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TRANSLATION: In Africa, the Chinese Are Scapegoats

Kenyan traders demonstrate in Nairobi on February 28, 2023 carrying placards bearing messages of protest against what they call an unfair business advantage for Chinese nationals in the country engaging in import, manufacture and distribution of goods. Tony KARUMBA / AFP

The following is a translation of a post by popular Africa-based WeChat content creator Nie Shaorui 聂少锐. The original post can be read in Chinese on his WeChat page at 小聂说事儿. This article has been edited lightly for clarity.

When an African country is slandered or is the victim of false accusations, those smears also extend to that country’s people. It’s the same for China. When all those narratives about the “China Threat,” neo-colonialism, and the Chinese debt crisis dominate the African discourse, our voices are often absent, leaving us to passively endure these attacks. If you can imagine the toll this takes on our country, then it’s even worse for individual citizens who often bear the burden in their daily lives.

Despite the significant contributions that China has made in Africa, positive media coverage is scarce, while our mistakes are quickly highlighted on the front page. Over time, a severe imbalance has emerged between China’s contributions and its reputation. This allows for China and Chinese people to become easy scapegoats for Africans to divert attention from their own domestic conflicts.

The case of the recent controversy over the China Square shopping mall in Nairobi is an excellent example. Even after Trade Cabinet Secretary Moses Kuria failed to shut the mall down, the issue remains far from resolved. Kenyan traders initiated civil lawsuits against more than 40 Chinese companies and individuals as part of their effort to shutter the mall. In my twelve years in East Africa, this is the first time I have known such direct civil litigation targeting Chinese individuals by the local community. The plaintiffs’ demands include preventing the defendants from engaging in retail and import trade, investigating the defendants’ immigration status and work permits, prohibiting the Chinese Chamber of Commerce from assisting the defendants, and protecting the interests of local small enterprises.

In Africa, you hardly hear about any Europeans or Americans becoming defendants, or even not the case for Indians or Pakistanis. It has become a widely held belief in African society that these individuals should not be trifled with, whereas Chinese people are seen as easy targets.

The African countries mainly follow the common law system inherited from colonial times. This civil litigation resembles public interest litigation as it necessitates evidence of infringement to support the plaintiffs’ claim that their rights have been violated. The burden of proof lies with the party making the claim. The plaintiffs must demonstrate that their rights have been infringed, such as a decline in their business or profits resulting from the defendant’s actions. This is challenging to prove, given the multitude of factors contributing to poor business performance and declining profits.

In fact, the economic downturn in Kenya primarily resides within the country itself, such as internal party disputes, internal conflicts, corruption, and inefficiency that lead to a decline in domestic demand and weakened consumer confidence, rather than the competition from foreign players. In some ways, Kenyan stakeholders are making the Chinese the scapegoats to shift their domestic tensions.

In Africa, we need to get used to being defendants. Almost every Chinese who has resided in Africa for more than five years has encountered situations that require court appearances, whether it be traffic violations, contract disputes, or tax issues. Litigation is a prevalent means of settling disputes in Africa which is different from our inclination to resolve conflicts amicably. Going to court is as normal as going to a supermarket. This is why lawyers in the common law system earn a good income and hold a respected social status, as seeking legal counsel is as commonplace as seeking medical attention.

We need to abandon our inherent mindset of “spending money to resolve problems” (“花钱消灾”) and adapt to local customs. It is crucial to utilize the law as a means to protect our legitimate rights and interests. It’s a matter of standing up to challenges and finding solutions when faced with difficulties. We should unite, actively respond to legal proceedings, and must not ignore them. In a foreign land, failing to participate in a trial could only result in significant losses, particularly in cases that garner widespread attention in society. In private litigation, diplomatic mediation proves ineffective, leaving active litigation as the only viable course of action. Moreover, this battle sets the precedent, and should we lose, the situation for future Chinese individuals will become even more arduous, as every industry will face the risk of local competitors imitating their actions based on such precedents. This is common knowledge in case law.

Living and working in Africa, we often find ourselves in situations where we may end up being defendants. These situations typically involve immigration and labor departments, tax bureaus, contract disputes, and infringement litigation. Hence, it is crucial to address certain key aspects.

  • Firstly, we must ensure our legal status is in order.
  • Secondly, we should handle taxes prudently and reasonably.
  • Thirdly, conducting business with integrity is paramount.
  • Lastly, we must avoid infringing upon the interests of others.

In contract disputes, particular attention should be given to employment and labor agreements. When hiring local employees, it is essential to establish a clear and comprehensive contract that covers important details such as medical benefits, insurance, and personal income tax. Adhering strictly to the terms outlined in the contract is crucial. Any issues with the employment contract often lead to lawsuits filed by local individuals. Regarding criminal cases, the situation is similar to that in China. Due to the significant number of Chinese individuals in Africa and the varying quality of individuals, there are even more criminal cases involving Chinese nationals.

To be honest, I frequently encounter situations where I am stopped by police in Africa all the time. I’ve got used to paying [bribes] to get out of these situations. When I was younger, I used to insist on going through the legal process, However, the outcome remained the same but it consumed a significant amount of money and time. Consequently, I stopped pursuing legal action, a choice that is commonly adopted by most Chinese individuals, which leads to a situation that African police find it easier to target Chinese, as we tend to give in. In Africa, you hardly hear about any Europeans or Americans becoming defendants, or even not the case for Indians or Pakistanis. It has become a widely held belief in African society that these individuals should not be trifled with, whereas Chinese people are seen as easy targets.

Ultimately, our country is not yet powerful enough, and we still lack influence in Africa. We face various forces suppressing and defaming us. Of course, it demonstrates that we are on an uphill path, a national rejuvenation (民族复兴之路). There is still much work to be done. It is crucial for authorities to enhance their publicity and adopt the right attitude, rather than constantly seeking to appease others. Effective communication and dialogue are essential. Chinese media organizations stationed in Africa should fulfill their role by amplifying our perspectives and opinions. Chinese individuals in Africa should strive to improve their own capabilities and adapt to local laws and customs.

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