Bi Zhongan is a Colonel in the People’s Liberation Army of China. He is the Deputy Director of Information in the Foreign Training Department at the PLA’s Academy of Armored Forces Engineering in Beijing where some 48 Africans, Asians and Middle Easterners gathered in the month of November for a course in National Information Security.
“My friend from Nigeria, why are you late?” Bi asked a few minutes after I had arrived at the academy, the foremost in China.
It was his responsibility to know why I had arrived four days after the programme had begun on October 31. He said he wanted to know if the fault was theirs, the organisers of the course, so that they could prevent such a mistake in future. I offered my excuses and Bi gave me a briefing on the programme but not before he had advised that I be punctual for the classes taught by both military and civilian academics from the universities.
The Chinese military has its own academics engaged in research and teaching in their various institutions. Thus, it is not unusual to find a military officer addressed as professor. If I thought questions on my late arrival were over, I was wrong. Many of the participants, especially the Africans, kept asking the same question.
I could not figure out why there was so much interest in why I came late until the questions started pouring in.
“How is Nigeria?”, “How is your President?”, “Is he okay now?”.. It was then it occurred to me that it was not about me but about my country.
They were genuinely interested in knowing about Nigeria. How do I know. I will tell you presently.
Earlier on arrival at the expansive Beijing airport, I was met by an officer and two soldiers who took me to the academy. What a beautiful city, Beijing is.
Truly, the Chinese capital, the second largest city in China and home to some 17 million to 18 million people, is beautiful. In spite of the huge number of Beijing residents, the city is not crowded and traffic moves smoothly, except during the rush hours.
Public transportation is reliable. The buses are new and clean. No smoke billowing from the exhaust pipes. To improve traffic flow, the city government has put in place measures to reduce congestion. One of the measures adopted is similar to the odd and even number policy implemented in Lagos in the
1980s. This policy works here because the Chinese are discipline and would not buy another car just to beat the regulation.
Beijing is clean and you don’t see people litter the streets as we are wont to do in Nigeria. But they do have one terrible habit -- spitting in public places. It is not uncommon to see the Chinese clear his throat and spit out the content on the walkway and no one bates an eyelid. It is normal.
The Chinese have a peculiar way of fighting pollution. Luxury buses that are more than seven years old are not allowed to ply the roads, while cars have a 10-year-period. Once the years expire, the vehicles are sent to the crushing factories to be recycled.
In addition, it is mandatory for every vehicle to have a yearly anti-pollution test and certicates issued to the owners.
My hosts tried to explain the controversial family planning policy of one family one child of the Chinese government. However, there are exceptions to the rule. Chinese living in the countryside are allowed two children, provided the first is a girl. Furthermore, city dwellers may have two children if the father is an only child. But he is allowed only one child if he has siblings.
The Chinese are friendly and are always willing to help visitors. China has a long history, dating back to the era of emperors. Situated at the centre of Beijing, is the Forbidden City. It was the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Now known as the Palace Museum, it is to the north of Tienanmen Square, where hundreds of student demonstrators were mowed down by the People’s Liberation Army after almost two months of protests in 1989 for political reforms and democratic rights. The Forbidden City is the world’s largest palace complex and covers 74 hectares. Now back to the questioners. Many were interested in Nigeria because of the potential for greatness of the sleeping African giant. They kept referring to Nigeria as the hope of Africa.
“You Nigeria are lucky. You have a huge population and are very rich,” said Bramswell Katsvairo, a Zimbabwean fighter pilot and a participant in the course, who studied at the Command and Staff College, Jaji, near Kaduna, in the late 1990s.
Even when you try to tell them that given Nigeria’s population, we are not a rich nation, they disagree with you. Invariably, discussions always shifted to the Nigerian film industry, the so called Nollywood. Two participants, Ugandan Charles Okello and Zambian Zulu Ackson, a police officer, regaled me with stories of Nigerian films they had watched in their countries. The favourite Nigerian actors of the Ugandan are Akin and Pawpaw.
For Ackson, Nigeria has the best writers in Africa. His best novel he says is Things Fall Apart and hopes that he would get to meet the author, Chinua Achebe, one day. “Go to Bard College in New York if you have the money and you will meet him,” I joked.
I was overwhelmed by emotions during a visit to the Bird’s Nest National Stadium, the main venue of the Beijing Olympic Games, as I stepped on the pitch where Lionel Messi messed up Nigeria in the final of the
Beijing Olympics soccer event.
Argentina won 1-0 after the diminutive player supplied the killer pass with which Angel de Maria finished off Nigeria. I also visited the adjacent Natatorium “Water Cube” where the American Michael Phelps won an unprecedented eight gold medals in swimming to break the seven-gold medal record of his compatriot, Mark Spitz, set in 1972 at the the ill-fated Munich Olympics.
The facilities have become tourism sites with thousands of people visiting them daily, especially at the weekends. Money realised from the tourists is used for the maintenance of the facilities.
Compare that with our National Stadium, Abuja, an edifice lying idle, since the end of the 2003 8th All Africa Games, except for the occasional international soccer matches that take place there.
People who visited China in the 1970s say the country was backward and the people, usually dressed in the drab Chairman Mao Zedong’s communist-era tunics, wore gloomy faces. But all that has changed with the adoption in 1979 of what the government calls “two systems, one country” policy under which China was opened up to foreign investors to stimulate economic growth and development.
Another interesting feature of China is the prevalence of tall buildings. Perhaps apart from the U.S., China has the highest number of skyscrappers in the world. Tall buildings dot the landscape throughout the country, even in small towns.
By opening up to the world, the Chinese have made great economic strides, becoming one of the third biggest economies in the world, though they do not agree that they are a developed nation yet.
And they achieved this in only 30 years. Consequently, China has become a tourist destination for many Americans and Europeans in spite of the distance. What with its rich history and culture.
But China still has a large number of poor people and have their fair share of street beggars, especially among the old. I thought such people were provided for under the Communist system.
This explains why they insist that they are still a developing nation. Though public transportation appears efficient, it is inadequate. And because of growing unemployment among school leavers, many young people have taken to the Okada business. Yes!
There are commercial motorcyclists in China, especially in the provinces and the rural areas.
However, the government has been able to provide water and electricity in many of their villages.
My African course mates think that Nigeria, with Vision 2020, can achieve the same if we are dedicated and committed.
“You cannot afford to fail as other Africans are looking up to you,” Ghanaian police officer Gordon Koduah told me.
“With your resources, you can surpass China’s achievement. But you have to put your acts together,” Katsvairo added.