At least in the governmental level, promoting “people-to-people exchange” between China and Africa was mentioned all the time. However, most of the people-to-people interactions between Chinese and Africans are not through government initiatives of sending a group of African students to a Chinese university in Zhejiang Province, or dispatching a medical team from a Chinese hospital to the hinterland of Congo.
Daily “people-to-people interaction” can be violent and nasty.
On 19th June 2012, the day this blog entrance is being written, “more than 100 Africans protested…outside a police station in China's southern Guangdong province after an African man died in police custody”, reported by Reuters. This has caused severe traffic jam in the area, and through the photos we can find armed police trying to maintain the order around a large group of Africans in the middle of the road.
This is not the first time Africans rioted on the street of Guangzhou, the city which hosts more than 200,000 Africans (see my blog post series in July 2011). In 2009, a similar incident happened – over 100 Africans protested against the Guangzhou authority after a Nigerian man was killed in an immigration raid led by the city's police. In one of my blog entrances, I narrated my experience of witnessing many African demonstrators standing against the angry city policemen.
How should we look at this new social problem in China, a country so homogenous in its racial profile now confronting with international migration issues?
In these years increasing number of scholars have involved in researching the African community in China. The most famous work is the published book by the University of Hong Kong researcher Dr. Adams Bodomo after thorough study of the community. Dr. Bodomo showed deep concern of Chinese police’s incompetence and brutality while dealing with African migrants in Guangzhou. He urged African diplomats to raise this issue to the governmental level talks with China, such as Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).
However, if the real issue is racial discrimination, can government initiatives really solve the problem?
For years, I was terrified to find how Chinese people describe Africans. If you randomly go to a Chinese online discussion forum (or called BBS, a social media platform), you probably will be horrified by hearing how people comment on the Africans in their mind. I translate some into English here:
“A large number of blacks caused many social problems in China, such as fights, rapes, drug trafficking, seducing Chinese girls, spreading AIDS, and child of mixed parentage after marring Chinese women. This is hideous!”
“China belongs to the Chinese. The ancestors leave us land for yellow skin and black hair Chinese people to settle down. We can’t let it become a colony of alien’s breeds.”
“I want to throw up when I see these blacks…I can’t believe they are going after our Chinese women! They are going to spread AIDS in our city now!”
Please refer here and here for links to the online bulletin boards where these messages were posted (in Chinese).
Generally speaking, today, no matter whether a Chinese actually encountered an African in his or her life, the impression has already been pre-occupied with negative images over the Africans from the media, movies and some shallow knowledge of the colonial history. They often think Africans are ugly, poor, crazy, uneducated and violent. Most of the Chinese would never want to deal with them. I believe in the mind of some policemen in Guangzhou who have probably been tired of dealing with the illegal activities incurred by the African community, ”African people must go back and give a cleaner place back to us.”
The situation is laying a clear picture in front of us. On one side, government officials talk about people-to-people exchange and praise the historical friendship between China and Africa. On the other side – the grassroots side – Chinese people continuously impose their discrimination against Africans through words and actions; and Africans under such suppression have no choice but to riot and strive for their basic human rights in China. Or thousands of miles away, some African government may even decide to raid the Chinese trader communities in order to retaliate.
What a messy picture of misunderstandings! When will the vicious circle stop?
UPDATE: Jun 20th, 2012
Additional thoughts: I hope to let the Africans in China know this. When protesting in the public, it is really not wise to block the road to cause traffic congestion. Chinese people are not used to public protest, and they wouldn’t tolerate a group of foreigners (especially Africans who they dislike) to block the traffic in China for any justified reason. Given the discrimination against Africans amongst the general public, what Africans were doing on the 19th June will only increase Chinese’ antipathy against the African communities in Guangzhou. I have already seen Chinese commenting on this incident online, and the comments are generally negative, nationalist and racist. We shouldn’t let this trend to continue.
The controversial 2007 Sicomines infrastructure-for-natural resources deal between China and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a milestone in Sino-Africa ties as it's one of the largest agreements of its kind on record. Originally valued at 9 billion dollars (it has seen been reduced), the deal stunned many in the West, particularly at the International Monetary Fund, as it was widely interpreted as a direct challenge to the half-century old order that governs Western management of aid and development assistance in Africa.
For more on why the Sicomines deal is so controversial and how it was portrayed in the Western media, watch BBC Newsnight's special coverage: part 1, part 2 and part 3.
Johanna Jansson is a Phd candidate at Roskilde University in Demark and among the world's leading scholars on China's resource extraction policies in Africa, particularly in the DRC and Gabon. Jansson has done considerable field research in the DRC where she spent much of 2011 working on a research paper on the subject for the South African Institute of International Affairs: "The Sicomines Agreement: Change and Continuity in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s International Relations" (download PDF).
CHINA AFRICA PROJECT: The Sicomines deal is often held up as an example of the power of the Chinese government's drive to secure natural resources in Africa. While many believe these deals emanate from a coordinated policy decision at the political level in Beijing, you contend it isn't that straight forward. If the government isn't 'ordering' this type of massive investment in the DRC then where does it come from?
JOHANNA JANSSON: The Chinese government knows very well that it needs to secure access to resources to keep its economy going. This was one of the key motivations behind its 2001 Going Global Strategy, called zou chu qu in Mandarin. The essence of this strategy was that China’s state-owned enterprises, the SOEs, were encouraged to ‘go out’. Besides securing access to resources, the other key motivations for the Going Global Strategy were to gain experience and become competitive globally, and to gain market traction for Chinese exports. Now, we must remember that the relations between the Chinese state and China’s state-owned companies are greatly complex. The Going Global Strategy does guide the Chinese SOEs’ operations abroad in a broad sense. But the expansion strategies pursued by each company, and other types of decisions these companies take, are determined mainly by commercial considerations. As a matter of fact, the SOEs often fiercely compete with each other, also in African countries.
Before discussing the Sicomines agreement as an indirect embodiment of the Going Global Strategy in the DRC, I’d like us to take a step back and contextualise China’s foreign policy ambitions. China is not the only country pursuing goals such as those formulated in the Going Global Strategy. On the contrary, these are central foreign policy consideration for most countries. Let’s take a few examples. Securing access to oil is, as we all know very well, of paramount importance to the United States. France is actively supporting its nuclear giant Areva in its endeavour to secure access to uranium in Africa. As Senate Testimony on China in Africa in November last year aptly illustrates, American politicians are seriously worried that the inroads of Chinese consumer goods to African markets threaten, not African, but American jobs, since they take over the potential markets for American products. My take on China’s foreign policy endeavour, both globally and towards Africa, is therefore that it must be understood as part and parcel of the game of the contemporary global political economy.
