Archive for the ‘China in Africa’ Category

A Behind the Scenes View of the Chinese in Africa

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

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.

The Chinese in AfricaFor 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:

http://www.chineseinafrica.com/bbs/viewthread.php?tid=6400&extra=page%3D1

非洲中国商人眼中的中国使馆

How Chinese Businesses in Africa see the

Chinese Embassy

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”

随着中非交流的深入和推广,一批批商人来到非洲投资,大家可以说都是在非洲孤独的生活工作着,在生意上似乎很少有得到使馆帮助的。

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.

http://www.chineseinafrica.com/bbs/viewthread.php?tid=17011&sid=Zd9phz

牙膏厂寻求非洲贸易伙伴

Toothpaste Factory Seeks African Trade Partner

牙膏外盒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.

http://www.chineseinafrica.com/bbs/viewthread.php?tid=6201&sid=Zd9phz

多哥SINOCAR汽车销售有限公司修理厂致多哥华人朋友!

Togo Sinocar Auto Sales and Repair

[Welcomes/Greets] Togo-based Chinese Friends

togo sinocarIf 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.

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.

China in Africa: the BBC’s Annoying Interview of Liu Guijin

Sunday, April 11th, 2010

BBC iplayer imageIt’s not often that senior Chinese officials make themselves available for interviews with the international media, especially in English.  So when I first heard that the BBC World Service’s “Business Today” radio program was to interview Beijing’s top diplomat on African Affairs Ambassador Liu Guijin I was genuinely excited. Unfortunately, that excitement didn’t last long.  Host Steve Evans, like so many of his colleagues in the Western media, employed what has now come to be a rather standard cynicism whenever talking with Chinese officials.  It’s the same tone that we hear in the coverage over the internet in China where despite an incredible expansion in the Chinese information marketplace, journalists like Evans focus on the singular question of “what if someone wants to look up the Dalai Lama on Google?”  While I don’t dispute that China’s limitations on the freedom of speech is a legitimate issue, I do take exception when it becomes the ONLY issue.  There’s a similar trend occurring with the international media’s coverage of the Chinese in Africa.  Just as with the freedom of speech story, there are a numerous areas where China’s African foreign policy deserves credible scrutiny.  Its arm sales to despotic leaders (Robert Mugabe), support of brutal authoritarian regimes (Sudan) and active involvement in official corruption (The DR Congo) are all worthy of questioning and investigation.  However, the story of the Chinese in Africa is far more textured than just the shortcomings of Beijing’s policies on the continent.  Evans, like so many other journalists, approaches the story with a visible level of cynicism that  ultimately deprives the listener of understanding the nuances of this important story.  China’s engagement with Africa has changed the geopolitical landscape on the continent, for better and worse.  Yet, on this rare occasion to engage the Ambassador in a constructive exchange over the pros and cons of Beijing’s policies, we are led down the path of cliches about how China would respond to an African country inviting the Dalai Lama to visit.  Who cares?  This is such an extreme point with little representation of any larger issue relevant to China’s political involvement in Africa (scroll down for more on this part of the story).

Listen to the full interview here.

Here is a summary and critique of the issues addressed in the interview:

CHINA’S “MOTIVE” IN AFRICA?

Evans opens the interview by asking Liu about “China’s motive” in Africa.  There’s nothing actually wrong with the question, there’s just an arrogance to it through the use of the word “motive.”  It’s comparable to how the BBC, CNN and other international news organizations selectively use the word “regime” to define a government.  Somehow,  Beijing is a “regime” and Washington is a “government.”  The word “regime,” as does “motive,” has a distinctly negative connotation that is rarely applied to Western governments.  I have never heard a comparable question of what “America’s motive” is anywhere in the world.   It should go without saying that China’s “motive” in Africa is multifaceted driven by a blend of economic, political, humanitarian and military interests — no different than Washington, London or Paris’ “motives” in the region.

