The Chinese in Africa – is there a backlash?

China in AfricaThe debate in aid circles on China’s expanding role in Africa is often pretty crass – the demonisers v the rose-tinted spectacles. What has always struck me most in the past is how many Africans, both in government and elsewhere, prefer the businesslike approach of China to the finger-wagging of the ex-colonial powers. But China’s African honeymoon may be coming to an end, according to this week’s Economist, which has a thought-provoking 3 page briefing on signs of a backlash against ‘the Chinese in Africa’. Some highlights from the Economist article:

“Once feted as saviours in much of Africa, Chinese have come to be viewed with mixed feelings—especially in smaller countries where China’s weight is felt all the more. To blame, in part, are poor business practices imported alongside goods and services. Chinese construction work can be slapdash and buildings erected by mainland firms have on occasion fallen apart. A hospital in Luanda, the capital of Angola, was opened with great fanfare but cracks appeared in the walls within a few months and it soon closed. [Deborah Brautigam investigated the Luanda hospital story on her excellent China in Africa blog] The Chinese-built road from Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, to Chirundu, 130km (81 miles) to the south-east, was quickly swept away by rains.

Chinese expatriates in Africa come from a rough-and-tumble, anything-goes business culture that cares little about rules and regulations. Local sensitivities are routinely ignored at home, and so abroad. Sinopec, an oil firm, has explored in a Gabonese national park. Another state oil company has created lakes of spilled crude in Sudan. Zimbabwe’s environment minister said Chinese multinationals were “operating like makorokoza miners”, a scornful term for illegal gold-panners.

Employees at times fare little better than the environment. At Chinese-run mines in Zambia’s copper belt they must work for two years before they get safety helmets. Ventilation below ground is poor and deadly accidents occur almost daily. To avoid censure, Chinese managers bribe union bosses and take them on “study tours” to massage parlours in China. Obstructionist shop stewards are sacked and workers who assemble in groups are violently dispersed. When cases end up in court, witnesses are intimidated.

Tensions came to a head last year when miners in Sinazongwe, a town in southern Zambia, protested against poor conditions. Two Chinese managers fired shotguns at a crowd, injuring at least a dozen. Some still have pellets under healed skin. Patson Mangunje, a local councillor, says, “People are angry like rabid dogs.”

The backlash is perhaps unsurprising. Africans say they feel under siege. Tens of thousands of entrepreneurs from one china in africa economistof the most successful modern economies have fanned out across the continent. Sanou Mbaye, a former senior official at the African Development Bank, says more Chinese have come to Africa in the past ten years than Europeans in the past 400. First came Chinese from state-owned companies, but more and more arrive solo or stay behind after finishing contract work.

Many dream of a new life. Miners and builders see business opportunities in Africa, and greater freedom (to be their own bosses and speak their minds, but also to pollute). A Chinese government survey of 1,600 companies shows the growing use of Africa as an industrial base. Manufacturing’s share of total Chinese investment (22%) is catching up fast with mining (29%).

[on the plus side]
China has boosted employment in Africa and made basic goods like shoes and radios more affordable. Trade surpassed $120 billion last year (see chart 1). In the past two years China has given more loans to poor countries, mainly in Africa, than the World Bank.

Quite a bit of criticism of China is disguised protectionism. Established businesses try to maintain privileged positions—at the expense of consumers.

China’s interest in Africa is not limited to resources. It is building railways and bridges far from mines and oilfields, because it pays. China is not a conventional aid donor, but nor is it a colonialist interested only in looting the land. The government in Beijing is encouraging all sorts of activity in Africa. Construction is a favourite, accounting for three-quarters of recent private Chinese investment in Africa. The commerce ministry says Chinese companies are signing infrastructure deals worth more than $50 billion a year. For investment in African farming, China has earmarked $5 billion [hmmm, some of that definitely comes under ‘land grabs’]. Perhaps the most significant Chinese push has been in finance.

Most loans and payments are “tied”—ie, the recipient must spend the money with Chinese companies. (Japan, Spain and others followed a similar model until fairly recently.) But tied aid leads to shoddy work. With no competition, favoured firms get away with delivering bad roads and overpriced hospitals. Creditors and donors often set the wrong priorities. Worse, the Chinese government is anything but transparent about its money. Aid figures are treated as state secrets [although ].

[and how about the politics?]
For years China has been chummy with African despots who seem to be reliable partners. Publicly, China presents its support for odious incumbents as “non-interference” and tries to make a virtue of it. Africans are less and less convinced. Relations get especially tricky for the Chinese when strongmen fail to maintain stability.”

China is not standing still on this – the State Council has just released its first White Paper on China’s Aid to Foreign Countries, and it is making increasing efforts to rein in bad business practices. What all this seems to point to is that as the relationship between China and Africa (and our understanding of it) matures, we can move from simplistic questions of ‘is it good or bad?’ to trying to understand the detail as well as the overall tenor and impact (for good and ill) of China’s role as a consolidated and important actor in the region and how it is evolving. About time.

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Comments

3 Responses to “The Chinese in Africa – is there a backlash?”
  1. John Magrath

    You talk about a kind of Wild West, cowboy culture in Chinese expat businessmen But there seems to be also a big difference between how “respectable” Chinese firms and banks behave at home and abroad.

    It’s been highlighted particularly in the case of Chinese dam-building, which is rampant globally. See http://www.thenational.ae/news/worldwide/asia-pacific/chinas-dams-both-welcome-and-worrying cited recently by International Rivers. (The Kenyan group Friends of Lake Turkana say Chinese financing of the Gibe II dam “will be indirectly starting a war in this part of Africa”). A campaigner points out that “Some Chinese banks were making “a lot of effort to [promote] sustainability” within their home country, yet overseas their activities sometimes led to “a really disappointing situation” and “we call upon Chinese banks to apply the policies that are routinely applied in China when they are investing abroad.”

  2. I don’t think colonialism is equivalent to looting. Looters leave existing economic structures in place and take the excess. Colonialists adapt/transform the whole economic structure for external benefit. If it is too simplistic to say the current involvement of China in Africa is good or bad , is it not too simplistic to say the same of 500 years of European involvement in Africa ?

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