For decades now, Beijing has been generating good will — and gaining privileged economic access — by donating and renovating sports facilities in select African nations.
EBIMPÉ — Brand spanking new, and in the eye-catching shape of a bird's nest, a massive Olympic stadium has now taken its place in the political history of the Ivory Coast.
Located north of Abidjan in the city of Ebimpé, the 60,000-capacity structure is an emblem of modern architecture. And it recently hosted several famous politicians and African pop stars who, at the behest of current Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara, sang and celebrated the life of his honorary "son," the late Prime Minister Hamed Bakayoko, who died of cancer on March 20 in Germany.
But it wasn't just in Africa that the event attracted widespread attention. Half a world away, in Beijing, it was seen as a great diplomatic success. And that's because the stadium — which will be used to host the 2023 finals of the African Cup of Nations (ACN) — was a gift to the Ivory Coast from China.
It's not the only one. China is paying 200 million euros to finance stadiums in the north and south of the country as well. Still, "Alassane Ouattara Stadium," as it's now known, holds a special place. Built over four years and to the tune of 130 million euros, the structure required the efforts of more than 1,500 Chinese and Ivorian workers to complete.
Wan Li, the Chinese Ambassador to the Ivory Coast, calls it a "jewel of friendly cooperation" between their two countries.
"This is one of the most beautiful things our country has accomplished in the field of sports," said the Ivorian president, who, in the month before his controversial bid for a third term, thanked his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at the inauguration of the site.
Ivorian President Ouattara speaking at the "Alassata Ouattara" Stadium — Photo: Official Facebook Page of Alassane Ouattara
Standing beside President Ouattara, Mr. Wan referred to the project as "the biggest and best equipped stadium that China has ever financed or built in Africa."
As part of its so-called Stadium Diplomacy, China has built and renovated nearly 100 stadiums all over the African continent in the last five decades, with the ultimate goal of strengthening its bilateral relations, securing major contracts, gaining privileged access to natural resources, and winning over the support of their African "brothers and sisters' in the United Nations.
In doing so, China has successfully established itself as the continent's largest trading partner and credit lender, in large part due to its New Silk Road initiative, which runs through the heart of the African continent.
Stadium Diplomacy often appears trivial in comparison to large-scale, strategic infrastructure projects, such as the construction of roads, railroads, dams, and ports. But from a strategic perspective, these structures are a win-win. Relatively speaking, they're inexpensive, easy to build from an architectural perspective, popular with the people, and highly symbolic for the country involved.
What's more, African Presidents love them. They inaugurate the stadiums with great fanfare, integrate them into their national identity, and use them to hold political conferences and concerts. It's also true, however, that after the initial excitement, the stadiums tend to be neglected.
People see that there's no such thing as a free gift.
The 20,000-seat Engong Stadium in Oyem, a city in Gabon"s economically depressed northern region, is a case in point. Also a gift from China, the complex features a tennis court, three basketball courts, and a full track-and-field built to international standards. In 2017, it hosted the ACN's Group C, with President Ali Bongo there to kick the event off.
Now, just a few short years later, everything has been abandoned, a fact that hasn't gone unnoticed by residents. "Your stadiums can't cure COVID-19," they say.
Photos have circulated on social media of the stadium going to disarray, as its soccer field is now overgrown with weeds and tall grass. Out of desperation, local youth, sporting face masks and combat uniforms claimed in a video to have burned down the presidential box. "We cannot eat your stadiums," they said.
Authorities denounced this as an "act of terror" and promised to fix the damages. But since then, nothing's been done.
"There have been more and more protests against Chinese stadiums. People see that there's no such thing as a free gift," says researcher Itamar Dubinsky of Oregon State University in the United States. "Oftentimes the maintenance of the stadium is left up to the city. That then drains resources that could be spent on essential social services. Leaders, particularly authoritarian ones, may see stadiums as a way to make themselves more popular by using them to host mega-events, but the legacy of unsustainable stadiums can do a lot of damage in the long-term."
Ouattara meets with Wu Weihua, vice chairman of China's National People's Congress Standing Committee— Photo: Li Yan/Xinhua/ZUMA
Such concerns have not slowed down the construction of donated stadiums, a tradition that "Chinafrica" specialists trace back to 1970 when the Amaan Stadium in Zanzibar, Tanzania was built. Over the next two decades, Beijing's Stadium Diplomacy would be put to the test in countries such as Rwanda, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) Kenya, Uganda, Djibouti and Mauritania.
Democrats and dictators alike are given the same access to huge loans, contracts to trade "resources for infrastructure," as well as lavish gifts, cash and offshore accounts. The one stipulation is that they can't maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
Burkina Faso broke that rule. Beijing offered the country a stadium in the 1980s. But when the then-president, Blaise Compaoré, resumed relations with Taiwan in 1994, China broke off all contact, closed its embassy and took everything — even the electrical circuits and all of the plans for the August 4th stadium. Without Chinese support, the stadium plunged into darkness.
Eventually, in May 2018, Burkina Faso switched back to the Chinese side. Now, only the southern African monarchy, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
China is no longer content just to build the stadiums.
Donating stadiums remains a soft-power tool for political influence, but it can also be used for provocation. In 2015, for instance, China rushed to announce plans to renovate the Moi International Sports Center in Nairobi just days before U.S. President Barack Obama was set to give a speech there. Three years later, Chinese leader Xi Jinping started his African tour in Senegal. While there, he gestured to the popularity of wrestling as a sport in Senegal by handing over the keys to the national wrestling arena, which was financed by Beijing.
Currently, another Olympic stadium, inspired by the one in Abidjan, is under construction near Dakar, the Senegalese capital. The city is set to host the China-Africa Summit this year, which will bring the majority of the continent's heads of state to the French-speaking region.
"Recently, China has been more strategic and calculating with their investments in sports infrastructure," says sinologist Jean-Pierre Cabestan of Hong Kong Baptist University. "China anticipates the schedules of the CAS and targets countries, particularly French-speaking ones, like Senegal and the Ivory Coast, to accentuate rivalries and tensions with France, Europe and the United States."
Without the donated stadiums, none of the previous summits could have happened, and the same is true for the upcoming ones. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) has come to terms with this. "There is nothing we can do about it if the host countries cannot manage to build their stadiums," one CAF executive says.
When the organization increased the number of participating nations from 16 to 24 in 2019, they unintentionally reinforced the trend of stadium-donating, as there is now a greater demand for countries to have the infrastructure needed to host the event.
In the meantime, China and its companies are no longer content just to build the stadiums. In January, for the first time, the private Chinese media company Star Times was granted broadcasting rights by CAF for the African Nations Championship (CHAN).
The United States views the private company as an "agent" of Chinese political policy, according to a diplomatic note acquired by Le Monde. Either way, in 20 years, the company has become a key player in digital television in Africa, where soccer competitions are usually held in Chinese stadiums and broadcasted by Chinese operators.
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