ZHU LIANGXIU gulps down Kenyan lager in a bar in Nairobi and recites a Chinese aphorism: “One cannot step into the same river twice.” Mr Zhu, a shoemaker from Foshan, near Hong Kong, is on his second trip to Africa. Though he says he has come to love the place, you can hear disappointment in his voice.
On his first trip three years ago Mr Zhu filled a whole notebook with orders and was surprised that Africans not only wanted to trade with him but also enjoyed his company. “I have been to many continents and nowhere was the welcome as warm,” he says. Strangers congratulated him on his homeland’s high-octane engagement with developing countries. China is Africa’s biggest trading partner and buys more than one-third of its oil from the continent. Its money has paid for countless new schools and hospitals. Locals proudly told Mr Zhu that China had done more to end poverty than any other country.
He still finds business is good, perhaps even better than last time. But African attitudes have changed. His partners say he is ripping them off. Chinese goods are held up as examples of shoddy work. Politics has crept into encounters. The word “colonial” is bandied about. Children jeer and their parents whisper about street dogs disappearing into cooking pots.
Once feted as saviours in much of Africa, Chinese have come to be viewed with mixed feelings—especially in smaller countries where China’s weight is felt all the more. To blame, in part, are poor business practices imported alongside goods and services. Chinese construction work can be slapdash and buildings erected by mainland firms have on occasion fallen apart. A hospital in Luanda, the capital of Angola, was opened with great fanfare but cracks appeared in the walls within a few months and it soon closed. The Chinese-built road from Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, to Chirundu, 130km (81 miles) to the south-east, was quickly swept away by rains.
Chinese expatriates in Africa come from a rough-and-tumble, anything-goes business culture that cares little about rules and regulations. Local sensitivities are routinely ignored at home, and so abroad. Sinopec, an oil firm, has explored in a Gabonese national park. Another state oil company has created lakes of spilled crude in Sudan. Zimbabwe’s environment minister said Chinese multinationals were “operating like makorokoza miners”, a scornful term for illegal gold-panners.
Employees at times fare little better than the environment. At Chinese-run mines in Zambia’s copper belt they must work for two years before they get safety helmets. Ventilation below ground is poor and deadly accidents occur almost daily. To avoid censure, Chinese managers bribe union bosses and take them on “study tours” to massage parlours in China. Obstructionist shop stewards are sacked and workers who assemble in groups are violently dispersed. When cases end up in court, witnesses are intimidated.
Tensions came to a head last year when miners in Sinazongwe, a town in southern Zambia, protested against poor conditions. Two Chinese managers fired shotguns at a crowd, injuring at least a dozen. Some still have pellets under healed skin. Patson Mangunje, a local councillor, says, “People are angry like rabid dogs.”
There is anger and disappointment on the Chinese side too. In the South African town of Newcastle, Chinese-run textile factories pay salaries of about $200 per month, much more than they would pay in China but less than the local minimum wage. Unions have tried to shut the factories down. The Chinese owners ignore the unions or pretend to speak no English.
They point out that many South African firms also undercut the minimum wage, which is too high to make production pay. Without the Chinese, unemployment in Newcastle would be even higher than the current 60%. Workers say a poorly paid job is better than none. Some of them recently stopped police closing their factory after a union won an injunction.
“Look at us,” says Wang Jinfu, a young factory-owner. “We are not slave drivers.” He and his wife came four years ago from Fujian province in southern China with just $3,000. They sleep on a dirty mattress on the factory floor. While their 160 employees work 40 hours a week, the couple pack boxes, check inventory and dispatch orders from first light until midnight every day of the year. “Why do people hate us for that?” says Mr Wang.
Indeed, China has boosted employment in Africa and made basic goods like shoes and radios more affordable. Trade surpassed $120 billion last year (see chart 1). In the past two years China has given more loans to poor countries, mainly in Africa, than the World Bank. The Heritage Foundation, an American think-tank, estimates that in 2005-10 about 14% of China’s investment abroad found its way to sub-Saharan Africa (see chart 2). Most goes in the first place to Hong Kong. The Heritage Foundation has tried to trace its final destination.
