AFRICANGLOBE – Some 6,000 miles away from his home in China, Robin Wei awakes on a cot beneath a white mosquito net. He gets dressed, opens the door of his bunker, and walks out into the rainy season toward the factory where he works.
Four years ago, Mr. Wei bade goodbye to his wife and daughter in Shanghai and boarded a flight to the heart of Congo’s mineral belt. He lives and works at a Chinese-owned smelting plant that extracts copper from the rich ore, which is then sold for wire and pipes that go into building skyscrapers and cargo ships.
Congo also holds nearly half the world’s known reserves of cobalt. It has vast reserves of high-grade copper, tantalum, and tin. Just 10 years ago, a ton of copper could fetch $1,700 on the world market. Today it goes for about $8,000.
Wei is one of hundreds of thousands of Chinese men and women – as many as 1 million by some estimates – who, at least for now, call Africa home. (Wei goes home to visit his wife and daughter once a year.) China has been investing heavily in Africa for more than a decade, and both China and its migrants are in what could be called a settling-in period as the story of a fast-growing Africa and a rising China unfolds.
Congo is increasingly influenced by the penetration of all things Chinese, and that in turn is bringing high hopes for development.
But it is also raising wariness here that Africa’s new benefactor may sometimes be driven by the same self-interested motives as the Western nations that preceded it in the colonial and postcolonial periods.
Like most Chinese here, Wei lives a separate life, socializing exclusively with his Chinese co-workers except for an occasional foray down the street to buy groceries and exchange pleasantries with a Congolese street vendor.
Yet to the Congolese, the Chinese have increasingly become a necessary part of everyday life. To buy a cellphone, people go to Chinese electronics shops that offer knock-off Blackberry models at a third of the market price. When people want to enjoy a soccer game, they take a seat in the bleachers at Kinshasa’s “Martyrs Stadium,” a gift from China in 1993. A drive through downtown Kinshasa runs along a grand central boulevard, newly widened and repaved by a Chinese construction company.
Down the road from Wei’s copper-smelting plant in the town of Lubumbashi, a Chinese doctor treats Congolese and Chinese patients with a combination of modern pharmaceuticals and ancient Chinese acupuncture. Grocery stores sell Chinese rice and sauces; there is even a Chinese casino.
Many Africans have welcomed Chinese migrants and their businesses. In a 2009 survey of 250 people in nine African countries, three-quarters said the Chinese way was a “very positive” or “somewhat positive” model of development.
Increasingly that Chinese model is defined by huge deals in which Chinese companies mine minerals or extract oil and build needed infrastructure for the African nation, often using Chinese skilled labor to do so.
The rising price of copper, for example, has prompted two Chinese state-owned companies to open the largest mine Congo has ever seen. In exchange for the rights to mine potentially billions of dollars’ worth of copper for more than two decades, these companies are spending $3 billion upfront to build roads, bridges, and hospitals in Congo.
The Chinese are replicating this minerals-for-infrastructure model in other African countries, notably Zimbabwe, Guinea, and Angola. In 2009, China surpassed the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner.
That China has moved 600 million people out of poverty over the past 35 years is a source of admiration for some African elites.
When asked in a different survey which model of development offers more promise for Africa’s future – the Western one, which tends to keep private business separate from infrastructure that is considered “aid,” or the Chinese model, which blends the two – Africans responded overwhelmingly with the latter. Many see China as more welcoming than the US. Twice a week, a line forms outside the Chinese Embassy in Kinshasa as Congolese students and businessmen arrive to apply for visas to work or study in China. They say it’s far easier to get a visa to go there than to the US.
As relations deepen, however, a wider rift is opening between Chinese and Congolese at the workplace. Congo’s leaders laud Chinese investors for creating jobs. But some here note that large Chinese companies often employ Chinese workers to do jobs that could easily be done by Congolese. Even Congolese who do get hired by Chinese companies may find their high expectations dashed.
On a rainy morning in Kinshasa, a group of Congolese men huddle under the overhang of a tin roof. The men are employed by the China Railway Engineering Corp. (CREC), a large construction company that is widening and paving the road that connects Kinshasa’s airport to its downtown.
The men have been hired to dig trenches, direct traffic, and carry supplies, for which they earn $65 per month, just slightly above the minimum wage here.
The workers say they hardly interact at all with their Chinese managers. They eat and live separately from them. And they say most Chinese don’t learn the local languages, French and Lingala, making conversation impossible. The men dress in street clothes because CREC doesn’t provide them with uniforms.
“They don’t give us boots or helmets. We work like this,” says Maba Litile, pointing to the sandals he’s wearing. “We work really hard, but the money is too little. If I found another job, I’d leave.”
Far away on the outskirts of a mining town called Kolwezi, men, women, and often children spend their days digging with picks and shovels for bits of copper ore. Each week they push bicycles and wheelbarrows laden with bags of those rocks to sell to the Chinese.