In the wake of a trade war with the United States and an economic downturn, China’s state-run media have ramped up efforts in promoting the country’s financial and political gains in developing African nations.
The media has focused on economic prosperity in the African continent with friendly and “unsophisticated” locals—a description that Chinese online news outlet The Paper.cn used to describe the people of Nigeria.
Specifically, two Chinese engineers have shared the spotlight. They were given the titles of “chiefs” in west African countries after providing their engineering services, according to various Chinese media outlets. The titles are backed by the leadership in the countries.
The Chinese media has recently given attention to the two men in what may be an attempt to bolster support for China’s “One Belt, One Road,” (OBOR, also known as Belt and Road) initiative, and to further its economic, military, and political influence in the African countries.
The Chinese Chieftains: Kong Tao and Zheng Xiaopeng
Zheng Xiaopeng was awarded a Chieftain title in the west African countries of Ghana in January 2019, and Nigeria in December 2018, according to Chinese app-based news outlet Tianyun. Kong Tao received his title in Nigeria in 2018, but did not officially accepted it until April 2019, according to The Paper.cn.
The two men have similarities in their backgrounds. Both were born in the 1980s; both are from Henan Province, China; and both graduated with majors in engineering.
Chinese media emphasized the importance of the chieftain positions as they carry a degree of political and administrative power, but did not give details on what they can actually do.
Kong began his career as a railroad engineer in Nigeria in 2010 for China Civil Engineering Group, according to Tianyun. He took part in designing the railroad for Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria.
The official title of “Wakilin Ayyuka” was awarded to Kong on April 21, according to Chinese media The Paper.cn. Wakilin Ayyuka means Chief of Public Works, according to Parties and Politics in northern Nigeria. Many Chinese social-media news outlets translated his title as “Tribal Chief.”
Little information was given about Zheng’s work background, saying only that he is an electrical engineer with a focus on automation, and that he now works for the Beijing Huayuan Guardian Security Service Group, according to The Paper.cn.
Much of the report about Zheng was focused on the practical benefits he was to receive from his political position. He is a holder of a card issued by the royal family, which provides benefits in Nigeria as well as other countries which were not specified in the report.
One Belt, One Road
Chinese media reports may have given attention to the two men’s awards to stir interest about the African continent.
China’s foreign infrastructure projects are the major point of its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. Nigeria is a member of this OBOR initiative, and the above mentioned railroad is a project that the country has purchased from China.
However, some governments have described China’s initiative as “debt-trap diplomacy,” offering massive infrastructure projects that are difficult to repay to countries with smaller economies. As a way to repay the debt, some countries gave China control of their strategic ports, such as the Port of Doraleh in Djibouti and Hambantota port in Sri Lanka.
The Chinese regime has been expanding its military presence in Africa. It justifies military presence as security and protection for Chinese nationals working within the country.