Zahra Baitie (’18) on Understanding China’s Development and Engagement with Africa

February 28, 2018
Zahra Baitie (Class of 2018) writes about her experience and the college and understanding China’s development and engagement with Africa:

This summer while I was in Rwanda, the media was buzzing with talk of Alibaba’s founder: Jack Ma’s trip to Kigali and what it could possibly mean for the region. I came to Schwarzman because I hoped to academically and professionally explore the opportunities and challenges inherent in the growing presence of China in Africa. My hopes and expectations have truly been blown out of the water. In just a few months, I’ve been given the tools and platforms to not only deepen my understanding of Sino-Africa affairs but also to explore various entrepreneurial and professional opportunities.

Over the last few months, I have dedicated myself to further improving my advanced Mandarin and have found my interactions in class and with the amazing talented Chinese Scholars to be extremely helpful in this regard. My classroom study of Chinese has given me the opportunity to read firsthand Chinese discourses on a range of issues and thus enabled me gain insight into truly Chinese perspectives and access a wealth of knowledge on China’s impressive economic growth and programs. The Chinese Scholars in our cohort come from across China, and my ability to engage with them in Chinese has not only helped deepen my friendships with them but also given me rich insights into the lived experiences of young Chinese people and non-Western perspectives on economic development, politics and international relations. All in all, my understanding of China, its internal challenges, initiatives and role in the world has deepened incredibly. I am ending this semester with a more holistic understanding of China and a desire and curiosity to learn more. I also managed to publish an article in Quartz Magazine that looks at an exhibition of Africans and Africa that was held in Wuhan.

Learning at Schwarzman, of course, takes many forms and among my favorite are the wide range of guest lectures and talks that the College does an incredible job of organizing. In the last 6 months, I have had the honor of hearing from and engaging with world leaders and trailblazers such as: Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the IMF who shared with us the changing nature of the IMF and the challenges leading it poses. As a female, I was particularly moved by the experiences and lessons she learned about leading as a woman in major international organizations. We’ve also heard from a wide range of politicians (John Kerry; Mr. Djoomart Otorbaev, Former Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan; Mr. Rosen Plevneliev, Former President of Bulgaria; Mr. Boris Tadic, Former President of Serbia; Mr. Zlatko Lagumdzjia, Former Prime Minister of Bosnia and Herzegovnia) who have all shared their understanding of China’s role in the international arena and what China’s rise means for the rest of the world. Political perspectives have also been complemented by rich lectures with leading academics and thinkers.

We’ve heard from two renowned Scholars on China and International Relations: Niall Ferguson and Joseph Nye, and Sir David King. Importantly, all this theory has been further buttressed by the experiences of leading practioners. I’ve had the opportunity to interact with the heads of Gates Foundation China, CEO of SOHO China (a major real estate company), and representatives from Ofo and Mobike (China’s largest bike-sharing companies) among others. All these speakers have given me a rich opportunity to gain insights on areas of China’s development to focus on and business opportunities that are present in China’s current era.

The experiences provided by Schwarzman are not limited to just the College, Tsinghua University or even Beijing. I’ve had many opportunities to travel around China – even going to the most Western parts of China: Xinjiang. On this trip, I was able to see China’s diverse and beautiful landscape, interact with minorities and see China’s poverty alleviation efforts firsthand. In November, along with fellow Scholars, I also had the opportunity to visit China’s tech hub and home of the tech giant AliBaba: Hangzhou. We had the rare opportunity to visit several Chinese companies, such as NetEase, AliBaba and incubators (DreamTown) and Start-ups working on Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality and E-Government Services. We also were able to engage with government officials who shared the work they are doing to make Hangzhou a Smart city, and to see first-hand at the One-Stop Government Service Center, the city’s incorporation of technology into the delivery of its services. I left Hangzhou with inspiration of how various African cities and companies can leverage big data and technological advancements to improve their delivery of services.

Beyond these learning and formative educational experiences, I’ve also been fortunate to have a lot of engaging, fun and fulfilling experiences. I have participated in a few sports competitions with Scholars that have helped strengthen camaraderie as well as mental and physical fortitude. For example, along with two other Scholars I participated in an extreme sports competition that involved a 12 km road run, 14 km Mountain Biking (mainly uphill!!) 3.5 km Kayak, 2.5 km Paddle Board, and a 5 Km trail run. It was extremely challenging but it strengthened my own willpower as well as gave me a real sense of teamwork and collaboration. We had to complete all the events as a team, and it was clear that when we stayed closer together we were able to go further. It was a lived example of the African proverb: ‘if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together’. A few Scholars and I also participated in a relay event here at Qinghua, where we came in 5th out of 56 teams. We ran to celebrate the Chinese May 4th Movement and it involved many traditions I had never heard of – like running with our hands tied and wearing big army winter jackets!

In addition to testing physical limits, I’ve also had the good fortune to find a thriving arts scene here in Beijing and have thus spent time going to plays, jazz, orchestra and spoken word shows. I’ve also been able to travel for leisure and experience China’s rich cultural diversity and natural beauty. This type of cultural engagement has been really eye-opening but I’m always aware, and thus grateful, that I’m able to enjoy them due to the generous Scholarship and stipend we’ve received here at Schwarzman.

Lastly, I would like to share my hopes/dreams for the future. For the last few years, I’ve been committed and interested in helping to improve Sino-Africa affairs. Having spent the last few months in China, I’ve become increasingly convinced of the suitability of some African local products for the Chinese market and the opportunity that exists to balance Sino-Africa trade by introducing ‘Made in Africa’ products to China’s growing affluent consumer class. I would like to explore opportunities in this regard. I am also keen to find ways to support African companies and governments better understand Chinese actors, its market, and investment approaches. I am hoping to spend my next few months here at Schwarzman working on a capstone project that will aim to focus on the policies Ghana, my home-country, can pursue to enable it develop a robust partnership with China that leads to more positive outcomes for Ghana’s development and citizens.

All in all, I feel truly fortunate to have been given the amazing platform that is Schwarzman, to be studying alongside truly brilliant and inspiring Scholars and to be here in China where I can see and explore first-hand China’s development and engagement with Africa.

Zahra Baitie was born in the United Kingdom, brought up in Ghana, rooted in her Arab Heritage, and educated in Ghana, the United States,  and China. She considers herself a globally minded citizen with a pan-African spirit. She studied Global Affairs at Yale University with a focus on East Asia and African Studies and is passionate about the development of emerging countries. Most recently, she worked as a Consultant at Dalberg Global Development Advisors where she worked on agricultural transformation, youth employment, investment facilitation and public policy strategies for emerging countries. Determined to catalyze transformative growth on the African continent and fluent in Mandarin, she hopes to positively shape Sino-Africa affairs and hopes the Schwarzman Scholars Program can help her further realize her career aspirations. Zahra is 26 years old and from Ghana.