“They told us to love the Chinese and ‘look East’ for solutions” – Stories of China in Africa

As we looked at yesterday, China may not be as welcomed in Africa as some authors might argue. My friends told me a few stories after reflecting on our first discussion that I thought should be shared, but didn’t quite fit into yesterday’s post.*

Friend from Zambia

You know, it’s probably not fair to think that the Chinese are only bad for Zambia. If they weren’t there many of the mines would have closed. Any job is better than no job. The people working in the mines just consider how much better things were for them when the mines were operated by the gov’t, rather than thinking about what it would be like without any job at all. If we were rational we’d probably be thankful, but we aren’t.

We have a law that the bosses of the mines should be down in the shafts with the workers (this is supposed to improve safety), but when one of the mines collapsed it was only dead Zambians, the Chinese bosses didn’t even get dust on them. This happens in China too, but its not acceptable for them to do business in Zambia like they do in China. Were trying to get rid of corruption in my country, but it seems even more difficult when foreign companies refuse to obey the laws.

Friend from Zimbabwe

I remember when our economy collapsed after Mugabe took the land from the white farmers and gave it away. We didn’t call it land re-distribution, we called it something like “cleaning up.” After that with the sanctions and the departure of foreign companies, it was like things got worse every day. We had to start lining up for bread at midnight, and it seemed like every few weeks they were having to cut another string of zeroes from our money. It was a mess.

Then the Chinese came to invest, and things stopped getting worse. The government told us at that time to love the Chinese, and to “look East” for solutions to our problems. We didn’t like them though. Around that time, the government started cutting off all of the other voices in the media, so people started buying satellite dishes so they could watch foreign news and dramas. The government was then going to make these dishes illegal, and it was like we were becoming China.

When the Chinese companies came, they always brought a lot of their own workers, and so the government gave them some land in our low-density neighborhoods for housing. A few months later they had built a high-rise apartment building in the middle of this suburb. In that area people had walls around their home for privacy, but with this new building there was no more privacy.

Friend from Ghana

Even though it’s been decades since the colonialists left, our governments still have a colonial mind set when it comes to our economies. We export resources to foreign companies instead of refining them. This limits employment, and keeps us from realizing the full value of our resources. It’s not that China is colonizing us, but that they encourage us to keep the same frame of mind.  Our leaders our interested in the easy gains, but one day our minerals and oil will run out and then what will we do?


These stories highlight an important lesson that most world powers forget – just because you’re doing something that grows GDP doesn’t mean that you will be liked for it (ask a Tibetan, Uighur, Afghan…). China is helping to develop Africa’s economy, but many Africans want to see improvements in their governments. In my friends’ view it seems that their government officials are getting richer while their own needs go unmet. Like most foreign based projects, China is offering what it has available instead of what the locals are asking for, and these two forces create tension and opposition.

*These are paraphrases, not word for word, but the speakers have reviewed them to make sure I captured their thoughts.

5 responses to ““They told us to love the Chinese and ‘look East’ for solutions” – Stories of China in Africa”

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  2. Tseng Kin-Wah says:

    I wish your 3 friends grow up a bit. Their complaints (more like whining) seems absurdly childish. How can they expect China to interfere with the internal affairs of their country to improve their leader’s governance? The kick back from Africa & the World would be disastrous & unimaginable. We Chinese say that to improve economically, first build a road. Can they tell me how much better or worse, their country’s infrastructures (that China helped build) have benefited or harmed their country? And finally, I’d suggest they follow their ideals – stop hibernating uselessly in the country they so detest & help their own nation by pursuing their dreams in America or Europe – the bastion of hope & democracy & aid, which I am sure they are deeply indebted to for making Africa so wonderful in the last 50 years.

    • Tom says:

      I think you are absolutely correct, it would be “childish” of them to think China had any interest in improving governance in their country. I think though you missed the point of the article- if China tells Africa how it should develop, instead of listening to Africans, how does that make China any different from the West?
      It’s funny that you mention roads, as one friend described the road China had built a few years ago is now crumbling, and the gov’t has yet to repair it. Because their gov’ts rely on China and the US instead of their own people, they just wait for another country to fix their problems.
      My friends doubt that anyone but Africans have Africa’s interests at heart and think they’d be better off without interference from either direction.

  3. Hua Qiao says:

    Frankly, i do not understand Moya’s thoughts on China. Her thesis is essentially Malthusian in that, as economies develop, commodity supplies will be stressed bringing national rivalry and ultimately war. Fair enough. She says the Chinese are smart enough to realize this. Thus, the interest of China in Africa. All this is reasonably insightful. But then she goes on to assert that the Chinese are pure of heart and can be trusted merely because they say they have no war like intentions? Oh my dear! Let me pick you up and put you back on the turnip truck!
    What about claiming the rocks less than 100 kilometers from the phillipines on the basis of a hand drawn map back in 1947 (ironically drawn by the Koumintang) when the world was distracted by post war borders? How about damming the principal river flowing into India or into Cambodia? What about the massive build up in the military? Am i missing something? Do business with them. But, just like you wouldN’t trust the americans or the russians or the germans don’t take the Chinese word at face value. Just ask their own citizens. Have ‘xin yan’ as yaxue says.

    • Tseng Kin-Wah says:

      As regards the little rock 100 km from the Philippines: China’s position is merely that it has as valid a claim as anybody else – as is borne out by written records. One has start from somewhere in history, preferably dated written records. Otherwise, any treaties would equally not be worth the paper they are written on.

      Damming of the principal river flowing into India: That would be the Brahmaputra River? If China did that, a nuclear war would have started between the 2 giants. You see any?

      Military build-up: If you have the Americans pivoting back to Asia & lining up an arc of countries from Japan to India against you, you’d beef up your military too.

      Credibility: America is the only country that is at war for most of its history – still is & looking for new ones like China. You see China in any drone attacks across international borders killing with arrogant impunity, men, women & children?

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