(English) The Chinese in Africa: Reflections on a week in Kinshasa, Congo

China-africaThe first time I was in Kinshasa in 2006, I didn’t see a
single Chinese person or recognizable product.  Kinshasa, the sprawling capital city of the Democratic Republic of
Congo, was for all intents and purposes as foreign to the Chinese as any of the
most remote places on earth.  Yet
in these past three years since that initial visit, China’s foreign policy is
seemingly unrecognizable and no where is that more evident than in places like
Kinshasa.  Africa is among the most
visible places where China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy and public
diplomacy initiatives are unfolding.   There is nothing subtle about it.  The Chinese have landed in Guinea,
Algeria, Zambia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo among other African
countries.  Their geopolitical
footprint is both broad and deep as they pursue a colonial-style quest for raw
materials and seek to open new export markets to hundreds of millions of
low-end consumers. What I found most interesting about the Chinese presence in
Kinshasa was how it transcended so many different levels of Congolese
society.  Along the way, I
collected a few anecdotes that will mark the beginning of a deeper analysis we
will pursue on China Talking Points about the rise of China’s involvement
across Africa and the developing world at large.

China’s Sees an Opening in Africa

Congo is not a poor country.  In fact, it is one of the planet's wealthiest countries
bursting with valuable metals and minerals critical to many industries in the
developed world.  Coltan, bauxite and
gold are among the many key raw materials that generate billions of
dollars.  The problem for Congo is
not the lack of money but how it is distributed.  While tens of billions of dollars leave the country to the
safety of Swiss bank accounts, the people and their infrastructure
deteriorate.   In a country
almost the size of Western Europe it is hard to imagine a more decrepit
infrastructure.  There are
virtually no roads, working hospitals or even a functioning government.  What there is of a government often
does far more harm than good. 
Human rights groups accuse government soldiers of wide scale abuses of the
population that make even the most cynical observer shudder.  Rape, murder and violence on a scale
not seen since World War II are frequently assigned to corrupt government
militias.   The Democratic
Republic of Congo is essentially a lawless society that offers China both
tremendous opportunity and enormous risk.

It is in this context that China’s embolden Africa policy
should be viewed.  Beijing clearly
recognized that the opportunity in a place like Congo extended beyond the
mineral mines that it needs to power its domestic economy.   Using multi-billion
infrastructure projects as a tool, the Chinese foreign ministry is both seeking
to expand its resource extraction agenda while simultaneously embarking a
public diplomacy plan to expand Beijing’s influence in the region.   The most visible example of this
policy can be seen throughout Kinshasa as Chinese construction crews re-pave
the city’s main roads.  It is
remarkable to see a team of 20 Chinese peasants laying down gravel in 90 degree
heat in Kinshasa.  Yes, CHINESE
peasants, not local workers, Chinese. 
It is far more efficient for the Chinese to import their own labor
rather than rely on local workers. 
There is no language barrier, culture difference or complex labor
negotiations.  The Chinese workers
likely earn the same as local laborers and are probably much easier for the
expatriate Chinese managers to oversee. 
That said, I also saw Congolese crews with a Chinese foreman on a number
of different road projects, so it appears they are using a blended labor
strategy of local and imported workers. 

The way the Chinese are going about building infrastructure
in the Congo, and across Africa in general, stands in stark contrast to how
some of the former colonial powers invested in the region during their
reign.  In Kenya, for example, the
British typically built roads that extended from the mines to the ports.  Much of the infrastructure there was
built to support London’s mercantilist colonial agenda and offered little
benefit to the population at large. 
Clearly, Beijing is taking another approach that seeks to use its
infrastructure investment as a way to enhance its position with Congolese
political leaders who can take credit for improving the infrastructure at no
expense of their own, while Beijing generates good will from the local
population who benefit most from the new roads, bridges and hospitals.  Every time I asked a local Kinshasa
resident what they thought of the Chinese and their efforts to improve the
infrastructure, I got a positive response.  In the battle for hearts and minds, China’s infrastructure
investment is clearly paying dividends as an extremely effective public
diplomacy tool.

They’re not leaving

One of the most memorable conversations I had with a local
Kinshasan about the Chinese presence in his city came when I raised the issue
of what will happen after the Chinese leave.  There is some concern across the region that China’s
infrastructure investments will fall in to disrepair after the Chinese depart.  It seems perfectly
reasonable to enquire about whether the Chinese are doing enough to build local
management capacity as part of the transition of control of the infrastructure
from Chinese to local.   After
I posed the question, my contact looked at me wryly, smiled and confidently
declared “they’re not leaving.”  Puzzled, I replied “what do you mean
they’re not leaving?”  He explained
that the Chinese, much like his own culture, possesses a radically different
concept of time than Americans and Europeans.  The Chinese see their investment in countries like the Congo
over a period of
generations not
just a few years.  Americans, in
contrast, generally remain loyal to an investment only as long as it produces a
dividend.  We as a people are
largely more obsessed with short-term results whereas the Chinese, like other
Confucian cultures, tend to see things over much longer periods of time.  The Chinese are laying the foundation
for long-term integration into Congolese society across multiple strata:
geopolitical, consumer and even cultural. 
The Democratic Republic of Congo is not only a source of raw materials
for China, but it will also serve as an export market for finished products
made from those raw materials and become part of a broader, more engaged
Chinese foreign policy agenda in the developing world.

