hospitals, 145 health centers distributed throughout the country, 4 universities and 50,000 social housing units.
The signature of this barter contract re-baptized “win-win” by the two parties defied the Bretton Woods financial institutions. Like numerous African countries, the DRC was in partnership with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in the framework of structural adjustment programs and debt buyback. The IMF conditioned the erasure of 90% debt to the reduction of the Chinese commitments. Despite a decrease of half commitments, the President Kabila received the means to implement the “five sites” of the reconstruction. Bulldozers invaded Kinshasa. Throughout the country, building sites were launched, new roads connected the provincial capitals and opened up to international trading the previously isolated regions.
That week, from 20 to 27 June 2011, we still experienced “in live” the five sites. Dozens of works emerged along the five kilometres of the 30th June boulevard, from Gombe - the Kinshasa central station to Kitambo on the Ngaliema bay. All things being equal, we were in Kinshasa for a Chinese-style deal. 7000 tons of waste per day against sports infrastructures for Youth. A certainty! In our room at the Royal Hotel of Kinshasa – Gombe, we knew that to be considered and taken seriously, the proof was required of rigor in our affairs management and of an effective capacity to mobilize investments. It was indispensable to convince the Congolese government of the validity of or our socio-economic model. It would also be necessary to eventually be able to face the Bretton Woods institutions’ reprimands.
Since the beginning of the 2000s, in the DRC, more generally in Africa, China did not miss the African appointment: lines of credits for the reconstruction of infrastructures in Angola; mining investments in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Sudan, and Gabon; land acquisition in Uganda, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Madagascar. Everywhere in Africa, the construction of new dams, roads, public buildings, presidential palaces, stadiums, etc.
Colette Braeckman, journalist, in charge of African news at the Belgian newspaper “Le Soir” is one of the best analysts of Africa’s evolution, more particularly of the DRC. Her analysis sheds light on the economic development of Africa and the stadiums' diplomacy. According to the journalist, Europe “neglected Africa”, showing itself “more generous in advice for governance and democratization than in fresh capital injection” . She studies the Chinese policy in Africa at the interface of a new colonialism and an original policy that combines the interests of the Middle Kingdom’s interests and the development of the African countries.
Back to the Nongo stadium. The General President Lansana Conté who had launched the Nongo operation chose which side he was on in the Colette Braeckman problem: “The Chinese do not colonize, they work. China does not need to dominate the African states to reap their raw materials, it barters capital and works against resources”
Next: 19 May 2017 – the apparent fragility of the superpower.
 Ibrahima Bayo Jr., Diplomatie des stades : la Chine construit son image sur les pelouses, La Tribune Afrique, 24 February 2017.
 Pékin brise le tête-à-tête entre l’Afrique et l’Europe, in Le Monde diplomatique, L’Atlas mondes émergents, 2012, Chapitre 4, guerre sans fin, pages 170-171
 Cité par Ibrakima Bayo Jr.