China’s French King in Africa
The red-eye is operated by Ethiopian Airlines; it stops in Delhi and then Addis Ababa, where passengers like my seatmate would fan out across the continent. Someday, I thought, archeologists will look at the passenger manifest from a flight like this and learn all they need to know about what China meant to the world in the early moments of the twenty-first century: about a third of the passenger list was composed of Indians and other visitors like me; another third comprised African businesspeople and diplomats, heading home from the country that has emerged as arguably Africa’s single largest investor; the final third encompassed the Chinese sojourners, wiry laborers, in cotton shoes and military surplus pants, heading to construction sites and road crews, and a scattering of technical personnel like the scientist seated to my right.
He was a pharmaceutical researcher by training, but he had been picked by his company to join an agricultural project in Congo. They would be growing rice to ship back to China, he said. Being a part of the project made his company look good and patriotic in the eyes of local Chinese officials, and the scientist had “been volunteered,” as he put it, to be the company representative. “To be honest, I didn’t want to go, but it’s the right thing to do,” he said and stared at the darkness outside his window.