It began, as stories often do, with a message from #The Economist’s foreign editor in London. He had spotted a new book which argued that many high profile Chinese investments in Africa were phantoms – far from grabbing vast tracts of African resources, many Chinese businesses in Africa had failed or never existed at all. “Go and find an abandoned Chinese farm or something”, he suggested, “and explain why it failed.”
This sort of thing tends to be harder than it sounds. Chinese embassies in Africa generally do not answer the phone to Western journalists; Chinese businessmen I have called have pretended not to speak English to avoid questions. This unwillingness to co-operate is one of the reasons why #China’s rise in Africa is so poorly reported.
But by a stroke of luck, I found a blog by an academic asking what happened to this Chinese free trade zone in Uganda. Unlike some reported proposals, it had looked like the real deal. Chinese officials had visited the site and met Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni. Ugandan ones had flown to Beijing for a ceremony broadcast on CCTV, China’s state TV channel. The deal was supposed to involve some 518 hectares of land, an air strip, a new railway, farms and factories. According to some more lurid suggestions, it was to become home to 500,000 Chinese settlers. And yet none of it had happened. It sounded like exactly the sort of hyped-up Chinese land-grab story I wanted to debunk.
I flew to Kampala and began investigating. I met a lawyer, a smartly-dressed lady who claimed she represented the Ugandan partners in the deal. She explained that it had fallen through because of political problems. Apparently, the government was uncomfortable with vast amounts of Chinese money they had no control over being transferred into Uganda. Now the developers were going to build the thing in Tanzania. And the original site? “We own the land and some of our #people are building there. But it is going much more slowly.”
As a foreign correspondent, you often wonder if it is always worth going out of your way to be sure of getting a story. Only occasionally, however, do you experience the opposite: you make the effort to go somewhere and you can’t use any of it. The time that sticks closest in my mind is when I went in search of the “Lake Victoria Free Trade Zone” in Uganda, a supposed Chinese-funded mega-investment which was announced to great fanfare in 2008 but then disappeared entirely.