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The News Feed is a curated selection of the most important China-Africa news edited by CAP’s editors in Asia and Africa.

China in Africa: the BBC’s Annoying Interview of Liu Guijin

It’s not often that senior Chinese officials make themselves available for interviews with the international media, especially in English.  So when I first heard that ...

Rant: China Might Want to Consider Soft Power Too

By any measure China’s awe inspiring embrace of Africa is impressive.  Let’s put aside the staggering financial statistics on how many billions of dollars Beijing is spreading across the continent or even the scale of its natural resource haul.  Honestly, there is no comparison because no other country or countries come close to the breadth and depth of China’sengagement here.  While the Americans and Europeans meet in conferences and write report after report on the dismal political and humanitarian conditions in Africa, the Chinese are building deep roots here as part of a century-long investment.  From Algeria to Angola, tens of thousands of Chinese construction crews are laying the foundation of that investment with the building of countless roads, bridges, hospitals and other desperately needed infrastructure.  For that, there is widespread appreciation across many levels of society for Beijing’s ability to persevere where both national governments and international donors have largely failed.  Not far away, though, from those construction sites, problems are beginning to simmer that if go unchecked could severely compromise Beijing’s long term agenda in Africa.
China is not just bringing piles of cash and construction trucks to Africa, hundreds of thousands of immigrants are also making the long journey to resettle in cities like right here in Kinshasa.  These immigrants, like Mister Chen who we profiled earlier, are coming here in search of opportunity and to build a better life for their families.  They are opening businesses large and small in out of the way neighborhoods that largely go unseen by the casual observer.  In so many ways, the Chinese entrepreneurial enthusiasm is a welcome addition to poor and dysfunctional communities that essentially operate outside of the formal economy.  In short, the Chinese are bringing desperately needed jobs, goods and services.  Human culture being what it is though, there is also tremendous risk with how the Chinese ultimately assimilate with Congolese and other African cultures.  Initially, the arrival of those Chinese business were greeted either with indifference or welcomed as a positive addition to the community.  Now, however, the first rumblings of unease are beginning to emerge as some communities find the Chinese presence to be more problematic than they had initially thought.  This issue was most recently brought to light in Namibia where the growing competition from Chinese hair salon owners prompted the government to place an outright ban on Chinese ownership of these types of beauty parlors.  Separately, I am hearing more and more firsthand reports from Congolese who have friends and relatives working on Chinese construction projects who complain that Chinese foremen are becoming increasingly aggressive with their local employees.  It has been well documented that in countries such as Congo-Brazzaville, Angola and Algeria (source: China Safari, 2009) that many Chinese employers lack cultural sensitivity skills that would endear them to local populations.
To many Chinese, these so-called “soft skills” are meaningless.  The common retort from many Chinese business owners and project managers is that local workers complain because the Chinese work harder and demand more from their employees than do African companies.  The fact that local workers are complaining about working for low wages or not being paid at all just further reinforces that Chinese mindset.   In fact, the emotional standoff between Chinese merchants and their African critics is very similar to the same arguments made about cultural insensitivity by the Chinese in certain minority -populated provinces in China.  Now, let me be very clear here.  I do not have an opinion as to whether or not the popular sentiment held by the majority Han culture in China is correct or the views of minorities who feel their cultures are being paved over.  I will leave those questions to far more learned observers.  My point is that the debate is so similar.  The Han perspective emphasizes economic development as evidence by infrastructure construction.  Sentimentality for culture or religion is rarely a priority when measured against infrastructure development in economically deprived regions.
Considering the tremendous speed the Chinese are moving in Africa, particularly here in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there may good reason to allocate a small percentage of that investment to building cultural ties between the Chinese and their African hosts.  The Congolese, for example, seem overwhelmingly positive about the Chinese arrival.  They regard the Chinese initiatives with optimism and see their enthusiasm for Africa as welcome relief from the failed policies of the West.  That said, the DRC is an extremely volatile country where a spark can light a blaze in seconds.  If the Chinese are not carefully with their cultural investment, it could handicap their broader regional agenda.

