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African view: China's new long march

Chinese workers and African workers in Senegal, file image
Many parts of Africa are in thrall to the Chinese business ethic

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Ghanaian writer and former government minister Elizabeth Ohene considers China's impact on Africa.

In Ghana as in other countries on the continent, the Chinese are here, very visible and very busy.

The relationship between Africa and China is a love-hate one - the love is more on the side of the governments and the hate on the side of business, civil society and the unions.

Mao Zedong (L) with Julius Nyerere in 1971
Julius Nyerere (R) was a friend of China the first time around

But those of us of a certain age know that the Chinese are not new to Africa.

The first wave of Chinese flirtation with Africa was in the early years of independence and at the time when they themselves were serious communists and seemed to frown on business and all things capitalist.

They came to Africa to make friends, they built the first football stadiums and organised projects that the World Bank frowned upon.

They set the fashion for our presidents, getting the likes of Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania into Mao suits.

This time around they are here for business, and let nobody forget that.

Bulldozer diplomacy

Sixty years of communism in the People's Republic has lulled some people into forgetting just what committed businessmen the Chinese have been for 3,000 years.

CHINA IN AFRICA
Chinese shopkeeper in Libreville, file image
China is Africa's second-biggest trading partner, behind US
Between 2002 and 2003 two-way trade doubles to $18.5bn
By 2008 trade tops $100bn - China exports $51bn, imports $56bn
Almost all imports come from oil-rich nations: Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, the Republic of Congo, and Sudan
Sources: China Daily, Reuters, Council on Foreign Relations

Their methods might be slightly different from those we have been used to from the Western nations we have been dealing with for the past 300 years, but the Chinese I have come across are as ruthless in business as any "master of the universe" on Wall Street.

I have seen them operate at first hand over the past eight years, when I was in government in Ghana.

Many are willing to work seven days a week; if they can get away with paying $2, they will not pay $3; and if you are late with the payment of one interim invoice, they will stop work.

If it suits them, they claim they cannot speak or understand English to get themselves out of sticky situations.

Here is an example of what I mean: A Korean company was building a highway westwards out of Accra for more than a year.

The work stalled because the authorities could not, or would not, pull down the structures demarcated to be pulled down and for which compensation had been paid.

Indeed, the gossip was that more people started putting up structures after the demarcation exercise so they could be paid compensation - but that is another story.

A Chinese company started building a highway northwards out of Accra.

Once the demarcation was done and the compensation paid, they waited for seven days and one fine Sunday morning, as people made their way to church, they brought out the bulldozers and by the time church was over, the houses and kiosks in their way had all been pulled down.

No amount of shouting or pleading or threatening impressed them - they claimed they couldn't understand English.

After a few days of shock, the communities resigned themselves and concentrated on the beautiful road being built for them.

Meanwhile on the western front, it took for ever before the project could be completed. And guess who got kudos for delivering the work on time?

We'll get the cheque

I recall a gathering in Oxford University in the early 1990s that brought together investors, business people, academics, UN types, pseudo-politicians and journalists to deliberate on Africa.

I forget his name now, but I think he was a boss with a mining company.

Crowds with China flags and posters in Dakar, file image
China has been praised for its infrastructure projects

He told a story of his experience of doing business in China and in Zimbabwe.

He and his team arrived in Zimbabwe to a muted reception and slightly shambolic series of meetings and concluded a low-scale deal, or at least that was their view at the time.

Next stop Beijing, where the full panoply of state protocol was on display, complete with a 27-course dinner in the People's Hall in Tiananmen Square.

They signed a deal and were highly impressed with all the arrangements.

Yet four years later they had made no money in China but were making a lot of money in Zimbabwe.

And, by the way, at the end of the Chinese trip, they had been presented with a detailed bill for the 27-course dinner and the protocol laid on for them - and they had to pay.

The Chinese are here and everywhere else to make money and let no-one forget that - ever.