Now, let’s return to the Sicomines agreement in the DRC. I argue that it should not be understood as the result of a direct order by the Chinese government. Yes, it is a result of the Going Global strategy, but less directly so than is often believed. This has to do with the dynamics of state-company relations in China that I mentioned earlier. Indeed, the large companies involved in the agreement are owned by the Chinese state. Yet the Sicomines agreement was not initiated by the Chinese government, but by the state-owned enterprise China Railway Engineering Corporation, or CREC. CREC is one of the world’s largest construction companies, and it identified the concessions in the DRC as it was in the process of implementing its diversification strategy to expand into resource extraction activities. There are two links between the Sicomines agreement and the Going Global Strategy. The first is that CREC’s pursuit for global markets was triggered by it at the onset. The second is that the credit lines extended by China Exim Bank are one of the most important tools to implement the Going Global Strategy. The credit line extended to the DRC was of major political importance in ensuring that CREC got access to the concessions in the DRC, where decisions to allocate concessions are taken on opaque grounds. China Exim Bank’s support indicates that the Chinese leadership regards CREC’s expansion into the DRC as a highly important strategic move.
The Western view is that in a country like the DRC, development is more likely to occur where corruption has been reduced. A common Chinese view is the opposite: in a desperately poor country like the DRC, corruption will be reduced when economic development comes about.
CAP: When the Sicomines deal was first unveiled in 2007, it was widely interpreted as a rebuff to traditional donors (US, EU, IMF, etc...) in place of an alternative, less interventionist development partner in Beijing. Was this in fact the case?
JJ: Before responding to that question, I would like to stress that China is not likely to ‘take over’ as a donor to the DRC any time soon. The Western donors and the multilaterals remain very important to the DRC. Regarding the approaches, yes, they differ. In two main ways.
First, the Chinese government is not interventionist. Some Western donors work in the DRC although they have no bilateral aid agreement with the country. One example is my own home country Sweden, which does not give bilateral aid since it does not deem the situation in terms of corruption and aid efficiency satisfactory. China would never do that. Even though its non-interference policy has softened somewhat over the past two decades, it remains firmly committed to it. It is rooted strongly in China’s own experience during the ‘century of humiliation’ from the first opium war in 1839 to Mao’s proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
The second point follows from the first. China’s support to the DRC is quite different from that of the West. A great deal of the Western donor community’s work in the DRC concerns capacity building in terms of justice, rights and transparency. These are, for well-known reasons, not the main concerns of the Congolese government. China only provides support that is in line with the host government’s priorities, both because of its non-interference stance, but also because it interprets the relation between ‘corruption’ and ‘development’ quite differently from the West. The Western view is that in a country like the DRC, development is more likely to occur where corruption has been reduced. A common Chinese view is the opposite: in a desperately poor country like the DRC, corruption will be reduced when economic development comes about. A well-placed Chinese respondent explained to me that the Chinese party in the Sicomines agreement is well aware of the corruption problems in the DRC. However, the respondent said, it is better to engage and improve the country’s possibilities for economic development through infrastructure refurbishment, since economic development in turn will reduce corruption.
Many listeners will now object and say that these explanations do nothing more than hide the geo-strategic reasons for China’s conduct in the DRC. This is not wrong, in the sense that all external actors have strategic reasons for being active in the DRC. Not all of them have direct interests in the Congo’s resources – many donors provide aid for autobiographical reasons, for example. As regards China, it has always been explicit about its own interest in the DRC’s minerals. But beyond the geo-strategic dimension, anyone interested in really understanding why China does what it does in the DRC needs to take the different interpretations of ‘interference’ and ‘governance’ into account.
CAP: Who has more at risk in the current configuration of the Sicomines deal, the Congolese or the Chinese?
JJ: The DRC is a risky place. It is highly volatile politically. The elections in November 2011 were rife with fraud, as reported by International Crisis Group among others. As we speak in March 2012, uncertainty after the elections, as well as the recent death of the President’s chief adviser Augustin Katumba Mwanke, put a break on activities for all investors, as reported by Reuters. Any analysis of the Sicomines agreement has to take this into account.
As to the question of who carries the risk in the current configuration of the Sicomines deal, the views diverge. Some, including the Chinese parties to the deal, argue that given the volatile political environment and the removal of the guarantee for the returns on the investment into the mining operation, the risk is now on the Chinese side. Others argue that while the exact quantities of minerals contained by the concessions allocated to the Sino-Congolese consortium are uncertain, it is beyond a doubt sufficiently large to repay the loans extended by China Exim Bank. I think that given the situation in the DRC, it is difficult to claim the one or the other with certainty. Yes, the Chinese take an enormous risk. If the credit line towards infrastructure is fully disbursed, then China Exim Bank will have ploughed US$ 3 billion into infrastructure projects in the DRC – a big loss if it turns out that the concessions are not worth enough and the Congolese government cannot pay. But one also has to be clear about the fact that investors are interested in the DRC’s mining sector because the potential returns are enormous. A representative for one mining company told me that at the same mining cost, they have a 5 percent return rate in the DRC, and 0.5 percent return rate in another operation in the developed world. It’s not difficult to see, then, why companies put up with all the hassle of operating in the DRC. Higher stakes, higher returns. In other words, I would caution against any decisive conclusions in terms of the risk at this point.
About Johanna Jasson
Johanna Jansson is a PhD candidate in International Development Studies at the Department of Society and Globalisation, Roskilde University, Denmark. Her PhD project explores the DRC’s relations with its emerging and traditional development partners. Prior to resuming her studies, Johanna worked as a researcher for the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. Johanna holds an MA in Peace and Conflict Studies from Umeå University, Sweden, a BA with Honours in Political Science from Stellenbosch University, and a BA in Political Science from Lund University, Sweden. Johanna has conducted field research in the DRC, Gabon, South Africa, Uganda and Cameroon.
Few African countries have closer links with China than Zambia. The relationship goes back decades and Chinese investment in Zambian copper mines have led to both economic growth and an anti-Chinese backlash. The recent arrest of four Chinese mining technicians on charges of sex with underage prostitutes is pushing this relationship into uncomfortable new territory.
The miners are bored, the local women are poor - as I say, the math was pretty simple during the American gold rush and it is pretty simple in the African shantytowns surrounding big mines.
The sexual math of mining is pretty simple. Mining overwhelmingly takes place far away from urban centers. Mines overwhelmingly employ men. There isn't a lot for these men to do during their free time, because the mine is so far away from the city. The local women don't have many options, because extractive industries don't tend to employ many unskilled women and they don't add much to the local communities. What follows is what a friend of mine recently called 'the less-celebrated kind of foreign direct investment'. The miners are bored, the local women are poor - as I say, the math was pretty simple during the American gold rush and it is pretty simple in the African shantytowns surrounding big mines.
