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“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.

Beijing, a Boon for Africa? – A discussion with Africans in China about China in Africa

I recently read Dambisa Moyo’s NYT op-ed “Beijing, a Boon for Africa.” After wrestling with a few questions that came up for me in the piece, I realized that this was a topic far beyond me and decided to ask my African friends here in China what they thought. The three men I chatted with come from Zambia (the same as Moyo), Zimbabwe, and Ghana. Even though they are not scholars like Moyo, their opinions reflect another valid view of how China is being perceived in their countries. Since they currently live in China, they prefered to remain anonymous.

Do Africans really like China more than the U.S.?

This question was met with chuckles from my Zambian and Zimbabwean friend (I didn’t get an answer from the Ghanaian). I was promptly reminded that Zambia had just elected a president who had been explicitly anti-Chinese during his campaign, and that many people had been disappointed when he failed to drive out the Chinese like he had promised. My friend suspected that perhaps corruption was a part of why President Sata had backed down. He found it telling that Moyo had chosen to ignore this in her article.

My friend from Zimbabwe was a little less diplomatic when he said, “We all hate the Chinese.” He didn’t mean the Chinese people, but what China’s influence was doing to his country. It is no secret that the Chinese gov’t has helped prop up Mugabe, and that their support for this dictator has limited Zimbabwe’s shift toward democracy, something my friend looked forward to.

All three of my friends were surprised to learn that Pew research showed that China was being viewed as a more favorable partner than the U.S. As Moyo argues in her article:

“Moreover, the evidence does not support a claim that Africans themselves feel exploited. To the contrary, China’s role is broadly welcomed across the continent. A 2007 Pew Research Center survey of 10 sub-Saharan African countries found that Africans overwhelmingly viewed Chinese economic growth as beneficial. In virtually all countries surveyed, China’s involvement was viewed in a much more positive light than America’s; in Senegal, 86 percent said China’s role in their country helped make things better, compared with 56 percent who felt that way about America’s role. In Kenya, 91 percent of respondents said they believed China’s influence was positive, versus only 74 percent for the United States.”

However, when one looks at the more recent 2011 survey on the same issues*, one sees that Kenyans’ views of China in their continent have become increasingly negative in the last few years. The 91% of Kenyans that thought China’s economic growth was good for them had fallen 6% to 85%. More importantly, China’s favorability in Kenya had fallen from 81% to 71%. Moyo also failed to mention that in the 2008 survey 51% of South Africans held an unfavorable view of China, even though it was a major recipient of Chinese investment. Unfortunately Pew had not done surveys in the countries where my friends are from.

What challenges are facing your country?

The response from my friends was corruption. Which Moyo identifies as one of the problematic side effects of foreign aid. Or in her own words,

“China’s critics ignore the root cause of why many African leaders are corrupt and unaccountable to their populations. For decades, many African governments have abdicated their responsibilities at home in return for the vast sums of money they receive from courting international donors and catering to them. Even well-intentioned aid undermines accountability. Aid severs the link between Africans and their governments, because citizens generally have no say in how the aid dollars are spent and governments too often respond to the needs of donors, rather than those of their citizens.”

My friends largely agreed with the idea that financial aid has been harmful in many instances, and in many ways wasn’t what their country needed. At the same time, they didn’t see how China’s massive foreign investments in their countries helped in any way to overcome the problem of gov’ts not being responsible to their own people. My friend from Zimbabwe said that it seemed to him that China had bought so much influence in his country that the citizens were now of secondary importance to the gov’t. He added, “It’s like we have become slaves again. We have resources, but still don’t benefit from them.”

My Zambian friend added that even though corruption was still a major problem in his country, with a fairly stable democracy they will be able to confront this issue. To him democracy was a far more important requirement for reducing corruption than a local tax base, after all, a dictator has no responsibility to their people. “In Zambia we can now openly criticize our gov’t, and I think we are moving slowly toward transparency,” he said.

Is China helping solve this problem?

None of them agreed with Moyo’s claim that “China’s motives for investing in Africa are actually quite pure.” My friend from Ghana wrote, “Africans are wiser now, even though some leaders are fools, so they can’t exploit us like those (colonial) days.” He also said, ” I think no nation would aid any other nation all in the name of friendship, and I still believe that no nation would even invest in Africa even with the mind of mutual benefit. they are all wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

My friend from Zimbabwe added that many African leaders still value the legacy of building massive projects and amassing wealth over making a meaningful difference in people’s lives. In his view China helps fund these egotistical projects, and contributes to irresponsible governance.

My Zambian friend added that what Africa needs from foreign countries is assistance with developing good governance, and he didn’t see China helping with this. “The Chinese companies come in to build mines, but they ignore our safety laws, don’t pay minimum wage, and bribe officials.” He expressed that it was this kind of behavior that was hurting Africans most.

While Dambisa Moyo clearly has more authority and information to back up her claims, it was interesting to me that none of the African’s I discussed her article with agreed with her idea – “Beijing, a Boon for Africa”. As my Ghanaian friend concluded, “I think we just have to wait and see if indeed they have pure mind, with a sense of mutual beneficiaries with us like they claim. I would just advise our leaders to watch out because there is no such thing as free lunch.”

