From left: Zhang Zhuoyan, business analyst with the Bain & Company in Johannesburg; Lu Jinghao, an international MBA student from China; Sun Xiaomeng, deputy dean of the School of Asian and African Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University. Photos Provided to China Daily
Roshan Paul, president of Amani Institute, says that bilateral relations will get a big boost when more young talented Chinese come to Africa. Provided to China Daily
Young professionals give fresh touch to China-Africa ties
Perceptions about Chinese workers in Africa have undergone a sea change with young, talented and highly educated professionals offering a new perspective to China's relationships on the continent.
These young professionals have not only linked their careers and professional lives to the economic growth of Africa, but are also making a big difference through highly successful engagement with local communities.
Not long ago the Chinese presence in the continent was embodied by scruffy construction workers sporting yellow helmets, and small traders who remained isolated from local communities.
That has changed as the young professionals have through personal interactions developed a better understanding of the realities in Africa and have come up with solutions or projects that are making a difference.
Zhang Zhuoyan, a 25-year-old business analyst working with the US-based global consultancy Bain & Company in Johannesburg, is one of those young professionals from China who are determined to make a difference in Africa. It was her belief in the continent's continued economic prosperity and social development that has prompted her to stay on, she says.
"Initially I planned to be in Africa for a short time for some humanitarian work. After arriving here, I realized that Africa is far more diverse and promising than what had been depicted in the Western media."
Zhang says that she decided to take up a career in the consulting industry so that she could channel her desire to do good things in Africa.
"I believe that Africa will play a major role in global affairs and chose public policy and international development as my majors," says the China-born Zhang, who completed her higher education at Harvard University in 2011.
She then worked for a South African consulting company for two years. Later she decided to join the US-based consulting firm Bain & Company as an analyst in its African regional office.
"I chose consultancy as a career because I believe that the private sector will play a crucial role in Africa's growth. Consulting business will be the catalyst for this growth," she says.
"More importantly, it makes more sense to me that I can help achieve economic prosperity by enabling companies to do business in a smart and sustainable way."
Zhang believes that she is well placed to observe and collect information regarding investment in Africa, something that could prove valuable for prospective Chinese investors who know very little about the local conditions, and in some cases even after being on the continent for a long time.
"Everybody attaches great importance to a rising China, but with various perspectives on its presence in Africa," she says. "Most of the well-educated professionals I've come across regard Chinese investment in Africa as positive, but cannot offer more and deeper analysis on the subject. Their judgment on many issues including job creation and environmental impacts are solely influenced by reports in the Western media," she says.
Media reports and published material are indeed where most young professionals obtain information about Africa or China-African ties. However, experts say it would be better for them to gain first-hand experience, especially if they want to understand the fast changing landscape and the expanding Sino-Africa relationship.
Lu Jinghao, a 26-year-old international MBA student from China, currently studying at Tel Aviv University, says his work experience has taught him the shortcomings in Sino-Africa bilateral ties and what needs to be done.
Though Lu has temporarily left Africa for further education in Israel, he plans to return soon with stronger commitment and better skills.
"I did my undergraduate and graduate studies at the Pennsylvania State University in the US in 2007. Though I had planned to do a project in societal development, I never expected that it would be in Africa."
Lu was encouraged to go to Ghana as an exchange student in 2009 to study the Chinese community in that country by his sociology professor.
"I had never been to any other place other than the US, but I had always considered Africa as a mysterious continent that needed to be explored," he says. "But more importantly, the topic was so attractive as it was a time when the China-African relationship was booming but also in a worrisome adolescence. Since most of the available research on this topic was done by Western scholars, I believed that I could offer a fresh perspective," he says.
Lu says his interactions with local Chinese companies were so successful that he was able to elicit frank and fair opinions on several subjects. "The open, bold discussions, especially on sensitive issues, gave me a better insight than what I would have got from textbooks or media reports," he says.
