Park Yoon Jung is a visiting scholar-in-residence at Howard University. Previously, she was senior researcher at the Centre for Sociological Studies at the University of Johannesburg, coordinating the Chinese in Africa/Africans in China (CA/AC) International Research Working Group. She is the author of A Matter of Honour: Being Chinese in South Africa.
Is China’s role in Africa mischaracterized here in the West?
I think generally the western media has shown, has demonstrated an anti China bias in a lot of the writing. I think it’s very focused on competition between the U.S. and China, with Africa being the playing ground. Quite frankly, when you talk to the experts that look at oil investments or any other investments, there really is no need for the setting up of black and white, win or loose situation; because Africa is at this stage so open and there are so many opportunities.
The U.S. doesn’t seem to have a problem if the British or Koreans or Malaysians are going in and investing, but it seems to have an ax to grind against China. So, yes in most of the literature in the media, there seems to be an anti China bias that’s coming out.
Who are the Chinese in Africa?
That’s something else that’s really problematic. I think there was a Time article called ‘China Inc.’ There is no such thing as China Inc. One of the first things I teach my students in the China-Africa course that I’ve just taught at Howard is that the actors who come from China are very multi faceted, so you do have the national government of China. But there are also provincial government coming in, there are state owned enterprises, there are large private sector enterprises that have varying degrees of control from Beijing.
But there are also increasing numbers of independent Chinese migrants coming into the country, and quite frankly most of them want nothing to do with the embassy. So there are these huge multitude of actors from China, and it’s hard to say that they have any singular intention or goals in Africa or anywhere that they go.
And what about the relationships between the African’s and Chinese on those various levels and scales from the multi national state owned corporation to the migrant worker?
Generally you see at the state level or the elite level, relationships tend to be quite good. Once you get below that, it really does depend. A lot of the articles I’ve seen in the past few weeks talk about African public frustration and anger over Chinese traders who are out competing them in business. It is true that in a number of cities and countries, that a lot of Chinese traders have come in with a vengeance. For example, I do research in Lesotho, and on the main streets most of the business is owned by the Chinese. A lot of Lesotho complain about the competition from the Chinese, but a lot of Lesotho there are making a profit renting their property to the Chinese, renting or selling their business and trading licenses. And the bottom line is that the Chinese are selling their goods more cheaply than their fellow countrymen were able to do, which is why the Chinese are able to succeed in their businesses.
Depending on where you go and who you talk to, the relations are really quite different. In South Africa there’s a long history of contact with the Chinese. The first Chinese arrived in South Africa in the mid 1800s in response to the discovery of gold. So there have been small numbers, but there have been Chinese in the country. So today, when there are increasing numbers of Chinese, I think there is some confusion and conflation of the Chinese South Africans, the Taiwanese, and the new Chinese migrants. But there’s no overall animosity toward the Chinese at all; I think it really depends on a case by case basis and most South Africans are willing to give the Chinese the benefit of the doubt.
The three countries that we conducted surveys in : Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Lesotho; Lesotho was the only country where there was significant anti Chinese sentiment. Both in Zimbabwe where we expected a lot, and in South Africa; anti Chinese sentiment was quite low. Zimbabwe was another interesting story that actually indicates to us that feelings towards the Chinese change over time. During the mid 2000s, at the beginning of the financial, economic, and political crisis in Zimbabwe; it was quite clear that there were growing tensions about the Chinese. If you look at media reporting from Zimbabwe, if you look at a lot of the blogs, there were lots of complaints about Chinese goods that are cheap and fake.
So there were all of these complaints about them. When we went to do research there in 2009 and 2010, all of that negativity was gone; apparently during the worst of the crisis the Chinese were the only ones that were able to get goods into the country, manufacture fake soup, make things like washcloths, and provide some daily necessities that were otherwise unavailable. So there was a tremendous appreciation for what the Chinese were able to do, for there work ethic, and just for providing some of the basic things that the government and private sector in Zimbabwe were not able to do during that crisis. By the time we got there and did these interviews, nobody had anything bad to say about the Chinese traders and the Chinese small manufacturers in the country.
Why is this making headlines all of a sudden?
I think part of this has to do with developments in China and China’s development. The laws, in terms of immigration, changed, allowing Chinese to travel overseas. There was also pressure on Chinese companies to go out, part of a strategy in China where they’re trying to send their state owned enterprises out to become globally competitive. Africa was, at the time, seen as a good opportunity where there wasn’t too much competition from the west, so they could go in and get some experience overseas and become more globally competitive. So there was a combination of factors that came to the floor, but I think the reaction from the public and from the media has to do with the pace of the growth, of China’s interests and China’s activities in Africa.
What are some of the businesses and industries of the private workers?
So in addition to extractive activities, the Chinese are engaged in infrastructure development, Chinese telecoms have been making headway in African countries. The Chinese are also giving aid and investing in education, healthcare and things. But it’s interesting because a lot of the Chinese business people, the independent migrants, are mostly going into retail trade and small manufacturing. So what’s interesting is in South Africa, what we’ve seen because the Chinese migration has been taking place for a little bit longer than most of the rest of Africa; you see a development and some transitions taking place. A lot of the Chinese that were originally in South Africa, some of them actually came in with Taiwanese textile industries, they had been employed as managers in some of those factories and they decided to go out on their own and invest in their own small factories.
A lot of the Chinese that did come out with state owned enterprises or the government also decided to stay beyond their two or three year contract and invested. So, for example, I have a good friend in Johannesburg who came out to South Africa about 15 years ago, she and her husband were working for one of the state owned enterprises and decided to stay. They invested in a gas station- that was their very first business. They did that for a couple of years, made a little bit of money and started two more businesses. One was importing corporate gifts and items with logos, another was a travel industry.
Those two companies are still going and they’ve become very successful and now this couple has become this dynamo couple in Johannesburg. One is working for Standard Bank, and the other is involved in a consortium with other Chinese investors. They are investing in property development and developing more of these wholesale big distribution centers, there are about a dozen of these in Johannesburg. So they have diversified; the way one of my colleagues describes it is making a first pot of gold and then investing it so you can earn more. So you see these transitions and they are a wide range of sectors.
What was the reaction of students in South Africa to the film we were just discussing?
We recently hosted a conference in Johannesburg on Chinese in Africa and Africans in China and as part of the public seminar that we hosted, we screened ‘When China Met Africa.’ There were a number of Africans; students, professors and researchers, who were in the audience, from the region as well as from South Africa and it was quite interesting. Most of the conversations I’ve had with educated Africans is really interesting. It’s not what you typically hear.
Most Africans who are educated are quite excited about having China interested in them, interested in their countries. China is seen as an option, as an alternative to their western powers, to the former colonialists. And so most of them are quite excited. One of the interesting things is oftentimes the question is framed in terms of the U.S.: Is China a competitor or a collaborator? And all types of scholars will come out and say that there are all types of potential opportunities for collaboration. When you ask the African’s they say that they don’t want collaboration; they like it when the U.S. and the EU are competing with other powers for their attentions, it’s as if Africa has suddenly become the most popular girl on the dance floor and all of these different partners want to sign on their dance card.
They like the attention, and for them it provides alternatives and it provides them leverage to negotiate better deals. Now whether or not those deals translate on the ground to greater economic growth and development and better distribution of the wealth to the people of that continent, that’s another question entirely. But for now China’s attention I think most for Africans is very welcome.