However, nowadays most large-scale extractive industries are dominated by multinational corporations and here the situation becomes complicated fast. Throw in the rhetoric of neo-colonial exploitation and you have an explosive combination of cultural difference, historical resentment and sex. Four Chinese technicians recently became the center of exactly this kind of miasma when they were arrested for having sex with underaged prostitutes in Zambia. The four - two carpenters, a bricklayer and a welder - worked for the China Non-Ferrous Metals Mining Group in Luanshya, a poor shantytown in Zambia's Copperbelt. They are currently in jail and face anything from fifteen years to life with hard labour for indecent assault. The whole situation is clearly quite sad and sordid, but what intrigued me is that while the prosecution is basing its case on the fact that the young women were younger than sixteen, Zambia's legal age of consent, the Zambian press seems to assume that they offered their services willingly. And this is far from the only case of underage prostitution in Zambia's Copperbelt region - in fact, the implication seems to be that it is not only routine, but routinely ignored - one aspect of the desperate times facing this Copperbelt town. Some of the community members interviewed made it clear that the only reason this particular case is getting this level of attention is because the defendants are Chinese.
I don't particularly wish to defend the Chinese men. If they're guilty, they're guilty of doing something despicable, even if these girls offered themselves up. But it also seems to me that these technicians have haplessly triggered some kind of post-colonial resentment bomb where sex and historical trauma become the fuel for a press bonfire. What makes it more symbolic is that China has in the past stoked exactly this kind of bonfire.
In 2002 a Chinese businessman was staying in a hotel in Zhuhai when he wandered into a massive orgy involving 400 Japanese businessmen and 500 local prostitutes. The next day the hungover Japanese businessmen woke to nationalist outrage on front pages across China. The outrage was based on an unfortunate detail - the orgy took place on the exact anniversary of the Japanese invasion of China in 1931. It is unclear to which extent the Japanese businessmen were aware of the symbolic significance of the date of their shindig. However, the mix of sex and history, particularly a narrative of historical victimhood, were like gasoline and birthday candles - a perfect recipe for a bad party. In the end it didn't really matter whether they knew or not. In the bigger context of Japan's history in China the scandal took on a life of its own. It drew attention all over East Asia and the Japanese government was forced to apologize.
China's lightning growth has created a new category in international relations - the aid recipient turned aid donor. To me the sex scandal in Zambia seems like a warning to China as it engages more with Africa: no continent on earth has a bigger historical chip on its shoulder than Africa. Nowhere else is the grappling with historical victimhood closer to the surface. With more Chinese moving to Africa, with more rural underdevelopment coming face to face with Chinese workers with money, and especially with African journalists and politicians (like Zambia's own Michael Sata) describing the China-Africa relationship as a new form of colonialism, we can expect many more sex-and-history bombs in the future.
ZAMBIA : Chinese Underage Sex Scandal Sparks Emotive Debate - IPS ipsnews.net.
'I stepped out of the lift and into an orgy' - Telegraph.
From Algeria to Angola, the Chinese population across Africa is growing rapidly. In less than a decade, hundreds of thousands of immigrants have made the long journey from mainland China to cities and villages throughout the continent. Today, as this vast population settles in, they are having a transformative effect on the culture, economics and even politics of their new African communities.
There are no precise figures on just how many Chinese live in Africa. Estimates, though, place the number of immigrants somewhere between 750,000 and a million continent-wide. If those estimates are accurate, it means there are more Chinese migrants living in Africa today then there were expatriate French people at the peak of their African empire in the mid-20thcentury.
But just who are all these Chinese people and what draws them to Africa?
It should go without saying that any population as large and diverse as the Chinese defies simple characterization. The Chinese immigrant population in Africa is extremely diverse across all lines of class and culture. In my experience, overseas Chinese migrants on the continent can broadly be divided into four distinct categories:
The Elites: Senior Chinese diplomats and executive management of State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) there to manage Beijing’s growing natural resource investments on the continent or oversee China’s massive infrastructure development initiatives. These people largely live in African capitals, often in the same walled-compounds as their Western counterparts.
The Managers: The often highly educated engineers and managers on the ground who lead the construction and natural resource extraction projects across the continent. These engineers give the Chinese such an advantage when bidding on projects since their salaries are a small fraction of comparable Western wages. These managers largely isolate themselves from the broader African society and stay in country anywhere from 3-5 years until they are assigned to a new project in a different country.
The Entrepreneurs: These individuals operate independent of any corporate or governmental entity. They have moved to Africa because they see an opportunity in the marketplace to make money. These entrepreneurs often start small- to medium-sized enterprises that leverage trading relationships back in China. Due to the business imperative of speaking the local language and understanding the culture, this group of immigrants is often highly assimilated.
The Peasants: For this group, the transition from the Chinese countryside to Africa is largely viewed as a horizontal move. They are accustomed to high levels of poverty, corruption and societal instability. Too poor to isolate themselves in a Chinese “ghetto,”, these immigrants live right alongside Africans in both urban and village communities across the continent. Out of sheer necessity, they are often highly assimilated in both language and culture. In contrast to the other three groups of Chinese migrants, once these low-income Chinese migrants are in Africa, they will likely never return home as they are just too poor.
There are no indications that Chinese migration to Africa is slowing. If anything, as Africa’s economies continue to grow, we can likely expect even more Chinese migrants to make the long journey across the Indian Ocean. It may be hard to imagine, but a large and growing Chinese population is now a permanent fixture of Africa’s demography.
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The French radio network “Radio France Internationale” has published a very interesting interactive map detailing Chinese investments, populations and infrastructure projects across Africa. Although the map is in French it’s nonetheless easy to follow for non-Francophones and offers a great visualization of how vast China’s engagement with Africa has become.
It is important to remember that just five years ago this map would have looked entirely, with just a fraction of the dots on the map that highlight China’s economic activity. For better and for worse, the Chinese have moved with unprecedented speed to enhance diplomatic ties with governments across the continent. Furthermore, the migration of hundreds of thousands of Chinese peasants, laborers and entrepreneurs is another important facet of this engagement that the RFI map nicely illustrates.
Both China and France share a common frustration with the international media and that their country’s “story” is not being accurately conveyed via the CNNs, BBCs and Al Jazeeras of the world. After years of bitterly complaining about the injustices of international (read Western) news reporting, they both came to same conclusion: “if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em.” In December 2006, the French-government launched FRANCE 24, its tri-lingual (French, Arabic and English) 24-hour news service distributed around the world via satellite and on the internet. Similarly, the 2010 launch of CNC World marks China’s third attempt to persuade english language audiences around the world to “see the world through a Chinese perspective.” The other two networks, CCTV 9 (now re-branded “CCTV International”) and Blue Ocean Network (BON Live) are both on-air but have had little-to-no impact among its target demographic of english-speakers around the world. In contrast to the various Chinese international TV networks now available globally, FRANCE 24 appears to be gaining considerable traction with audiences in the US and Africa among other regions.
