Chinese workers and traders in Africa

On the edge of Walvis Bay, a port town in Namibia sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and endless sand dunes, the offices-cum-residential-quarters of the China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) look like a barracks. Electrified barbed wire tops the surrounding wall. A Chinese manager explains that “we have military-style management.”

The grim complex, with its rows of single-storey tin-roof accommodation blocks, is home to several hundred Chinese workers. They are building a new container terminal in Walvis Bay and an oil-storage facility just outside the town. They are taken to and from the construction sites in company buses and must apply for permission to leave their barracks. “They have very little interaction with local society,” says the manager.

Across Africa, state-owned companies like CHEC are opening up new frontiers in China’s global economic expansion. They often recruit local workers. CHEC’s boss, Feng Yuanfei, says about half the staff at Walvis Bay are Namibians. Many locals are also employed at the Husab uranium mine, a vast opencast operation surrounded by desert and scrub about 70km (45 miles) north-east of Walvis Bay, which at around $5bn is one of China’s biggest investments in Africa. According to UNCTAD, a UN agency, the amount of Chinese investment in the continent nearly tripled between 2010 and 2015, to $35bn. McKinsey reckons there are thousands of Chinese businesses in Africa employing millions of locals.

But it is the rise in the number of Chinese people in Africa that is striking. Many are temporary residents employed by state-owned companies, like those working on the harbour in Walvis Bay. In recent years their number has ranged from 181,000 in 2011 to 264,000 in 2015. Far more numerous are the Chinese who have set off for Africa to set up their own businesses as shopkeepers, restaurateurs and traders.

In his book, “China’s Second Continent”, Howard French calls this influx “one of the most important and unpredictable factors in China’s relationship with Africa”. Numbers are hard to pin down, but writing in 2014 Mr French estimated that 1m had arrived in just a decade. The whole of Namibia has a population of only about 2.5m, scattered across an area more than twice the size of Germany. Mr French thought it might have the highest concentration of Chinese people in any African country. In his book he quoted common estimates of 40,000, but the number is now likely to be lower than that.

Chinese businesspeople across Namibia complain of an economic chill, and some are thinking of leaving. The country’s economy fell into recession last year. Unemployment is sky-high. Namibia’s own currency has suffered from global investors’ jitters about South Africa’s, to which it is pegged. This has made it more expensive for Chinese traders to import products from China for sale in Namibia.

But many Chinese doggedly carry on. Even remote towns have “China shops”, as locals call them: small stores filled with cheap, basic household goods made in China and run by Chinese. Locals may not have much cash to spare, but the prices are low and the shops are popular. The traders often employ locals to deal with customers, but on a recent weekday in Karibib (population about 5,000), 190km north-west of the capital, Windhoek, the Chinese owners of the town’s two China shops were on duty. Both were young men from the southern Chinese province of Fujian. Both were despondent. One of them used to do business on the Angolan border and says many of his colleagues there have left for other countries. “I hear Zimbabwe is good now,” he says wistfully. But he does not talk about returning to China. Many Chinese traders say their country may be thriving, but the competition there is vicious. Africa still holds promise.

Some Namibians wish the Chinese would go home, wondering how they ever established such a strong foothold in trades that should be dominated by locals. Local media ask why so many Chinese workers have been brought in to work on big construction projects, and why Chinese companies win so many contracts to build things—including government buildings. They also point to the harm the incomers cause to wildlife. China has been trying harder recently to help stop the slaughter of elephants in Namibia and elsewhere in Africa. Last year it banned the sale of ivory. But although the sale of rhino horn has long been illegal in China, the poaching of rhinos for sale to Chinese gangs continues.

Mutual antipathy

Beneath the surface, racial tensions simmer. “So tired of these foreigners coming to Namibia and ruining our beautiful country,” was one of the politer comments by locals on Facebook in response to a report in 2016 in Namib Times, a newspaper based in Walvis Bay, about the arrest of three Chinese people for alleged possession of live pangolins, an endangered species. Last July the paper reported on a protest by local workers who had failed to get jobs at CHEC’s projects in the area. This started a stream of xenophobic tirades on Facebook. “This is no longer Namibia, it’s China,” said one.

Conversely, Chinese people in Namibia often speak disparagingly of “blacks” (feizhouren, the Chinese for African, is online slang for a loser). The manager of a Chinese-owned factory in Walvis Bay is exasperated by endless protests and strikes by his local workforce. “They are so lazy. You give them more money and they still don’t work harder,” he says. “Where in China it takes three hours to do a job, here it takes 30.”

The mutual antipathy is not confined to Namibia. As Mr French observes, grumblings about the Chinese presence in Africa are rife among ordinary people, even as their governments encourage and support it. Phil ya Nangoloh, the head of NamRights, a human-rights group in Windhoek, accuses China of “looking for Lebensraum” and practising “neo-colonialism” in Africa. He notes rumours that the new harbour at Walvis Bay could one day become a base for China’s navy. The Chinese, he says, are “operating literally above the law”.

Similar mutterings about Chinese immigrants can be heard in Europe. By the European Union’s reckoning, in 2011 (when the most recent census was conducted) around 820,000 people born in China were living in the EU. That, notes the European Commission’s website, was 40% more than the number of EU residents born in America.

The Economist online, May 17th, 2018

 
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