Importantly, Liu does highlight a key difference between the Chinese perspective on Africa and that in the West.  For most government and populations in the U.S. and Europe, Africa is regarded as a basket case of war, disease, famine and decades of failed development policies.  In contrast, Liu highlights, the Chinese see Africa as opportunity.  Beyond the obvious extractive industries, the Chinese are engaging the continent as an export market that the West long ago abandoned.   Furthermore, China’s development policies in Africa are proving to be far more effective than those of bloated, expensive and ineffective Western aid agencies.  Liu rightly points that China’s effectiveness is leading to enhanced political ties in the region at the expense of the former colonial and international powers.

SANCTIONS

Following the international community’s successful sanctions campaign against South Africa’s former apartheid government in the late 80s and early 90s, a pipe dream still exists within the UN, US and the EU that sanctions are an effective tool at isolating despotic governments.   Yet after two decades of evidence to the contrary where Myanmar, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Zimbabwe and many others have defied international sanctions policies, the presumption that sanctions actually work persists.   It was refreshing then to hear Ambassador Liu challenge this conventional wisdom by clearly stating that China does not support sanctions measures because mass populations suffer disproportionately compared to the elites.  Liu was responding to Evans’ question about China’s unwillingness to join the West to coordinate a sanctions policy against Robert Mugabe and Zimbabwe.   China, as mentioned earlier in this post, should be scrutinized for its military sales to Zimbabwe but not on the issue of supporting yet another failed sanctions policy.

THE DALAI LAMA QUESTION

One has to wonder what the Western media would do without the Dalai Lama.  He is such a convenient package for journalists who are either too lazy or too uninformed to know better that a question about the DL offers very little insight on Chinese policy.  Ambassador Liu stuck to the party line with his response that the DL is a separatist political figure who seeks to divide China.    Now, I understand what Evans was trying to achieve with the question by implying that if an African country invited the Dalai Lama to visit it would no doubt complicate relations with Beijing.  The reason why it is such an objectionable question in the context of Chinese foreign policy in Africa there are so many  more pressing and relevant issues that need to be addressed with someone at Ambassador Liu’s level.

WHAT STEVE EVANS SHOULD HAVE ASKED AMBASSADOR LIU:

1) Describe China’s military presence in Africa specifically the PLA base in the DRC’s Katanga province.  Is the purpose of the base to be part of a multilateral peacekeeping operation or its own deployment to protect Chinese interests in the eastern DRC?  Should we expect to see a larger presence of Chinese military and armed private contractors on the continent?

2) The industrial deforestation tools the Chinese are using for logging in Mozambique, Congo and Zimbabwe among other areas is raising serious concerns that the Chinese are hollowing out Africa’s forests at rate that is unsustainable.  Is China monitoring this trend and what specific protections, if any, are in place to prevent this from occuring?

3) With hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants coming to Africa each year, what is the feedback he is receiving from host governments on the presence of this large, new population?  In places like Namibia and Zambia, there is growing discontent by political leaders over the presence of an increasingly large Chinese population.  How is he responding to these challenges?

FINALLY…

The Western media’s blatant double standard for how it treats different governments is the most annoying aspect of this whole affair.  Compare, for example, this CNN feature that goes behind the scenes on how their reporter & camerawoman interact with the U.S. military in Afghanistan.  The CNN crew is embedded with Alpha Company and as such eats, sleeps and seemingly enjoys each other’s company.  ITN and the BBC did comparable puff stories embedded with British troops in both the Iraqi and Afghan theater of operations.  This chuminess with the militaries extends to their political leaders as well when journalists like Steve Evans rarely use that same cynical approach in interviews as they so often do with Chinese leaders.

It’s really too bad as we would all benefit from less fluff coverage of Western governments and more balanced coverage of China.