Thanks for your comments. You can read a selection below:

It is important to differentiate between the Chinese government and the Chinese companies dealing in Africa. There is no question that many Chinese business practices are unscrupulous and the quality of building projects is dubious. Whether or not they are encouraged or aided by the government is the question. The African leaders should know what they are getting themselves into. If you agree to work with the Chinese then this is what you choose to deal with.
Elizabeth , Chicago, USA

Well, What a scene! Just chill out guys. A. How many Chinese you guys really know when you make all your convenient claims about how Chinese people are dishonest and mean? B. There're all ways two sides for EVERYTHING. Which side you choose see shows who you really are. C. Yes, Chinese economy is growing recklessly, and it does need resources and all, is that the very reason everyone is so sore about China's presence in Africa? If you are not happy about Chinese policy or government (or whatever you choose to be not happy about) on whatever excuses, that's fine coz our government has always been an easy target. But before you make all your little allegations about Chinese people, you really need to check with your inner peace and conscious.
Binbin Lu, China

There is a age-old saying in China "MIND YOUR RICE BOWL". This signifies chinese attitude towards business. They never believe in giving out free lunch. As far african's they have to stand-up for their rights against their own govt's and dictator. As long as they think somebody will earn them their living they are fooling themselves. Nobody will help anybody unless he/she finds some value in doing it.
Harish, Shanghai & China

Chinese contributed to the consolidation of independence in Africa and in some countries like Zimbabwe and Mozambique, they contributed to the liberation struggle. However Chinese products on Africa market are sub standard and this will make them unpopular. They should not make Africa a dumping ground of their products and their people or else they will not be different from former colonial powers who dumped here their former criminals, in form of soldiers, administrators and even missionaries.
Ahmed Kateregga Musaazi, Kampala

These sorts of articles and the comments to them serve no purpose. In effect they are asking us to make a huge generalization about a very complex issue. Moreover, these types of articles, whether explicitly or implicitly, seem to argue that Western involvement in Africa has been good. I find it impossible to avoid this generalization: the West has screwed Africa far worse than any other region, country or culture.
Ado, Washington

I saw some of the roads and bridges the Chinese have built in Ethiopia in my recent visit. I have seen some progress. However, there is poor grade given to the Chinese in their contribution for tele-communications. Apparently they have brought in cheap materials and that created issue with some tele-communication employees. Please note that the deal makers tied with the Ethiopian government did not care too much. Most likely they have received kick-back from the Chinese company.
Tamerat Hailu, San Francisco, CA

From the African point of view, the West raped us and now we are prostituting ourselves to the Chinese. At least whether we're getting a fair deal or not there's still something concrete on the ground to see with the Chinese unlike the West, World Bank and IMF who only enriched and corrupted our so called leaders (and of course themselves) and made us guinea pigs for their hypothetical economic theories and ideologies. Leave the Chinese alone they might not be that fair or generous but at least we're getting something out of it!!!!!
Ethiopiawi, Addis Ababa

It annoys me when people like rwakachocho make such ignorant comments. Wake up people, the Chinese are in this for the money. Most of our industries have collapsed due to their exporting cheap toxic substandard goods that flood our markets..., with the blessing of our greedy pot-bellied leaders. I understand they are now offering to take over huge tracks of land from Africans in order to teach them 'how to farm'. They are worse than the Indians who just plain stole money from the African governments and are now living large in places like Canada, the United States and Britain. I have no respect for any of them. So, Yeah, let's keep inviting them to Africa and sing Kumbaya together...... rwakachocho!
ROSE, New Jersey, USA

I relate so much with this article, it is not funny. Here in Lesotho, the ruling party is financed by the Chinese government, and with that we've been sold out completely!! In the villages, our grandmothers's small shops have gone dry because they cannot compete with 5 cents less of the same product in the Chinese store next door!! I have always wondered where they get such cheap products, come on, we all know economics? People have called on the government to keep check of these products, expiration dates and the likes, but nothing. Unfortunately, we still go and buy there because a 5 cent saving goes a long way for a poor person. Turning to the big clothing factories, now the highest employer in Lesotho, the state of affairs is appalling, it is not surprising why they have the highest HIV infection rates there!! China is the new Colonial Master, and again our corrupt leaders are selling us!!
Palesa, Maseru, Lesotho

