China, Congo Trade For What The Other Wants China will build the Democratic Republic of Congo a much-needed 1,000-mile highway in exchange for access to mining. But details of the deal are making some local officials and business owners uneasy.

China, Congo Trade For What The Other Wants

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Deborah Amos. The Democratic Republic of Congo and the Chinese government has made a deal that gives China access to Congo's natural resources, and in return, Congo gets China's help building a transportation network. The deal, however, has made Westerners nervous. NPR's Gwen Thompkins has the third report in a five-part series on China's role in Africa.

GWEN THOMPKINS: If music is the fastest way to communicate emotion to the human heart, then this is the Congolese version of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified People: (Singing) (Speaking foreign language).

THOMPKINS: It is a rare morning in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the southern province of Katanga, near the Zambian border, the powerful are much pleased by the announcement to come. There are lawmakers and majorettes, celebrities, a red carpet and a raised stage. Chinese construction workers in baby-blue jumpers are setting the Chinese flag just so, and Congo's president, Joseph Kabila, is here wearing a black leather jacket with a Mandarin collar.

This is the day Congo and its Chinese partners unveil plans to build a 1,000-mile road from the Zambian border to northeastern Congo. The folks here are excited about the first 45 miles.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified People: (Singing) (Speaking foreign language).

Mr. LIU KONG HONG (Construction Company Owner): (Through translator) We want to stress the support and solicitude of the government of China and its assistance for the reconstruction of this road and the restoration of the mines in Congo.

THOMPKINS: That's Liu Kong Hong. He heads the company that will construct the road. To be honest, not everyone understood all he had to say. The Congolese speak French, and Liu speaks Mandarin. But really, who care on a day such as this?

Mr. HONG: (Through translator) Long life and the cooperation between Congo and China. Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

THOMPKINS: The Congolese expect to get more investment in their country from China than they have gotten from any single Western power in years, and Congo desperately needs infrastructure.

After 30 years of government-sanctioned thievery under Mobutu Sese Seko, the country is literally in the hole. The roads have divots big enough to store luggage in.

Charles Birindwa is a border patrol officer where Congo meets neighboring Zambia.

Mr. CHARLES BIRINDWA (Border Patrol Officer): Since the reign of Mobutu, the roads were not repaired since 32 years.

THOMPKINS: Thirty-two years?

Mr. BIRINDWA: Yeah, 32 years.

(Soundbite of truck on dirt road)

THOMPKINS: This is what it sounds like to drive around here. Hundreds of trucks cross every day on this road, loaded with ore and much-needed food imports. One pickup heading north this morning is carrying more than 50 mattresses, stacked like a traveling road show of "The Princess and the Pea."

Vice Prime Minister GODFREY MAYOMBO (Vice Prime Minister, Congo): (Through translator) If you take all the roads of national interest, you take the roads of provincial interest, and you take also the roads of local interests, is 100,000 kilometers.

THOMPKINS: Godfrey Mayombo is the vice prime minister of Congo. One-hundred-thousand kilometers is about 60,000 miles of road that Congo needs to repair. Mayombo was born in a village in western Congo, but he says even in a four-wheel driveā€¦

Vice Prime Minister MAYOMBO: (Through translator) There is a risk that I wouldn't reach my village.

THOMPKINS: But not everyone in Congo is excited about this deal.

Mr. GUY SEVRIN (Belgian Consul General): For me it's not clear how they will do their business here. There is no transparency.

THOMPKINS: Guy Sevrin is the Belgian consul general. He and others suspect that the Chinese are not competing by the same rules as the other mining interests here. They also worry that China's billions could end up unaccounted for in Congo, where corruption is rife.

Mr. SEVRIN: If there is a deficit of information, you don't know what to think. So you become suspicious. You think they are doing things behind your back.

THOMPKINS: Okay, so here's what is generally known about the deal. Congo and China are forming a massive mining company called Socomin. Congo will own 32 percent, and China will own 68 percent.

The Chinese are putting up all the money to build the facility, and they're putting up all the money to build the rail lines and roads that will help get the ore back to China. They're also building some hospitals along the way, but the money isn't free.

It will take the form of loans to the Congolese government. Congo will pay back China with copper and cobalt and road tolls until China recovers its investment, and once the money is paid off, the two countries will split Socomin's profit.

Mr. JOHN SKINNER (Mining Company and Road Works Company Operator): They couldn't give two hoots about this loan.

THOMPKINS: John Skinner runs a mining and road works company here. He says the deal means much more to China than money ever could.

Mr. SKINNER: This loan is part of the mega surplus that China gets from trading with the United States. They don't know what to do with this money, and $9 billion to the Chinese, it's not a big amount of money.

THOMPKINS: Now Skinner's going to tell you how China comes out ahead.

Mr. SKINNER: They Look at the benefits. Number one, they're getting to do the infrastructure with Chinese companies. Number two, they get a stake in a mega-mine which guarantees a huge amount of copper into the future for Chinese industry. Number three, it gives them a serious foothold in Africa.

THOMPKINS: Western companies say they have had to jump through far more hoops to do business in Congo than the Chinese. They must adhere to Congo's mining code, which may or may not apply to the Chinese, and they pay taxes and royalties that the Chinese won't have to pay.

As one exasperated mining executive said in his office, we invest in their country during the worst of their civil wars, and this is how they repay us?

Provincial Governor MOISES KATUMBI (Katanga, Congo): Who allow the Chinese to come here? These few guys.

THOMPKINS: Moises Katumbi is the provincial governor. He says that while the West helped bring about democratic elections in Congo, economic investment has been slow, but the Chinese come checkbook in hand.

Gov. KATUMBI: You are the governor. You put yourself in my place. You don't have road. Are you going to refuse?

THOMPKINS: Congo's leaders stress that they are open to doing business anytime with any nation, and that suits Liu Kong Hong just fine.

Mr. HONG: We can also do other projects, because there is a lot of projects here.

THOMPKINS: After today's ceremony, Liu and other Chinese company executives smoked cigarettes and drank soda pop in their construction offices while a crowd of Congolese made a racket outside. Liu and his colleagues talked mostly about the road they're building, but perhaps the map on the wall underscored China's greater ambitions for the continent, It was a map of Africa written completely in Chinese. Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Kasumbalesa, Congo.

AMOS: Tomorrow, opposition to China's involvement in Zambia.

Unidentified Man: Today, the Chinese are not here as investors. They are here as invaders.

AMOS: That's tomorrow on MORNING EDITION.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.