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China-Africa Trade: The Oriental Allure


China Africa Competitor
Chinese companies and Chinese nationals have been pouring into Africa

“In Senegal (a former French colony) you come across people who have never left the country but could talk to you about France as though they are living there. There is also a French influence on some of their behavior.”

Angelo Izama believes that it would be impossible and too much to expect for Africa to make some sudden shift from West to East.

The 39-year-old Uganda-based journalist, who was speaking outside one of Kampala’s most fashionable restaurants in the Kisimenti district, says such a move, if it is going to take place at all, could take a century.

“The software of the state of much of Africa is Anglo-American now. I think China’s structural inroads are through trade and not culture. There may be a shift eastwards but it going to take 100 years,” he says.

Someone who is trying to promote more of an interest in China within Africa is Victoria Sekitoleko.

A former Ugandan minister of agriculture, who spent five years in Beijing as a United Nations representative, now runs the Uganda China Culture Center in Kampala.

It houses a library with books about China and is a point of contact for young Ugandans wanting to study at Chinese universities.

“I would say many Ugandans know very little about China,” Sekitoleko says. “The most informed people are obviously the diplomatic community and then the traders but they tend to know only Guangzhou (the southern Chinese city that has become a center for African traders).”

“A number of young Ugandans who have shown interest in going to Chinese universities have come to our cultural center. It is more difficult for them to go than to the UK, for example, since most of their websites are still in Chinese. We have been able to help them with applications, however.”

Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo is convinced a fundamental shift is already taking place whether Africans themselves realize it or not.

The author of Winner Take All: China’s Race for Resources and What It Means for the World, who was speaking on the 19th floor business lounge of the Cape Westin Hotel in Cape Town, says you only have to go to the airport.

“Just today, see how many flights there are from South Africa to Asia. You can fly almost anywhere. There are at least four cites in Africa you can easily do direct flights to Beijing, Taipei or Hong Kong.

“Just look at the number of African and South American leaders who now go to Beijing rather than Europe or the United States. It is not rocket science. They have the money and capability to invest and this is affecting all aspects of life in Africa.”

In Accra, Kwaku Atuahene-Gima, executive director of the CEIBS (China Europe International Business School) Africa Programme, says the interest that many Africans have in China is not cultural. Rather, they see it as a business role model.

Shanghai-based CEIBS set up the first Chinese-run business school in Africa in 2009 and has had a number of successful local MBA graduates.

“Most of our students have joined this program because they want to know why China has developed so fast and why they are so good at business,” Atuahene-Gima says.

“They want to know why Chinese companies can compete so successfully against Western companies, which seem to have all the advantages in terms of strength in both technology and marketing. These are the things they want to learn and apply them to their own businesses, so we use a lot of Chinese case studies.”

Verhoeven at Oxford University says many young Africans are certainly ambitious to work for Chinese companies, despite, in his view, retaining a preference for Western culture.

“Lenovo and Huawei and also companies like Sinohydro are all good, credible companies to work for, and many young African do work for such companies now.

“Organizations like CCTV (China Central Television) have actively pursued recruiting local staff and they have invested heavily right across Africa.”

However, Sven Grimm, director of the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University, says there are some aspects about working for Chinese companies that remain unattractive to Africans.

“I think it is difficult to get on in a Chinese enterprise if you don’t speak Chinese. I think perhaps the biggest obstacle is the glass ceiling you hit where it is difficult to reach senior management if you are not Chinese,” he says.

In Johannesburg, Garth Shelton, professor of international relations at Witwatersrand University, says many young Africans are aware there is some kind of change happening on the continent by the sheer scale of Chinese activity.

However, he insists that this does not translate to them all wanting to suddenly become Eastern.

“Before the third year begins I always ask my students about their private assessment of China. They tend to say that we should maintain a balance between the East and the West and that we should definitely maintain our relationship with Europe and the United States but see China as an additional partner,” he says.

In Kampala, Izama, who is a fellow of the Open Society Foundation set up by billionaire investor George Soros and also a former Knight Fellow at Stanford University, believes the choice for Africans is unlikely to be East or West but having to adopt a position in a more multi-polar world.

“There are parts of Africa that are Arabized, and there are many outside cultural influences elsewhere. I think if you look at the long-term future, the world could be very different, and one has to question whether terms such as East or West will much matter by then.”


By: Anthony Sedzro


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