Posts Tagged ‘DRC’

[AUDIO] China in Africa podcast: The Sino-U.S. Soft Power Showdown

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

China in Africa Podcast: The Sino-U.S. Soft Power Showdown

Travel to almost any African capital and even before you make it from the airport to downtown there is a very high likelihood you will pass a Chinese construction project along the way.  From the new terminal at Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi to the main road connecting Kinshasa’s N’Djili Airport to the city center, the Chinese construction boom is immediately evident.

Simply put, the magnitude of China’s construction drive in Africa is so vast that only the rapid industrialization of the Chinese economy itself and the U.S.-funded Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II can compare in scale.

All this construction is a central component of Beijing’s foreign policy agenda where it builds roads, dams, hospitals and other badly needed infrastructure in developing countries in exchange for vital natural resources.  On the surface, this arrangement has all the hallmarks of pure mercantilism but to leave it at that overlooks critical subtleties that are now beginning to sway the balance of international influence across the continent.

In a recent article for the Asian affairs website “The Diplomat,” military affairs journalist David Axe details how Chinese construction projects are opening a new front in Beijing’s increasingly ambitious global soft power agenda.    China, he writes, is simultaneously competing for influence with the established foreign powers in Africa while copying Western diplomatic tactics.

“Where the U.S. sends soldiers, the Chinese build roads.  Their approach [to soft power diplomacy] could not be farther apart.” – Military Affairs Journalist, David Axe

Earlier this year, Axe spent two months in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where he covered a U.S. military joint training operation with the Congolese armed forces.  To get from his hotel to the training grounds, Axe and the U.S. troops drove along Boulevard 30 Juin, Kinshasa’s main thoroughfare that was recently re-paved and widened by the Chinese.  That road, Axe realized, had come to represent the stark differences in how Beijing is engaging with countries like the DRC and Washington’s growing reliance on its military:

“That China and the United States are in a race to gain sway over countries possessing vital natural resources, not only in Africa but across the developing world, is hardly news. But the scene in Kinshasa—US troops speeding down a Chinese-built road—underscores the differing strategies Washington and Beijing have tended to pursue. While it has fallen on the US military to lead the country’s forays into Congo and other mineral-rich nations, most notably Iraq and Afghanistan, China has traditionally preferred underwriting infrastructure projects.”

In addition to the public perception benefits associated with building infrastructure in many of the world’s poorest countries, Beijing is also turning to its military forces as another tool in its soft power diplomacy kit, according to Axe.  The deployment of Chinese naval forces off the coast of East Africa to take part in multi-national anti-piracy operations along with the launch of the new hospital ship “866” are two recent examples that Axe highlights to demonstrate how the Peoples Liberation Army (and navy — the PLAN) are playing an important role to shape African perceptions of the Chinese.

While media outlets like Xinhua and CCTV along with educational organizations such as the Confucius Institutes have traditionally been the centerpiece of China’s public diplomacy initiatives in Africa, it appears that Beijing may have a much broader soft power agenda that also includes all of those roads and bridges as well.

The interview with David Axe and other ‘China in Africa’ podcasts are all available on iTunes.  Click here for more information.

[AUDIO] China in Africa podcast: Chinese business operations in the DRC

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

By any measure, the DRC is one of the most difficult places on earth to do business.

Let’s put aside for now the problems associated with the war in the east as that’s not really the issue here.

instead, we’re going to focus on  what it actually takes to get business done in a place where there’s only a hint of a functioning government.  And what little government there is is corrupt beyond your wildest imagination.

Take the figures from Transparency International’s 2009 Corruptions Perception Index that puts the DRC close to the bottom of the list, just shy of Afghanistan and Somalia.

So in a place where there’s essentially no rule of law and ubiquitous corruption, how do the Chinese the manage their multi-billion dollar investments in the country?

For some insights, I turned to Swedish researcher Johanna Jasson who co-authored a report for the Centre for Chinese Studies at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.  She’s now pursuing her Phd in Denmark.

Jassen spent a considerable amount of time last year researching Chinese corporate activity in both Katanga and Lubumbashi, especially that huge 6 billion dollar Sicomines deal.