China’s media leaders may want to consider the French approach with France24 if they want to grow audience share with their own media properties:
1. Editorial autonomy + Higher Content Legitimacy = Audience Loyalty
It is hard to tell if online users and TV viewers of FRANCE 24 clearly understand that they are consuming a media property owned and operated by the French government. Just as viewers of Al Jazeera may not be fully aware of the Qatari government’s backing of that network. What’s important here is that both France24 and Al Jazeera afford their editorial staff considerable editorial autonomy in determining the news. I can speak from personal experience (full disclosure: I am currently a freelance journalist at FRANCE 24′s english language online service) to attest that there is never any concern among the editorial staff about government censorship or oversight of any kind. Conversely, the pressure from management is to produce the highest quality news comparable to the standards of any of the international newsrooms I have worked in, including CNN, CNBC Asia and the Associated Press among others. Consider this example from July 14, 2010, France’s national holiday. In an effort to rebuild relations with its former African colonies, the French government invited those states celebrating 50 years of independence to have a delegation of military representatives march in the grand Bastille Day parade up the Champs Elysees. In China, such national day festivities would be greeted with patriotic enthusiasm by official media organs, but not so in France.
The Chinese are making it much harder than it needs to be for international viewers to access their content online.
Both the TV and online editors at France24 led with stories of accusations from a federation of international human rights groups that war criminals may be among those marching in the parade. The headline (left) led the coverage for most of the day and never was there a concern that France24 was embarrassing France’s leaders or the state itself. Instead, the story generated above-average traffic online.
The lesson here for China’s own media entities is that by giving experienced media producers greater autonomy to report a story, even if it may be critical of China, will ultimately improve the content’s legitimacy among its target audiences and thus lead to increased user loyalty. I fully understand how difficult it would be for some within the Propaganda Ministry, and even in the State Council, to loosen the reigns of media control. However, it should be considered essential if the ultimate objective is to persuade sophisticated international media consumers to divert themselves from rival websites and TV channels to CNC World, BON Live or CCTV International.
2. Make it Easy to Watch and Access the Content
When CNC World debuted in July 2010, I rushed to find the live stream online the very first day it went on the air. It went without saying that CNC would have a live-stream, or even on-demand video available, considering the importance the government had placed on reaching out to international viewers like myself. Yet after four attempts using three computers on two platforms, I have still not been able to access the CNC World live stream. CNC World is making it much more difficult than it needs to be for viewers to access their content online. Here are a few suggestions on how the network can improve its usability to make it significantly easier for viewers, such as myself, to watch CNC World over the internet:
A. Domain Name: select an easy to remember URL. https://www.xhstv.com is NOT a good domain name for an international audience. Now, as a Chinese speaker, I understand that XHS stands for 新华社, the average American viewer will not.
B. Make it Mac Compatible: No, in fact, make it platform agnostic. Currently, CNC World can only be viewed on PCs which eliminates tens of millions of prospective viewers who use Apple’s products. This is critical in both the United States and Europe.
C. No Plug-ins!: This is a massive mistake on the part of Xinhua. First of all, web users in the U.S. and Europe are accustomed to watching online video using any of the established methods ranging from Flash to HTML5. The era of downloading additional software applications to run video ended about five years. Secondly, Western internet users will NEVER download a plug-in prompted by text written in Chinese! This is a screen grab of the prompt to download the program “UUSEE” to watch CNC World. To the vast majority of non-Chinese speaking Westerners, this looks extremely ominous.
D. Do not use Chinese characters: Even if a user in the U.S. or Europe wanted to download the UUSEE plug-in, there is a very good chance that s/he would not be able to because many of the anti-virus programs block Chinese language applications. This is even more so on corporate networks that often have much stricter security measures than most home users. To avoid this restrictions, the English-language streaming site should be entirely in English with no Chinese language prompts for plug in requirements or any Chinese-character metadata that will trigger the security programs to block the site.
3. Quality Counts
Just as China is not a native-English speaking country, France faces a similar challenge in how it staffs its English language media channels. Unlike most of China’s multilingual media outlets, FRANCE 24′s english and Arabic services are staffed by native speakers. In China, by contrast, CCTV9, China Radio International and other channels are often staffed with Chinese employees whose english skills are quite strong relative to other mainland Chinese however nowhere near international broadcast standards. Subsequently, there are significantly higher levels of on air and online mistakes that are often directly associated with language abilities. In an extremely competitive news markets, these kinds of mistakes are unacceptable as it undermines the credibility of the product and encourages consumers to seek elsewhere for similar information. There is ample evidence of poor language and copy editing skills of China’s international media editors. On three separate occasions over the course of a single week, the home page of CNTV (left) featured prominent spelling errors and template layout mistakes that, once again, indicate China’s media products are just not competing at the same level as French and other international media outlets.
Tomorrow, the whole world’s eyes will be on the inauguration of Joe Biden. Stepping into a moment of unprecedented domestic crisis, he will probably have relatively little bandwidth for Africa. Indications are that the Biden administration plans to steer away from the Trump era’s unilateralism. While the incoming Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs hasn’t been confirmed yet, many State Department appointments have been filled by veterans from the Obama era. ...
This weekend the Chinese government released a new white paper on development. It comes in unassuming guise – it’s basically a MS Word Doc with the workaday title of China’s International Development Cooperation in the New Era. But in its own way it’s eye-popping.If (like me) you have an irrational fetish for long lists of country names, this document is for you. The bulk of the white paper outlines the different kinds of ...
While scrolling today I came across this great piece by the China expert and former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, laying out the wider implications of China’s much-discussed commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2060.
Rudd points out that one of the factors complicating China’s emergence as a global leader on climate is the difficulty of balancing the international demand for responsible climate leadership with domestic pressure to shield the numerous companies ...
Lordeee…I went to bed early on Wednesday night, only to wake up to a full screen of notifications from the New York Times, and pictures of horned men storming the US Capitol. On the edge of the world in Johannesburg, I’m struck by the fact that these events took place in the same week as the mass arrest of pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong. On African Twitter, some are comparing the events in the U.S. and Hong Kong ...
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi is in Africa at the moment. It has become a multi-decade tradition that the FM’s first foreign trip of the year is always to Africa. These trips are arguably less important for what they achieve (although announcements of new deals frequently follow) and more for projecting a sense of constancy in the China-Africa relationship.
In Chinese official rhetoric, the China-Africa relationship is always strong, yet ...
As 2020 crawls to its end, it’s becoming clear that, all things considered, China is emerged from the year’s nested crises in better shape than many expected.
While Europe and Japan seem headed to new slumps, and the American recovery also being buffeted by high infection numbers, China might end up being the only major economy to show any growth in 2020.
China is making use of this opportunity by positioning itself ...
The Financial Times today cited new work by scholars at Boston University on the global reduction of Chinese lending. The big story is that while Chinese lending rivaled that of the World Bank by the mid-2010s, it’s now plummeting.
China Development Bank and the Import-Export Bank lent $75 billion in 2016. Last year they only lent $4 billion. These rates are being driven down by shifts in strategy in Beijing, growing ...
