Culture clash: Africa’s lukewarm welcome for the Chinese

Anver Versi

While Chinese investment is mostly welcomed by Africa, the Chinese workers who are sent by firms to staff their African subsidiaries do not always get along with the locals 

“The Chinese presence in Africa has become like the tide; it ebbs and flows but it will always be there,” says Ghanaian businessman Julius Akufu. “You can either ride it or set yourself against it and get drowned.” 

The hullabaloo depicting China as an uncaring but unstoppable force washing over Africa has itself waxed and waned since the world’s second-largest economy first embarked on its Africa policy about two decades ago. China’s astonishingly rapid advance over most of the African continent has aroused both fear and hope in almost equal measure, not only within the continent but also outside it. 

As China’s trade, investment and diplomatic relations with Africa have expanded and intensified, so there has been a reluctant but unmistakable retreat by the West. Hilary Clinton, US Secretary of State until last year, expressed the West’s alarm at China’s “creeping colonialism” in what some have described as hysterical tones when she said during her tour of Africa in 2011: “We saw that during colonial times it is easy to come in, take out natural resources, pay off leaders and leave. And when you leave, you don’t leave much behind for the people who are there. We don’t want to see a new colonialism in Africa.” 

But the majority of African leaders scoff at this warning. The former President of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, argued: “When it comes to China and Africa, the EU and the USA want to have their cake and eat it. In an echo of its past colonial rivalries, European leaders and donor organisations have expressed concerns that African nations are throwing their doors open too widely to Chinese investors and to exploitation by their Asian partners. But if opening up more free markets is a goal that the West prizes – and extols as a path to progress – why is Europe fretting about China’s growing economic role in Africa?” 

Ali Hassan Mwinyi, the former President of Tanzania, says that whatever else China may be accused of, the charge of leaving nothing behind for the people – as the Belgians and the Portuguese did when they left their African colonies – just does not hold water. 

Analyst Aya Imai adds: “It is useful to remind ourselves that since the start of the slave trade and for much of the 20th century, an overwhelming number of outside imports of goods and services into Africa have originated mainly from both Europe and North America. It was only in 2009 that the established status of these two giants as Africa’s biggest trading partners was casually swept away by China.” 

Chinese finance and the country’s giant engineering and construction firms are the main forces behind the greatest building boom the continent of Africa has ever experienced – the pyramids included. Between 2000 and 2010, China is estimated to have pumped around US$260 billion into Africa. A very large chunk of this has gone into developing and upgrading Africa’s outdated and dilapidated infrastructure. The number of roads, bridges, ports, airports, schools, stadiums, government buildings, hospitals, power stations and fuel pipelines that have been constructed or upgraded by Chinese firms runs into the tens of thousands. In 2012 alone, Chinese firms invested around $40 billion in construction projects. 

Chinese companies are now deeply involved in constructing the infrastructure needed for power generation and transporting African oil and gas to transhipment centres. Incidentally, while China sources a third of its oil from Africa, it is actually a small player in exploration and production compared to the likes of Shell, Exxon Mobil and Total-ELF. 

There is no doubt that China’s activities in Africa have greatly contributed to the continent’s sustained growth over the last decade and a half and opened up hitherto undiscovered opportunities for Africa’s businessmen to prosper. While there are criticisms that the proliferation of cheap and often shoddy Chinese-manufactured goods may be strangling local industries, it is also true that Chinese products are affordable for the majority and are contributing to improving standards of living. 

China’s policy of non-interference in its host nation’s politics has also attracted considerable ire, especially in relation to the alleged genocide in Darfur in Sudan. China has countered by saying that it was neither the cause nor the sponsor of the crisis and as such it did not believe in making grand gestures for the sake of appearances. When South Sudan became independent in 2012, China promptly sent a high-level mission to the capital Juba without, it seems, antagonising its long-term partner, the North. Nevertheless, China showed that it could be stung by accusations of ignoring human rights abuses when it stopped supplying Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe with arms, limited its support to humanitarian aid and asked him, as politely as is possible in these circumstances, to ‘behave’. 

However laudable Beijing’s ‘win-win’ policy may be, there is a substantial gulf between the official rhetoric and the reality on the ground. Perhaps it is inevitable that cultural clashes will occur between peoples who, while similar in their circumstances, are vastly different in so many other ways. There is no getting away from the fact that despite all their achievements in Africa, the Chinese, as a people, are disliked by the majority of Africans who come in daily contact with them. 

Chinese companies tend to bring in their own workers rather than hire locally, except for the most menial and dangerous jobs. Their management style is seen as crude, insensitive and even cruel and there is a lingering suspicion that a deep strain of racism runs through the average Chinese national in relation to Africans. There have been violent stand-offs and deaths. Africans are also becoming increasingly alarmed at the rapidly increasing population of ordinary Chinese people within their midst. There are approximately a million Chinese people in Africa today but many believe that to be a gross underestimate. An assistant minister in Botswana’s government told me recently: “You see one Chinese standing there trying to sell videos or shoes or whatever, then you turn to say ‘hi’ to someone you know and when you turn around again, 15 Chinese have miraculously appeared!” 