The Chinese in Africa: Meet Mister Chen

Scan the headlines about the Chinese in Africa and the predominant theme focuses almost exclusively on the infrastructure-for-natural resource deals.  The Chinese are signing multi-billion dollar oil and mineral deals up and down the continent while spending a comparable fortune building desperately needed infrastructure in many of the least developed countries on earth.  Here in Kinshasa, evidence of China’s foreign and trade policies is everywhere.  New roads, hospitals, parliament buildings are all being built at record speeds by Chinese construction conglomerates.  Yet not far away from the heavy earth moving trucks and the billion dollar mineral deals, a separate, yet equally transformative revolution is underway.  Quietly, tens of thousands, possibly even  hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants are moving in to neighborhoods across Kinshasa and dozens of African cities.  While there is no reliable data available to estimate just how many emigres have come here, there is no doubt the Chinese population is rising quickly.
When I first heard that Kinshasa was now home to thousands of Chinese immigrants, I naturally assumed there would some sort of “Chinatown” with a population cluster just as there is in Paris, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires and even Asian cities like Kuala Lumpur.  It just made sense that the first wave of Chinese arrivals would huddle together as immigrants have done the world over for generations.  ”So where is the Chinese community?” I asked a several of our local staff.  Puzzled, they responded “what do you mean? There is no Chinese community here, they live with us.”  Time and again I received the same answer.  The Chinese immigrants in Kinshasa are skipping an entire phase of assimilation by moving directly to the sprawling neighborhoods and shantytowns that is home to the capital’s 8-10 million residents.  By any standard, this is a remarkable phenomenon as there are few more seemingly divergent cultures than Chinese and Congolese.  Yet despite overwhelming differences in language, race and culture, the Chinese are adapting in ways that Westerners could never begin to imagine.
Mister-Chen1ctpMister Chen is one of those thousands of new arrivals to Kinshasa.  He and his family moved from China’s southern Fuzhou province three years ago to come to Africa.  When he first learned of the opportunity to come to the DRC he admitted that he knew nothing about the country as was made clear by their decision to settle in the eastern Congolese city of Kivu.  Traveling over land from the Rwandan capital of Kigali, they arrived in Kivu unaware that it is the epicenter of Congo’s violent 10-year war.  Hundreds of thousands of people, possibly millions, have died in the region surrounding Kivu and after three weeks he packed up his family to move west across the country to the relative safety of Kinshasa.  Upon arrival here he was introduced to a “Chinese association” that would provide him the logistical and financial support for him to open a small shop in one of Kinshasa’s vast, densely populated neighborhoods.  These associations are critical to understanding the success of the Chinese, both here in Kinshasa and the world over.  Just as Chinese immigrant associations in San Francisco and New York, the Chinese associations in the DRC provide what is essentially a micro-loan to new immigrants and the necessary logistical support to open a small business.  The association handles the legal paperwork, ensures the necessary bribes are paid to relevant neighborhood police and government authorities; connects the shop owner with a distribution network of Chinese importers to supply their business.  Mister Chen said he arrived from China with “only a few dollars” but was able to get his start through the help of the association.  In turn, as his business develops, he re-pays the association back in small increments until the loan is fully paid.  The association also plays another critical role that insulates the shop owner from the volatility of daily life in Kinshasa.  When the police or some other government authority comes to his store for bribes or extortion, he simply calls the association who then quickly respond to handle the situation.  This rapid response and protection from the association is an immensely important aspect of the Chinese entrepreneurial success here as it offers a level of reliability largely unavailable in a society as unstable as Kinshasa.
Mister Chen’s store has the feel of an inner-city American liquor store where all of the products are on display behind a think glass window.  He largely sellsMister-Chen2ctp cheap, low quality Chinese-made knick-knacks that range from one-dollar headphones to shoes to plastic tableware.  Although business in his 1,500 square foot (estimate) shop was brisk during my 45-minute mid-day visit, not once did I see him sell a single product.  Instead, locals would approach the counter, throw down a $20 or $50 US bill and he or one of his local staff members would hurl a wad of Congolese francs and dollars back at the customer.   In addition to selling low-cost Chinese imports, shop owners like Mister Chen have also established themselves as among the most reliable money changers in the city.  ”I trust the Chinese more than I do Congolese,” one customer explained when I asked why he changed his money with Mister Chen and not at one of the countless money changers on the street.  ”They give us a fair price and don’t cheat us.”  By selling low-cost products along with doing a brisk currency trading business, Mister Chen said he is able to squeeze out a small profit.  ”It’s not a lot because the Congolese are very poor but I earn more here than what I was making back in Fuzhou,” he said.
When you consider the hundreds of billions of dollars Western governments and NGOs have spent in Africa to help build civil society programs none seem anywhere near as effective as what Mister Chen is doing.  His small business is simultaneously providing jobs, goods and services that are vital in a region desperate for this kind of economic activity.   Mister Chen does not think of his business as anything other than a means to earn a meager living.  What he may not realize is that what he and his family are doing is part of a larger, more powerful trend that will re-shape Africa in a far more profound way than any of the roads and hospitals Beijing is building here.