[AUDIO] China in Africa podcast: Why CN will not dominate FDI in Gabon

Sunday, August 8th, 2010

Gabon is that tiny country along the central west Africa that is often overlooked by its larger, more controversial and considerably more powerful neighbors.  With only 1.5 million people, Gabon is one of Africa’s smallest countries. Along with its modest population, Gabon also maintains a low-profile. Rarely does it make headliness in ways that neighboring Equatorial Guinea does where the ruling family/government there stands accused of widespreadl human rights abuses, corruption on a grand scale and even narcotics trafficking among other indiscretions.  Instead, Gabon is a stable, relatively democratic country that is aggressively pursuing foreign investors to drill, mine and harvest its vast reserves of natural resources. (more…)

Your Letters: CTP Readers Respond

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

One of the biggest challenges that confronts any media professional is getting honest feedback on the content s/he produces.  TV journalists at the biggest networks in the world share the same complaint as the lone blogger — constructive criticism of one’s work is extremely hard to come by.  So when we received a pair of thoughtful, well-written feedback emails from a reader in Scandinavia and another in the United States, it was immensely appreciated.  Although the critiques (below) do sting a bit, their suggestions are valued and, in some cases, have already been incorporated into how we produce content on China Talking Points.   We thought it would be great to share their comments as a way to invite other readers to contribute feedback as well.  The comments below have been reprinted with the authors’ permission however both individuals did requested anonymity. (more…)

[VIDEO] Unreported World: China’s African Takeover

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

Before the Francis’ brother impressive documentary “When China Met Africa” was broadcast on BBC4, rival UK network Channel 4 ITV produced “China’s African Takeover” in 2008.  Reporter Aidan Hartley and producer travel through Zambia and the DR Congo to document conditions in Chinese-run mine and agricultural operations.  In general, they paint a very grim picture of the conditions that local workers endure under Chinese management and it provides a sobering overview of the harsh realities on the ground that confront both Chinese and Africans alike.

While this production is two years old, it nonetheless remains worthwhile viewing.

Segment 2

Click on image to view Unreported World segment 2

Segment 3

Click here to view Unreported World segment 3

China in Africa Podcast: The Coming Sino-African Revolution

Friday, May 28th, 2010

china_africa

In this edition of the “China in Africa” podcast, Johannesburg-based blogger and academic Charlie Pistorius says the debate over whether  Chinese investment in Africa is either good or bad is entirely irrelevant.  Instead, one should evaluate the substantive outcome of China’s policies which will invariably produce a far more nuanced perspective.   In a pair of noteworthy essays published on his blog www.toseque.com, Pistorius walks us through the difficulties that come with framing the China in Africa debate in terms of “good” and “bad.” (more…)

China in Africa: A Critique of Howard French’s “Empire” Article

Friday, April 16th, 2010

china_africa1China is walking down the same path towards empire in Africa as the once former European powers did a century ago writes former New York Times Shanghai and Africa correspondent Howard French in a new article for the U.S. magazine “The Atlantic.”  While his conclusion is questionable on several fronts, French’s article is far and away the best among a recent series of “China in Africa” articles that have emerged over the past year.  In particular, French does an excellent job of highlighting the failure of the West’s engagement with the continent over the past century, noting that billions of dollars in aid and development programs have done nothing to stem rising poverty levels.   Separately, French also delves into one of the less understood, yet critically important facets of the Sino-African relationship: food production.  With China’s arable land supply falling rapidly to environmental degradation and industrialization, Beijing is recognizing that it will soon have no choice but to go abroad for its food supply.  Africa, with its vast supply of arable land and limited capital, offers an ideal solution.  Yet, French appropriately warns that China must proceed cautiously on this front as foreign land-use in any country, especially in parts of Africa, is an extremely volatile issue.

In the end, French reaches the same, stereotypical conclusion that most Western writers come to with their China in Africastories, that Beijing is merely following the same path of colonial exploitation as Europeans and Americans did duringatlantic_logo_M_1col#6CE497_smtheir imperial adventures.  In fact, French’s last paragraph of the article concludes that the relationship between Africa and China will mirror Africa’s previous ties to other empires through the extraction of raw materials and the re-importation to Africa of finished products.  This is where French is either mis-informed or doesn’t fully understand the scope of China’s engagement in the region.

So while you read the article yourself, I propose the following additional points to consider:

  • The Chinese engagement with Africa cannot simply be defined on an economic level, the arrival of hundreds of thousands (soon to be millions) of poor Chinese immigrants who are moving in to neighborhoods across the continent will have a profound impact.  In less than five years, there are now more Chinese immigrants in Africa than France had at the height of its colonial power on the continent.  These immigrants are not just the workers who labor on the infrastructure and mining projects, but also economic migrants who are establishing small businesses and contributing to an emerging civil society in ways that billions of dollars of wasted Western economic development assistance could never achieve.
  • At one point in the article, French mentions “when the Chinese leave” which is another key difference between the Chinese presence in Africa and former Western colonial powers.  Simply put, the Chinese are NOT leaving.  This is not like the French, Germans or British who left when it was no longer economically viable to sustain their expensive colonies.  Just as there are now a million ethnic Chinese living in Southern California who have no intention of returning to Asia, the Chinese emigres are building a permanent presence in Africa.
  • French, like the overwhelming majority of his journalistic colleagues, concludes skeptically that China will ultimately fail to build any sustainable economic engagement with Africa.  In the end, they contend, it comes down to merely pulling out as much oil, gold, bauxite and other natural resources from the earth.  The reason I challenge French on this point is that he goes to the same guy that every other journalist contacts to get “the other side of the story.”  Zambian opposition leader Michael Sata is the most outspoken critic of the Chinese in Africa, particularly in his own country.  The fact that almost every article on the subject features a quote from Sata is either evidence of journalistic laziness (a real possibility) or the fact that it may be difficult to find articulate critics of the Chinese.  It’s disappointing that French and other writers do not venture off the main roads, past the big construction sites and away from the academic and political elites to get the layman’s perspective on the Chinese in their countries.  When I did this during my time in Kinshasa, I found far more nuanced and textured answers than what was provided to me by so-called “experts.”  French fails to deliver that important perspective strongly enough.
  • French offers a cynical view on the value of low-cost Chinese imports to Africa.  Just as Wal-Mart did in the United States where it recognized there was a viable market among the working poor that most other companies ignored, China is opening new markets for its products at the lowest rung of the economic ladder in developing countries across South Asia, South America and Africa.  Liberal elites in the coastal U.S. cities turn their noses up at Wal Mart with the same dismissive attitude they display for China’s arrival in the Southern Hemisphere.  The fact remains in places like the DRC where people have extremely limited disposal income, the ability to purchase headphones, toys, food products and electronics is nothing short of revolutionary.  These are all products we take for granted in developed societies and things that critics hope developing societies will avoid so as to prevent the corruption their “traditional” cultures.  The overwhelming cultural arrogance of that perspective is a separate issue, while the Chinese offering this critical service deserve praise.  The Chinese are operating in markets with such limited margins where Western and Japanese companies simply cannot compete with their significantly higher cost structures.  Contrary to popular journalistic perception, the Chinese behavior in these markets is nothing like their colonial predecessors and deserve separate analysis.

Rant: China Might Want to Consider Soft Power Too

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

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-africaChina’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 Mister Chen1ctpearlier, 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.

The Chinese in Africa: What’s on the Web this Week

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

Backlash Against the Chinese? Kenya ConstructionThe International Political Economy Zone blog highlights the growing tension in Namibia between local shop owners and the burgeoning Chinese presence there.  IPE Zone details the dilemma for many African nations about how to manage China’s emerging clout.  On the one hand, the infrastructure deals and cash Beijing brings to the table is welcome.  Yet, there are strings attached — and in the case of the Chinese and Namibia it’s the presence of legions of Chinese entrepreneurs who are posing new competition for indigenous businesses.  I share the author’s conclusion that it is just too early to conclude whether or not China’s presence in Africa is an asset or a liability.  Too many analysts want to marry the old, dated paradigm of “colonialism” to the current Chinese activities in Africa.  It is hard to overstate how egregiously wrong that is as Beijing is approaching the continent with very a different set of objectives and tactics than did Europeans in previous centuries.

Does China Help or Hurt? Over at “The China Beat” blog writer, Angilee Shah posts another in a wave of reviews of Deborah Brautigam’s new book on the Chinese in Africa,  “The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa.” Shah raises a few good points in her post about the important fact that is overlooked by most Western diplomats here in the Congo and elsewhere that China itself is a developing country with specialized expertise in working in under-developed conditions similar to what is available across Africa.  That specialization in low-cost, effective development offers tremendous potential especially when compared to American and European aid efforts that are seemingly obsessed with process and paperwork over results.

Do the Chinese hire locals? Speaking of Professor Brautigam, her excellent blog “China in Africa: The Real Story” links to a You Tube video from one DR Congo’s TV stations that confirms my own observations here in Kinshasa that the Chinese use a blend of Chinese and local labor for their massive construction projects.  From what I have seen here, each construction crew has dozens of Kinois who work under the supervision of a handful of Chinese foremen.  This is among the most sensitive issues both here in the DRC and elsewhere in the region where political leaders are expressing their frustration with the Chinese over the use of too many imported Chinese laborers at the expense of local hires.  Furthermore, several sources have told me that in other Congolese provinces, Chinese employers are regarded to be “overbearing” and are often embroiled in disputes over pay with local employees.  This is definitely an issue to watch as Chinese investment here continues to grow.

The Chinese in Africa: Meet Mister Chen

Friday, March 12th, 2010
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 “Chnatown” 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.

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 Chen1ctpMister 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 thinkMister Chen2ctp 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.