The Guardian this week published a fascinating analysis of how the increasing diplomatic tensions between China and Australia could impact Africa. There are fears that recent Chinese crackdowns on Australian wine, barley, coal, and other commodities could be visited on the country’s exports of iron ore.Australia provides 60% of China’s iron ore imports. Iron ore is key to China’s massive steel industry, and its plans for achieving full, comprehensive development by the ...
This week saw yet another African leader (this time my own president, Cyril Ramaphosa,) calling for international measures to soften the current debt crisis confronting poor countries in Africa and beyond. None of these measures are outrageous. Considering that seven out of the top 10 fastest-growing economies in 2020 are African, it doesn’t even need to be seen as as measures to help Africa – it could be framed as ...
The last few weeks have been marked by a pervasive gloominess about Africa’s future.
As Zambia was defaulting on its Eurobond debt, the G20 was praising itself effusively for coming up with a debt response unlikely to help anyone. Meanwhile, the depressing talking points kept coming: a lost decade, 25 years of growth down the drain, millions pushed back into extreme poverty.
These are all realities. However, they might not show the entire ...
There is a discernable generational divide when it comes to opinions about the Chinese in Africa. It isn’t subtle and the split lines up according to age. In almost every instance, those over 40 years old frame the issue in “colonial terms” clearly influenced by their own early education of Western imperial activity on the continent. For these critics, Beijing’s engagement in Africa is binary — it’s either good or bad. This explains why so much of the news coverage on the subject is structured in such simple terms with headlines like “Is China Good For Africa,” et al. For this generation, the memories of decolonization, Live Aid and the countless Hollywood portrayal of a female aid worker (and they are always women in the movies) gently holding a starving African child have had a profound impact on their worldview. For the over 40 crowd, their education in the West never clearly condemned colonialism for its brutal failings. There was always a hint that European, and even American attempts, to “civilize” the “natives” was a benevolent ambition.
A new generation of bloggers and scholars is emerging who approach Sino-African relations with significantly more sophistication than older observers who are burdened by their early education of Western imperial activity on the continent.
Since the launch of China in Africa” podcast two months ago, I have found there is an entirely different perspective from a new generation of twenty and thirty something bloggers and academics who are unburdened by this conventional thinking. They seem to approach the topic with a refreshing lack of intellectual baggage that permits a far more nuanced view of the issue that doesn’t frame the subject in that “good vs. bad” framework that is so typical of their older peers. In universities across Europe and in South Africa (none in the United States that I have found so far), a new crop of students and bloggers is emerging who approach the subject with an unprecedented of level of sophistication. To these younger observers, China’s activities in Africa are evaluated much more comprehensively, taking into account the histories of both Africans and Chinese. Furthermore, there is a sense the Chinese should be judged in isolation rather than in the context of Western imperial policies of the past. And unlike their older peers, this under-40 group generally approaches the subject with significantly less prejudice about China, instead focusing on the tangible impact of Beijing’s policies on the continent.
Judge for yourself:
1. Lu Jinghao: South Africa blogger and China-Africa analyst who writes the “A Chinese in Africa” blog (https://china-africa-jinghao.blogspot.com/) and is also a contributor to the China Africa Project.
2. Lila Buckley: Oxford University graduate student who is focusing on Chinese engagement in African agriculture. She recently posted a guest blog on Deborah Brautigam’s “China in Africa: The Real Story” about her research in Senegal.
3. Johanna Jesson: Researcher at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and Phd. candidate at the Roskilde University who specializes in transparency issues related to Chinese aid and investment on the continent. In particular, she has written extensively on Chinese investment patterns in both the DRC and Gabon.
4. Henry Hall: Masters candidate at the London School of Economics who is doing research on Chinese-Zambian relations. Henry also publishes the weekly email newsletter and website China Africa News.
5. Dr. David Robinson: African historian who lectures at Perth, Australia’s Edith Cowan University. Dr. Robinson recently published “Hearts, Minds and Wallet: Lessons from China’s Growing Relationship with Africa.“
So while age by itself should not be considered the determining factor in judging the competence of any journalist, blogger or scholar, it does seem that younger observers are engaging the Sino-African issue with a very different perspective. This is a particular issue that is extremely complex with intersecting histories, cultures and peoples who defy the simple stereotypes that are depressingly common in much of the mainstream press’ an academia’s coverage.
Transparency is a loaded word in the development business. The idea that aid and investments in places like Africa should be subject to external audits and review is a sacrosanct principle within the industry. Never mind the irony that organizations like USAID, the United Nations and the World Bank among others devote a majority of their time/effort with their aid programs to sorting through a byzantine bureaucracy that is anything but transparent — nonetheless, these very organizations maintain the “black box” that is China’s aid and investment agenda in Africa is alarming. However, transparency can cut both ways and ultimately the West may regret its insistence that China pull back the curtain.The issue first came to my attention in Kinshasa at the posh athletic club “Cercle Elais” where I was enjoying an afternoon drink by the pool. Sitting behind me were a pair of European construction executives who were seemingly drowning their sorrows in pint after pint of lager. The two echoed a story detailed in the compelling book “China Safari” by complaining loudly over their inability to compete with Chinese construction firms who submitted bids 50-60% lower than everyone else. ”There’s just no way we can compete,” one declared, “yeah, we’re fucked,” the other slurred. Now, the interesting part of this story is who these two accused of screwing up their business in the DRC. It didn’t seem like they blamed the Chinese. No. Instead, it was the World Bank and MONUC (the United Nations operation in the DRC)!
Hopefully advocates of greater transparency will apply the same enthusiasm they do for criticizing Chinese aid and investment initiatives in Africa to the bloated, inefficient procurement system that protects an indefensible level of Western corruption.
Under intense pressure to increase “transparency,” construction firms bidding on major infrastructure projects in the region have increasingly been required to submit “open bids.” Before “open bidding,” governments and international organizations evaluated proposals using various criteria beyond just price (e.g. quality of materials, labor sourcing, etc…). Yet as the transparency drive forced open the bidding process, price naturally became the dominant issue. And as we know, when it comes to price, the Chinese are hard to beat. While there is ample evidence in Chinese construction and manufacturing industries to illustrate how Chinese companies employ substandard labor practices and production methods to keep their costs as low as possible, there is an important alternative perspective that should be considered as well. The Chinese construction firms in places like the DRC work harder, longer and cheaper than their Western counterparts:
- Do Chinese construction executives stay in five star accommodations like Kinshasa’s Hotel Memling at a cost to international taxpayers of $500-$600 per night? No.
- Do Chinese project managers live in expensive expatriate communities with security details, chauffeur driven cars and consume imported food as their Western counterparts do? No.
- Do Chinese construction projects operate only five days a week, forcing the project to take longer to build and ultimately cost more? No.
