The reflection of a Chinese idealist in Africa
From Tsinghua to Tanzania, civil engineer Dr. Cao Fengze's journey
Pekingnology runs too much policy stuff and again today is something new and brief. Below is the translation of an essay by Dr. Fengze Cao 曹丰泽 as a candidate for the selection of 2021清华大学年度人物 the Person of the Year 2021 of Tsinghua University, his alma mater, entitled:
我要证明，理想主义的路是走得通的 I want to prove idealism works.
Cao, born in 1994, graduated with a Ph.D. in civil engineering after nearly a decade in Tsinghua. He subsequently joined Sinohydro Bureau 11 Co., Ltd in 2021, a Chinese state-owned construction firm, to work in the Julius Nyerere Hydropower Station under construction across the Rufiji River in eastern Tanzania.
Cao, Tsinghua, and his employer are unaware of Pekingnology’s translation and publishing coming.
我要证明，理想主义的路是走得通的 I want to prove idealism works
I have lived in Africa for almost six months now, and it feels like a blink of an eye. It is not a long period of time, yet I have fully understood what 理想主义“idealism” truly means. Looking back, I left Tsinghua University for Africa six months ago, full of passion and excitement. I was determined to contribute my expertise to the people of Tanzania so they could use clean and sufficient electricity, doing my part for the great endeavor of building a community with a shared future for mankind.
My thought was simple: ever since I passed numerous tests into Tsinghua in 2012, I had spent 9 years in this tiny universe at the Haidian district of Beijing, as an undergrad then as a Ph.D. student. My youth was coming to an end. It would be such a shame if I did not get to experience the stormy weather in the real world before I grow old. How could a real man reside in such a secluded place without realizing his dream? I would rather have a life full of adventures until I die. As for holding a high public office or getting rich, they would be the least important for me.
Once I said to my friends: I am like a wild dog leashed by a steel chain. My diplomas are the steel chain that confines me. When the day comes I finally break free, I will dash out, just like the 天狗 Tian Gou/Heavenly Dog in the writing of Guo Moruo - I would have swallowed the sun and the moon and become myself.
Finally, the chain was broken, and I was free.
[In the winter of 2020, when I was still chained.]
I tried to prepare myself by imagining as many as possible the difficulties I may encounter working in Africa: not good enough food and living conditions, all kinds of infectious diseases, boredom, so on and so forth. But the reality is always simpler and more real than I imagined: all of these things I imagined are actually nothing hard, and the only and biggest hardship is always the work itself.
It shall be recognized that what we do is indeed a very glorious job. The hydropower station we are building will become the largest of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa after completion. Tanzania is a very respectable country, with stable politics, hardworking people, and deep patriotism. However, like other underdeveloped countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, Tanzania has been suppressed by an unfair international order for a long time, and it is difficult to accumulate financial resources for industrialization.
To build this hydropower station, the Tanzanian government has made every effort to initiate the step from zero to one in industrialization. The Chinese people also advanced bravely at a time when they were regarded with hostility and suppressed by the world. Tanzania’s condition reminds me of China’s past, and I am thrilled for the Tanzanian people.
When it comes to the actual work, however, the once imagined prospect turned sour. The surface of the roller-compacted concrete was not fully cleaned, so we had to find extra hands to brush off the plastic surface again. The sewage pipe was clogged and needed unclogging. The nighttime truck driver was drunk and left us in limbo. Two cargo trains arrived at the same time. Should we have them transport cement or volcano ash first? There was a crack on the corridor, could that be serious? If it is not, then how about the one across the corridor? Of course, we had some “serious issues,” such as determining how thick the protection layer of the concrete should be. Five centimeters or ten centimeters? To decide on this, we negotiated with the supervisor for a week and pounded the table in the conference room multiple times – even the screw in the table was loosened because of it. We even explored a hundred polite, implicit ways to rephrase –“Are you teaching me how to do my job?”
Some friends asked me whether or not I feel bored in Africa. LOL, I am too busy to even feel bored.
Is that still about idealism? Setting the ideals aside, none of these appears related to any “ism”.
[The rising dam.]
The life of an idealist is never carefree; the path of idealism is not at all grand.
“But this is idealism, the exact meaning of it!”
Idealists are essentially a group of human beings; they are not gods. They cannot remove the two mountains bare-handed like what is said in the Chinese myth.
Idealists wake up in the morning, facing not the critical moment of dying for their country or chanting and disseminating revolutionary thoughts. What they must face are continuous squabbles on the negotiation table, tedious and trivial funding issues, and page after page of system design. It is about cooperating and arguing with all types of people, then cooperating and arguing again. It is about endless thinking and laboring.
Counting the days with fingers and surviving the tough time passively is not something to be proud of. That’s not idealism. To be an idealist is to keep moving, constantly thinking about how to work better amid all the hardships and failures day after day. Contemplating the millions of problems that are neither cool nor heroic. Keep marching forward – that is an idealist.