These immigrants are perceived as deceitful, greedy, corrupt and out to exploit Africans. They tend to keep themselves to themselves and often form impenetrable ‘gangs’ that quickly take over and oust the smaller African market traders by undercutting their prices and even sabotaging their products. Many African cities now have large malls run almost exclusively by the Chinese and restaurants, that could almost have been bodily lifted from China, that appear designed to cater solely to Chinese customers. 

A more sinister aspect is that Chinese workers have been smuggling illegal ivory in small quantities back to their homeland where high demand commands exceptional profits. In early December, customs officers at London’s Heathrow Airport seized large quantities of ivory disguised as ‘curios’ and shipped through reputable courier services. They said this was just the tip of the iceberg and pointed out that some of the ivory had come from freshly slaughtered elephants. Penalties for smuggling small quantities are hardly punitive and unlikely to deter the workers from taking calculated chances. 

Explaining the antipathy the Chinese seem to be arousing among local communities in Africa, Huang Hongxiang, a Chinese journalist, writes that for the average Chinese worker, Africa is the last place they would willingly go to. He says that most Chinese nationals who end up in Africa are “poorly educated, mostly from a rural or third tier city background, barely speak a foreign language or understand foreign cultures. Ultimately, these individuals’ solitary focus is about making money, often to send to their families back home”. 

Similarly, he says, “an assignment in Africa is far from the first choice for most of the employees of Chinese state-owned enterprises operating in Africa. These companies usually fail to attract the most educated or successful college graduates”. They tend to resent being ‘stuck in Africa’ and often take their frustrations out on local employees. 

Attempts by Beijing to rein in the excesses of some companies have not been successful. Ian Taylor, a professor of African politics at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, says Beijing has “less and less” ability to control some of the largest Chinese companies, thus undermining the official policy of a ‘win-win’ situation for both sides. In addition, Chinese companies compete fiercely among themselves and will stop at nothing, including bribery and even threats, to win contracts. 

The build-quality of some of the less reputable companies can be so poor as to be positively dangerous. My friend from Botswana told me that for some contracts, “we were fleeced. The quality was so poor that we complained to the Chinese authorities. When something is too good to be true in terms of pricing, we learnt that it really is too good to be true. There is always a hidden cost”. 

In sharp contrast, you often meet well-educated Chinese who speak local languages, such as Kiswahili, not only fluently but without a hint of an accent. They tend to go out of their way to mix with local populations and seem quite popular. A Chinese journalist in Ethiopia who seemed very much at home told me he and the government in Beijing were embarrassed by the behaviour of some of their people but there was very little, in practical terms, that they could do. 

While a simmering resentment against the Chinese at the lower end of the scale has been around for the past decade, it now seems that larger African companies are also feeling the bite of Chinese competition. Mukesh Halai, a director at Parbat Siyani, one of Kenya’s top construction companies, says that “Kenyan companies are suffering hugely”, as the Chinese now dominate roads and property contracts in the government and private sectors. “Most local companies are going into middle-scale projects, because with the bigger ones the Chinese are always there,” he says. Last year alone, China Wu Yi and China Jiangxi International secured tenders for multi-billion dollar private projects including the Hazina Trade Centre, which will be the tallest building in Nairobi. 

In December, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta launched a new Chinese-financed railway that will link the port of Mombasa to the capital Nairobi and then on to South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. The project, worth $5.2 billion, went to the state-owned China Road and Bridge Corporation, leading to complaints that it had not gone to tender. 

But the Chinese, it seems, are quick learners and are adapting rapidly to their new environment. African authorities are also learning how to channel Chinese ambitions to achieve their own goals. The Ethiopian government, for example, slapped a ‘crust tax’ of 150 per cent on semi-finished leather to curb the practice of Chinese companies exporting leather back to China for the final manufacturing process. The result was that Huajian Group, one of China’s leading shoe exporters that makes shoes for Calvin Klein and other Western brands, chose Ethiopia to launch its first overseas operations and now employs 1,750 people at its factory outside Addis Ababa. It expects to create another 30,000 jobs by 2022. 

Interestingly, Pittards, a British glove-making company, which has sourced its leather from Ethiopia since the 1920s, was also forced by the tax to decide whether to pull out or reconfigure to manufacture locally. It chose the latter option and trained local staff. The gambit paid off and the company made a handsome profit last year. 

With labour costs in China now rising rapidly, it seems very likely that Chinese subsidiaries in Africa, such as Huajian, will outperform their parent firms in China. This could lead to a mass migration of Chinese companies to manufacture in Africa, creating the skilled jobs the continent needs. That will be a true ‘win-win’ situation for all. If China’s presence in Africa can be compared to the tide, then for Africa it will be essential, with apologies to William Shakespeare, that the tide be “taken at the flood, leading on to fortune”.

About the author:

Anver Versi is the editor of London-based African Business and African Banker magazines


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