Hopefully advocates of greater transparency will apply the same enthusiasm for criticizing Chinese aid and investment initiatives in Africa to the bloated, inefficient procurement system that protects an indefensible level of Western corruption. After all, the UN and the World Bank’s funds are all of our tax money, so if Chinese companies can offer a comparable service at half the price, well, that’s capitalism, right?
Footnote: this is by no means a new issue. The Chinese began under bidding projects in Africa as early as 2005, prompting louder calls for improved transparency in the infrastructure procurement process.
It may be hard to believe but half of all construction work underway in Kenya is now being done by Chinese firms, according to the U.S. public radio program “The World” (audio link below). It appears the Chinese infrastructure building juggernaut in Africa is showing no signs of slowing down. Kenya’s Business Daily newspaper reports the capital’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport has received a new round of funding for expansion and modernization where much of the work will likely go to Chinese contractors. Already, China National Aero-Technology International Engineering Company (CATIC) is on board to build out the airport’s new terminal four and a larger parking facility. One would likely expect Chinese construction and engineering firms to compete vigorously for the millions of other dollars that have yet to be assigned.
Public Radio International’s (PRI) daily news program “The World” has done some very good reporting recently on the Chinese in Africa and specifically the Chinese construction boom in Kenya.
The Canadian Broadcast Corporation sent their Beijing correspondent to do some rather extensive reporting on the surge of Chinese investment in Africa. In contrast to much of the other recent coverage of the topic, Anthony Germain’s reporting from Zambia was refreshingly balanced. The highlight of his reporting centers on the question of how China is taking full advantage of the failures of 50 years of Western aid. Several of his sources pointed out that despite spending hundreds of billions of dollars in Africa, Western aid programs have very little to show.
The Chinese, by contrast, move quickly and efficiently and demonstrate visible results from their engagement. That said, Germain rightly points out that Beijing asks for very little in return from its African partners in the form of political accountability and transparency. While I fully appreciate the importance of this kind of political pressure, it always strikes me as ironic to hear this perspective from Western critics, most notably through the Western media. Specifically, the West (and by default the Western media) appear to be rather selective with their demands for political accountability.
Although the international aid industry spends billions of dollars each year in the very same countries that China is operating, there is virtually no scrutiny of the effectiveness of that money and the negative impact it often has on political accountability in under-developed countries across Africa. Moreover, that same level of accountability is not regularly included in coverage of European and American companies operating in Africa. It is not obvious to me, yet, how the Chinese behavior in Africa is different from that of French, American or German owned resource extraction companies operating in the region.
None of this is meant to exclude the Chinese from scrutiny, instead to highlight the obvious hypocrisy that is regularly employed by outside observers of the Chinese in Africa. Anytime a comparison is done between Chinese and Western aid strategies in Africa, it is worth noting that each brings a distinctive mindset to this endeavor. The issue over “effectiveness” is one that is loaded with considerably different meaning in the West and in China. The United States, for example, has a governmental system made populated disproportionately by lawyers. Results, or effectiveness, is therefore passed through this legalistic (or administrative in the case of many European governments) filter. China, in contrast, is a government made up of technocrats with an engineering background. In this case, each problem or project is seen in the context of a start point and end point. Period. The engineer will solve any problem that arises in the interim of these two points with the end result in mind.
Consider the following scenario: Say the Chinese have been tasked to build a road in Madagascar. The construction veers off course by 4 degrees, prompting the road to bend slightly to the left. For the Chinese project managers, this is a simple problem with an easy answer: continue building the road but just pull it to the right a bit to make the road as a straight as possible but do not waste more time discussing the issue. If the Americans or Europeans were building that same road and encountered the identical problem the solution would look radically different. Construction would likely stop immediately. The construction manager would call in the grants officer from the relevant international development agency for guidance who would then demand a written report be provided within 48 hours on why the road veered to the left 4 degrees. A second report would then be generated by the grants officer to be submitted to superiors at the appropriate embassy, prompting a conference call with headquarters in Washington, New York or Brussels. Several meetings would then be convened to discuss the environmental and financial impacts of the bend in the road. Yet another report would be generated by a far away official that would provide the necessary guidance to the grants officer back in Madagascar on how to proceed. Throughout this whole 6-8 week process (at a minimum), construction would stop indefinitely until the entire administrative process is completed to insure the project remains compliant with the respective country’s development funding guidelines.
While this is a gross oversimplification of the issue, it does highlight the key cultural difference in how the Chinese and the West approach the development process. While the Chinese process may be viewed by many in the West as “steamrolling,” it does generate results considerably faster than what comparable Western development agencies can produce. The next step for correspondents, such as Germain, is to go beyond the surface comparison between the Chinese and Western approach to aid in Africa and explore the underlying cultural differences that motivate each side. Germain’s CBC reports did a nice job flirting with this issue, but it is definitely worthy of deeper evaluation. Footnote: In addition to the text article, Germain also produced an insightful 12 minute radio piece and also took some excellent pictures that are displayed in a beautiful photo gallery format.
For most outsiders, the Chinese operations in Africa run largely as an opaque mystery. Seemingly every Western book or in-depth news article on the subject features the same complaint of not receiving any help from either Chinese officials or businesses there about how the mechanics of their investments in the region function. Basic questions like how are factories acquired or what kind of support do Chinese embassies offer local businesses in the region largely go unanswered.
For some perspective on these issues, I came across a fascinating bulletin board site (BBS) that offers remarkable insights into the inner-workings of Chinese business on the continent: www.chineseinafrica.com/bbs/ The site is exclusively in Chinese, so for the benefit of CTP’s English-only readers, here are some highlights of recent entries:
How Chinese Businesses in Africa see the
One entry submitted by a writer with the handle “Old African Trader” posts what appears to be an open letter to the Chinese government appealing on behalf of business leaders for more help from Chinese embassies on the continent. The posts starts by saying how much pride there is seeing the Chinese flag rise over Africa and the emergence of China as a global power. However, he goes on to sharply criticize the government for its lack of support of small businesses operating in Africa:
“Although Chinese African exchanges are deepening and broadening and more investors are coming to Africa, and everyone can say that those in Africa live a lonely, solitary life devoted to work and the embassy offers almost no help to these businesses”
If this writer is accurate, it offers a fascinating insight into the limitations of the “public-private partnership” that so many outside observers take for granted when evaluating Chinese investments in Africa. On several occasions in Kinshasa and elsewhere, U.S. diplomats expressed their frustration that Chinese businesses had an unfair business advantage over American companies because of the close diplomatic/corporate relationship that allegedly exists among Chinese enterprises investing in Africa. Yet this open letter exposes that there are limits to the Chinese government’s support of businesses. Where Chinese embassies draw the line on what business to support is hard to know, it’s obvious that major State Owned Enterprise (SOE) multinationals operating mining and telecommunications concessions among other deals in places the DRC are very likely getting a lot of support from the embassy whereas medium and small investors, as the writer appears to represent, may not be getting very much assistance.