China in Africa: What’s on the Web This Week

Monday, April 5th, 2010

Made in Cameroon Another week, another set of major Chinese deals in sub-Saharan Africa.  Cameroon took the spotlight with an announcement that a Chinese bus manufacturer (still unknown but thought to be Kinglong United Automotive Industry (Suzhou) Co) will invest half-a-billion dollars in Douala. The factory will produce buses for the West-and-Central African markets and is apparently scheduled to be on line by as early as the end of the year.  What’s interesting in this announcement is how much Cameroonian officials emphasized that local labor and local managers will be employed at this manufacturing facility.   They’re likely trying to head off growing opposition in Africa over the Chinese tendency to import their laborers and managers to work on what are supposedly “joint ventures.”

Jia QinglinSino-South Africa Trade One of China’s most senior political advisors ended a 10-day African tour in South Africa pledging to address the growing imbalance in trade between the two countries.  Jia Qinglin (pictured) committed to China importing more finished products from South Africa and what’s interesting about this is that it comes just as Beijing is facing intense pressure from the United States over its artificially low currency valuation. In a move to thwart a drive to revalue its currency or stem growing criticism in the developing world, Jia may be an indication that China seeks to import more as a way of correcting its trade imbalance with many countries.

China’s Trouble in Zambia China in Africa researcher Aleksandra Gadzala teases us with what sounds like an extremely interesting article on the growing problems that Chinese immigrants are facing in Zambia. I say “teases” us because she only includes a small snipped of an extract of a larger paper on the subject that is available on through an expensive subscription to an academic journal (alas, beyond of the means of this poor blogger).   While so much of the research and news coverage of China investment across Africa focuses on elite actors, it’s my opinion that the much bigger story here is off the main roads, far away from the elites where hundreds of thousands of low-income Chinese immigrants across the continent are moving into unremarkable neighborhoods in Kinshasa, Lusaka and countless other cities.  The sheer size of the population and the speed with which it has arrived in Africa will play a significant role in determining the future course of Sino-Africa relations.

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.

The West’s Tragic Blindspot in Africa

Sunday, March 7th, 2010

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.

picture of HUSo 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.

Pictures: China’s Infrastructure Building Machine Comes Home

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

The great Chinese infrastructure parade rolled right under my window and I jumped on the extremely rare opportunity to take some pictures of the operation.  This is quite exceptional in the DR Congo as it is both culturally and legally not permitted to take peoples’ pictures without their permission.  Add to this that Chinese work crews are equally camera shy, you can now understand my utter joy this morning snapping away at the road paving team that came right past my apartment early Sunday morning.

China Construction3

The Chinese have completely ripped up Kinshasa’s main road “Boulevard 30 Juin.”  Ironically, this was essentially the city’s only functioning road so why the Congolese and Chinese governments thought it would be necessary to re-do this particular street remains a mystery to everyone.

China Construction5Before they decided to “improve” 30 Juin, it was a truly wonderful boulevard.  Today, it’s a barren, dust filled desert whereas until 2007 it had huge trees that lined both sides of the road and there was a center divider that did an excellent job of slowing traffic and giving pedestrians sufficient guidance as to where to cross.  Now the situation couldn’t be more different.  The whole city center along the boulevard is not considerably hotter than it was before due to the tree removal.  Sadly, several different locals have told me that due to the Chinese “renovation” there are now one to two deaths per day on this street.  Notice how they have not laid down a single drop of paint on the road for either cars or pedestrians.  It’s a very dangerous road for everyone.  We are all hoping that the Chinese are eventually going to make this boulevard safer by adding traffic lanes and crosswalks.  No one is too optimistic though.

In this particular instance, a small number of Chinese foremen and construction engineers are overseeing local Congolese crews.  The Chinese have also imported tens of thousands of their laborers to work on projects like this so it is not unusual to see construction teams that are almost entirely Chinese doing the exact same work.  It should also be noted that the temperature at 10:30 in the morning when these pictures were taken was somewhere in the low-90s already.  This is back-breaking work under very difficult conditions.