Continuing our look at China in Africa with more stories from these friends.

For a more informed view, I suggest reading Ghanaian economist, George Ayittey’s critique of Moyo’s first book, Dead Aid (half-way down the page).

*2007 was the most African focused year of the survey, I think this is why Moyo chose that year for data.

Everyone in America has guns – China is the safest country in the world

Yesterday we looked at how China can be rife with small crime, while still seeming safe to foreigners. Today we’ll be exploring a few of the ideas Chinese citizens hold about other countries, and why these views might be promoted by the state.

I’ve honestly lost track of how many times I’ve been told that everyone in America has a gun, and that I come from a very dangerous country. While the US does have the highest gun ownership in the world, that doesn’t actually effect my daily life in the way my students might think. My wife actually takes a little joy in responding to this with her students, her grandfather sells antique guns and in the past had a room full of them. Despite owning hundreds of guns in his life, he hasn’t fired one in at least four decades. She also enjoys watching their heads spin when she informs them that she owns two herself, and that the majority of guns in the US are used for hunting instead of robbing.

However the occasional story of a Chinese student getting mugged in the US at gunpoint sticks out strongly in the minds of young Chinese, but ignores the thousands that don’t write about the fact that they weren’t. This idea is so deeply ingrained that many students rejoice in getting accepted to study in Canada instead of the deadly US.

But America isn’t the only dangerous country according to my Chinese friends, so far I’ve been told that several dozen countries (and the entire continent of Africa) are all places that are best avoided. After the first reports of the London riots one co-worker asked if she should cancel her trip to Sheffield in October (I assured her they would be under control by then). I’ve also heard staff in the foreign affairs office remind travelers to stay in their hotel after work, and don’t go sightseeing without a group. Another friend mentioned that he’d visited Africa, but would never go back because “black people are very violent”. It’s a kind of fear and naivete that keeps people from heading abroad.

These rumors are in fact propagated by the gov’t in state media and textbooks. The negative experiences of the few who do travel spread across weibo quickly, and establish them as a typical experience to have abroad.

During the run up to the Shanghai World Expo, the commentators on CCTV repeated ad nauseam that it was better to explore other cultures at the Expo than traveling abroad because it was safer. It was something I heard again repeated from co-workers, until they actually visited the Expo and realized they could hardly see anything through the crowds.

The gov’t promotes these ideas for a few reasons. One strong reason would be that if every other country is plagued by violent crime, then Chinese people are relatively lucky to only have their pockets picked occasionally (see this comment on yesterday’s post). This is a milder version of the kind of propaganda North Korea uses, which tells citizens that even though they only get one proper meal each day, at least they aren’t as bad off as the Japanese who have to sell their organs just to get by (from Escaping North Korea).

Another reason is that traveling to foreign countries, especially Western ones, often bring up questions about China’s governance and policies. Ideas like: democracy, government oversight, a free press, and that some developing countries aren’t exactly thankful for China’s aid. Away from the guiding hand of state media and Chinese tour guides, these ideas take root in the mind of those who head abroad (You should read Evan Osnos’s incredible report on heading to Europe with a Chinese tour group).

I’ve seen this side-effect in conversations with co-workers and friends who have studied in the US and Australia, when they return they are shocked at how different these countries are from what they had learned. My friend said on returning from the States,

“In short, I have met the nicest people there. This trip showed me how civilized, generous and hospitable Americans are, for which I feel deeply grateful. It also proved most of my presumptions about the US were wrong, though I have learned the language and the culture for many years. Moreover the trip helped me realize how my country really is, with all the contrast against yours.”

Surely this is one reason that travel outside of tour groups makes the Party nervous. As long as they can keep people from wanting to look beyond their own borders, they can maintain control. For decades the average Chinese person was too poor to travel abroad, but as the economy grows, it will become increasingly difficult to keep Chinese citizens from exploring abroad, unless the Party can convince this generation that China is the safest country in the world.

Top China stories of the week 9/25 – 10/1

The top story this week was the Shanghai metro crash which I covered in a recent post. The accident reignited the debate about the speed with which China is building infrastructure. Adam Minter reflected on the greater meaning of the crash for Shanghai residents who have no choice but to commute to work on the subway in his piece “Shanghai rail commuters get onboard with a prayer“.

China also launched the first components of its new space station, which should be fully operational around the time the International Space Station is decommissioned. This great technological accomplishment coming on the heels of a needless crash creates an interesting contrast between technical achievements, and the ability to manage and maintain these systems.

The cost of development was also seen in the Air Quality Index numbers released this week by the WHO. Of the Chinese cities included in the report not a single one qualified for the label of “healthy”. Interestingly, many of the most polluted cities were in sparsely populated Western China, caused in part by coal mining and dust storms (partially caused by coal mining). Another report showed that China is set to overtake the US in per capita carbon emissions by 2017.