The West’s Tragic Blindspot in Africa

I have been living in Kinshasa for almost three weeks now and since I landed here I’ve been asked countless times what I find the most interesting/bizarre/unusual about life in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For me, the answer is clear. It’s not the vibrancy of Congolese culture, how incredibly warm most people are, or even the tragedy of the endemic poverty that defines life here for so many. No, the biggest surprise so far comes from the attitudes of the many American aid and development personnel I have met. These are the people who work in both the large multinational relief organizations or in the development sector of the US government itself. Pretty much, anytime you socialize with these folks the conversations almost always centers on who is more dysfunctional: Congolese society or their employers at the major NGO/government agencies. Beer after beer goes down while they detail the overwhelming bureaucratic challenges they confront each day just to do their jobs. They complain passionately how their management rarely cares if anything actually gets done just whether or not reports are written and rules are followed.
So it’s in this context that I raise the issue that I consider to be the proverbial elephant in the room. If you accept that a global battle of ideas is currently underway among three competing ideologies: religious extremism (the Middle East, North Africa, the Persian Gulf and arguably even in the United States itself), the so-called Western democracy agenda promoted by the U.S. and Europe and then what’s referred to as the “Beijing Consensus.” This “Beijing Consensus” at its core is an ideology modeled after China’s own 30-year economic success that emphasizes social/economic issues over civil/political rights. China is exporting that philosophy across the developing world, especially in Africa, where governments are being lured with billions of dollars in low interest loans, debt forgiveness and massive infrastructure projects in exchange for access to natural resources. The Chinese bring to Africa their own development experience from working in comparably disadvantaged environments. Specifically, the Chinese have developed low-water agricultural expertise, enhanced irrigation techniques and an unrivaled efficiency for building infrastructure projects. Yet none of this — and I mean NONE — matters to the Western development staff that I have met so far.
The Chinese, in their minds, are “communist dictators” who don’t value “democracy” and “transparency.” Just like that, the conversation ends. They have no patience to talk about anything the Chinese are doing other than fueling corruption, importing poorly made products and exporting dictatorship. What I find so interesting about these discussions with supposed “professional development specialists” is how remarkably unsophisticated they are about alternative models from non-Western countries. There is a confidence in the American/Western method that borders on evangelical.
The real tragedy here is that none of what I am observing here in the DRC among Western aid officials is new. Experts having been sounding the alarm over this blind spot for years. Prominent Sino-African relations scholar Professor Deborah Brautigam raised the issue in 1998 when she too singled out western aid agencies for their nativism. “Ignorance about China’s development aid program [in Africa] is even more complete among development analysts,” she wrote. Professor Brautigam explains some of the reasons for this ignorance, attributing it to the language barrier, China’s former diplomatic isolation and “the Chinese work style which emphasizes productive labor over report writing” (source: Deborah Brautigam, Chinese Aid and African Development, 1998).
While the Western development agencies bury themselves in reports, spreadsheets and analysis, the Chinese are out there seven days a week building roads, dams, bridges, hospitals and more. Simply put, traditional Chinese pragmatism is getting things done while the Western model dithers and dithers and dithers with endless paperwork. After dozens of conversations with Congolese on this subject, it is abundantly clear that either the Western development officials either don’t see or don’t care that they are in fact losing the ideological battle for hearts and minds. The Congolese can see firsthand the immediate impact of Chinese development. They can feel it, touch it and understand it. The same cannot be said for American and European aid where the complex world of spreadsheets, templates and development models is lost on the very people they are trying to help.
The Chinese live in a practical world, a world the Congolese can identify with. Westerners may have once been as pragmatic and practical, but no more. The mere fact that these aid officials can’t even discuss it illustrates how serious the problem is.

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