Archive for the ‘China in Africa’ Category

The Chinese in Africa: Let the Backlash Begin

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

octopus chinaI may be wrong on this but I don’t think the United States or Europe ever had to contend with restrictions on the ownership of beauty parlors in Africa.  BusinessWeek offers an interesting insight this week on the growing discomfort between the waves of Chinese immigrants and the local population in Namibia.  This is an extremely important trend to watch in Africa as the shine from China’s billions of dollars in investment begins to wear off.  First, it was Zambia, then recently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (source: Africa Asia Confidential) and now, according to BW, Namibians are beginning to mount increasingly vocal opposition to the Chinese presence in their country.

Here’s the key issue to focus on:  unlike emigres from Europe or the United States, this is the first overseas mass migration of foreigners to Africa who hail from the same economic class as indigenous Africans.  Hundreds of thousands of economically disadvantaged Chinese are moving in to neighborhoods and starting businesses in the same communities and under the same challenging circumstances as their African counterparts.  Inevitably, this can cause tensions as the Chinese often employ far more aggressive business tactics than what people are locally accustomed to in this part of the world.  So in Namibia the issue is beauty parlors and transportation, elsewhere it will be something else.  Make no mistake, the backlash against the Chinese is building momentum.

This assessment may appear to contradict my earlier post on how well the Chinese seem to be assimilating in cities like Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The Chinese migration to the DR Congo and other countries is happening at such a rapid pace and on such a massive scale that obvious contradictions like this are going to appear for quite some time.  It is by no means a linear process.

Chinese, it’s the new black in Kinshasa

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

china_africaThe arrival of an estimated one million Chinese across Africa is having an impact far beyond what anyone could have expected.  With many of those Chinese immigrants assigned to the mines and construction projects that are rapidly changing the face of African cities, a more complex and radical transformation is happening far off the main roads.  Here in Kinshasa, as in many other major African cities, tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants have taken up residence smack in the middle of indigenous local communities.  While an elite minority of Chinese expatriates live in the gated compounds with their western counterparts, the vast majority of Chinese immigrants are far less fortunate.  They live side by side in the densely packed shanty towns with the 8-10 million other Kinshasans who struggle each day with water, electricity and security.  Never before have so many people from such divergent cultures had to assimilate so rapidly on this continent.  This is a dramatic departure from past waves of foreign migration to Africa say, for example, by the British who imported South Asians to their former colonies.  In those cases, Indians and Pakistanis were tightly segregated from both their white patrons and, in many cases, Africans themselves.  This sparked the creation of large South Asian ghettos in Kenya, Uganda and South Africa among other places.  No, instead, the Chinese are assimilating themselves in truly unbelievable ways.

Just as it is everywhere else, race relations across Africa are extremely complicated.  That said, there is one exception.  For most Africans the difference between themselves and foreigners is straightforward: you are either black African or you are “white.”  No matter if you are South Asian, Middle Eastern or even African-American, you will likely be described as “white.”  It’s essentially an “us and them” mentality.  That is, until the Chinese arrived.

On a recent drive back to the office, I asked one of my local colleagues where the Chinese communities were in Kinshasa.  “There is no Chinese community, they live with us,” he said.   “They live right next door to me.  They eat with us, they shop with us and they even sell “beignets!” (tasty donut-like fried dough).  He said when the Chinese first arrived in his neighborhood a couple of years ago, he thought it was a bit strange and kept his distance from the “mundele” (the Lingala word for “foreigner” or more generally used to describe “white people”).  Over time, though, he said attitudes started to change as he and his neighbors began to see the Chinese as different from most of the other “mundele” who live in Kinshasa.  “They’re learning Lingala,” he went on, “they eat with us and, most importantly, they are not afraid of us.”   Now, more and more, the Chinese peasants who live among the vast neighborhoods of Kinshasa are being seen as less foreign and, incredibly, less “white.”  “We joke among ourselves that the Chinese skin is becoming browner and browner to where it’s now black,” he said.

When we arrived back at the office I wanted to find out if his experience was isolated or represented something broader.  I asked three other of our local employees what their views were of their new Chinese neighbors and astonishingly they were the same.  On a personal level, many of the Chinese immigrants who now reside in Kinshasa have transcended a legendary cultural and racial chasm.  It is a testament to the power of making the effort to learn someone’s else language, share the experience of eating with your neighbor and resisting the impulse to be afraid of people who are different.  The Chinese have always been amazingly adaptive to different cultures and this may yet be one of their greatest advantages in the latest foreign scramble in Africa.

Welcome to the Congo, now pay up!

