The most popular way of looking at China in Africa is through the dual lenses of international relations and international trade. One main argument that comes out of this is that, the way China does business in Africa has made the countries that are pushing some African countries to do better on human rightsand governance issues to start re-considering doing so. The simple reason being that China’s ‘no strings attached’ policy means that Chinese business interests are not coloured with any desire to change the way African governments run their countries.The effect of this is that many countries that see that sanctions which are imposed against African countries do not really deprive the countries of funds are re-thinking the wisdom of depriving themselves of raw materials. What is the point when money comes from China anyway?Another argument that comes out is in relation to the use of Chinese labour in construction sites in Africa. A case in point is that of railway constructions in Angola, a country that suffers from high levels of unemployment. A couple of years ago, the BBC reported popular discussions by Angolans that Chinese workers are nothing but prisoners, especially because they never leave their camps. When asked why his company does not employ Angolans, a Chinese factory owner in Luanda says, ‘African people, they don’t like work too much, they like relax’. He goes on to say that his workers work for ten hours a day, while Angolans work for only eight.
I find the racist-tinged comments of the factory owner distasteful, to say the least. The money paid out to governments by Chinese companies is not for development – anybody who has followed the discourse on aid knows that much; the stuff of development is employment. It is when people have the dignity of earning their own wages, of being able to provide for their families, that one thinks of development. It is extremely dissatisfying to note that Chinese companies are allowed to bring in their labour from China, even the unskilled ones.
What could one expect? On the larger scale, I would not really expect much of a change in Chinese activities in Africa. After all China’s growth, which feeds much of the world’s appetite for cheap goods, has to continue to be fuelled by raw materials, even in a post-recession world. And producers of Chinese cheap goods have to continue looking for new consumers, hence Africa. What one would hope for is that African governments are smart enough to get better deals for their citizens.
But then, this assumes that the people who run African governments consider the interest of their citizens. This is one issue in which one would have to wait and react to each situation as it arises. General statements that are couched in moralistic terms confuse much more than the sentiments that back them might intend.
One must however note that things are gradually changing. A colleague who does research in Angola says that there are now provisions that foreign companies operating in Angola have to employ Angolans, not only for low-skilled works, but also in managerial positions. What I still do not understand is why Chinese companies are allowed to bring in unskilled labour. That truly baffles me.
However, of all the considerations of Sino-African relations, the level at which I find it most interesting is the level at which Chinese and African individuals meet and interact – or not. While I was doing research in Benin, I saw many Chinese traders who have very little interactions with Beninese people. There are some who have lived in Benin for five year but speak no French. I see how Chinese store owners bring their Chinese workers with a bus to the shops, bring them home-cooked Chinese lunch at work, and generally frown at anything outside simple buy and sell interactions with Beninese.
My opinion is that things will change over time, as the Chinese find that they are not just in Africa for a few years, and that they might end up staying for longer than they initially thought. One sees these days, for instance, that Chinese businessmen are not just in the construction, extractive and financial industries, but also trade. I would be interested in knowing how this relationship changes and develops over the next few years. It sounds like a great Ph.D topic. Any takers?