"One of the things that I discovered during these interactions was the fact that many Chinese companies are still not adept in handling sensitive issues such as payment of salaries to local workers. Equally shocking was the Western media distortions on the Chinese presence in Africa and the problems the companies had with local bureaucracy."
Lu says many Chinese companies have failed to pay adequate attention to aspects such as brand building, risk reduction and cost control, all of which are vital in a different culture. Though some big companies did realize these aspects, they often did not have the right talent to initiate the reform and change, he says.
"There is a huge divide between Chinese companies and Western companies when it comes to having talent with an international outlook," Lu says.
"That was when I realized the value that a well-educated Chinese young man, especially one with an international background, could bring to Africa," he says.
"I soon realized that working in Africa is much better than struggling for a green card in an advanced country."
He says that he decided to make a beginning by starting an English blog on "a young Chinese perspective on China-African relationship".
"Though my initial focus was to attract attention from Western academia and media, I realized that if I was to help Chinese people rather than Western scholars, then I should learn the Chinese way of thinking in business and trade while having an international vision," he says.
He says he refused a offer from a top US-based think tank and decided to join a local consultancy in Johannesburg in 2011 after completing his master's in international affairs. Lu says he was part of several big projects and also was directly involved in interactions with local Chinese clients. "These interactions have helped broaden my vision and enhance my knowledge.
"Being an analyst was a bit too quiet for me. I was planning to establish a mechanism to help Chinese investors invest in small and medium-sized African companies, which was later suspended due to lack of business knowledge and networks," he says.
Last year, he decided to take a scholarship, going to Israel to learn more about business and management, which he could eventually use with his knowledge of China, Africa and Israel.
Apart from the government projects, which are more about cultural exchanges and volunteer programs, many young Chinese professionals are using non-governmental or private channels to come to Africa to make the best use of their knowledge to satisfy Africa's development appetite.
AIESEC, an international non-profit organization based in Rotterdam that provides students with leadership training and internship opportunities at for-profit and non-profit organizations, has played a key role in bringing more young Chinese professionals to Africa.
Even though AIESEC stands for the International Association of Students in Economic and Commercial Sciences, its members are from a variety of college majors and not confined to economic or commercial sciences. AIESEC has matched more than 20,000 Chinese students for domestic and international internships since it first entered China in 2002.
"The number of Chinese students opting for projects in Africa has been increasing steadily," says Gao Jingya, the AIESEC president for China.
"The AIESEC offers Chinese students the option of projects in more than 80 countries. But there has been more demand for projects in Africa," she says.
Due to the large demand for the African projects, AISEC China has started a branding program called Entrepreneurship in Africa that deals with China-Africa ties, and Africa's appetite for talent in social entrepreneurship, Gao says.
"During the last five years, more than 530 Chinese college students have gone to Africa under our various programs and the number is still increasing," she says.
"According to our data, most of the projects in Africa are in fields such as business administration, marketing, human resources, cultural education and finance and accounting. This also fits in with the curriculum of the students as many of them are studying business administration or marketing."
"Most of the trainees from China were working with banks or financial institutions in Africa," she says.
According to Gao, the "Entrepreneurship in Africa" program has been formulated to suit African demand and it was heartening to note that students from China embraced it whole-heartedly.
"Based on our estimates, we found that it was necessary to work more closely with African countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda to develop programs for Chinese students. It also helps in the final matching process," she says.
At the same time, Gao says much more needs to be done to make Chinese students understand that they are ambassadors for China.
"The students need to understand that Africa can be a life-changing experience for them. It's obvious that there is huge potential for Sino-Africa relations, but they also need to understand that there will be a growing demand for educated professionals," she says.
adding that despite the huge demand for Chinese talent in Africa, they are unable to cater to the requirements.
Roshan Paul, president of the Nairobi-based Amani Institute, believes that bilateral relations will get a big boost when more young talented Chinese come to Africa.
"I think that awareness and exposure are the best ways to build trust and mutually beneficial relations. The more Chinese youth that get opportunities, the greater will be China's positive influence on the world," Paul says.
