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The rise of the dragon

Staff Writer BRIAN BENZA joins 20 other journalists from Africa on a visit to China from where he gazes down 350 metres below through a transparent glass floor of the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai and agrees that China will overtake the American economy in the next three to four decades

With all the mishaps that have been associated with travelling in the past few months, including plane crashes and the A(H1N1) virus, I am sure you will agree with me that now is not the time to travel, especially long distances.

I found myself in a dilemma of having to weigh the pros and cons of travelling recently, when I was given the chance to go to China as part of a press delegation from English-speaking African countries. Although I admit that plane crashes and the risk of contracting A(H1N1) did cross my mind, it did not take me much time to accept the offer from the Chinese Embassy in Botswana to take part in the 10-day tour.

I took off from Sir Seretse Khama International Airport a scheduled Air Botswana flight in the morning of Saturday August 8, and reached the OR Tambo International Airport before 8 o'clock but had to wait for over four hours to catch my connecting 13-hour Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong. On the few occasions that I have been at OR Tambo in the past 12 months, the refurbishments there have always overwhelmed me as South Africans prepare for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. There are massive expansions and reconstructions of the terminals to the where you use different terminals and boarding gates each time.

After over four hours of wandering around the duty-free shops at OR Tambo, I finally boarded my Hong Kong-bound flight which took off just before lunch. Although the in-flight movies and other forms of entertainment somewhat preoccupied me, 13 hours proved too long a time to be sitting in a chair in economy class that has barely enough legroom. From Hong Kong, I took another connecting flight to Beijing, which lasted just about 3 hours, arriving in China's capital just after midday, which was 6am back home.

After going through the formalities, including passing through a body temperature reading machine, I made my way to the exit where I found my hosts waiting for me with a placard bearing my name.

As soon we exited the terminal building of Beijing Airport, we were greeted by a thick wave of hot and humid air, the temperature recording 32 degrees Celsius. For someone coming from the terribly cold winter of Gaborone, to be thrust into the extreme of the weather was a bit too much and I just could not wait to get to the hotel or wherever we were going to be accommodated by our hosts. Finding our way through the traffic jungle of Beijing's four million cars, I quickly noticed that the city had gone through some significant changes since the last time I was there in 2006, and I could only attribute that to the Olympics that were held there last year. I was taken to the four-star Oriental Garden Hotel in central Beijing where I was introduced to 20 other journalists from African countries two of whom I knew from previous tours - one from Sierra Leone and the other from Zimbabwe.

The first thing I noticed when we entered the hotel, just by the door, was the same machine similar to the one I had seen at the airport. It looked like a small camera mounted on a three-legged stand. I took the chance to ask the ladies at the reception desk if the machine was what I thought it was, and yes it was a body temperature censor. They told me that because of the rapid spread of the A(HINI) virus, and the need to protect their customers, most four-star and five-star hotels in Beijing were now equipped with such machines which beep and flash if someone with an abnormal body temperature enters the lobby. At the back of my mind, I wondered why our own airports and hotels have not acquired similar equipment, especially given confirmed cases of swine flu in Botswana are people who have either travelled outside the country or been in contact with people who have Swine flu.

Anyway, for the next three days, our hosts took us to various sights in Beijing, which included historical monuments and places of economic and cultural interest.

Among the places we visited on our first day was the Forbidden City, the Bird 's Nest and the National Aquatic Centre, also known as the Water Cube, which was the site of the aquatic games in the 2008 Summer Olympics. Although the building had been finished before the Games, some kind of construction was still going on. But what caught my eye was how the Chinese have turned it into a tourist attraction where people pay to go inside and look. The Water Cube, which is also now being used for water shows, is a fantastic feature that attracts tourists from all over China and the outside world. Even though the Olympics were held in their country, the Chinese flocked to see the Water Cube and were certainly the largest number, signalling the rise of local tourism.

We also visited the Ministries of Commerce and Foreign Affairs where we had a chance to interact with government officials. Other places we visited included China Daily newspaper as well as CCTV. In his speech during a dinner hosted in our honour, the Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs, Zhai Jun, appealed to our pens and papers to paint a more positive picture of China for African people in order to help erase the image painted by the Western media. Of course, you can never go to China, let alone Beijing, without a visit to the flea markets where the amount of stuff to buy might not depend as much on how much you have in your wallet but as on your gift of the gab or pantomime.

Here you never buy anything at the price first quoted by the trader, and because of the language barrier, the calculator comes in handy as you punch in your figures while the negotiations continue. The trader first tells you how much they bought the item for at the factory but that they are nonetheless willing to give you a discount.

