Djibouti, one of Africa’s smallest countries, has become China’s “strategic partner.” The Chinese have built a military base and a port, and is currently constructing a free trade zone, fast establishing it as Beijing’s gateway to the continent.
A police car appears in a cloud of red dust on the dirt road between the boulders. A young man in uniform opens the window and starts grousing in French. The Chinese men he is rebuking don’t understand any of it, but slowly realize where the anger is coming from. They had forgotten to register with the sentry guarding the entrance to the large construction site above the coast.
When the police officer turns away, Nicholas Li says, “Unbelievable, this is my company here!” The company, under the leadership of the China Merchants Group, is currently building Africa’s largest free trade zone in Djibouti.
Li, the company’s 37-year-old head, kicks rocks from the dirt road. Rules are rules, he says, OK. Then the tour in the SUV over the field of boulders continues. Li has left his driver back at headquarters down in the city, and is driving himself. He likes to have things under control.
Soon the site, where bulldozers with specialized tools are breaking up the rocky ground, will be home to factories, warehouses, office buildings and hotels – a city built from scratch, reaching down to the sea, a 48-square-kilometer invitation to investors from around the world.