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

Sicomines(Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo) — on this my first night in the capital, I thought it would be fitting to talk about what it actually takes to get here.  For the average visitor, it’s rather straightforward: pay the $75 visa fee, show your Yellow Fever vaccination card and you are a welcome visitor to the DRC.  Now, if I happen to represent a company, say a Chinese company, the price of admission is considerable higher.  No, let me rephrase that… ASTRONOMICALLY higher.  In some excellent reporting by the website Africa-Asia Confidential, some of the first reports are emerging over just how much the Chinese have paid to access the DR Congo’s vast natural resources.

  • Chinese contractors in the Sicomines mining consortium are reported to have paid a $350 million dollar entry fee that includes some $50 million in signing bonuses given out to varies Congolese entities.
  • $23 million of that $50 million is now reported to be “missing” or “unaccounted for,” according to Africa-Asia Confidential.
  • The $350 million dollars was a small part of a $6 billion ore-for-infrastructure contract between Chinese state-owned companies and the Congolese mining giant Gecamines (other Congolese companies are also reported to be included in this deal).

Read the full report “Kinshasa’s Missing Millions” from Africa-Asia Confidential here…

The lack of accountability and transparency in China’s natural resource deals in both the DR Congo and across Africa are now starting to show signs that it may ultimately weaken China’s position on the continent.   Here in Kinshasa, President Joseph Kabila is making some of his first public remarks on his growing impatience with the Chinese.  It’s worth noting that Kabila’s comments are worth taking with a huge chunk of salt as he is likely posturing to pressure the Chinese to finish their infrastructure projects so he can claim credit ahead of next year’s presidential elections.  Furthermore, there is widespread speculation that Kabila himself may be among the beneficiaries of some of those “missing Kinshasa millions.”  Nonetheless, that he feels sufficiently embolden to begin using public pressure against the Chinese is noteworthy.

Kabila may in fact be following the lead of Zambian opposition leader Michael Sata who came within a hair’s breadth of winning the October 2008 presidential elections.  Sata ran his campaign on a platform opposing Chinese investment in Zambia, calling the nature of the deals unfair and “colonial.”  Sata, and potentially now Kabila, may be the first indications of growing unease over the speed, scope and scale of Chinese investments in the region.  Their main criticism: labor.  Unlike the waves of foreign investment by former colonial powers, the Chinese have added a distinctive twist to their investments.  Rather than rely on local labor to implement the huge number of infrastructure projects across the country, tens of thousands, possibly even hundreds of thousands of Chinese peasant laborers have been imported to build the ports, roads, mines and telecommunications infrastructure projects Beijing promised in return for access to the host country’s natural resources.  Before anyone else in Africa complained, Sata was a vocal critic of these deals.  If elected, he promised to re-negotiate the labor contracts to make them more equitable for Zambia by reducing the presence of Chinese workers.  Sata’s threats were heard in Beijing with the government there threatening to end its investment program in Zambia if the opposition leader was elected.  Sata lost by a very small margin.

The DR Congo and Zambia are not alone in their gnawing frustration over the use of imported Chinese labor.  In Southeast Asia, the New York Times reports growing resentment in Vietnam and other nations over the presence of Chinese workers at the expense of local labor.  So the key question now is how will Beijing react to what appears to be a small, yet discernible trend opposing their overseas labor policy:

  1. Will they ignore the criticism and continue to employ the aggressive natural resource-for-infrastructure deals?
  2. The Chinese are extremely sensitive to public opinion at home and have become quite adept at responding to shifting political winds.  Will they apply that same dexterity with their natural resource-driven foreign policy?
  3. Will they offer a few minor face-saving public gestures to satisfy their overseas critics that provide sufficient political cover to continue their operations minus a small percentage of imported Chinese labor?

It would be unwise to bet against the Chinese.  I have done it numerous times in the past and I have regretted it later.  That said, the Chinese are in a totally new space here and they are operating without precedent in international relations.  No country has expanded its natural resource extraction footprint as quickly, aggressively and with as much man power as the Chinese have.  So Beijing must learn as it goes.  For the rest of us, this will be among the most important foreign policy lessons of our generation.

