The Choice

April 20, 2010

This image has been posted with express written permission.

This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

The Next Empire

April 20, 2010

The Atlantic:

All across Africa, new tracks are being laid, highways built,ports deepened, commercial contracts signed—all on an unprecedented scale, and led by China, whose appetite for commodities seems insatiable. Do China’s grand designs promise the transformation,at last, of a star-crossed continent? Or merely its exploitation? The author travels deep into the heart of Africa, searching for answers.

A porter helped me with my bags as I made my way, sweating, into the train station in Dar es Salaam. In addition to my normal complement of luggage, I had brought a carton full of provisions, including several gallons of water, for a trip of uncertain duration. With the carton perched on his head, the porter led me through the vast, densely packed concourse and into the waiting salon.

There, a clock sat high on the wall, its hands frozen since who knows when. Around the perimeter of the room, above the upholstered benches, the faded yellow walls bore what looked like a generation’s worth of oily stains, laid down in layers in the shape of heads and shoulders by people leaning back, like me, bludgeoned by the thick afternoon heat and waiting for the call to board.

I was about to embark on one of the world’s great train rides, a journey from this muggy Indian Ocean port city, the commercial capital of Tanzania, to the edge of the Zambian Copper Belt, deep in the heart of southern Africa. The official who’d sold me my ticket had seemed puzzled when I asked when the train would arrive at its final destination, and he refused to guess; in recent years, the 1,156-mile trip has been known to take anywhere from its originally scheduled two days to an entire week.

The railroad—known as the Tazara line—was built by China in the early 1970s, at a cost of nearly $500 million, an extraordinary expenditure in the thick of the Cultural Revolution, and a symbol of Beijing’s determination to hold its own with Washington and Moscow in an era when Cold War competition over Africa raged fierce. At the time of its construction, it was the third-largest infrastructure project ever undertaken in Africa, after the Aswan Dam in Egypt and the Volta Dam in Ghana.

Today the Tazara is a talisman of faded hopes and failed economic schemes, an old and unreliable railway with too few working locomotives. Only briefly a thriving commercial artery, it has been diminished by its own decay and by the roads and air routes that have sprung up around it. Maintenance costs have saddled Tanzania and Zambia with debts reportedly as high as $700 million in total, and the line now has only about 300 of the 2,000 wagons it needs to function normally, according to Zambian news reports.

Yet the railway traces a path through a region where hopes have risen again, rekindled by a new sort of development also driven by China—and on an unprecedented scale. All across the continent, Chinese companies are signing deals that dwarf the old railroad project. The most heavily reported involve oil production; since the turn of the millennium, Chinese companies have muscled in on lucrative oil markets in places like Angola, Nigeria, Algeria, and Sudan. But oil is neither the largest nor the fastest-growing part of the story. Chinese firms are striking giant mining deals in places like Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and building what is being touted as the world’s largest iron mine in Gabon. They are prospecting for land on which to build huge agribusinesses. And to get these minerals and crops to market, they are building major new ports and thousands of miles of highway.

In most of Africa’s capital cities and commercial centers, it’s hard to miss China’s new presence and influence. In Dar, one morning before my train trip, I made my way to the roof of my hotel for a bird’s-eye view of the city below. A British construction foreman, there to oversee the hotel’s expansion, pointed out the V-shaped port that the British navy had seized after a brief battle with the Germans early in the First World War. From there, the British-built portion of the city extended primly inland, along a handful of long avenues. For the most part, downtown Dar was built long ago, and its low-slung concrete buildings, long exposed to the moisture of the tropics, have taken on a musty shade of gray.

“Do you see all the tall buildings coming up over there?” the foreman asked, a hint of envy in his voice as his arm described an arc along the waterfront that shimmered in the distance. “That’s the new Dar es Salaam, and most of it is Chinese-built.”

I counted nearly a dozen large cranes looming over construction sites along the beachfront Msasani Peninsula, a sprawl of resorts and restaurants catering mostly to Western tourists. Near them, sheltered coyly behind high walls, lie upscale brothels worked by Chinese prostitutes. In the foreground, to the northwest, sits Kariakoo, a crowded slum where Chinese merchants flog refrigerators, air conditioners, mobile phones, and other cheap gadgets from narrow storefronts. To the south lies Tanzania’s new, state-of-the-art, 60,000-seat national sports stadium, funded by China and opened in February 2009 by President Hu Jintao…

Read it all.

