Why Africans Resent The Chinese

China may be Africa's largest trade partner and investor, but what China brings to the table is often regarded as sloppy, thoughtless and inconsistent with African values.

Construction site in Maputo, Mozambique
Construction site in Maputo, Mozambique
Zhou Xin


BEIJING — China has become Africa's largest trade partner and investor. If Zheng He, the early 14th century explorer who commanded seven expeditionary voyages to South Asia and the Middle East, really did make it all the way to East Africa too, he would probably be quite proud to see Chinese products being sold on every corner of Africa.

But I'm not sure that if Zheng He could return to Africa today that he'd feel exactly comfortable there. As a journalist over the past five years, I have visited a dozen countries all over Africa. But though our goods are ample here, I don't feel a sense of equality and respect from the African people.

Since 2000, China's trade with Africa has been composed of three parts: government assistance programs, investments by medium- and large-sized state-owned enterprises, and non-governmental trade. This should have represented a golden combination because all of these have helped China become Africa's biggest trade partner and investor. But there are actually serious problems with the relationship.

In China, people tend to be told only the positive aspects of China's assistance to Africa. For instance, the Chinese government is particularly proud of the 1,860-kilometer-long Tanzania Zambia Railway (TZR), and Africa Hall, the permanent headquarters of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).

But the other side of the story is that the TZR rarely functions normally. It has the world's lowest punctuality record at around 10%. It is absolutely typical for a traveler to arrive at their destination 12 hours behind schedule.

Jean Ping, a Gabonese diplomat and former head of the Commission of the African Union, puts much more trust in his "distant relative" of France in terms of international actions than he does in China. This is despite the fact that he is half Chinese himself and visits the country regularly. French is his mother tongue, and the African governments he trusts still rely on French military protection.

Even more important, he has said that French businesses are the real pillar of Gabon, implying that the Gabon government is reluctant to let Chinese trade become something that would change their value system. China is but a measure that Gabon uses to counterbalance the power between it and France.

Compared with Chinese diplomats, African diplomats seem to have greater flexibility. On one hand, they successfully promote increased Chinese investment in Africa. But they are also constantly seeking ways to avoid any troublesome diplomatic commitments to China.

When the civil war was in full swing in North and South Sudan, ambassadors from both were busy lobbying in the Chinese capital. When Libya's China embassy was changing leadership, state-owned Chinese television was still broadcasting reporters live from Tripoli talking about the rebellions. Meanwhile, a man that other countries commonly recognize as an African dictator can be welcomed in Beijing.

Two sides to Chinese "efficiency"

Whether it's state-owned enterprises or private companies, Chinese businessmen are often labeled "resource predators" or "environmental vandalists." Guangzhou, China's southern boom town, has become the largest Asian home for Africans, with some 200,000 native Africans living there. But when a traveler enters an African country holding a visa-free Chinese passport, customs officials are often rude.

Not long ago, I talked to a well-known French engineering consulting firm whose international headquarters is located in South Africa. "China undertakes a lot of projects in Africa, but rarely do these projects touch the ground deeply," the company's international manager told me.

What he meant is that bilateral relations between countries are not just about money or respect. What's important is to share a certain common value system with African countries, which is unfortunately missing in China today.

This French company has been involved for nearly the last four decades in the national programs of a dozen sub-Saharan countries. These programs focus on unemployment, sustainable urban development, and domestic stability. These are the three imperative conditions for a good national construction plan, whether it's for an authoritarian regime or a democratic government.

It can take up to 10, 20 or even 30 years to undertake a project. For instance, the French company planned a community building project in Gabon in detail — comprising factories, transport and toll stations, and even the number of jobs that could be created over 50 years, along with medical facilities and a cemetery.

The program brought not only economic growth for the local government, but it also didn't disturb the life of the locals. Their lives continued to improve while their employment increased steadily. As a result, even the French engineers involved in the design of the community now choose to settle there.

Of course, the French company complains that their engineering "efficiency" can be instantly killed by the Chinese. Whereas a project could take up to 30 years for them, a Chinese company might finish the job within three months. The problem is that afterwards it will probably take 30 years, or forever, for the locals to sort out the mess the Chinese "high- efficiency" style created.

Just as the French manager says, Chinese efficiency rarely considers the integration of local culture or sustainability. Typically, when a Chinese company wins a contract, an army of Chinese workers arrive. A few months or a few years later, officials from the two countries will cut the ribbon. Then the Chinese will disappear. Once problems inevitably appear, there are no drafts or documents in the local language, nor any local engineers involved in the project, so that they are often completely abandoned.

I've tried to reason that China has no idea about integration perhaps because it has never been a colonizer in Africa. The French businessman countered that Zheng He wasn't a colonizer either, yet he managed to teach some Africans shipbuilding, weaving and even the use of paper. Many Africans still claim to be Zheng He's descendants. What they obviously don't know is that Zheng He was a eunuch.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!