I don't agree with the author, I am a African, here what i see in my country is that the Chinese in someway they really helped us, they are building hospitals, roads, football stadiums, etc. They are all very fair deals. But let's what the Westerns had done to us? They just fetch what they want, just want to conquer us, but never help us to improve our living condition. So he westerns have no right to discredit or blame Chinese, they are much better.
Belo, Sudan

As an African, I am ashamed of this baseless article. Of course, the Chinese are in Africa for business, only a foolish person would expect otherwise. However, who is to blame if deals or projects where Chinese company are involved go very wrong? Have the African governments - the main counterparts for the Chinese - setup proper controls and transparency to ensure a WIN-WIN situation?

Instead of blaming the very corrupt African regimes who are dealing with the Chinese companies, why doesn't the writer look inward and ask what kind of illicit profit the African government officials have made so far. And the example cited about the reception in China, it tells more about the stupidity of the delegation - who were expecting a free dinner- than of the shrewd Chinese businessmen or officials.
hassen, Netherlands

While the article is not without any truth on some aspects of China's activities in Africa, it really sounds more like sour grapes. The article completely overlooks China's genuine contribution to Africa's development. The author seems to forget that China is financing many of the infrastructural projects there and trade deals with China do bring jobs and development to African. Of course, China needs to be a responsible investor and needs to ensure the Chinese support benefits ordinary citizens of African countries. I am sure China is aware of this.
Zhe Fang, Shanghai, China

I read this article from a unique perspective - an African that spent 3 years studying in China now living in Tokyo. The author hits the mark, as do some of the responses with thoughtful comments and pertinent questions. Ultimately, I strongly believe that regardless of the motivations of this superpower or that, Africans need to take charge of their own considerable resources and hold their (mostly corrupt) leaders to account. Until Africans realize and follow through on this, we will always be at the mercy of the reigning superpower(s).
Aitai, Tokyo

The moral of the story: be careful what you ask for when dealing with the Chinese because that is precisely what you will get. You may not get what you expect, but you WILL get what you asked for. Businesses who send manufacturing to China do so in order to get cheaper goods. And the Chinese deliver. Their slant on worker conditions, questionable materials in the goods, and resultant pollution from their processes? "That was not part of the deal. Therefore, none of your concern." Oh, and Tanya of Germany, you mention that countries who are overcome by the Chinese will need to rely upon "Western donor nations". The "Western donor nations" are selling themselves to the Chinese, as well, and will be no more.
Dan, Charlotte, NC, USA

I travelled back to Kenya after a while away, and was surprised at the number of Chinese not just in large-scale government projects, but also "low-level" occupations. Some seem to have adapted quite well: west of Nairobi, at a road project that resulted in a huge traffic snarl-up, a Chinese worker was busy directing traffic around road constructions. Not too far away, a small shop manned by two Chinese was stocked with all manner of goods for sale. Herein, perhaps, lies potential for not-so-good relations: backed (allegedly) by large soft loans from their governments back home, Chinese traders will quickly take over many of the small- to medium-scale businesses that provide locals in Africa with their incomes. It surely will not be long before the first Chinese farmers pop in Africa to compete with locals for land and other resources. When they begin qualifying for citizenship and expand their ownership in African economies (as has happened in Papua New Guinea and Algeria, where they have even demanded a "China town" in Algiers!), the potential for conflict with locals will increase exponentially.
Peter Wanyonyi, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

In the the Global village we live in, one thing is very clear. Anything you can do, somebody somewhere can do quicker, cheaper and better. The chinese understand this ethic very clearly. The nations and peoples of Africa do not. Until they Africans and their leaders do, they will continue to be exploited. If you cant beat them join them!
Nii Armar, Wimbledon UK

