MONROVIA, Liberia -- One of the most interesting developments in post-war Liberia over the past three years has been the emergence of the Chinese presence. In addition to building themselves a lavish new embassy, the Chinese have been making major investments in education and infrastructure. On the way in from the airport last night, I passed several road crews working under flood lights, each with a nattily dressed Chinese foreman guiding the effort.
Another of their more visible projects is a $4 million investment in the rebuilding of the Liberian government's radio broadcasting network. In exchange for all the new towers and transmitters, the Chinese are permitted to broadcast their English language China Radio International programming throughout the country. The only other nationwide broadcasts are those from the U.N. military mission and from the Liberian government itself. No independent media has the resources for country-wide coverage.
One of the benefits of the Chinese programming is that you get to hear voices like Zhang Ming, a senior member of the Institute of World Economics and Politics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He was expressing the growing concern in China about the amount of U.S. debt on their books and suggested that China might like to swap some of their $739 billion in treasury bonds for shares in the partially nationalized banks. (Why not let some state socialist pros show us how its done?) He also said they would like to diversify their debt portfolio but the options, except for the Euro-market, are not very tantalizing. He was speaking like a man with a boat-anchor attached to his neck, with the anchor itself perched unsteadily on the bow.
As for the Liberians, self-described as America's "best friends in Africa," their general attitude towards the U.S. financial debacle is one of sympathy. But I get the impression that the implications for them haven't sunk in yet.
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have yet to organize their team for Africa, but one of their top priorities has to be how we are going to strategically respond to China's moves throughout the continent and how we are going to engage with countries like Liberia that clearly need help wherever they can get it.. This week's politically motivated rioting in next-door Sierra Leone and the coup in Madagascar are ominous reminders for Liberians, who want to believe that their most serious troubles are behind them. They also don't want to believe that the financial debacle in the U.S. means we are going to abandon them once again.
(First published in World Politics Review March 19th, 2009)