The Chinese in Africa: Trying to pull together – (The Economist – April 23, 2011)

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Africans are asking whether China is making their lunch or eating it

ZHU LIANGXIU gulps down Kenyan lager in a bar in Nairobi and recites a Chinese aphorism: “One cannot step into the same river twice.” Mr Zhu, a shoemaker from Foshan, near Hong Kong, is on his second trip to Africa. Though he says he has come to love the place, you can hear disappointment in his voice.

On his first trip three years ago Mr Zhu filled a whole notebook with orders and was surprised that Africans not only wanted to trade with him but also enjoyed his company. “I have been to many continents and nowhere was the welcome as warm,” he says. Strangers congratulated him on his homeland’s high-octane engagement with developing countries. China is Africa’s biggest trading partner and buys more than one-third of its oil from the continent. Its money has paid for countless new schools and hospitals. Locals proudly told Mr Zhu that China had done more to end poverty than any other country.

He still finds business is good, perhaps even better than last time. But African attitudes have changed. His partners say he is ripping them off. Chinese goods are held up as examples of shoddy work. Politics has crept into encounters. The word “colonial” is bandied about. Children jeer and their parents whisper about street dogs disappearing into cooking pots.

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. The Chinese-built road from Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, to Chirundu, 130km (81 miles) to the south-east, was quickly swept away by rains.

Business, Chinese style

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.”

There is anger and disappointment on the Chinese side too. In the South African town of Newcastle, Chinese-run textile factories pay salaries of about $200 per month, much more than they would pay in China but less than the local minimum wage. Unions have tried to shut the factories down. The Chinese owners ignore the unions or pretend to speak no English.

They point out that many South African firms also undercut the minimum wage, which is too high to make production pay. Without the Chinese, unemployment in Newcastle would be even higher than the current 60%. Workers say a poorly paid job is better than none. Some of them recently stopped police closing their factory after a union won an injunction.

.“Look at us,” says Wang Jinfu, a young factory-owner. “We are not slave drivers.” He and his wife came four years ago from Fujian province in southern China with just $3,000. They sleep on a dirty mattress on the factory floor. While their 160 employees work 40 hours a week, the couple pack boxes, check inventory and dispatch orders from first light until midnight every day of the year. “Why do people hate us for that?” says Mr Wang.

Indeed, 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. The Heritage Foundation, an American think-tank, estimates that in 2005-10 about 14% of China’s investment abroad found its way to sub-Saharan Africa (see chart 2). Most goes in the first place to Hong Kong. The Heritage Foundation has tried to trace its final destination.

.One answer to Mr Wang’s question is that competition, especially from foreigners, is rarely popular. Hundreds of textile factories across Nigeria collapsed in recent years because they could not compete with cheap Chinese garments. Many thousands of jobs were lost.

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