Well said Elizabeth..You've hit the nail right on the head. I've seen and heard on numerous occasions how Chinese disparage Africans or black people. Yet they claim that Africans are their friends, no we're not for the love of God. They come to Africa to get our resources by hook or crook to feed their fledgling economy. They outwit some of our greedy and visionless leaders by trading our natural resources for some shoddy infrastructures. And they sign all these deals with broad smiles to create the impression that they love us, no they don't cause for them if their country is better than yours then you don't command any respect from them. All said and done, let's how it will pan out when Africa wakes up from it's slumber.
Nii, Tokyo, Japan

since when has an foreigner gone to any country for honest reasons. We all travel for gains/profit. Africans just dont know how to take "legally". Africans have adopted the law they use in their countries their business language is english if not of their former colonial Masters this makes it easy to exploit them. until today africans dont know abt business and they are learning about business. They have not yet manage to colonise anyone thats why we are slaves at least the chinese are clever and free...
African bhoyi , UK Manchester

The Chinese influence in Nigeria has been negative as far as I know. They get contracts because they are ready to play 'ball' with the public officials. They do not contribute to the local economy because they hardly buy anything and when they do, they try to underpay local merchants. They take jobs from Nigerians by importing their workforce from China including gardeners and labourers. They do not transfer any skills because they pretend they do not understand English.

Lastly, they are mostly involved in extraction of natural resources and will site 'security reasons' for not establishing factories to process these natural resources in Nigeria. We are better off without trading with them because it is a mostly one-way traffic; underpriced natural resources going from Nigeria to China and finished goods, mostly of inferior quality returns from China to Nigeria.
Olaide , Lagos, Nigeria

@Young Ya Bhoy: let's flip the question around - what have the African leaders done for Africa? Corruption, pure and simple, is the cause of Africa's problems. Until the African people rise up against their leaders and demand better, nothing is going to change. The Chinese will come, take whatever they need, and leave. The African leaders will go into exile in some friendly neighbouring country and live off their Swiss bank accounts swelled with Chinese money. The African people are hard-working and resourceful, but they have let their leaders become too powerful.
Clive van Hilten, Nairobi, Johannesburg and London

Go ask yourself this question, "Did the Chinese bring colonialism and slavery to Africa?" If not, who did? So, sit back, relax, and enjoy the new highways, railways, dams, and infrastructure the Chinese are leaving behind in Africa today.
Ray Hu, Hong Kong, China

Ms Ohene is stating the obvious. Of course the Chinese are in Africa to make money. Europeans have been in Africa for at least 300 years. They have made tons of money out of Africa in that time. They continue to make tons of money in Africa. The Chinese are honest about their intentions. The Europeans hide their intentions behind all manner of institutions-the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO, the aid industry etc.
Mbugwile Nkolokosa, Salford, UK

I have no prejudice, disrespect any ill-will towards the Chinese at all, but I can help decry their sub-standard work. From a commoner's viewpoint, they are doing an awful lot of harm to African economies through low quality goods and sub-standard work. I would like to guess(without any evidence) that they probably operate a 2-tier quality system. Rogue cheap products for Africa and superior standard and durable goods for their Western trading partners. In other words, Africa has become a Chinese dump site. A simple example here in Zimbabwe, the Chinese have flooded virtually any market with products of all sorts that hardly last a day after purchase, for example the now quip of disposable shoes, yet products that used to be manufactured here locally following Western standards such as the BSI standards could last for years and years. All investors come to Africa for the buck, but at least Western standards were so high such that up to today we are still using some products from the 70s with little hassles, yet Chinese bridges are lasting only one season. I have got a set of teaspoons from the 60s inherited from my grandfather, yet a new Chinese set I bought a few months ago is already history. My advice to African governments is to take a long term view - dump cheap Chinese deals, invest heavily in the expensive Western deals and products and you would have invested for future generations. 'Cheap is indeed expensive!'
Jo Shumba, Harare, Zimbabwe

Does it represent the overall situation? It gave people an impression that China government and Chinese are doing bad things to Africa, even worser than those Western colonial powers in the past. Do not mislead people. China does not have a soldier other than UN mission in Africa. You can disagree in their business attitudes, but you cannot say or convey the message that the problems in Africa are caused by Chinese, or worsened by Chinese. BBC, your editorial preference or viewpoint is not fair.
C.K. Chu, Hong Kong

