Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A backlash begins against Chinese business in Africa

We often blog about the relationship between Africa and China, an article that we found today points at some backlash in the relationship.

It certainly would be understood if Africans were uneasy about foreigners coming into their land after years of colonial rule. Despite the unease, China has put more money into developing Africa than any other country in the world. Often the development is a part of a deal to allow Chinese companies to build factories, refineries or farms so they can have a share of Africa's minerals, oil or food.

Increasingly there are questions by locals and opportunistic politicians about how effective China's development has been, and if it has sometimes even hurt local economies. Even with all of the concerns there are a few examples where the relationship has worked to everyone's advantage.

From the Economist, a new article tries to answer the question of why there is a growing backlash.

“Look at us,” says Wang Jinfu, a young factory-owner. “We are not slave drivers.” He and his wife came four years ago from Fujian province in southern China with just $3,000. They sleep on a dirty mattress on the factory floor. While their 160 employees work 40 hours a week, the couple pack boxes, check inventory and dispatch orders from first light until midnight every day of the year. “Why do people hate us for that?” says Mr Wang.

Indeed, China has boosted employment in Africa and made basic goods like shoes and radios more affordable. Trade surpassed $120 billion last year (see chart 1). In the past two years China has given more loans to poor countries, mainly in Africa, than the World Bank. The Heritage Foundation, an American think-tank, estimates that in 2005-10 about 14% of China’s investment abroad found its way to sub-Saharan Africa (see chart 2). Most goes in the first place to Hong Kong. The Heritage Foundation has tried to trace its final destination.

One answer to Mr Wang’s question is that competition, especially from foreigners, is rarely popular. Hundreds of textile factories across Nigeria collapsed in recent years because they could not compete with cheap Chinese garments. Many thousands of jobs were lost.

Quite a bit of criticism of China is disguised protectionism. Established businesses try to maintain privileged positions—at the expense of consumers. The recent arrival of Chinese traders in the grimy alleys of Soweto market in Lusaka halved the cost of chicken. Cabbage prices dropped by 65%. Local traders soon marched their wire-mesh cages filled with livestock to the local competition commission to complain. “How dare the Chinese disturb our market,” says Justin Muchindu, a seller. In Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital of Tanzania, Chinese are banned from selling in markets. The government earlier this year said Chinese were welcome as investors but not as “vendors or shoe-shiners”.

Another answer, according to China’s critics, is that the Chinese are bringing bad habits as well as trade, investment, jobs and skills. The mainland economy is riddled with corruption, even by African standards. International rankings of bribe-payers list Chinese managers near the top. When these managers go abroad they carry on bribing and undermine good governance in host countries. The World Bank has banned some mainland companies from bidding for tenders in Africa.

China’s defenders reply that its detrimental impact on governance is limited. African leaders find it surprisingly hard to embezzle development funds. Usually money is put into escrow accounts in Beijing; then a list of infrastructure projects is drawn up, Chinese companies are given contracts to build them and funds are transferred to company accounts. Africa, for better and worse, gets roads and ports but no cash. At least that is the theory.

A third answer is that China is seen as hoarding African resources. China clearly would like to lock up sources of fuel, but for the moment its main concern is increasing global supply. Its state-owned companies often sell oil and ore on spot markets. Furthermore, its interest in Africa is not limited to resources. It is building railways and bridges far from mines and oilfields, because it pays. China is not a conventional aid donor, but nor is it a colonialist interested only in looting the land.

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