Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Chinese in Africa But Were Too Afraid to Ask

Chinese-people-1The Chinese presence in Africa has been so sudden and so all-encompassing that it’s left a lot of people confused. Chinese farmers now compete for space and customers in Lusaka’s open-air markets, Chinese textiles are undercutting Nigerian manufacturers, tens of thousands of Africans now work for Chinese companies, and hundreds of thousands, even millions, of Chinese now call Africa home. This has all happened in just the past decade, leaving people little time to adjust and understand the cultural, political, and economic changes that have been set in motion by the Chinese.

So it’s understandable that people have questions—and not always polite, politically correct questions—about one another:

  • Why are Chinese so racist towards black people?
  • Why do Chinese bosses think African workers are lazy?
  • Why do the Chinese import workers when there are so many unemployed people already here?

Over the past six years, a growing number of people have directed those sensitive question towards us at The China Africa Project, where every week we receive a growing amount of DMs, PMs, and emails from curious listeners and social media followers.

Since many of these questions deal with incendiary issues of race, stereotypes, and caricatures, Cobus and Eric would discretely provide one-to-one replies. However, it became apparent that these are in fact key issues that are on everyone’s minds and that it is critical that they get seen by a wider audience.

Beginning May 2016, The China Africa Project launched a new site, Africa-Chinese Q&A, that tackles head-on the hardest, most sensitive issues in the China-Africa relationship. Every week, a new Q&A column will be posted and distributed to newspaper sites and popular portals in the United States, Africa, and soon in China as well (translated into Chinese).

Here is a Sample of Q&A:

Dear Eric and Cobus:

Every time I pass by a Chinese construction site and see Chinese people working it just pisses me off. Why do they have to bring in their own workers when so many young Ghanaians can’t find jobs? It just doesn’t make any sense!

—Kwabena in Accra via Facebook

Dear Kwabena,

I think if there was a poll taken in Ghana or anywhere on the continent of what angers people most about the Chinese in Africa this issue would be #1, by far! I completely understand where you are coming from. In fact, the World Bank just came out with some new data that revealed 48 percent of Ghanaian young people are unemployed, so you’d think it’d only be natural for the government to do more to force Chinese companies to hire local workers as part of the contract for infrastructure projects, right?

Let me present a different side of the argument…

First, and foremost, when officials from the two governments reach a deal to build infrastructure in Ghana, it’s not intended to be a jobs program. The objective of these contracts is to build a road, a bridge, or some other piece of infrastructure that your own government has deemed essential. This isn’t an aid program, often it’s not even a traditional development program similar to those done by Western governments over the past few decades. Nope. This is pure business. The Ghanaians say they need a road, the Chinese say they can build it.

China has been especially successful in Africa and other developing markets with its infrastructure business because it undercuts both local and international competitors, sometimes by as much as 50 percent. For a country like Ghana, with its limited budgets, the so-called “China Price” is the reason why these Chinese companies often win the bids. Well, part of that is that Chinese companies have an integrated system of financing, engineering, material sourcing, etc. that allows them to build at a lower cost. And yes, part of this is labor, but it’s important to be clear what kind of labor we’re talking about and how much of it they really do import.

The Chinese will argue that it would take way too long to hire local engineers and project managers, which would also push up the budget. So for specialized managers, they say it’s critical to bring in their own folks to do the job. That makes sense. The far more questionable practice is when they import “wheelbarrow pushers<,” or unskilled labor. Here, I totally agree with you that this is inexcusable, even deplorable given the high levels of unemployment in Ghana and elsewhere in Africa.

But…

The issue of how much unskilled Chinese labor is actually employed in Africa is often way overblown. I don’t know about the construction sites that you’ve passed where you’ve seen Chinese workers, but I’m almost positive that those Chinese represent a small minority of the overall workforce on the project. There is a lot of research that’s been done to show that the vast majority of workers on Chinese construction projects in Africa are locally hired.

Nonetheless, even if the numbers are small, the optics look bad when Chinese unskilled laborers work in countries where too many people are unemployed. However, I think it’s important to step back and see these projects for what they are (building critical infrastructure) and what they’re not (aid-based job programs).

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