Bonus: Asia Society has an amazing video series about China’s environmental challenges and what is being done to address them  that is well worth your time.

Poorly built infrastructure was also one of the underlying themes of the other major development this week, governments are growing increasingly wary of Chinese projects in their countries-

Canada is pushing forward a lawsuit again Chinese SOE Sinopec for violating worker safety standards that left two Chinese workers dead in an oil sands project in Alberta. It has raised a number of questions about Chinese business practices in other countries when using Chinese laborers.

Myanmar (one of China’s closest regional allies) decided to stop the construction of a dam on the Irrawaddy. While China had pushed the project forward on grounds that it would help control flooding and provide electricity, activists argued that the environmental impact was too great to justify. Much of the dams power was going to be used in China.

In Zimbabwe (another very important ally), the gov’t banned the export of chrome by seven Chinese companies because they had failed to set up smelting plants within the country as they had promised. The companies asked for another 5 year grace period, but were denied out of fear that the extraction would be nearly complete by then.

Read more about China in Africa in my three part series on the subject (The goodthe bad and the Ugly)

The biggest event in foreign relations though happened in Zambia, where the people elected a vocally anti-China president. Despite China sending millions in “aid” to the country, concerns about Chinese business practices and penchant for tempting officials with bribes overruled the Party’s efforts. Within a few days of the election one Chinese mining company raised workers’ wages 85%, which might convince neighboring democracies that it’s time to get tough. Howard French from the Atlantic wrote a great piece on the subject titled, “In Africa, an Election Reveals Skepticism of Chinese Involvement.”

It’s a theme that I think is going to become an increasingly important topic, and the outcome will have huge impacts in how China rises.

Another Look at China in Africa

I stumbled across this short documentary about Chinese immigrants living in Senegal and thought some of you might enjoy another look at this topic. If you missed my 3-part series (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) on China’s Growing African Empire, I would suggest reading that along with this documentary.

I found that this film focused much more on the micro-economic effects of Chinese immigrants’ push into Africa, that was a piece missing from my own posts on the situation.

China’s Growing African Empire – The Ugly

Earlier this week I brought you the good and the bad that has come out of China’s role in Africa, today we are focusing on the truly ugly.

Violence and Abuse

A large portion of China’s investments in Africa have been targeted at the extraction of valuable metals. Over the past few years a number of disturbing reports have come out of several countries deploring Chinese mining practices.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chinese companies now own 60 of the 75 ore smelters in the Katanga region and 90% of the minerals go to China. The mines there are typical of Chinese mining operations throughout Africa, often employing child laborers, some as young as 13, to work in mines with no safety equipment, no ventilation, and hazardous supports. Hundreds of African miners have died working in Chinese run mines over the past 5 years.

In late 2010 Zambian workers began protesting the labor conditions at the Chinese mine where they worked. When the crowd began moving towards the Chinese bosses, the two bosses opened fire on the crowd with shotguns injuring 13. The two men were released on bail, and skipped their first trial date. They were later arrested, but have yet to be sentenced.

Despots and Dictators

It is widely known in the West that China has long been a supporter of Sudan’s government, and is its largest oil customer. China repeatedly blocked resolutions and sanctions against them, despite overwhelming evidence of the genocide taking place in Darfur. What is less well-known is that China was also supplying the ammunition used to attack UN Peacekeepers and civilians.

The loophole was that countries were not to sell weapons or ammunition to Sudan if they knew they were going to be used in acts of genocide. China simply claimed ignorance as it continued to supply the Sudanese army.

Meanwhile in China, stories of genocide were never reported. When talking with several students and teachers about Sudan and Darfur I was met with blank stares. They knew of Sudan only as an oil-producing country.

In Zimbabwe China has been vocal of its support of President Robert Mugabe, a man who was named the world’s worst dictator in 2009. President Mugabe has worked very hard to earn that title in the last few years, in November 2008 the country managed an annual inflation rate of 516,000,000,000,000,000,000% (26% inflation counts as hyperinflation, which is really bad). If you are having a hard time imagining this kind of inflation, after one week a $1 hamburger would be $32, and by the end of the month it would cost $1,048,576.

Earlier that year Mugabe had lost the first round of the presidential election, but before the second round he unleashed a wave of violence against the opposition’s supporters. During that precarious moment, after news reports had come out about the violence, a cargo ship from China carrying small arms destined for Zimbabwe was caught in South African customs. The ship was not unloaded in South Africa, but quietly headed onto Angola where the arms were unloaded and delivered to Zimbabwe. China never acknowledged this incident.

What was China’s reaction to all of this? In 2010 China threw Mugabe a birthday party in their Zimbabwean consulate and later inked a $10 billion deal for platinum there.


To me it seems that China’s goals in Africa are in no way living up to Zhou Enlai’s vision of China’s role in Africa. These projects seem to be purely out of China’s own interests and the few strings that are attached ensure that many African countries will remain under the control of despots and dictators for years to come.

For a glimpse of China in Africa I suggest taking a look at China International, a photo essay from