Why China needs to redefine its engagement with Africa

Why China needs to redefine its engagement with Africa

NBE Blog

By Andualem Sisay Gessesse – It was in 2011, I was in one of the beautiful clubs around Nitinda, Kampala, Uganda enjoying the weekend evening. A good English speaking Chinese approached me holding a bottle of Tusker Malt Lager.

After he introduced me about him and what he is doing, I had to lie about what exactly I was doing in Kampala. This is because I didn’t want to end our conversation automatically.



You may wonder what I was doing and why I decided to hide my real identity to that Chinese friend. At the time I was in Uganda for a ten month fellowship program sponsored by the FK Norway to report on development and environmental issues.

I got the opportunity because one of my articles won the competition organized by unfortunately no more active Ethiopian Environment Journalists Association, to which I was a member.

Now you can guess what my Chinese friend is doing. It has to be something opposite to what I was doing. You are right! During the introduction he told me that he is engaged in timber business. He is engaged in bringing timber from Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and sell in South Sudan, which was peaceful at the time.

He told me that even though it is dangerous to do the business as the country is trapped in internal conflict for long, he managed to deal with problems while doing his business such as, by sometimes paying money to the fighters or anyone who tries to stop his business.

In my view, even if some corrupt officials give that guy the license to be engaged in such a business, I don’t think what he is doing is right.

In my opinion this is not what Africa expects from its Chinese friends. As a citizen of Ethiopia, a country which has shown to the world its Chinese funded and built Addis Ababa Ring Road and seduced other African countries a decade ago, what that Chinese is doing in that jungle is not far from day light robbery of Congo’s natural resource.

African people do not expect the Chinese to come and cut their trees and sell without adding any value. We expect far more from our Chinese friends, who began proving to the world that Africa is not just a burden to the world, but it is full of opportunities about two decades ago began.

Africa does not need development partners, who cut its trees and exploit its natural resources and just walk away. It needs development partners, who show train its people on how to make furniture from those trees and export to the world and improve the lives of its people.

Or even help the Congolese to convert the jungle into a tourist attraction and creating jobs. That should be the kind of investment that Chinese friend of mine should have been engaged in Kinshasa or Kampala or Juba.

My meeting with that Chinese friend in that bar has made me to open my eyes wide about each and every activity of the Chinese in my Africa. Whenever I travel across the continent, I try to get the impressions of the people, including my African colleagues, about what the Chinese are doing in their countries.

When I summarize what I have been gathering in one sentence, the Chinese are much liked by African politicians and local people who partner with them more than by the ordinary Africa people.

What do the ordinary African people think about Chinese engagement in Africa?

  • The ordinary African people believe that Chinese people are hardworking and complete infrastructure projects quickly that the local companies while some question the quality and standards
  • The ordinary African people consider China as source of cheap and not long lasting products that dumps those products in Africa and kicking the businesses of local small and medium industries out of the game.
  • The ordinary African people think the Chinese people are taking their jobs
  • The ordinary African people think that China is engaged in exploitation of Africa’s natural resources unfairly
  • The ordinary African people think that when the Chinese invest in Africa, they don’t pay decent amount of salary for African employees
  • The ordinary African people think that when the Chinese invest in Africa, they don’t care about African employees safety at work
  • Most of the ordinary African people worry about increasing debt of China and the secrecy of the terms, fearing it may enslave their grandchildren by the Chinese.                                                                                                                                    On the contrary most African politicians and Africans, who do business directly with the Chinese, have more of positive perception about Chinese role in Africa; but why?

I will try to reflect about why the views of the ordinary African people and those on power and doing business with the Chinese are that much different.

The major reasons why most African politicians have positive attitude about China’s involvement in Africa include:

  • China saw the opportunity in Africa at a time the world was considering Africa as a burden
  • China don’t care about the internal politics of Africa unlike the West, which prioritizes and set as a precondition the respect of basic human rights of African people when engaging with the Africa leaders
  • Showing to the world the infrastructure built by the Chinese with Chinese loan gives African politicians an opportunity to stay on power more bragging about their success.
  • Africa politicians also make money as kickbacks from Chinese companies investing in big projects such as, those who secure major infrastructure projects (roads, railways, and power, etc.), industrial zones and parks. Simple example can be the power companies banned by the African Development Bank recently from taking part in tenders.
  • African politicians love the most secrecy or silence of Chinese about their activities in Africa. From my 15 years of reporting, I rarely heard a Chinese company speaking to the media about the details of its project, especially the financial contract details. In fact in the case of Chinese investment in Ethiopia, I tried hundreds of phones the investors registered at the investment agency and found out that over 90% are fake numbers. In another article I will be looking into the investment database and investigating the issue liking with how the Chinese are the top tourist in Ethiopia lately.