“That one would prefer righteousness to life and abhor iniquity more than death is not only the case with sages, but is also true of everybody. What makes the difference is that the former would on no account lose this inclination.” Almost everyone has an impulse to achieve their idealism; however, the impulses easily die down. Perseverance is what matters. It is also the hardest part. Focus on getting one thing done, and all the efforts and sacrifices are made worthwhile.
Things that are a bit poetic often excite people. However, to achieve those extremely poetic deeds requires extreme endeavors. It is to say that those hardships are what make the paths extraordinary and beautiful.
Industrialization is an awkward and conflicting process. To get electricity, one must have electricity first.
To build a hydropower station, the construction site itself, material processing, and transportation – all are “bottomless pits” where electricity is devoured relentlessly. Every bit of gravel that reaches its designated place must pass through the mouths of at least five “bottomless pits” – machines that consume a large quantity of electricity. Even every one of us Chinese, by Tanzanian standards, is a walking “bottomless pit.” We casually turn on the air conditioners for a few days, and that equals the electricity consumption of one Tanzanian in a year.
The electricity consumed at our camp is what Tanzania is deprived of. Power cuts are common. Sometimes it happens ten times a day. Speakers will not be interrupted – not even for a second – by the power outages at a meeting, otherwise, the meeting will never conclude if a speaker pauses for a while every time the power cuts happen.
What is worse is that the water pump requires electricity. Chances are that power cuts happen when you’re washing dishes or taking a shower. Both the electricity and water are off suddenly, and there is nothing you can do about it. You just wait. Sometimes, the Chinese workers get off work, their bodies covered in engine oil and faces covered in cement, only to find that there is no electricity or water. All you can do is wait. Wait, and they may come.
This is already the best condition Tanzania can provide us.
Industrialization is a humiliating process. Whenever I’m covered in shower gel, and power cuts happen, I cannot stop but think that if this dam couldn’t be finished, tens of thousands of Tanzanians, those who live in straw sheds without lights, wells, or even glass, would never know what it feels like to have the shower gel covering all of their bodies.
I cannot stop but think that some countries have to exhaust the state capacity to take their first step towards industrialization amid hardships, while some others can harvest on labor across the globe with a few clicks so that their hundreds of millions of people live in an air-conditioned room at 17 degrees Celcius, 24 hours a day and drink corn syrups with little effort.
I look back and think about myself six months ago, living in a greenhouse with layers and layers of comfort brought by civilization, and always complaining about the insignificant gains and losses. It is so ridiculous to stand by and make empty talk while you are enjoying the sound protection afforded by modern technology.
Industrialization is a process of absurdity. To alter this absurd process requires people with iron willpower.
I hope I am one of them.
[In 2023, what we see here will become a lake.]
Many people tried to convince me that I do not need to suffer from this since I have the “good cards” in hand - I don’t have to spend the days in shower gel waiting for water.
Indeed, it is not necessary. However, all my efforts to study well, test well, and to have the “good cards” in my hand is to have more options, rather than to narrow down my choices and only to pick the one “optimal” for my own interest. That kind of life, boring and dull, is like hell to me.
Now that I can already earn myself good food and warm clothes, I think I have the right to use my extra energy to do more meaningful things rather than to eat and dress myself better. I would like to choose a road with more grand scenes.
That is the path of idealism. It may well be more rugged and more dangerous, but I firmly believe that this is by no means a dead end. It also works.
I would like to use my experience to tell those young people who also have ideals and extraordinary talents but have been disciplined by the world “there is only one way in the world, which is self-interest, and other ways are dead ends, so you must abandon your ideals and choose the road of self-interest”:
Self-interest is not the only way to go in the world.
The road of idealism works.
[At the Julius Nyerere Dam construction site.]
Excellent, inspiring, and highly relatable story. I also spent my 20s in university. I chose physics and electrical engineering, with interest in remote sensing, condensed matter, climate, and machine learning. The feeling of being 'chained' to doctoral work can be draining. My personal circumstances (impoverished family, mostly) led me to make safer choices with regard to financial risk. I am now in my 30s and have more or less overcome these circumstances, and will hopefully be engaging in my own adventure soon.
My PhD has opened many doors for personal success, but my original reason for choosing this route is likely relatable to Cao Fengze himself. I wanted to contribute to the development of the world and especially of its poorest people. In America this is actually quite difficult, as there is little genuine support for this sort of thing. Perhaps it is also due to my field of study. There are many talented people all over the world with this drive to build, and America is no exception. Unfortunately, the funding environment and political problems of America guides most of the this talent toward much less socially useful purposes.
This article serves as a good reminder that we must find ways to advocate for our dreams, lest we miss out on the adventures life holds.
Incredible! Thank you for this translation.
“Industrialization is a process of absurdity. To alter this absurd process requires people with iron willpower.
I hope I am one of them.”
As everyone who has ever labored against the absurdity of the world, to bring a new thing into creation, we are all comrades.