“Their French isn’t very good”

On the way to an appointment one afternoon, I asked my
driver what he thought about the arrival of the Chinese in Kinshasa.  In a characteristically Congolese
response (which is surprisingly similar to a Chinese response), the driver
answered in a vague, generally positive way.  “Oh, it’s good they are here building roads,” he said looking
back in the rear view mirror. 
Admittedly, I arrived in the Congo very skeptical about how well the Chinese
would assimilate to a culture as foreign as somewhere in sub-Saharan
Africa.  So much of my worldview of
overseas Chinese is rooted in the vast North American enclaves where the
Chinese are among the most provincial immigrants.  In San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, the vast
majority of first-generation Chinese immigrants often do not assimilate and
instead remain in the comfort of their linguistic and cultural ghettos.  Furthermore, in China itself, foreign
language skills generally remain quite poor and a nationalist-inspired
parochialism often serves as a filter even among the most educated
students.   In so many ways,
there is a broad strain of China’s domestic opinion that shares a worldview
frighteningly similar to that of America’s own provincial outlook. So, with
that in mind, it was not surprising that I landed in Africa a bit cynical
about how effective Chinese diplomats and managers might be in a place like
Kinshasa.  Jokingly, I asked my
driver, “so how’s their French?” 
Honestly, I asked the question rhetorically.  I thought I knew what the answer would be, but I just wanted to make
some light conversation on my way to more probing questions.  “Monsieur,” the driver replied looking
into the rear view mirror, “they don’t speak French that well.”  Cockily, I looked down and smiled
thinking to myself, “you see they may be here but it’s still the same Chinese
that we know too well. 
Provincial.”  Yet, in the
second or two that it took for me to look down, the driver looked back at me
and added, “They speak Lingala.” 
Stunned.  Completely
stunned.  “You mean they speak
Lingala?” I asked referring to the local dialect spoken throughout Western
Congo.  “Oui monsieur, most of the
Chinese seem to speak it quite well.” 
Sure enough, a few days later while walking back from the store, I saw
it with my own eyes.  A Chinese
foreman overseeing a Congolese work crew was there in plain sight barking
orders to his team in Lingala. 
Honestly, you have not lived until you see a Chinese person fluently
speaking an African dialect.  It is
truly a remarkable sight. 

The Chinese ability to learn Lingala is actually not as
surprising as it may sound. 
Lingala, like Chinese, is a tonal language.  Furthermore, like Cantonese and many Chinese dialects,
Lingala is largely an aural language with few of the grammatical complexities
that are associated with written languages.  Ultimately, what is surprising is not that Chinese
expatriates in the DRC are able to speak a local dialect, it is that there has
been a strategic decision at a higher level that mandated in-country
managers learn the local language. 

Now contrast this with the American approach.  Shortly after my conversation with the
driver, I went to dinner at the home of an American diplomat stationed in the
Congo.  After recounting the story
of my exchange with the driver about how the Chinese have skipped the colonial
language to go to the local dialect, I asked how many of his diplomatic
colleagues speak Lingala.  He shook
his head and explained that not only do NONE of his fellow diplomats speak the
local language, it is actually against embassy policy to use Lingala.  In an effort to not show favoritism
towards any single population in the Congo, the embassy requires its staff to
only speak French.  For the second
time that day I was blown away. 
The Americans are handicapping themselves with these naïve PC policies
to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. 
Instead, every effort should be made to learn as many of the local
dialects as possible to enhance the embassy’s ability to more effectively
communicate with the local population. 
It got me thinking if this kind narrow-minded worldview is also present
in the American diplomatic missions in China where, per chance, U.S. diplomats
based in the consulate in Guangzhou are prohibited from speaking Cantonese.  Once again, the Chinese are
demonstrating that they are so much more adept at maneuvering through the
complexities of developing world cultures than the Americans who seem to wish
that it was the 1950s again where it could impose its values on countries like
the Democratic Republic of Congo. 
Nowhere is this best portrayed than in the George Clooney film “Syriana”
where the oil sheikh remarks that he never thought he would see the day where
the Chinese diplomat is negotiating in Arabic while the American sits by hoping
everyone still speaks English.

So who’s there?