Chinese Construction1

A Chinese construction engineer (below) supervises the operation.  A fellow observer of this morning’s construction operation noted that on an early Sunday morning the Chinese are working in the hot sun paving roads.  Can you imagine an American doing this same work, speaking the local dialect and being part of a basic infrastructure project?  Americans used to do this kind of work, but it seems far fetched to think that they can rival the Chinese in this endeavor.

China Construction4

China Construction2 The China Railway Seventh Group is one of several multinational State Owned Enterprises (SOE) that are operating here in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Equipment like this from other SOEs can be seen everywhere around town as the Chinese work furiously on a number of high profile projects in Kinshasa ahead of next year’s presidential elections.  The objective here, as it is in most African countries, is that the Chinese build out the infrastructure and incumbent politicians claim credit for their work just in time for national elections.   The situation in Kinshasa is no different where the President Joseph Kabila is reportedly pressuring the China Railway Seventh Group to speed up the pace of construction on Boulevard 30 Juin.

It is important to remember that none of the construction equipment the Chinese are using in the DRC was acquired locally.  Everything — that is every truck, crane, shovel, you name it — was brought in by sea and air.  It’s even funnier to walk up to the trucks and see what Chinese province they come from.  So far I have recorded heavy equipment with Henan, Jiangsu and Guangdong license plates.

China Construction6

Message to the West: Just Open Your Eyes

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

Living here in Kinshasa, it is immediately apparent that China’s engagement is re-shaping both the Democratic Republic of the Congo but the continent as a whole.    To anyone on the ground here, it should be obvious.   I said should be obvious because despite the massive infrastructure projects and the presence of tens of thousands of Chinese immigres in Kinshasa, most European and Americans still cannot seem to grasp the depth and breadth of the power shift that is happening right now.  Whenever the topic arises in discussion with Westerners here, even among development specialists and other professionals who should be acutely aware of these kinds of trends, there is this universal puzzled reaction that takes hold.  Sometimes I feel like the guy from the “Holiday Inn” commercial who just appears at NASA to help launch a rocket and after a successful take-off, the other space engineers ask the guy “do you work here?” and he answers “nah, I just slept at a Holiday Inn.”  Well, I it really feels like I am that guy.    The development business is well entrenched here and yet, whenever I inquire with any of these expat professionals about their impressions of Chinese engagement in either the DR Congo or Africa as a whole, they have nothing to say.  Nothing.  The entire subject draws a blank.  10 minutes later, this odd role reversal takes hold and the guy who’s been here for just 9 days is educating the institutional professionals with decades of experience yet appear to have little or no knowledge on this critically important phenomenon.

There is a massive knowledge gap among the vast majority of Americans and Europeans both here and in the West about the scale of  China’s foreign policy in Africa.    What so many Westerners appear to be ignore is how China is re-shaping international relations in this part of the world and that is leading to diminished influence for Washington and Brussels, potential severe climate change consequences and the likelihood that Beijing will have exclusive control of certain strategic raw materials.

The Chinese are engaged here.  They are on the ground in ways that Americans and Europeans could never conceive.  Moreover, the scope of that engagement is truly breathtaking and now researchers are beginning to get a grasp of the magnitude of their involvement in Africa.

USC China MapThe USC U.S.-China Center has produced an interactive high-level overview of where Chinese investment in Africa is flowing.   Mouse over the different countries to get a brief summary of China’s investment there.  It’s also interesting that they have highlighted the growing number of Chinese language and cultural centers known as “Confucian Institutes.”  This map is an excellent first step to better understanding the scope of Chinese investment across the continent.   What is astonishing is that the vast majority of the investment detailed on this map has happened within the past 5-7 years!  When you see firsthand the amount of equipment, people and supplies the Chinese have imported here, it gives you pause.  Simply put, the Chinese are bringing the same fanatical zeal for development that transformed their own society to the African infrastructure projects that are now reshaping dozens, if not hundreds of cities like Kinshasa.

While this is by no means a zero-sum game or Cold War-style face-off between China and the West, if the West continues to essentially ignore China’s aggressive, new global outlook, its already diminishing international standing will no doubt continue to deteriorate.