Der Spiegel:

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble talks to SPIEGEL about efforts to save Greece from bankruptcy, plans to reform the euro zone and the need to further regulate the financial sector.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Schäuble, we are conducting this interview at your bedside in a Berlin hospital, where you have spent the past two months, with a short interruption. How do you feel?

Wolfgang Schäuble: Better. The wound I was left with after a routine operation has almost healed. However, I’m unable to sit up, which is a problem for a paraplegic. (Editor’s note: Schäuble has been confined to a wheelchair since a 1990 assassination attempt.) I have to stay in bed so that the scar doesn’t open up again.

SPIEGEL: Why is the healing process taking so long?

Schäuble: I left the hospital too early, against the advice of my doctors. I wanted to travel to Brussels to attend a meeting on the crisis in Greece. Now I prefer to listen to the doctors’ advice and will stay in the hospital for as long as it takes. However, I do hope that I’ll be sitting at my desk again by Monday, when this interview appears in print.

SPIEGEL: Let’s talk about Greece and the euro crisis. In 1992, a prominent member of Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union, to which you belong, made the following promise to German citizens: “If a country accumulates high deficits as a result of its own behavior, neither the (European) Community nor a member state is obligated to help that country.” Do you know who said that?

Schäuble: A lot of people could have said that.

SPIEGEL: It was the current German president, Horst Köhler, who negotiated the terms of the European Monetary Union (EMU) at the time, in his capacity as a senior official in the German Finance Ministry. Does the sentence still apply today?

Schäuble: I’m a firm believer in the monetary union. At the time, I felt exactly the same way as the current president. The only problem is that the world has changed. The capital market has become globalized to a degree that we couldn’t have imagined at the time. And we have experienced a financial crisis from which we in Europe must draw a clear lesson: We cannot allow the bankruptcy of a euro member state like Greece to turn into a second Lehman Brothers.

SPIEGEL: You are exaggerating. In past years, it’s happened again and again that a country couldn’t pay its debts, and yet that hasn’t led to a collapse of the global financial system. Why should this be different in Greece’s case?

Schäuble: Because Greece is a member of the European monetary union. Greece’s debts are all denominated in euros, but it isn’t clear who holds how much of those debts. For that reason, the consequences of a national bankruptcy would be incalculable. Greece is just as systemically important as a major bank.

SPIEGEL: But in a bid to prevent a national bankruptcy, you are accepting the breach of European agreements. Those agreements expressly exclude the possibility of bailout payments to other countries.

Schäuble: That’s not quite correct. It is true that no member state can be required to make payments to others. But if countries want to offer voluntary assistance, as in the Greek case, this isn’t only allowed, but it’s also in Germany’s interest. We all benefit by ensuring the stability of the euro zone.

SPIEGEL: That’s not how German citizens have understood the monetary union. They were assured that the euro would be as stable as the German mark. Now their tax money is going to a country in which a quarter of the population works in the public sector and pensions are often higher than salaries. Is this the way to boost confidence in the euro?

Schäuble: I would caution against fueling cheap populism. First of all, every German who has spent a vacation in Greece knows that the standard of living there isn’t higher than it is in Germany. Second, Greece is paying a high price for European assistance.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, for months the German government was vehemently opposed to government bailouts for Greece. Why did you give in and agree to the EU rescue plan that was recently hammered out and which will involve Germany forking out €8 billion ($10.7 billion) if Greece goes belly up?

Schäuble: We didn’t give in. We have always said that before we talk about assistance, Greece has to do its homework first. Meanwhile, the Greek government has approved a credible austerity program that involves serious cutbacks for its citizens, and it even had to step up those measures recently. This is why the German government is now prepared to take on responsibility at the European level.

SPIEGEL: We understood the chancellor’s words differently at the time.

Schäuble: That must be your interpretation.

SPIEGEL: But we weren’t the only ones. Merkel was referred to as “Madame Non” throughout Europe, because in Brussels she was fundamentally opposed to German aid for Greece.

Schäuble: That description was completely erroneous. The chancellor has consistently said that we are willing to provide assistance as a last resort, and that was how we went about it.

SPIEGEL: In other words, you were playing poker.

Schäuble: Playing poker is the wrong expression. The situation is too serious for that. Germany has embraced its leading role in Europe. We will help Greece in the event that its government, despite a comprehensive restructuring program, falls victim to international currency speculation once again…

Read it all.

Flying Standby

April 20, 2010

This image has been posted with express written permission.

This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

Trust Me

April 20, 2010

This image has been posted with express written permission.

This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.


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