left corner left corner
China Daily Website  

Those who dream of Africa

Updated: 2014-10-17 13:03
By Liu Haifang (China Daily Africa)

China, a country that pulled itself up by its bootstraps, has sent forth many people and companies to work side by side with Africans to promote progress

Many Chinese are living and working in Africa, helping the continent advance as they do jobs in the private and public sectors.

There are now more than 2,000 Chinese companies and many more than 1 million Chinese citizens in sub-Saharan Africa alone, the German news magazine Der Spiegel has reported.

Most in the first wave of Chinese to go to Africa in recent decades, however, were connected directly or indirectly with governmental institutions, diplomats, medical experts or workers with state-owned companies.

The first big group arrived to help build the Tanzania-Zambia Railway between 1970 and 1975, then the single longest railway in sub-Saharan Africa and China's biggest single foreign-aid project.

The year 1995 marked a great change in Chinese policies, which had a huge effect on this migration. Before that, only state-owned enterprises working on projects planned by the central government in Beijing were allowed to go abroad. However, new policies issued that year, opened the door to outward expansion by private Chinese companies as well.

It was not until the following year that Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, the Chinese multinational networking and telecommunications giant, was able to move into Africa.

Huawei is now leading the push to make mobile communications affordable in many African countries, in turn carving out a substantial share of the market for its products and services.

Also, as China's own construction market has become more and more saturated, companies have been following the "go global" strategy adopted in 2002 to find new opportunities in Africa. Such companies are finding success using a long-term strategy to take advantage of the golden era in which most of the continent is concentrating on building infrastructure or repairing damage from wars or neglect.

Many construction companies have gained a good reputation for work done in Africa since the 1980s. They are doing not only aid projects financed by the Chinese government, but also others financed by the World Bank, Arab Fund for Economic & Social Development and African Development Bank, especially since the late 1990s.

A subsidiary of China Railway Construction Corp recently completed the $1.83 billion upgrading of 1,344 km of track across Angola. And China Road and Bridge Corp is building a Mombasa-Nairobi railway that eventually will be extended to five other countries at a total cost of $13.8 billion.

Since 2006, another round of going to Africa has been initiated, partly the result of changes within China, where wages have been rising and industry needs to move up the value chain. Many companies have found it more profitable to move labor-intensive manufacturing to Africa, where wages may be as low as a tenth of China's. Such a move also may enable them to benefit from the zero-tariff policies that African-produced goods often enjoy in developed countries. This also creates jobs in Africa and generates foreign exchange earnings for African countries.

Private Chinese traders and entrepreneurs have also contributed to the availability of affordable products in Africa, even in poor neighborhoods and in the countryside.

For better or worse, all Chinese companies, be they state-owned or private, are lumped together in the public's eye. Some Chinese companies have faced image problems in host countries, including anti-Chinese feelings and suspicions, especially from trade unions. Apart from general cultural differences, reasons include lack of fairness in some media, communication problems and differences in business practices.

Dealing with such image issues is an important task shared by all Chinese companies in Africa. That can go beyond ideas of fulfilling corporate social responsibility that may be designed in China with little thought about the context of Africa.

It may seem some are poorly prepared to enter the African market. But fortunately, a new generation of Chinese has arisen that is finding its own way of dealing with such difficulties. They include volunteering in many African countries to show the selfless face of China. Another is creating social enterprises that create a positive image of China's go-global push.

Taking a wide-angle shot of Chinese in Africa, it is clear that as a whole they are creating a long-lasting and substantial tribute to the good faith efforts of those who dared to go abroad to benefit their own country as well as Africans.

The author is the deputy director, secretary-general of the Centre for African Studies of School of International Studies at Peking University.

(China Daily Africa Weekly 10/17/2014 page10)

  • Group a building block for Africa

    An unusually heavy downpour hit Durban for two days before the BRICS summit's debut on African soil, but interest for a better platform for emerging markets were still sparked at the summit.