Now I hope you don’t need my explanations on why African business people working with the Chinese closely are so positive about China’s engagement in Africa. Because you already know the answer – these selfish and greedy African business people including those thousands based Guangzhou, are making huge money.

Doing what? By either dumping those cheap and less quality goods in Africa or joint venturing with the Chinese in mega projects such as industrial zones and big businesses often representing our corrupt African officials.

The danger for China to continue such secrete closed to the media investments in Africa, especially partnering with corrupt officials, is very unlikely benefit the Chinese government in the long term.

In East Africa we know that the infrastructures development in Ethiopia has inspired many African countries to replicate that success. The problem comes today when the country decides to audit the details of the deals of those infrastructures projects.

Were these investments made in the interest of the people or just to benefit the corrupt officials who are now on the ran from the transactions? This is the most important question I advise to Chinese government and other African countries while redefining its engagement with Africa.

One thing China has to understand is that the sun is setting on those African corrupt leaders. It is paramount for any development partner of Africa be it China, Japan, India, the West or any other to understand the interest and priority of the people of Africa before any engagement.

Don’t forget that we are in the social media age where the people can remove such corrupt leaders within weeks and jeopardize you investments, which is the result of nontransparent engagement.

I know that in China corruption is a crime that could lead one to death if found engaged. But the action of Chinese in Africa is quite the opposite. Let me tell you what I witnessed recently and conclude this article with an advice for Chinese government, which may help to redefine China’s engagement in Africa.

It was early 2018. I was flying from Busan African Development Bank Meetings to Nairobi for another meeting before going back home to Addis Ababa. We were lining for entrance visa at Nairobi Airport.

I saw couple of Chinese putting some cash in their passport. Initially I thought they are preparing it for a business visa fee etc…and decided to see how the transaction goes at the counter with the immigration officer.

To my surprise there was no receipt or discussion. The immigration officers just put the stamp and let them in like they did for me later. Then I get curious and asked a Kenyan friend about if that was a bribe. She told me that Kenyans don’t pay for visa when entering China and likewise the Chinese do not pay for visa coming to Kenya.

But why did those Chinese put that money in their passport is I think what the government of Kenya should look into. Because I don’t want to mention here what we discussed with that Kenyan friend.

For genuine leaders of Africa which prioritize the interest of the people before their personal benefit. I urge to audit each and every big project done by Chinese companies and private investments as well as joint ventures over the past two decades.

Likewise before taking the China and Africa relations to the next level, I urge both Chinese and African governments to genuinely review in detail if those investments by the Chinese in Africa so far were free from corruption.

And one more thing for African policy makers, make sure your foreign policies are projected to the whole world. Your people can’t afford domination of one or the other in this era of globalization.

As the saying goes, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket!” Open your doors for investors from all corners of the world and treat all equally in a way of prioritizing the national interest of your people.

Don’t just open your market to be dumping ground for cheap Chinese made shoes like Ethiopia did some 20 years killing businesses of small shoe makers, who had the potential to export has the government put in place a protection mechanism for them and assisted their business to grow.

I know this because I was there working at the time. Thank God! Today some of the survivors are exporting shoes and many Ethiopians and African countries for that matter prefer Ethiopian shoes more than the Chinese made.

Because of such poor policies of our governments, thousands of Ethiopians engaged in such industries have suffered a lot and still suffering as a result of dumping of Chinese goods in Ethiopia.

As a result today, Ethiopia’s total annual import of goods mainly from China and the rest of the world is increasing close to $18 billion, while the export is declining from once $3 billion. I don’t think that is different for other African countries.

Now you wonder what those Chinese industrial zones who promised to boost the export of the country have been doing. Worth investigating! Do I expect something different from the much talked about textile industrial parks such as, Hawassa? That is a million dollar question :).  That is another article my friend.

