Photos: Chinese blaze new paths in Africa
September 9, 2011Jing Gao5 CommentsAfrica, Angola, Chinese businesses in Africa, Chinese expats, geopolitics, gold rush, labor rights, migrant workers, overseas Chinese, Political geography, poverty, strike
In the past eight months of 2011 alone, Chinese direct investment in Africa amounts to 32.3 billion U.S. dollars. “Chinese can be seen every day. There are traces of China everywhere,” Africans say. Over one million Chinese are now carving out their own paths in today’s Africa, and tasting the glory and hardship that this foreign land has brought to them. (Read about a mass exodus from a Chinese village to New York City)
China has multiple railroad construction projects in Africa. Branch offices of Chinese-owned enterprises are thick on the ground in Africa. What come with the Chinese investment are Chinese people. For instance, over 200,000 Chinese people are currently living in Angola, a country with a population of less than 20 million. The picture shows Chinese workers laying rail lines on a construction site in Angola.
Most of those who toil in the forefront are peasants from China. They are cheap, and they follow orders. These become the major factors in Chinese companies’ decision to hire them instead of locals. A construction team in Angola is made up of 160 Chinese workers as opposed to 60 locals. Low percentage of local workforce has ignited discontent of many Africans. In 2008, a construction site in Luanda, the capital city of Angola, became the target of violent attacks. Several Chinese workers sustained severe injuries. The picture shows a Chinese acting as the head of Angolan fellow workers.
It has become a dream for many Chinese peasants to go abroad and strike a bonanza. They obtained visas to African countries through agencies that make such arrangements and provide consulting services. Some of them went there anyway without a legal status. The tropical climate and the difficult living conditions are a real baptism of fire for many Chinese who left their sweet homes and comfort zones. Heat during the day turns their job into laborious and sweaty tasks. Insect bites at night make it impossible to fall asleep. A guide book handed out by most agencies lists “two close-knit thick mosquito nets and highly effective mosquito repellant” as the number one basic necessity. Much as they have prepared, Chinese workers in Africa still contract malaria easily. The picture shows a railroad worker hand-washing his cloths outside a tent.
In the eyes of Africans, Chinese are absurdly hard-working. The five-day workweek was introduced earlier to Africa than to China. Even though overtime pay is much higher than the flat hourly rate, Africans feel reluctant to give up their time off and instead insist on enjoying their right to leisure enabled by law. The picture shows a team of Chinese workers looking at an Angolan woman with curiosity.
Chinese workers in Africa often live at or near their workplaces. Most of them do not speak English. They cook Chinese food themselves, watch Chinese television programming and DVDs, and are always on the move as the railroad systems expand. They almost never have contact with the locals. The picture shows Chinese railroad workers playing ping pong in a yard formed by make-shift dormitories.
Chinese workers can make much more money after they come to Africa, but they have to endure loneliness caused by separation from their families. Locals often ask, “You guys will stay for several years once you come. And you don’t bring your wives. Nor do you have girlfriends here. How can you put up with that? Is is because you have taken some sort of medicine before you came that can suppress your libido for years?” The picture shows a Chinese worker texting his wife in China before going to bed.
They do manual labor abroad for a few years for the sake of bringing their savings home. However, customs at some African countries have imposed a limitation on the amount of U.S. dollars one could take outbound, and confiscate the excess. This means some of the cash earned by hard toil will go into the pockets of staff at local airports. In addition, Chinese laborers in Africa are also vexed by wage arrears. Some cannot get the amount due even after they return to China, and have no one to turn to for help. The picture shows a farewell party held on a road construction site in Zambia for workers going home soon.
While the global economic downturn is sending shockwaves to the coasts of the African continent, merchants from China are turning the waves back and pushing Africa into an unprecedented heyday. Schools, hospitals and stadiums built with Chinese aid can be seen in many African cities. Telecommunications systems in many countries have popped up in the wake of Chinese presence. In the eyes of many locals, Chinese are rich. China is “paradise.” The picture shows an African woman passing by a billboard featuring “Forbidden City Restaurant.”
Clothing, home appliances, hardware and motorcycles account for the majority of Chinese imports that have flooded the African market. Many African cities have special business streets where retail stores that sell Chinese merchandise gather. The picture shows a Chinese merchant and a few Zambian workers carting off goods imported from China in Luanda, the capital city of Angola.
In contrast to the Western prudence, Chinese merchants are ready to wade into many small and flexible businesses, such as massage, restaurants, tailoring and dressmaking, pharmacy, and take on any job that can make a quick buck. The picture shows a Chinese woman hawking a popular Chinese medicine to an African woman on a market in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire.
At first, Chinese imports swept the African market with its low prices. However, over time, Africans have expressed a lot of reservations over their substandard quality. In Swahili language spoken in parts of Africa, “Chino”, a word created for Chinese-made merchandise, now extends to cover any product that is cheap and yet shoddy. People there often say, “I bought another Chino.” The picture shows a Chinese merchant selling garments made in China in Atlantis, South Africa.
Lagging economic development and low employment rate among locals have caused violent crimes and social unrest to become vexing issues in many African countries. Quite a number of Chinese have concerns over lack of safety and security, as the occurrence of waylaying, breaking and entering increases. In the Angolan capital Luanda, Chinese businesses are singled out as targets of robbery every now and then. Disrespect for the local laws and culture also boomerangs against Chinese business owners. Some Chinese employers often get into disputes with local employees, some of which can escalate into ethnic confrontations. The picture shows in Luanda, a Chinese business owner standing in front of her store talking over her phone, while a soldier stands behind her carrying a gun.
Despite being an economic backwater, African countries have inherited and incorporated at least part of the colonial legal systems into their own. Africans also have a deep awareness of defending their legal rights. In Africa, labor unions and strikes are protected by law from strikebreaking or obstruction on the part of employers. When workers are on strike, dismissal, payroll deduction and similar punitive measures taken by employers are prohibited, and violation can lead to severe legal punishment. Therefore, Chinese business practices are often met with strong opposition. In March 2011, over 600 workers at a copper smelter owned by China Nonferrous Metals Corporation in Chambishi, Zambia went on strike after rejecting a 12% wage increase offered by the management recently and asked for a minimum of 50% pay raise. The picture shows a 23-year-old Chinese supervisor and Zambian workers at the smelter site.
Chinese workers and merchants usually deal with Chinese only and do not come into contact with locals unless necessary. Most Chinese in Africa can speak pidgin English or French just enough for selling products. Chinese seldom marry out either. The picture shows Chen Tinghui, a 48-year-old Chinese merchant eating his lunch, his wife looking at him.
Chinese way of life is being replicated and introduced in Africa by Chinese workers and merchants. Africans do not often grow vegetables. Chinese then carve out land as vegetable plots. Consumption of duck or dog meat is unheard of in some places. Chinese put these animals on dinner tables anyway. Senegalese writer Adama Gaye, author of China-Africa: The Dragon and the Ostrich, wrote in his book what he has seen over the years: Chinese do not mingle with locals; their pattern of life in Africa is quite apartheid-style. The picture shows in Zambia, a Chinese woman waters a vegetable garden next to a plant with a Zambian worker.
Like Chinese expats elsewhere, Chinese in Africa experience boredom and homesickness every day. One merchant said, “Money is easier to make here. But there is no karaoke house.” The picture shows employees at a Chinese-owned company in Zambia playing mahjong.
Despite having to cope with problems such as language barrier, harsh living conditions, cultural conflict, separation from their family, cohorts of Chinese set foot on Africa by any means necessary each year. For those who are trying their luck in this gold rush, the dire need for money and better life trumps everything.