(中文) 美国人有多不了解中国在非洲的崛起

Monday, February 15th, 2010

china us oil small大多数中国人难以完全理解美国人是多么漠视发生在自己国界之外的事件。中国观察员在这方面的困惑一点都不难理解,因为从他们观察角度来看,美国是一个远比中国更为开放和全球化的国家。所以美国人怎能对重大的地理政治变化视而不见?是的,他们确实是这样的,最明显的例子就是,目前在非洲大陆,根据几个可靠的评估,美国这个最大的投资者正处在被中国替代的边缘。 “好吧,那又怎样?”那些怀疑论者会说。投资模式随着时间发生改变,有时候美国是第一,有时候不是,这是公平的。不过,我请你们考虑的一项非常重要的发展在非洲造成的后果:石油。 (more…)

Demonising China: pundits get its role in Africa wrong

Monday, February 15th, 2010

china_africaInternational media have reported up a storm on the recent surge in China-Africa links. They invoke a theme familiar from the past two centuries of colonialism and Cold War: Africa is beset by poverty and ignorance, caused by ruthless and corrupt rulers. Westerners are trying to bring them to book and instill order on the continent, but other forces, in this case Chinese interlopers, are making that difficult.

The facts on the ground show China’s engagement in Africa has been more positive than this discourse claims. The Chinese are getting bad press in the West because they are from a country that is neither liberal democratic nor white, yet are effectively competing with those who are – to the point that some Africans see Chinese development activities as providing a model.

Read the full article at ON LINE Opinion

What Americans Don’t Understand About China’s Rise in Africa

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

Most Chinese people do not fully understand the extent to which Americans disregard events beyond their own borders.  It’s completely understandable that Chinese observers get confused on this front because from their vantage point the United States is usa_china_oila far more open and globalized country than China is today.  So how can it be that major geopolitical shifts go completely unseen by the American people?  Well, they do.  And none more significant than what is currently underway across the African continent where the United States is on the verge of being displaced by China as the continent’s largest investor, according to several reliable estimates.   “OK, so what?” the skeptic might say.  Investment patterns change with time and sometimes the United States will be on top and sometimes it won’t.  Fair point.  However, I invite you to consider the consequences of one very important development in Africa: oil.

  • Across Africa, from Algeria in the North to Angola in the South, China’s state-owned oil majors are investing tens of billions of dollars in exploration and extraction.
  • In Equatorial Guinea, one of Africa’s smallest countries yet one of the continent’s largest oil states, Chinese oil companies are displacing American majors as the country’s preferred foreign oil partners.

“Interesting, but not earth shattering,” you might counter.  What’s the catch?

  • Unlike American and international oil companies, according to journalist Richard Behar, Chinese oil companies are not extracting oil to put it on the international market.  Instead, the Chinese are locking up the oil just for themselves, taking it off the market entirely.  This has two important consequences for Americans to consider:
    1. The United States is constantly seeking ways to minimize its dependence on both Middle Eastern and Venezuelan sources of crude.  With China locking up exclusive oil contracts in Africa, the challenge of finding new, non-confrontational sources of oil becomes much more difficult.
    2. China’s decision to move that oil directly into own system and not into the international market has the potential to reduce overall supply and introduce new pricing pressures on already rising crude prices.

The United States has made remarkably little progress in overhauling its energy policy and reducing its dependence on imported oil.  Given the current domestic political realities where it will be difficult to impose radical changes on an economically beleaguered American electorate, it would be foolish to expect any radical adjustments in either energy policy or energy taxes.  So with China’s aggressive moves in Africa, Americans may soon wake up one day to learn that the days of enjoying cheap energy have finally come to an end.

Critics of China’s Role in Africa Should Take a Long, Hard Look in the Mirror

Friday, February 12th, 2010

china-africaInternational media have reported up a storm on the recent surge in China-Africa links. They invoke a theme familiar from the past two centuries of colonialism and Cold War: Africa is beset by poverty and ignorance, caused by ruthless and corrupt rulers. Westerners are trying to bring them to book and instill order on the continent, but other forces, in this case Chinese interlopers, are making that difficult. 

The facts on the ground show China’s engagement in Africa has been more positive than this discourse claims. The Chinese are getting bad press in the West because they are from a country that is neitherjakarta-globedemocratic nor white, yet find themselves effectively competing with those who are — to the point that some Africans see Chinese development activities as providing a model.

Read full article at the Jakarta Globe

Richard Behar on China’s March into Africa

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

rbeharVeteran journalist and overall China-skeptic Richard Behar gives an interesting overview of China’s rapid economic ascent across Africa in this January 27, 2010 speech at the University of Nebraska.  Behar is best know for writing an excellent 24-page special report on China in Africa for the U.S. business magazine “Fast Company.” If you have not read this report, it is highly recommended as it provides a comprehensive overview of the changing geopolitical landscape. Furthermore, this Nebraska speech may also be worth an hour of your time.  Although he is a bit heavy on the cliches, he lays out an interesting perspective on the declining influence of Western powers in Africa and China’s meteoric rise.  Watch the full interview here.

