Will Morocco's Chinese-Funded 'Tech City' Ever Break Ground? The Mohammed VI Tangier Tech City would stand in monument to China's expansion into a North African nation on Europe's doorstep. But experts say the project has stalled.

Will Morocco's Chinese-Funded 'Tech City' Ever Break Ground?

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China is making investments around the world, which matters because where China's money goes, power may follow. Our next story takes us to Morocco, where China has plans to build an entire city from scratch. It's near Morocco's coast. The Chinese hoped to export from there to Africa and Europe, but the project is riven with pitfalls, possible evidence of how China's global expansion is not going to be easy. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: At a grand signing ceremony between Morocco's king and the country's new Chinese business partner, the audience in the city of Tangier watches a flashy promotional video for the new city.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: It shows wide, tree-lined boulevards, gleaming skyscrapers set amid lush gardens and an industry hub for everything from aeronautics to the latest technologies and renewable energy. In all, it will be home to some 300,000 people. In the ceremony, shown on local television, Li Biao, the CEO of the Chinese company the Haite Group, laid out the scale of the company's commitment.


LI BIAO: (Through interpreter) We expect to create a hundred thousand jobs and attract a hundred Chinese companies that will create materials for planes, cars, textiles, and the manufacturing of machinery.

SHERLOCK: Li says this marks a new relationship between China and Morocco.


SHERLOCK: When the deal was signed last year, the Moroccan government said the first factory would be built by the spring of 2019. We arrive, though, to find no construction at all.

There is nothing here, though.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: We call up somebody from the local municipality to check if we're even in the right place.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: We're at where the Google Map pin is, but is it - is it hilly? Is it a scrubland?

He assures us we've arrived. You can see mile after mile of gently undulating scrubland. There's some villages. It's extremely rural. I'm watching a farmer walk his two cows through the field. There are some sheep in the near distance.


SHERLOCK: Hi. There's a donkey going past, laden with heavy bottles of water and children running after them.

Across the road in a cafe, we meet with 38-year-old Mustafa (ph). He gives only his first name because he worries that talking to us will anger local officials.

MUSTAFA: (Through interpreter) This Tangier tech area we're looking over is owned by the region now, not the people anymore. Some people are OK with the situation and others aren't.

SHERLOCK: Mustafa says he's waiting to see if the project will even happen. This is the key question, but it's a sensitive one. That's because the project goes beyond business to the highest of political heights.


SHERLOCK: The grand plans for this city were made during a state visit by Morocco's king to China in 2016. Serenaded on national television by a full brass band, China and Morocco promised to become partners on everything, from the environment to the military and the economy.


SHERLOCK: And today in Morocco, it feels as though China is everywhere. There are Mandarin language centers in the main cities. There are joint political institutes. Hayat Jabran, the former general secretary for the private Moroccan Confederation of Tourism, now runs a travel agency. She says the number of Chinese visitors has skyrocketed.

HAYAT JABRAN: We started with this market in 2013 with 7,000 tourists, and we closed last year, which is 2017, for more than 120,000 tourists. And we are expecting, for 2020, around a half million.

SHERLOCK: And what's even more exciting is that Chinese businessmen are showing up, looking for opportunities.

JABRAN: We will win with China, and China will win with Morocco.

SHERLOCK: Jabran's travel agency is in the coastal city of Casablanca. The city's downtown, defined by the grand, white-painted buildings from the time of the French colonials, now has a Chinatown.

LI YONG: (Speaking Mandarin).

SHERLOCK: At a Chinese restaurant there, we meet with Li Yong, who heads Morocco's main Chinese Business Association and owns a factory for handbags and suitcases. Over plates of sesame chicken and sweet and sour prawns, I ask him - what's attracting Chinese businessmen to Morocco?

Y. LI: (Speaking Mandarin).

SHERLOCK: Morocco is important for China, Li says, because it's a gateway to two continents, Africa and Europe.

RAVI PRASAD: This tends to be one of the primary motivations for going abroad.

SHERLOCK: This is Ravi Prasad, an analyst with Belt And Road, a blog that tracks China's ambitions around the world. He says the Chinese love to find business in countries like Morocco that have free trade agreements with Europe and the United States. But not all of China's mega-projects live up to their headlines and macro numbers.

PRASAD: The reality is those numbers almost invariably don't meet the numbers that are reported. You go country to country - Ethiopia, Nigeria, Poland - and you ask them, how much have the Chinese pledged in their memorandums of understanding, and how much has actually been invested? And there's a huge, huge gap.

SHERLOCK: This may help explain why the construction site we visited in Tangier is still scrubland. Deborah Brautigam, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and an expert on China's activity in Africa, says she sees this happening again and again.

DEBORAH BRAUTIGAM: All of these things that China says this, or China says that - it's not a done deal until you actually see some cold, hard cash flowing across the border.

SHERLOCK: In the case of Tangier, it looks like there might be no hard cash flowing. The Chinese company involved, the Haite Group, refused all our requests for interviews, but a source there told us that the company is no longer involved in the Tangier project. Others have questioned the ability of the Haite Group to take on a project like this. Brautigam, the China-in-Africa expert, says she hasn't run into the company in her research. Of all the actors in the Tangier project that we reached out to, only Illyas al-Amari, the Tangier region president, agreed to talk. We meet in his office, where he shows us a thick report of how the city would be laid out.

ILLYAS AL-AMARI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: He insists the project is not behind schedule.

AL-AMARI: (Through interpreter) The research takes time. We're talking about building a city, not some small artificial area.

SHERLOCK: When it comes to the Haite Group, he admits, though, that there are problems. He says they wanted ownership of the city.

AL-AMARI: (Through interpreter) We said no. The company who will own the city and build it needs to be Moroccan. We welcome Chinese companies, but only as investors.

SHERLOCK: Whether that's good enough for the Chinese remains to be seen, and so does the sparkling, high-tech city in the scrubland. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Tangier, Morocco.

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