One answer to Mr Wang’s question is that competition, especially from foreigners, is rarely popular. Hundreds of textile factories across Nigeria collapsed in recent years because they could not compete with cheap Chinese garments. Many thousands of jobs were lost.
Quite a bit of criticism of China is disguised protectionism. Established businesses try to maintain privileged positions—at the expense of consumers. The recent arrival of Chinese traders in the grimy alleys of Soweto market in Lusaka halved the cost of chicken. Cabbage prices dropped by 65%. Local traders soon marched their wire-mesh cages filled with livestock to the local competition commission to complain. “How dare the Chinese disturb our market,” says Justin Muchindu, a seller. In Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital of Tanzania, Chinese are banned from selling in markets. The government earlier this year said Chinese were welcome as investors but not as “vendors or shoe-shiners”.
Another answer, according to China’s critics, is that the Chinese are bringing bad habits as well as trade, investment, jobs and skills. The mainland economy is riddled with corruption, even by African standards. International rankings of bribe-payers list Chinese managers near the top. When these managers go abroad they carry on bribing and undermine good governance in host countries. The World Bank has banned some mainland companies from bidding for tenders in Africa.
China’s defenders reply that its detrimental impact on governance is limited. African leaders find it surprisingly hard to embezzle development funds. Usually money is put into escrow accounts in Beijing; then a list of infrastructure projects is drawn up, Chinese companies are given contracts to build them and funds are transferred to company accounts. Africa, for better and worse, gets roads and ports but no cash. At least that is the theory.
A third answer is that China is seen as hoarding African resources. China clearly would like to lock up sources of fuel, but for the moment its main concern is increasing global supply. Its state-owned companies often sell oil and ore on spot markets. Furthermore, its interest in Africa is not limited to resources. It is building railways and bridges far from mines and oilfields, because it pays. China is not a conventional aid donor, but nor is it a colonialist interested only in looting the land.
The ambiguities in China’s relationship with Africa have created fertile ground for politicians. Opposition parties, especially in southern Africa, frequently campaign on anti-China platforms. Every country south of Rwanda has had acrimonious debates about Chinese “exploitation”. Even in normally calm places like Namibia, antipathy is stirring. Workers on Chinese building sites in Windhoek, the capital, are said to get a “raw deal”. In Zambia the opposition leader, Michael Sata, has made Sino-scepticism his trademark.
Much of this is wide of the mark. Critics claim that China has acquired ownership of natural resources, although service contracts and other concessions are the norm. China is also often accused of bringing prison labour to Africa—locals assume the highly disciplined Chinese workers in identical boiler suits they see toiling day and night must be doing so under duress.
Even so, the backlash is perhaps unsurprising. Africans say they feel under siege. Tens of thousands of entrepreneurs from one of the most successful modern economies have fanned out across the continent. Sanou Mbaye, a former senior official at the African Development Bank, says more Chinese have come to Africa in the past ten years than Europeans in the past 400. First came Chinese from state-owned companies, but more and more arrive solo or stay behind after finishing contract work.
Many dream of a new life. Miners and builders see business opportunities in Africa, and greater freedom (to be their own bosses and speak their minds, but also to pollute). A Chinese government survey of 1,600 companies shows the growing use of Africa as an industrial base. Manufacturing’s share of total Chinese investment (22%) is catching up fast with mining (29%).
In part this spread is happening because Africans have asked for it. Some countries made industrial investments a precondition for resource deals. In Ethiopia two out of three resident Chinese firms are manufacturers. Yet the Chinese did not need much pushing. They have always wanted to do more than dig up fuel when investing abroad. They hope to build skyscrapers in Tokyo, run banks in London and make films in Hollywood. In Africa they can learn the ropes in a region where competition is weak. The continent—soon to be ringed with Chinese free-trade ports—is a stepping stone to a commercial presence around the globe.