Among his key points:

  • African governments prefer to deal with China who does not lecture them on political transparency or human rights.
  • China does not impose arduous restrictions on aid.
  • Memories in Africa are long, remembering back to the Cold War era where the West supported brutal dictators.
  • Chinese aid to Africa is now believed to exceed World Bank assistance.
  • The Democratic Republic of the Congo and its vast natural resources is the big prize for China in Africa.
  • There are more Chinese embassies in Africa than any other nation.
  • More Chinese citizens are believed to live in Africa than any other foreign country.
  • Half the supermarkets in Lesotho are owned by Chinese merchants.
  • There are more Chinese in Nigeria than there were Britons at the height of the British empire.
  • China’s corrupt business culture meshes well with much of the culture of corruption in African business.
  • Africa is now the number one transit point for Chinese counterfeit products going to the West.
  • The effects of counterfeit Chinese pharmaceuticals across Africa will never be known.
  • American presidents have been misguided in thinking that increased trade with China will lead to more freedom there.
  • Chinese timber operators are decimating Mozambican forests.  Locals call it the “great Chinese take out.”
  • China is now the world’s top consumer of timber and is looking to Africa as a new source of raw timber.
  • Any African nation that accepts money from Beijing must sever ties with Taiwan.
  • 1-2 million DR Congolese workers are “indentured” to Chinese mine owners earning $3 per day (“on a good day.”)
  • China now obtains a 1/3 of its oil from Africa and Equatorial Guinea is central to their oil strategy in Africa.
  • China is getting most of the new oil contracts at rates U.S. and other international companies cannot match.
  • Africans and Chinese see Western hypocrisy in their talk of political reform while funneling World Bank money to dictators.

Projects Big & Small: Chinese Money Keeps Flowing to West Africa

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

Last month’s announcement that Beijing would pick up the tab on the interior decorating costs for the ministerial palace in Guinea Bissau is instructive to anyone who may still not fully understand how serious China is about its relations in West Africa. guinea bissau These guys are playing for keeps and it will be up to the humbled diplomats from the “former countries of influence” to figure out a new strategy of engaging regional governments with their bilateral policies in shambles.  What is so interesting about the Chinese strategy is how comprehensive it is: attending to every detail from a country like Guinea Bissau’s infrastructure to debt restructure and, even an item as seemingly-trivial as new drapes for the Prime Minister and his cabinet.  Just as with classic counter-insurgency strategy, wars are not won or lost on the battlefield but rather in the hearts and minds of the population.  “But redecorating the PM’s mansion isn’t for the people?” you might retort!  Fair enough, but those Chinese interior designers will likely do a bang-up job with their makeover and the hearts and minds of that ministerial cabinet will no doubt be in the good graces of Beijing for some time to come.

What would justify this kind of largesse to a tiny West African country such as Guinea Bissau?  Consider that next door in neighboring Guinea (yes, it is confusing that both these countries have the same first name), Chinese mining companies are digging up piles upon piles of the world’s most valuable mineral ore bauxite.   Guinea is home to world’s largest bauxite reserves and thus plays a critical role for China’s aluminum production that is critical to many products and manufacturing components.

China Expands U.N. Peacekeeping Operations in Africa

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Zhai Jun’s recent visit to the Rwandan-DR Congo border region removed any lingering doubt, if there was any, that Beijing’s interests in the region extend far beyond natural resource extraction.   Zhai made chinese un2it very clear that as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, China will deepen its involvement in peacekeeping operations in the troubled Eastern Congo and Great Lakes region of Eastern Africa.  It’s perfectly understandable that Beijing would want to complement its deepening commercial and diplomatic relations with the region by leveraging its emerging international power, particularly at the United Nations.

This raises a few key questions:

  • Will Beijing use its influence at the United Nations to shield known human rights violators from international prosecution if those individuals offer direct benefit to Chinese interests in Africa?
  • How will China use its influence at the U.N. and other international institutions to change the patterns of African development assistance that many regard as a failure in the post-colonial era?
  • What impact will the presence of Chinese military peacekeepers have on Beijing’s image in East Africa Towhere locals wonder if China is in fact imposing itself in an imperial manner consistent European and Western colonizers of the past?

Al Jazeera English produced an excellent report in December 2009 that highlights China’s blue helmeted peacekeepers.  To date, as AJE’s Melissa Chan reports, China’s peacekeepers are largely comprised of infrastructure engineers and mine-removal experts, however that may soon change.