When will Africa wake up to exactly that statement: The Chinese are here and everywhere else to make money and let no-one forget that - ever. If the various African governments don't quickly understand that China is not a noble helping friend they will lose all they have. AFRICA WAKE UP!!! Stop being exploited and ensure that your resources are being processed in your countries before being exported - you need the jobs urgently. Governments take responsibility for your people and stop corruption! China will strip you of everything you have before you know it - and what will be left? Hunger and starvation, dependencies from Western donor nations. China will not help you then! Is that what you want?
Tanya, Germany

There is no gain-saying the fact that the Chinese are in Africa to make money. It sounds foolish to me to think that the Chinese love Africa or Africans for love sake. The Chinese do business with Africa because they gain from the corruption of our leaders and because they are able to use cheap labour through the exploitation of poor Africans who work for their companies extracting our resources. This is done with the knowledge and collaboration of our African corrupt leaders. Even though one cannot deny the fact that the Chinese are very hardworking and are carrying out giant projects in Africa, one must not lose sight of what they gain in return for all of these. The Chinese do not love Africans and we just need to be reminded of how African students are treated in China. Some of our students in China have been subjected to racial abuse or killed and our leaders just make some noise and continue doing business with them. The Chinese care less about Democracy or Human Rights in African countries. They make business with dictators that are under sanctions from the West. Yes the Chinese are in Africa to make money and benefit from Africa`s vast resources.
Adeniyi Akinlabi, London,UK

Another propaganda to discredit the Chinese. By the way, how about flipping the question so it goes this way "what has the West done for us?" In my honest opinion, neither the Chinese not the Europeans are in Africa for a honest purpose but for the benefit of their own selfish interests. It's business as usual for both parties and African leaders shouldn't be blamed for choosing whom to work with.
Young Ya Bhoy, London

There are the good and bad sides to the Chinese presence in Africa. On the positive side is the fact that they execute the jobs for which they grant loans to African countries thus ensuring that the money is not pocketed by rogue politicians. But this has its bad side because most of the workers who execute these contracts are Chinese, with very few locals employed to work along them and by so doing ensure the transfer of know-how.

Also on the positive side is the fact that the ready availability of Chinese goods in African markets has greatly pushed down the prices of most commodities and in the process enabling many Africans acquire certain goods that were far from their reach before the arrival of the Chinese. But along these cheap goods has arrived the very disgusting phenomenon of imitated luxury items, with very low quality but sold at 'middle prices' way above their value. Today, one hardly knows the difference between a real Rolex watch and a fake one and in the process, people are short-changed.

On the negative side, the Chinese with their attitude of buying everything have helped in the creation of a kind of underground parallel market where stolen goods are sold to Chinese merchants with no questions asked. Before their arrival, many African telecommunication networks were stable, but today, the availability of telephone lines has been greatly perturbed by the frequent theft of cables, which are subsequently melted down and sold to unquestioning Chinese operatives. The same goes for scrap readily bought by the Chinese which has endangered the 'lives' of even usable vehicles and appliances as unscrupulous individuals steal them and sell to the Chinese as scrap.

The list is long, but on the whole, Chinese assistance/loans are readily visible and if our former colonial masters operated like the Chinese are doing now, Africa would not be that indebted without structures to show on which the money loaned was invested.
Chief Bisong Etahoben, Yaounde, CAMEROON

This article is a bit one sided isn't it? One senses in the tone of the article perhaps some grudge against the Chinese? Take a vote of Africans and ask them, would you rather the Chinese be in Africa or not? How about the billions in development and exports that Africa has gained in the relationship. I think we all know what the result would be.
marco, Australia

being from Tanzania, i have seen the government of china building our big international football stadium (60,000 seats?. then we heard that we traded our mining companies for the pitch.so we just hoped that our leaders striked a fair deal.
Kato Lukaija, India (student)

I do agree with the author, on some extent the chinese are here to make money right, but on the other hand lets look at the chinese way of doing things take an example of kampala where thy have championed in infrastructure with not hash conditions, mean terms and even trade they offer good terms compared to other so-called superpowers, I like china because it does not mind of the democracy or leadership but investment only, lets welcome them as we overcome the poverty in africa.
rwakachocho wilberforce, kampala, uganda



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