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’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 earlier, 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.