The human side of the Sino-Africa project

Sino-African cooperation has always been analysed on political and economic grounds. There is also a human side to this project. So far ignored, nevertheless its issues are starting to emerge.
Shuang Gao
23 September 2011

Jonathan, a seven-year old boy from Zambia, rarely sees his parents and siblings. He lives in a remote village with his grandmother. There is no family support to enable him to go to school. He is cast out because he has Asian traits and slanted eyes. His father, a Chinese man who was his mother’s boss, moved back to China before he was born and is now thousands of miles away. Jonathan is not the only abandoned Sino-African kid in Africa. Whilst people criticize China’s economic invasion of Africa or the political intrigues behind Sino-African cooperation, the human side of the story is almost always ignored.

"Chinese-African kids are not a common sight, but examples are beginning to emerge” said Paolo Woods, a documentary photographer who has spent two years in Africa, and who first covered Jonathan’s story two years ago: "We [Woods himself and journalist Serge Michel] are now providing the means for Jonathan’s education since no one else wanted to do this.” 

The China-help-Africa project dates from the mid-twentieth century. In the 1970s, China supported Tanzania and Zambia in building the main railway connecting the two countries when China itself was still suffering from economic problems. In the past decade, “yuan fei” (go to support Africa) has become a really popular slogan in China.

“There are many Chinese workers in Africa, easily several hundred thousands,” said Professor Deborah Brautigam, an expert on China-Africa relations from the American University's School of International Service. “But they come, they do a project, they go on to another project and then they leave.”

There are no precise statistics of the number of Chinese people working in Africa. But during the past 10 years, this figure has increased rapidly.

"It is my eighth month here, and next month I will have a holiday to go back to China,” said Xin Ning, a 23-year old Chinese man currently working in Tanzania. Ning chose to work in Africa just after graduating from university, seizing a “good opportunity”. Ning’s company is in charge of the television signal service in Tanzania. An alumnus from China like him can be appointed to take charge of a whole city’s network, which is a very important position that he could never dream of getting as a first appointment in China. In addition, the salary is higher. Ning is paid around £1,500 per month, while the same job in China would earn him only about a third of this. Most Chinese workers in Africa have similar reasons for pursuing these jobs. They are young and they want to gain experience as well as make some money.

This has misled many observers into thinking that money is the main motivation of Chinese workers in Africa. But this is not always the case. Xueqin Yang, a Chinese girl who has spent a year in Cameroon as a volunteer, said her choice was made out of her willingness to see the world and bring Chinese culture to other people.

Unlike Yang, Ning signed a three-year contract with the company; he said he will go back to China afterwards. With the money he can save from his work in Africa and the experience he will get, he is confident in finding a good job in China and having a promising future there.

"Most of the Chinese workers there only have a one or two year’s contract; they will leave and many of them will never come back to Africa again,” said Woods.

It means that little Jonathan might never be able to see his father, unless he goes to China.

In fact, going to the people’s republic of China has become many Africans’ dream and learning Chinese is a newly popular aspiration. “When we were in Congo, the Chinese language courses there had to be doubled every year,” said Woods.

In May 2009, the University of Maroua in Cameroon opened a new Chinese course. Xueqin Yang was one of the first volunteer teachers from China:  "In Cameroon, students can study in any public university as long as they finish their high school, but not for this course. Applicants are required to take exams to enter and it's really competitive.” 

"In many African people’s mind, China is the best country in the world, even better than the US. Going to China is like their American dream, they want to go there, work and live there.

"Not all of them will end up in China, but speaking Chinese is still beneficial for them to find a better paid job,” she added.

Ning’s colleague Ramabhani Hamisi, a Tanzanian who used to study in China and can speak fluent Chinese, is now the local marketing manager of the company. He said he will definitely go back to China if there is any chance.

Yet most of the local people are not as lucky as Ramabhani; they only get grassroots jobs and low salaries since there are problems for them in communicating with their Chinese employers.

Most Chinese workers in Africa know nothing about the local language; some of them can’t speak proper English either. It is quite usual that they don't share any common language with the African workers.

The projects that China is doing in Africa are mainly concentrated on the  infrastructure. The workers they need most are technicians and not many of them know African culture or are interested in it. There are significant cultural differences and misunderstandings.

"When I told my students that I don't have religious faith, they all looked at me with incredible faces. But in China, this is very common,” said Yang.

Those cultural differences will inevitably have some impact on the local people over time. But African governments don't seem unduly concerned.

"Of course businessmen and politicians welcome Chinese people because they bring money and business. But for local common people, for the workers who suffer bad conditions and low pay, I don’t think they feel very welcoming towards the Chinese. Actually, there is a very strong anti-Chinese sentiment growing in the lower sections of the population,” Woods believes.

One thing is for sure, all these social problems in the Sino-African relations were not thought through by the two governments over recent years. They never thought of what will happen to abandoned children like Jonathan.

"Actually, this problem goes both ways, and Chinese society will also need to start thinking about how to assume its responsibilities,” said Professor Brautigam. "There are more and more Africans going to China. They will work here, live here and maybe will marry Chinese women who will have their children. It will be more difficult for them to enter this society, since China is not very keen on multiculturalism.”

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