To this end, the government in Beijing is encouraging all sorts of activity in Africa. Construction is a favourite, accounting for three-quarters of recent private Chinese investment in Africa. The commerce ministry says Chinese companies are signing infrastructure deals worth more than $50 billion a year. For investment in African farming, China has earmarked $5 billion. A lot of Africans view this anxiously.
Perhaps the most significant Chinese push has been in finance. Industrial and Commercial Bank of China has bought 20% of Standard Bank, a South African lender and the continent’s biggest bank by assets, and now offers renminbi accounts to expatriate traders. Other mainland banks have opened offices too, and from their sleek towers they make collateral-free loans to Chinese companies. In theory Africans are eligible to borrow on the same terms, but this rarely happens.
The government in Beijing, which controls the banks, is alert to such criticism. China’s image in Africa is sullied by more than just cowboy entrepreneurs, admits an official. Many of the government’s own practices could be improved.
Suspect above all is the type of transfer that China offers to African countries. Most loans and payments are “tied”—ie, the recipient must spend the money with Chinese companies. (Japan, Spain and others followed a similar model until fairly recently.) But tied aid leads to shoddy work. With no competition, favoured firms get away with delivering bad roads and overpriced hospitals. Creditors and donors often set the wrong priorities.
Worse, the Chinese government is anything but transparent about its money. Aid figures are treated as state secrets. China Exim Bank and China Development Bank, the main lenders, publish no figures about their vast loans to poor countries. The Democratic Republic of Congo was persuaded at the last minute by international advisers to scale back a Chinese lending facility from $9 billion to $6 billion.
Politics can be even murkier than finance. For years China has been chummy with African despots who seem to be reliable partners. Publicly, China presents its support for odious incumbents as “non-interference” and tries to make a virtue of it. Africans are less and less convinced.
Relations get especially tricky for the Chinese when strongmen fail to maintain stability. In Zimbabwe in 2008 Robert Mugabe’s sabotage of elections set off civil upheaval. Chinese investors fled, yet the ascendant opposition still linked them to the dictator. In Sudan Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on genocide charges, has long been a Chinese stalwart. But following a referendum in January, the oil-rich south of his country has seceded. Rulers in Beijing are belatedly trying to befriend his enemies.
Africans are not helpless in their business relations with the Chinese. Some, admittedly, have not been strong in their dealings: a usually bossy Rwanda lets Chinese investors run riot. But African governments by and large get reasonable deals; and some, like Angola, are masterful negotiators. Its president publicly told his Chinese counterpart, “You are not our only friend.” Brazilians and Portuguese are numerous in Luanda, the capital, and Angolans frequently play them off against the Chinese. Angola once banished a Chinese state oil company after a disagreement over a refinery. The company came crawling back a year later, offering more money.
Increasingly, however, it is the Chinese who play Africans off against each other. Growing policy co-ordination between African embassies in Beijing is a useful first step in improving African bargaining power. The World Bank and the IMF are valuable advisers. But no matter how hard African governments try, they cannot cope with the sheer volume of new enterprises. Rules exist to protect employees and the environment, but institutions are too weak to enforce them. Labour inspectors in Lusaka, who monitor sweatshops, have use of only one car and recently it was broken for four months. In the meantime Chinese engineers built an entire cluster of garment factories from scratch.
For aeons the prospect of China and Africa coming closer together had seemed otherworldly. W.H. Auden wrote:
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street.
Sweet-and-sour salmon now regularly croon in sub-Saharan streets. Africans are embracing new opportunities made in China yet remain wary of all the pitfalls.
Western countries too will want to observe the progress of Chinese privateers who cross the Indian Ocean: men like Danny Lau, a 31-year-old from Shanghai, who a year ago followed a group of friends to Zambia, where he is now a successful coal trader and dabbles in property. In a few years, he says, they will move on to a richer continent. What they learn in Accra and Brazzaville will travel with them to Vancouver and Zagreb.