The Great China ‘Takeover’ Of Africa Is Greatly Exaggerated

Anti-China Platforms

People in Africa often say they like China because the country’s investors build roads, the needed predecessor to development and economic growth. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into winning hearts and minds, according to Payton, the Africa analyst.

“Chinese companies are generally far less concerned with respecting internationally recognized labor standards than their Western counterparts,” he says. “As a result, workforces and local communities in countries such as Zambia have become increasingly hostile to Chinese employers.”

This hostility feeds on itself when African governments use it to distract the public from their shortcomings, according to John Campbell, former US ambassador to Nigeria now at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Both Zambia and Malawi have elected presidents who ran on anti-China platforms.

“The tendency,” says Mr. Campbell, is “to blame the Chinese for certain domestic shortcomings, particularly about whatever government is in power.”

The main difference between Chinese investors and all the rest, according to Mathew Agabi, who works at a popular Indian-owned supermarket in Abuja, is that Chinese companies are known for importing their own workers, and that angers many Nigerians. Locals employed by Chinese companies also are expected to work what Nigerians call “slave hours.”

When Chinese companies don’t hire locals and teach them technical know-how, Mr. Agabi says, they leave behind a community of workers that can’t handle or maintain high-end operations. “South Korean companies don’t have those issues,” he says.

Chinese investors are not alone in angering Africans. Nigerians complain that most foreign companies may hire a majority of locals, but then give choice positions to expatriate workers. Nigerians particularly loathe Western clothing companies that prefer to open factories in Asia and overlook a massive pool of unemployed laborers in Africa. “They should build factories,” Agabi says.

Investment anxiety, however, targets China because it tends to be the least accessible culturally, according to Payton. Few Africans speak Mandarin, and many fear that Chinese investments allow African governments to evade demands for compliance with human rights standards.

“In the long term, there is a risk that anger at perceived Chinese exploitation could escalate into a perception that China’s political and economic clout enables it to exert a form of neocolonial domination over Africa,” he says.

On the other hand, he adds, China has championed poverty-alleviation programs at home and could serve as an example for policymakers in Africa.

“Chinese investment is not only providing Africa with new infrastructure and new sources of capital,” he says. “It is also altering the horizons of policymakers and driving a new confidence in the continent’s economic outlook.”

Back at The Clubhouse in Nigeria, manager Antoun says China may not be literally taking over Africa, but its presence is certainly palpable. A few years ago, Antoun says, he had one-fifth as many Chinese customers. Most of their work is in construction, he adds, and infrastructure draws other investors.

When his place opened about seven years ago, it had been a canteen for a construction company, without air conditioning, reliable electricity, or even a fan.

“There was nothing, from decoration to infrastructure,” he says.

Antoun is not concerned that Chinese investors will drive others out because the Chinese tend to keep to themselves and avoid businesses with a high public profile, he says. In Nigeria, he adds, foreign companies struggle more with dealing with the country’s chaotic business policies and poor infrastructure than competing with each other.

Hurdling those barriers, he says, is one thing Lebanese excel at. But he is sardonic about his reasons for working in Africa. The Nigerian economy is growing more than four times as fast as the Lebanese economy, according to the CIA World Factbook, and insecurity in the Middle East is making things worse. “We have to do something outside [Lebanon],” he says, lifting a single finger in the air, “because the chances in Lebanon are between zero and one.”


By: Heather Murdoch