When you go overseas to a place as remote as the DRC,
generally speaking the population of expatriates is compromised of worldly
elites.  Frankly, people like
Michael and myself who are well-traveled, highly educated and generally come
from more affluent families.  The
Chinese, in contrast, are represented in Africa by a much broader cross-section
of their population.  In addition
to the diplomatic and business elites that one would expect to be there
overseeing China’s business and political interests, there is a fascinating mix
of peasants and young people that also make up the ranks of the Chinese
community in Kinshasa.  The
Chinese, as discussed earlier, have found that it is easier in certain cases to
import their own manual labor crews rather than work with local laborers.  There do not appear to be any precise
numbers on the size of the working-class population in the DRC, but it is
widely expected to be in the thousands. 
One would expect this working class population to be largely comprised
of men.  On at least two occasions,
local Congolese said they had heard a rumor that China is exporting its prison
population to work in Africa.  I
challenged this idea by reminding my Congolese hosts that China’s population is
filled with hundreds of millions of desperately poor people who would eagerly
volunteer to come to Africa if it meant a steady paycheck.  Unlike other countries, China does not
have the population shortages that would require it to draw on its prison
population for overseas labor. 

Just above the class of imported laborers are the foremen
who manage the Congolese work teams that are building out the various road and
construction projects.  Most likely, these managers operated at the mid-to-lower end in China's infrastructure conglomerates such as China Construction and was either assigned or saw the opportunity to come to Africa as a chance to move ahead within the company.  Above the foremen is a whole class of young Chinese executive managers who can be seen around Kinshasa riding in new SUVs and eating in the same restaurants as European and American expats.  On my last day in the DRC, I went to lunch at one of the city's several Lebanese restaurants.  Out of the 15 tables in the restaurant, four or five were occupied by teams of well-dressed young Chinese executives and their Chinese wives or girlfriends.  It is this generation of Chinese expatriate managers that are the most interesting to watch as they will represent the next generation of business and diplomatic leaders who will be far more worldly then their parents given the experience of working in places as remote as the DRC.  For these young project managers and executives, the chance to work abroad offers them both a unique experience, the chance for advancement and, most likely, a steady job out of college.  With so many Chinese college graduates struggling to get hired in their chosen profession back home, working overseas must be an extremely appealing option.  Finally, at the top of the Chinese human resource pyramid in the Congo, are the senior diplomatic staff.  The Chinese ambassador to the DRC, Wu Zexian, is a polished, experienced diplomat who speaks flawless French, and likely Lingala.  If Wu exemplifies the sophistication of the new Chinese diplomat in Africa, then other countries, including the United States, need to take notice.

 The Consumer Market: The Last Frontier

Shopping in Kinshasa is an adventure.  Like most other day-to-day activities in a place like this, just getting around is a challenge, much less the actual shopping experience.  Back in 2006, when I first visited Kinshasa, the handful of supermarkets were stocked largely with imported Belgian and South African consumer goods.  Everything in the market was imported, from the apples to the milk to the cosmetics.  Since that initial visit, much has changed in the capital.  There are more stores with a much wider array of products.  As I walked the aisles through one of the newer supermarkets the shelves were stocked full of Chinese consumer products.  Weight benches, food stuff, stationary, children's clothes and so many of those cheap, low-end products that you see at the Chinese export fair in Guangzhou and wonder "who the hell buys all this cheap stuff?"  The Chinese have clearly identified markets like the DRC as a new opening in the drive to diversify their export markets beyond the United States, Japan and Europe.  China has a natural competitive advantage to produce high volumes of low end products that fit nicely within the budgets of third world consumers.  Americans and other Western conglomerates are simply not equipped to produce these low cost consumer products with any reasonable expectation of earning a profit.   The Chinese are basically leveraging the so-called "Wal Mart effect" by providing a broad range of low cost products to consumers whose limited disposable income did not offer them the luxury of purchasing non-essential goods.  Just as Wal Mart made its billions serving working class consumers in rural America, China is setting its sights on the world's low end consumers to open new, and likely very lucrative export markets for its goods.

Conclusion

Throughout my visit to Kinshasa, I just kept shaking my head with disbelief over how aggressively the Chinese are expanding their footprint in the Congo.  It is nothing short of remarkable to see firsthand the speed and cultural dexterity that Chinese companies and diplomats are displaying in their effort to leverage Africa's natural resources and open these countries to Chinese made finished goods.   The Americans and Europeans, in contrast, all appeared to be sitting by idle while the Chinese push their corporate and public diplomacy agendas.  For the most part, I suspect that most Western countries and their diplomats simply do not have the necessary understanding about the Chinese to fully comprehend what is happening.  Here, before our very eyes, we are witnessing the final stage of the West's declining influence in the Congo and elsewhere in Africa and the rise of a new, more nimble superpower.

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