So, I urge African leaders, who care about their people, to have policies that protect the people in promising local industries and informal sector and help them grow their businesses.

Finally, as China and African leaders are set to gather for China and Africa summit first week of September let me conclude this opinion piece with my response to a survey questionnaire I got from a colleague working for Chinese news agency a few weeks back.

1. Why do you think (his/her answer) is the best model for future development in your country?

Never. It is the worst model, because cares more for infrastructure than human beings.

2. In what regards can China do better to help your country (Ethiopia)?

By not corrupting our African officials in order to do business in Africa and both partnering with corrupt officials such as forming offshore companies in tax havens such as British Virgin Islands like the company which started oil production in Ethiopia recently.

Also tell your citizens not to pay bribes at airports like Nairobi and Dar es Salaam,… to enter the country and do business without legally paying for a business visa. Have some level of integrity, decency.

Please say NO for corruption and bribes. I know in China your government may sentence to death if they found someone engaged in corruption and bribes. That means corruption is evil to your society. Then why is it something good when you do it in Africa? Bring that culture of fighting corruption into Africa.

Don’t you know that more than your loan or infrastructures African people benefit more if you help them get rid of the corruption like you did in your country? Don’t you know that Africa loses 148 billion to Corruption Annually?

So, don’t just pay bribes because a corrupt African civil servant or official asked you to do so. Unless China is too selfish and willing to do business in Africa at any cost, you can change our politicians and civil servants to follow your suit in terms of fighting corruption by passing harsh laws like yours.

AFTER ALL I WONDER WHY YOU CHINESE HAVE TO BE THAT MUCH DESPERATE TO DO BUSINESS IN AFRICA KNOWIG THE DAMAGE OF CORRUPTION. I DON’T THINK SUCH APPROACH CAN SUSTAIN THE CHINESE BUSINESS IN AFRICA.

3. How can China’s development assistance do a better job of meeting your country’s needs?

By doing it transparently, involving the media on each and every project or partnership deals, private investments…Just do transparent business and trade. Saying NO to corruption and helping Africa save at least half of the $148 billion annually is the most fundamental aid to the people of Africa.

4. Why do you like China or dislike China?

What I like most about Chinese is they are hardworking people. But, because of the above reasons I do not have positive perception like I have for other countries such as from the West or even India, Korea and Japan.

Also I don’t like the cheap products you are sending to Africa. Don’t do that even if you have the technology to produce cheaper quality and our importers insist. Many people characterize Chinese products with poor quality in Africa because of that.

So, say no to those greedy importers from Africa, and produce durable clothes, equipment for export to Africa like you do for America and Europe market. Don’t just dump on us cheap less quality products if you want Africans to have positive perception about your products…

5. What are your concerns in the regard of China’s presence in your country?

China is making our people slave by not paying enough for employees, not providing safety working environment and also taking land from the poor farmers and making them become beggars.

The industrial parks by Chinese are also not generating foreign currency as they promised when they started. They should stop under-invoice NGO and selling to their own companies abroad and exporting semi produced products…Also stop misusing the natural resources of Africa such as selling Congo’s timber in South Sudan etc…

I also don’t want my kids to breathing the cigarette smokes coming from the Chinese’s’ who smoke on our streets. The Chinese government should tell its people not to do that.

JUST DO TRANSPARENT AND CLEAN BUSINESS DEALS IN AFRICA IF YOU NEED TO BU8LD POSITIVE IMAGE AMONG THE LOCAL PEOPLE.

IT IS NOT LIKE CHINA, IN AFRICA THE PEOPLE AND THOSE ON POWER, WHO ARE CORRUPT MOST OF THE TIME, HAVE COMPLETELY OPPOSITE OPINION ABOUT YOUR COUNTRY.

6. What positive/negative influences do you think it will have on African countries if China gains more influence internationally?

No doubt that Africa can learn and benefit much from Chinese people hard working culture if Chinese avoid the above problems…

7. What do you expect from the coming FOCAC Beijing summit in September personally, for your country and for the continent?
No clue about the agenda.

Have a productive meeting, which benefits the ordinary people of Africa but not only African politicians and African business people working with the Chinese.