CHINA'S AFRICA: Thousands of Chinese farmers bring their skills to Africa, writes Clifford Coonan in Baoding, Hebei Province
LIU JIANJUN, one of China's most prominent private sector ambassadors in the ever-closer relationship between this country and Africa, is wearing a brightly coloured African tunic, the tall hat of a tribal leader, a string of red beads around his neck and carrying a stick with a secret knife in the handle.
Beside the middle-aged Chinese man sits a portrait of chairman Mao Zedong.
"The African people yell 'Mao Zedong is alright' and they are very warm-hearted when I'm there. They all know how to dance, and I am deeply touched by their generosity," said Liu.
China's investment in Africa is more than just feeding its burgeoning oil and mineral needs. These days China is exporting people from all over the world's most populous nation, including the dusty township of Baoding in Hebei province, around three hours drive from Beijing.
China has witnessed astounding economic growth, particularly on the eastern seaboard and in the south, but the largely rural hinterland remains poor and there is a yawning wealth gap between the city and the countryside.
Liu reckons 10,000 farmers from Hebei alone have gone to 18 African countries in past few years. Tens of thousands of Chinese - up to three-quarters of a million by some estimates - have spent time there or have moved to Africa permanently to do business and take advantage of the natural resources.
These people work in Liu's "Baoding villages", and he likes to note that Baoding means "protection and peace". Such villages, ranging in size from 400 to 2,000 Chinese, have been set up in countries like Nigeria, Zambia, Sudan and Kenya.
Liu started the Baoding villages when he was working as the 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. So I decided to switch from exporting goods to exporting agricultural expertise," said Liu.
China has over 20 per cent of the world's population but only seven per cent of its arable land.
"China has too many people and too little land. In Africa they have plenty of land and too few farmers - places like the Ivory Coast are short 400,000 tonnes of food a year, and the local people cannot farm enough to feed the population. Local farming skills are not developed," said Liu.
In the kind of comment that you don't hear in public in the West anymore, 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 its African namesake is farmer Zhang Xuedong, who spent about a year in Africa, during which time he lived in Abidjan, capital of Cote d'Ivoire.
"I'm fond of African culture and I find the people there quite lively. My family stayed in Baoding while I went to Africa on my own to teach the Africans how to plant vegetables," said Zhang.
Some farmers earn more than $10,000 (€6,900) a year in Africa, considerably more than they can in places like Hebei, and they send home millions of dollars in remittances at Chinese new year.
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. My family also felt worried. We all heard there were wars, conflicts and diseases. But finally I went there in August last year," said Li, who bought 2,000 acres in Mbale in Uganda and is running a Chinese club there.
A friend of Liu's, he hopes to set up a farm and a tractor factory, and is teaching locals planting techniques using machinery there.
"I don't like the food - it's always western cuisine - but I do love Africa. The weather is nice, comfortable and warm. The people are kind and they live in a harmonious society, and are full of passion," said Li.
"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 like development zones. I also heard that there are some good mines, gold mines and quarries, in Uganda," said Li.
"The downside is that we don't know the countries, their local customs and corruption is a problem," he said.
The cultural exchange has extended into marriage.
"Some Chinese men marry African women - they like African girls because they are very slim," said Liu.
"Initially we asked the Africans how much they wanted in rent. They said it's free, just share the food with us. We made a deal that we only pay $1 per year per acre in rent. At the start we didn't promote the idea because we didn't want people to say we were grabbing land," he said.
The idea is popular with the government as it encourages greater co-operation between China and Africa, always a good thing as far as Beijing is concerned.
There are other government agencies opening up to the idea of settling 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 the world's biggest metropolitan area by some calculations with 32 million people.
"With the establishment of the rapid urbanisation project, several million farmers will have to move," Li told the People's Daily newspaper.
Critics say China invests in countries without regard for allegations of human rights abuse. China has been hammered internationally for not doing more to pressure the government of Sudan to do more about the stricken Darfur region, even though it buys two-thirds of Sudan's oil output. Liu largely skirts these issues, focusing more on the positive impact of Sino-African relations.
"The minute Chinese people get off the plane, the Africans are friendly. Chinese people do not bring rifles and weapons, they bring seeds and technology," said Liu.
With that, he stands up beside the portrait of Mao. Resplendent in his chiefly African robes and waving his staff, he quotes a Chinese proverb.
"People are scared before they go, they are surprised when they arrive, and they miss it when they leave."This series has been supported with a grant from the Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund, which is sponsored by Irish Aid