His institute was established two years ago and aims at developing next generation talent for solving social problems by pioneering a new model for higher education that offers participants opportunities to get an intensive experience of cross-boundary work
"We offer an intense learning experience but in a structured and creative way, and we help people expand their horizons. We have already recruited two Chinese students and would love to have more Chinese students in our program," he says.
Paul says the Chinese community in Africa is largely isolated and hence it is heartening to see Chinese students interacting with people from Kenya and around the world in multiple forums and activities.
Sun Xiaomeng, deputy dean of the School of Asian and African Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University, says Chinese talent flowing to Africa is a natural result of globalization.
"China and Africa are a part of the globalization process. With connections between different parts of the world becoming more frequent, it is natural that talent from China and Africa talents will flow into the wider world," she says.
"The real benefit of such interaction is that it helps change the self-centered opinion to one with a more global outlook."
Sun says Africa's promising future is also a great attraction for young Chinese professionals. Former African Union Commission Chairperson Jean Ping had indicated that Africa would become the most active emerging region in the world by 2015.
"Young people are the future of China, and bear the responsibility to enhance people-to-people contacts and reduce misunderstanding between China and Africa," Sun says.
"Previously, limitations and constraints at certain levels to a large extent have hindered bilateral ties."
Though Chinese talent now comes with a more global vision, it is still spurred by traditional virtues and cultural facets, many of which are also cultural labels for Africans such as collectivism, filial obedience and willingness to share.
"Most of the professionals come to Africa with hope and aspiration and they are gradually changing the recognition and understanding for each other, which is a good trend," she says.
"But some of them should also be wary of negative emotions when there is a difference between one's imagination about his or her career in Africa and reality."
Ngari Gituku, a researcher at the Kenya Leadership Association, says young Chinese talent has helped change old perceptions. The old perception of enclosed Chinese communities has disappeared and has been replaced by talent who are only Chinese by nationality but more global in professional and intellectual orientation.
"The younger crop of Chinese technocrats, intellectuals and professionals I have met and interacted with thus far, have had the privilege of attending the best schools, colleges and universities in the world," he says. "That being the case, the average 21st century Chinese professional anywhere in the world bears a 'blue-tooth' that's compatible with any other in any random pool of professionals."
He says the effect of this universal exposure and more accurate understanding of the African psyche and development dynamic is poised to position the contribution of this generation of Chinese professionals to a level where nationality is secondary to value particularly in socioeconomic terms.
"Overall, the younger Chinese being a global citizen is well-equipped to forge his relationship with his/her peers more seamlessly than the older crop. This reality will help bridge the cultural gaps," Gituku says.
At the same time, it is also important to use a global outlook and skills in a proper manner so that it can spur mutually beneficial relations.
He adds that young Chinese and African professionals hold the key to the next level of interaction and friendship between the two sides. The two sides must work for a greater future based on shared benefits that will also correct the image of China in Africa, Gituku says.
Though the arrival of more Chinese talent in Africa is a good opportunity to improve people-to-people interactions, it is important to use the personal background and advantages of the talent in a proper manner for long-term benefits, says Shen Shaobo, secretary-general of the South Africa-China Cooperation Forum based in Johannesburg.
"The new generation of Chinese talent have enjoyed much better living conditions and education opportunities in China compared with those who have been in Africa for long," he says. "They are good with languages and social skills, but they also need to be aware that humbleness is the key to succeed in Africa."
Shen says the older generation of Chinese talent in Africa had a relatively lower educational background and their main motivation was to earn more money. "But that does not mean that they have nothing to offer," Shen says.
"They actually have a better understanding of the social norms and local politics, gained from their own experiences of living and working in Africa," he says. "This is quite different from what is projected in the media or in textbooks. Young talent should be humble enough to consult them."
But more importantly, the humbleness should be extended to local African people also without any prejudice or arrogance, Shen says.
"Good Chinese virtues should not be abandoned wherever we are. I am glad to see the positive changes that the young Chinese talent can bring to China-Africa ties," he says.
(China Daily Africa Weekly 03/28/2014 page1)