On my previous visit to China, I learnt that you must negotiate the price down to about at least a fifth of what was originally quoted. Although we were advised by our guides not to buy any electronic gadgets such as cellphones from open-air markets because of their poor quality, most of us found the prices too low to resist. Most of my colleagues fell in love with the cheap i-phone, which was going for as low as P300 after negotiations, while others hoarded Blackberries for as little as P500 apiece. Our last point of visit in Beijing was the Great Wall, which is one of the main historical features of Beijing and China.

From Beijing, we headed for the coastal city of Qingdao, about 600 kilometres or one hour by air from the capital. This town is famously known for household goods and electronic appliances made by Hisense and the famous Chinese beer, Tsingtao.

Our first point of call in Qingdao was Hisense where a 20-minute tour of the showroom and offices is enough to change your perception of China as the source of inferior quality products.

The hi-tech here is so state-of-the-art and offers almost the futuristic in home appliances, CCTV and tracking devices. Another interesting place we visited was the Tsingtao Breweries which traces its roots back to 1903.

Our visit coincided with the Qingdao International Beer Festival which integrates massive entertainment with the beer culture of the city. It was in this town that the worst fears of my visit to China almost became a reality, resulting in my missing the beer fest. With temperatures above 34 degrees Celsius on our second day here, my body gave in and I succumbed to a terrible bout of flu that had me bedridden for the whole day. It was only after taking some tablets that i began to feel better after 24 hours that I dismissed fears that I had contracted the dreadful A(H1N1) virus and rejoined the tour. Whence I took the rest of the medication religiously because I did not want to miss our next point of call, Shanghai City, China's capital of finance and commerce of which I had heard a lot about.

After a 50-minute flight from Qingdao, we arrived in Shanghai, the sight of which debunked any views I might have had of Beijing being the city of wondrous architecture and phenomenal infrastructure. Acclaimed travellers will say there is not much difference between Shanghai and New York in terms of marvellous buildings and the pace of life. We were first taken to a place where the Shanghai municipality is building a new sub-city called the Shanghai Lingang, which is to become the hub of China's maritime activity housing the China Navigation Museum, the Shanghai Maritime University and the Shanghai Fishery University. As a marine logistics base, Shanghai Lingana will also have marine equipment industries. It has already cost 58 billion yuan, 25 billion in infrastructure alone.

But this is all not that caught my interest. The project was started four years ago and is aimed for completion in 2020. The municipality has relocated 18,000 people and razed several large factories to the ground to make way for the new sub-city. The 18,000 people were given the opportunity to live in better houses with toilets and running water here or they could use their resettlement money to purchase new homes of their choice elsewhere.

They have now reclaimed a large expanse of land from the sea and created the largest lake in China. In the middle is a work of art that resembles a drop of water. A German firm, GSM, designed these marvels of concentric circles of water above a pool and circles of waves spinning out of the centre. Another phenomenal creation is a breathtaking meeting of aesthetics and function in a 32-kilometre bridge connecting two islands in this district.

The highlight of my three-day stay in Shanghai was the visit to the Shanghai Expo 2010 and the Oriental Pearl Tower, now the highest TV tower in Asia at 468 metres. A balcony with a transparent glass floor welcomes you 350 metres up the tower and allows you to gaze down 350 metres below. Believe me, you need guts to step on this glass floor. I stepped on it for no more than a few seconds, preferring the adjoining cement floor that felt more like terra firma, though still at the dizzying height 350 metres.

A colleague from Nigeria who refused to step on the glass floor summed it up when he said: "This is not funny at all." From the tower we also went on a ride on a speed train, which was an absolute first time for me on an overland machine travelling at 500 kilometres per hour! Shanghai also has the second tallest building in the world - the 492-metre, 101-floor Financial Centre.

Looking back on the trip and the different towns we visited, I marvel at the phenomenal development China is undergoing, the hospitality of its citizens who always great you with a smile, and their rich cultural heritage. One thing is for sure: Economists do not exaggerate when they say China will overtake the American economy in the next three to four decades. From placing negligible offshore investments less than two decades ago, China has now opened up to the rest of the world, become the world's sixth biggest foreign investor and superseded the United States as Africa's top trading partner last year.

With its forex reserves standing at $2.13 trillion at the end of June, China will continue to channel more investment to Africa, and the continent would do well to embrace the 'Rise of the Dragon' from which it stands to gain more than it could ever hope for from the Occident-the Western World.

(28 August 2009, Mmegi)

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