On the west coast of Mauritius, between the colourful capital of Port Louis and the picturesque beaches in the north, there lies an expansive and unoccupied piece of land. Red, fertile earth with patches of wild grass stretch as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by shadowed mountains in the distance, the possible glimmer of the sea to the west and--if you are lucky enough to stumble across them--one or two huge buildings isolated for miles around.
Navigating around this area, however, is not difficult. Smooth tarmac roads, several wide lanes generously lined with street lamps crisscross all through this ghostly expanse.
On weekends, drag racers use these highways for illegal but well-attended contests of speed, while on weekdays learner drivers practise their clutch control and three-point turns away from the glare and blare of traffic.
It was all meant to be so different. In 2006 1 the government of the time announced that l it had agreed to establish a special economic zone (SEZ) with the Chinese private company Tianli Spinning, a project that was intended to usher in the next era of Mauritius' economy.
Mauritius always seemed a surprising location for such a zone, but the government pursued it relentlessly and eventually got its reward, promising the Mauritian people that it would all be worth it. Attracted by low taxes and a stable environment, it was proposed that Chinese businesses would flock to the zone, creating tens of thousands of jobs, and leading to the establishment of new lucrative sectors in the country's slowing economy.
But construction stalled time and again. The companies never came. And so when a new Mauritian government came to power in December 2014, inheriting the failed promise of the Jinfei Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone, it understandably vowed to reinvigorate it--though how exactly, no one can quite say.
The story of the Jinfei project started at the third Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2006, where then Chinese president Hu Jintao announced that China intended to establish three to five special economic zones in Africa over the coming years.
Based on China's own developmental experiences at home, the projects were proposed as a potential win-win for both sides. Chinese companies willing to "go out" would gain closer access to markets, resources and cheap labour in a relatively low-risk environment, thanks to the provision of infrastructure in the zones and preferential regulation. Meanwhile, African host countries would benefit from new waves of foreign investment, knowledge transfer and job creation.