Chinese flocking in numbers to a new frontier: Africa – By Howard W. French and Lydia Polgreen

August 17th, 2007 Print Print Email Email

LILONGWE, Malawi: When Yang Jie left home at 18, he was doing what people from China’s hardscrabble Fujian Province have done for generations: emigrating in search of a better living overseas. (more…)

LILONGWE, Malawi: When Yang Jie left home at 18, he was doing what people from China’s hardscrabble Fujian Province have done for generations: emigrating in search of a better living overseas.

What set him apart was his destination. Instead of the traditional adopted homelands in North America and Europe, where Fujian people have settled by the hundreds of thousands, he chose southern Africa, making his way to this small, landlocked country where Stanley and Livingstone’s legendary meeting occurred.

“Before I left China,” said Yang, now 25, “I thought Africa was all one big desert,” a place forever bathed in terrible heat. So he figured ice cream would naturally be in high demand, and with money pooled from relatives and friends, created his own factory. Malawi’s climate, in fact, is subtropical, but that has not stopped his ice cream company from becoming the country’s biggest.

Stories like this have become legion across Africa over the last five years or so, as hundreds of thousands of Chinese have discovered the continent, setting off to do business in a part of the world that had been terra incognita for their compatriots. The Xinhua press agency recently estimated there were at least 750,000 Chinese working or living for extended periods on the continent, a reflection of burgeoning economic ties between China and Africa that reached $55 billion in trade in 2006, compared with less than $10 million a generation earlier.

Even when Yang arrived here in 2001, he said he could go weeks without encountering another traveler from his homeland. But as surely as his investments in the country have prospered, he said, an increasingly large community of Chinese migrants has taken root, running everything from small factories to health care clinics and trading companies.

During the previous wave of Chinese interest in Africa in the 1960s and 70s, an era of radical socialism and proclaimed third world solidarity, European and American companies held sway over economies across most of the continent. Here and there, though, the Chinese made their presence felt, often as a curious sight: drably dressed, state-run work brigades that built stadiums, railroads and highways, often crushing rocks and performing other heavy labor by hand. Today, in many of the countries the new Chinese emigrants have settled in, like Chad, Chinese-owned pharmacies, massage parlors and restaurants serving a variety of regional Chinese cuisines can be found; the Western presence, once dominant, has steadily dwindled, and essentially consists nowadays of relief experts working with international agencies or oil workers, living behind high walls in heavily guarded enclaves.

At first, this new Chinese exodus was driven largely by word of mouth, as pioneers like Yang relayed news back home of abundant opportunities in a part of the world where many economies lay undeveloped or in ruins, and where even in the richer countries many things taken for granted in the developed world awaited builders and investors.

Conditions like these often deter Western investors, but for many budding Chinese entrepreneurs, Africa’s emerging economies are inviting precisely because they seem small and accessible. Competition is often weak or nonexistent, and for African customers, the low price of many Chinese goods and services make them more affordable than their Western counterparts.

You Xianwen sold his pipe-laying business in Chengdu this year to move to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, to join a startup company with a Chinese partner he had previously only met online.

“Back where I come from we are pretty independent people,” said You, 55. “My brothers and sisters all supported my decision to come here. In fact, they say that if things really work out for me, they would like to move to Africa, too.”

You said that before settling on Ethiopia, he had considered other African countries, including Zambia. “Luckily I didn’t decide to go there,” he said, explaining that he had been frightened by the recent anti-Chinese protests in that country.

His new business, ABC Bioenergy, builds devices that generate combustible gas from ordinary refuse, providing what You says would be an affordable alternative source of energy in a country where electricity supplies are erratic and prices high.

You’s partner here, Mei Haijun, first came to Ethiopia a decade ago to work at a Chinese-built textile factory and has since married an Ethiopian woman, with whom he has a newborn child. “When I first came here you could go two months without seeing another Chinese person,” he said. “But it is a different era now. There’s a flight to China every day.”

Indeed, air traffic has picked up between China and countries like Ethiopia, with Chinese carriers scrambling to add new routes, as the Chinese government and big Chinese companies increase their stake in Africa.

Much of that activity reflects an intense appetite for African oil and mineral resources needed to fuel China’s manufacturing sector, but big Chinese companies have quickly become formidable competitors in other sectors as well, particularly for big-ticket public works contracts. China is building major new railroad lines in Nigeria and Angola, large dams in Sudan, airports in several countries, and new roads, it seems, almost everywhere.

One of the largest road builders, China Road and Bridge Construction, has picked up where the solidarity brigades of an earlier generation left off. The company, owned by the Chinese government, has 29 projects in Africa, many of them financed by the World Bank or other lenders, and it maintains offices in 22 African countries.

On a recent Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa to Beijing brimming with Chinese contractors, workers from Road and Bridge and other companies swapped notes on the grab bag of countries they work in, and debated about the difficulties of learning Portuguese and French in places like Mozambique and Ivory Coast.

Africans view the influx of Chinese with a mix of anticipation and dread. Business leaders in Chad, a central African nation with deepening oil ties to China, are bracing for what they suspect will be an army of Chinese workers and investors.

“We expect a large influx of at least 40,000 Chinese in the coming years,” said Renaud Dinguemnaial, director of Chad’s chamber of commerce. “This massive arrival could be a plus for the economy, but we are also worried. When they arrive, will they bring their own workers, stay in their own houses, send all their money home?”

In Zambia, where anti-Chinese sentiment has been building for several years, merchants at Lusaka’s central market said that if Chinese people want to come to Africa, they should come as investors, building factories, not as petty traders who compete for already scarce customers for bottom-dollar items like flip-flops and T-shirts.

“The Chinese claim to come here as investors, but they are trading just like us,” said Dorothy Mainga, who sells knockoff Puma sneakers and Harley Davidson T-shirts in Lusaka’s Kamwala Market. “They are selling the same things we are selling at cheap prices. We pay duty and tax, but they use their connections to avoid paying tax.” Although Chinese oil workers have been kidnapped in Nigeria and in Ethiopia, where nine were killed by an armed separatist movement in May, the growing Chinese presence around the continent has produced few serious incidents.

Misunderstandings are common, however, and resentments inevitably arise. Africans in many countries complain that Chinese workers occupy jobs that locals are either qualified for or could be easily trained to do. “We are happy to have the Chinese here,” said Dennis Phiri, a 21-year-old Malawian university student who is studying to become an engineer. “The problem with the Chinese companies is that they reserve all the good jobs for their own people. Africans are only hired in menial roles.”

Another frequently heard criticism is that the Chinese are clannish, sticking together day and night.

In Addis Ababa, in what is a typical arrangement for most large companies, the 200 Chinese workers for China Road and Bridge all live in a communal compound, eating food prepared by cooks brought from China and even receiving basic health care from a Chinese doctor.

“After a day off you wonder what you’re doing here, so we like to keep working,” said Cheng Qian, the country manager for the road building company in Ethiopia. He added that his family had never visited him during several years of work there. “They have no interest in Africa,” he said. “If it were Europe, things would be different.”

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