Toothpaste Factory Seeks African Trade Partner
If you are interested in importing “Angola” brand toothpaste to Africa, then this post will be of interest. The author of this post appears to be seeking business partners in Africa to import this toothpaste. What’s most interesting about this post is the advertised price of the toothpaste at just 1.2 RMB per unit. This sheds some light on China’s low-cost export strategy that we have been discussing on CTP. At just 1.2 RMB per unit, this toothpaste is affordable for a wide-spectrum of consumers at the lowest end of the economic spectrum.
Togo Sinocar Auto Sales and Repair [Welcomes/Greets] Togo-based Chinese Friends
If you happen to live in the small West African country of Togo and want to either purchase a Chinese-made vehicle or get your “Great Wall” car repaired, then Togo Sinocar is the place to go. The author of this post, seemingly the owner or manager of Togo Sinocar, explains how this venture is the first Chinese auto sales and repair company in the country. Togo Sinocar has 10 employees and two Chinese engineers to serve the community. What’s most interesting here is the range of services they offer. In the U.S. or Europe, an auto repair or sales dealer does just that, whereas with Togo Sinocar, the list of services is much broader. In addition to emergency tow services they’ll also help you secure either your Togo or international drivers licenses as well.
There are hundreds of other posts on this BBS that are worthy of exploration, some very personal about finding lost relatives who went to Africa and those searching for love in Africa. We’ll bring you more posts in the coming weeks as this site offers a truly unique view into Chinese life on the continent that is hard to come by even among those living there.
Dean H. Diabate
Advisor and Project Lead
Director, Africa Program
Center for Strategic and International Studies
University of Melbourne
Beijing Foreign Studies University
LH Consulting (independent)
African Region Director
Department of Defense
By any measure China’s awe inspiring embrace of Africa is impressive. Let’s put aside the staggering financial statistics on how many billions of dollars Beijing is spreading across the continent or even the scale of its natural resource haul. Honestly, there is no comparison because no other country or countries come close to the breadth and depth of China’sengagement here. While the Americans and Europeans meet in conferences and write report after report on the dismal political and humanitarian conditions in Africa, the Chinese are building deep roots here as part of a century-long investment. From Algeria to Angola, tens of thousands of Chinese construction crews are laying the foundation of that investment with the building of countless roads, bridges, hospitals and other desperately needed infrastructure. For that, there is widespread appreciation across many levels of society for Beijing’s ability to persevere where both national governments and international donors have largely failed. Not far away, though, from those construction sites, problems are beginning to simmer that if go unchecked could severely compromise Beijing’s long term agenda in Africa.
China is not just bringing piles of cash and construction trucks to Africa, hundreds of thousands of immigrants are also making the long journey to resettle in cities like right here in Kinshasa. These immigrants, like Mister Chen who we profiled earlier, are coming here in search of opportunity and to build a better life for their families. They are opening businesses large and small in out of the way neighborhoods that largely go unseen by the casual observer. In so many ways, the Chinese entrepreneurial enthusiasm is a welcome addition to poor and dysfunctional communities that essentially operate outside of the formal economy. In short, the Chinese are bringing desperately needed jobs, goods and services. Human culture being what it is though, there is also tremendous risk with how the Chinese ultimately assimilate with Congolese and other African cultures. Initially, the arrival of those Chinese business were greeted either with indifference or welcomed as a positive addition to the community. Now, however, the first rumblings of unease are beginning to emerge as some communities find the Chinese presence to be more problematic than they had initially thought. This issue was most recently brought to light in Namibia where the growing competition from Chinese hair salon owners prompted the government to place an outright ban on Chinese ownership of these types of beauty parlors. Separately, I am hearing more and more firsthand reports from Congolese who have friends and relatives working on Chinese construction projects who complain that Chinese foremen are becoming increasingly aggressive with their local employees. It has been well documented that in countries such as Congo-Brazzaville, Angola and Algeria (source: China Safari, 2009) that many Chinese employers lack cultural sensitivity skills that would endear them to local populations.
To many Chinese, these so-called “soft skills” are meaningless. The common retort from many Chinese business owners and project managers is that local workers complain because the Chinese work harder and demand more from their employees than do African companies. The fact that local workers are complaining about working for low wages or not being paid at all just further reinforces that Chinese mindset. In fact, the emotional standoff between Chinese merchants and their African critics is very similar to the same arguments made about cultural insensitivity by the Chinese in certain minority -populated provinces in China. Now, let me be very clear here. I do not have an opinion as to whether or not the popular sentiment held by the majority Han culture in China is correct or the views of minorities who feel their cultures are being paved over. I will leave those questions to far more learned observers. My point is that the debate is so similar. The Han perspective emphasizes economic development as evidence by infrastructure construction. Sentimentality for culture or religion is rarely a priority when measured against infrastructure development in economically deprived regions.
Considering the tremendous speed the Chinese are moving in Africa, particularly here in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there may good reason to allocate a small percentage of that investment to building cultural ties between the Chinese and their African hosts. The Congolese, for example, seem overwhelmingly positive about the Chinese arrival. They regard the Chinese initiatives with optimism and see their enthusiasm for Africa as welcome relief from the failed policies of the West. That said, the DRC is an extremely volatile country where a spark can light a blaze in seconds. If the Chinese are not carefully with their cultural investment, it could handicap their broader regional agenda.
Scan the headlines about the Chinese in Africa and the predominant theme focuses almost exclusively on the infrastructure-for-natural resource deals. The Chinese are signing multi-billion dollar oil and mineral deals up and down the continent while spending a comparable fortune building desperately needed infrastructure in many of the least developed countries on earth. Here in Kinshasa, evidence of China’s foreign and trade policies is everywhere. New roads, hospitals, parliament buildings are all being built at record speeds by Chinese construction conglomerates. Yet not far away from the heavy earth moving trucks and the billion dollar mineral deals, a separate, yet equally transformative revolution is underway. Quietly, tens of thousands, possibly even hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants are moving in to neighborhoods across Kinshasa and dozens of African cities. While there is no reliable data available to estimate just how many emigres have come here, there is no doubt the Chinese population is rising quickly.
When I first heard that Kinshasa was now home to thousands of Chinese immigrants, I naturally assumed there would some sort of “Chinatown” with a population cluster just as there is in Paris, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires and even Asian cities like Kuala Lumpur. It just made sense that the first wave of Chinese arrivals would huddle together as immigrants have done the world over for generations. ”So where is the Chinese community?” I asked a several of our local staff. Puzzled, they responded “what do you mean? There is no Chinese community here, they live with us.” Time and again I received the same answer. The Chinese immigrants in Kinshasa are skipping an entire phase of assimilation by moving directly to the sprawling neighborhoods and shantytowns that is home to the capital’s 8-10 million residents. By any standard, this is a remarkable phenomenon as there are few more seemingly divergent cultures than Chinese and Congolese. Yet despite overwhelming differences in language, race and culture, the Chinese are adapting in ways that Westerners could never begin to imagine.
Mister Chen is one of those thousands of new arrivals to Kinshasa. He and his family moved from China’s southern Fuzhou province three years ago to come to Africa. When he first learned of the opportunity to come to the DRC he admitted that he knew nothing about the country as was made clear by their decision to settle in the eastern Congolese city of Kivu. Traveling over land from the Rwandan capital of Kigali, they arrived in Kivu unaware that it is the epicenter of Congo’s violent 10-year war. Hundreds of thousands of people, possibly millions, have died in the region surrounding Kivu and after three weeks he packed up his family to move west across the country to the relative safety of Kinshasa. Upon arrival here he was introduced to a “Chinese association” that would provide him the logistical and financial support for him to open a small shop in one of Kinshasa’s vast, densely populated neighborhoods. These associations are critical to understanding the success of the Chinese, both here in Kinshasa and the world over. Just as Chinese immigrant associations in San Francisco and New York, the Chinese associations in the DRC provide what is essentially a micro-loan to new immigrants and the necessary logistical support to open a small business. The association handles the legal paperwork, ensures the necessary bribes are paid to relevant neighborhood police and government authorities; connects the shop owner with a distribution network of Chinese importers to supply their business. Mister Chen said he arrived from China with “only a few dollars” but was able to get his start through the help of the association. In turn, as his business develops, he re-pays the association back in small increments until the loan is fully paid. The association also plays another critical role that insulates the shop owner from the volatility of daily life in Kinshasa. When the police or some other government authority comes to his store for bribes or extortion, he simply calls the association who then quickly respond to handle the situation. This rapid response and protection from the association is an immensely important aspect of the Chinese entrepreneurial success here as it offers a level of reliability largely unavailable in a society as unstable as Kinshasa.
Mister Chen’s store has the feel of an inner-city American liquor store where all of the products are on display behind a think glass window. He largely sells cheap, low quality Chinese-made knick-knacks that range from one-dollar headphones to shoes to plastic tableware. Although business in his 1,500 square foot (estimate) shop was brisk during my 45-minute mid-day visit, not once did I see him sell a single product. Instead, locals would approach the counter, throw down a $20 or $50 US bill and he or one of his local staff members would hurl a wad of Congolese francs and dollars back at the customer. In addition to selling low-cost Chinese imports, shop owners like Mister Chen have also established themselves as among the most reliable money changers in the city. ”I trust the Chinese more than I do Congolese,” one customer explained when I asked why he changed his money with Mister Chen and not at one of the countless money changers on the street. ”They give us a fair price and don’t cheat us.” By selling low-cost products along with doing a brisk currency trading business, Mister Chen said he is able to squeeze out a small profit. ”It’s not a lot because the Congolese are very poor but I earn more here than what I was making back in Fuzhou,” he said.
When you consider the hundreds of billions of dollars Western governments and NGOs have spent in Africa to help build civil society programs none seem anywhere near as effective as what Mister Chen is doing. His small business is simultaneously providing jobs, goods and services that are vital in a region desperate for this kind of economic activity. Mister Chen does not think of his business as anything other than a means to earn a meager living. What he may not realize is that what he and his family are doing is part of a larger, more powerful trend that will re-shape Africa in a far more profound way than any of the roads and hospitals Beijing is building here.
I have been living in Kinshasa for almost three weeks now and since I landed here I’ve been asked countless times what I find the most interesting/bizarre/unusual about life in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For me, the answer is clear. It’s not the vibrancy of Congolese culture, how incredibly warm most people are, or even the tragedy of the endemic poverty that defines life here for so many. No, the biggest surprise so far comes from the attitudes of the many American aid and development personnel I have met. These are the people who work in both the large multinational relief organizations or in the development sector of the US government itself. Pretty much, anytime you socialize with these folks the conversations almost always centers on who is more dysfunctional: Congolese society or their employers at the major NGO/government agencies. Beer after beer goes down while they detail the overwhelming bureaucratic challenges they confront each day just to do their jobs. They complain passionately how their management rarely cares if anything actually gets done just whether or not reports are written and rules are followed.
So it’s in this context that I raise the issue that I consider to be the proverbial elephant in the room. If you accept that a global battle of ideas is currently underway among three competing ideologies: religious extremism (the Middle East, North Africa, the Persian Gulf and arguably even in the United States itself), the so-called Western democracy agenda promoted by the U.S. and Europe and then what’s referred to as the “Beijing Consensus.” This “Beijing Consensus” at its core is an ideology modeled after China’s own 30-year economic success that emphasizes social/economic issues over civil/political rights. China is exporting that philosophy across the developing world, especially in Africa, where governments are being lured with billions of dollars in low interest loans, debt forgiveness and massive infrastructure projects in exchange for access to natural resources. The Chinese bring to Africa their own development experience from working in comparably disadvantaged environments. Specifically, the Chinese have developed low-water agricultural expertise, enhanced irrigation techniques and an unrivaled efficiency for building infrastructure projects. Yet none of this — and I mean NONE — matters to the Western development staff that I have met so far.
The Chinese, in their minds, are “communist dictators” who don’t value “democracy” and “transparency.” Just like that, the conversation ends. They have no patience to talk about anything the Chinese are doing other than fueling corruption, importing poorly made products and exporting dictatorship. What I find so interesting about these discussions with supposed “professional development specialists” is how remarkably unsophisticated they are about alternative models from non-Western countries. There is a confidence in the American/Western method that borders on evangelical.
The real tragedy here is that none of what I am observing here in the DRC among Western aid officials is new. Experts having been sounding the alarm over this blind spot for years. Prominent Sino-African relations scholar Professor Deborah Brautigam raised the issue in 1998 when she too singled out western aid agencies for their nativism. “Ignorance about China’s development aid program [in Africa] is even more complete among development analysts,” she wrote. Professor Brautigam explains some of the reasons for this ignorance, attributing it to the language barrier, China’s former diplomatic isolation and “the Chinese work style which emphasizes productive labor over report writing” (source: Deborah Brautigam, Chinese Aid and African Development, 1998).
While the Western development agencies bury themselves in reports, spreadsheets and analysis, the Chinese are out there seven days a week building roads, dams, bridges, hospitals and more. Simply put, traditional Chinese pragmatism is getting things done while the Western model dithers and dithers and dithers with endless paperwork. After dozens of conversations with Congolese on this subject, it is abundantly clear that either the Western development officials either don’t see or don’t care that they are in fact losing the ideological battle for hearts and minds. The Congolese can see firsthand the immediate impact of Chinese development. They can feel it, touch it and understand it. The same cannot be said for American and European aid where the complex world of spreadsheets, templates and development models is lost on the very people they are trying to help.
The Chinese live in a practical world, a world the Congolese can identify with. Westerners may have once been as pragmatic and practical, but no more. The mere fact that these aid officials can’t even discuss it illustrates how serious the problem is.