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Nan Chen

Chinese in Africa Find a Land of Challenge, But Opportunity

A view of Nairobi from the city center. (ollipitkanen/Flickr)

During Chinese New Year, Chinese gathered together with loved ones to watch the CNY celebrations. People passed around traditional treats like jiaozi and tang yuan. As revelers sang karaoke under red lanterns, one could think for a moment that this was Beijing. But one look out the window upon the streets jammed with matatu (a privately owned minibus in Kenya) reminded these Chinese expats that they were in Nairobi. More and more, Chinese are finding themselves living and working in Africa.

As a Chinese-American working in Nairobi, I have the special privilege of observing the Sino-Kenyan interactions and sliding (often awkwardly) between both worlds. Some Kenyans don’t believe I’m from the U.S. (“No, where are you really from?”) or occasionally ask me for a job in construction. Chinese friends invite me to dinner only to find out I don’t actually speak their language fluently (but I love the food). These encounters have brought me face to face with the Chinese expat community and Kenyans who have been affected by the influx of these new immigrants.

Africa, Land of Opportunity

17 years ago, Mr. Si arrived in Tanzania. He came to explore the market for a Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE) and found the locals literally shoeless. However, beyond the poverty he saw an opportunity for growth. Almost two decades later, he resides in Nairobi overseeing operations for the same SOE. The company has recently partnered with the Kenyan Education Ministry to provide USD $24 million in manufacturing equipment and training for Kenya’s vocational schools. When asked why he stayed after all these years, he simply replied “Where there are business and trade opportunities, life is good.”

Since Mr. Si’s arrival, tens of thousands more Chinese have immigrated to Africa. In Kenya alone, official estimates of the Chinese expat population number over 10,000. On a recent afternoon, I had lunch with Mr. Si and several co-workers in their apartment. Their SOE not only provides them with furnished apartments, but also a personal chef from China who cooks three meals a day. The meal was some of the best Chinese food I’ve had in Nairobi, and the chef even recommended a place where I could buy fresh vegetables. Such benefits are not unusual for Chinese companies (particularly state-owned enterprises) and are one reason posts in Africa are desirable.

Personal chefs are not the only reason the Chinese come to Africa. Like Mr. Si, many Chinese see Africa as an opportunity to make money, whether as an entrepreneur or an employee. One employee of an SOE commented that the Chinese are in Africa for short term gain, unlike many westerners who have settled here. “We come in for a few years, make money and go home to our families.” Chinese employees stationed in Africa are often paid higher rates and have housing stipends. Likewise, those interviewed felt that the Chinese markets were saturated and competition was high, compared with Africa, where new opportunities were plentiful.

For Chinese expats, business comes first and politics second. The upcoming Kenyan elections matter only to the extent that they impact business. While among my western colleagues, these elections represent a momentous political situation with human rights implications, the Chinese (though not unconcerned with potential elections violence) find the politics disruptive of business. One person interviewed contrasted the Chinese in Kenya who come mainly for business reasons to the Japanese who come for a variety of reasons including volunteering, NGO work, or other non-business related reasons.

These contrasting views on politics appear to play out on a governmental level as well. While Western governments have voiced concern over the possible election of an ICC-indictee, Chinese officials have promised, “No matter who is elected, the Chinese Government is willing to work with the Kenyan Government.” One expat interviewed explained that “China’s style of politics is to not get involved in other countries’ affairs.”

Strangers in a Strange (but Welcoming) Land

As must be expected with any large influx of a new ethnicity into an otherwise homogenous area, some clashes have occurred. However, most of the Chinese expats with whom I spoke have very positive impressions of Kenya, and Africa as a whole. My own experience is that while discrimination definitely occurs, it is often not motivated by xenophobia or resentment. Rather, Kenyans have conflicting views: Chinese make poor products and take away Kenyan jobs, but at the same time provide massive infrastructure projects that employ many Kenyans. When asked about his opinion on Chinese investment, one local Kenyan in the service industry felt that Chinese goods were of poor quality, but at the same time were at a price that he could actually afford. On several occasions, locals have asked me for employment, assuming that I am a business owner or construction manager.

To be sure, there is some resentment among locals.  In 2012, Kenyan shop owners protested competition from illegal Chinese vendors of cheap goods. However, Chinese I spoke with felt this was an isolated incident by a small minority of Kenyans, directed toward those Chinese “hawkers” and not the Chinese in general. Kenyans seemed to agree. One Kenyan dismissed those protests and simply pointed at the roads. “Before the Chinese, these potholes would be repaired maybe once a year.” According to Pew’s 2010 Global Opinion Poll, 86% of Kenyans viewed China “favorably.” Only 49% of Kenyans felt the same way about the US.

On the other hand, Chinese coming to Africa often come bearing preconceptions and prejudices of their own. A quick search on Weibo reveals many ignorant or derogatory comments towards Africans. For example, one Chinese Web user referred to Africans and Arabs as “unindustrious” and “lazy like snakes.” Interviewees felt their mainland counterparts often carry latent prejudices about Africans’ work-ethics, but they also complained about Kenyans’ work-ethics themselves. However, one colleague was quick to point out that this is not a complaint about Kenyans as an ethnic group, but a complaint about cultural differences in work. Another employee admitted that he had misconceptions about Africa before, and that “One cannot know a people until they get in the country.” Once here, he encountered a “highly civilized and motivated people.” However, he did express frustration with the highly bureaucratic nature of working in the capital of Nairobi.

Another common preconception among netizens and doting Asian mothers alike is about safety. Particularly in a city pejoratively nicknamed “Nairobbery” which has been subject to attacks from the terrorist group Al-Shabaab in recent years, the Chinese (and expats in general) tend to be on heightened alert. My own take on this is that the supposed dangers of Nairobi (and Africa at large) are a bit overblown, a combination of fear of the unknown and media sensationalism. One expat agreed, stating that “the only positive stories of Africa in the media deal with animals and nature.” These misconceptions may slowly be remedied by Xinhua news agency’s efforts to promote positive stories from their Africa offices and China Daily’s new Africa Weekly.

However, most Chinese immigrants in Nairobi are not taking any risks. One woman who works as a translator for the UN says that she never walks anywhere, preferring the safety of her car. A Chinese embassy worker agreed with her. Some Chinese companies or government offices even institute restrictions on their employees, requiring them not to leave their compounds at night (most foreigners live in gated compounds with 24-hour security).

Despite safety concerns and some culture clashes, most people with whom I’ve spoken find the Sino-Kenyan relationship mutually beneficial and amicable. On a recent visit to the facilities where Mr. Si’s company was training Kenyans on manufacturing equipment, I found Chinese and Kenyans huddled together over the large equipment. I asked the Chinese director what the future looks like after the partnership ends.  He looked over at the manufacturing equipment and replied that the future of these Kenyans “is limited only by their own imaginations.”  As for myself, I am pleasantly surprised that worlds away from my home, I can find a decent hot pot restaurant where the Kenyan host greets me with “nihao.”

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Nan Chen

Nan Chen is an attorney and activist interested in issues of international development, rule of law and China. He is the co-chair of the International Development Exchange's Young Professionals Group and provides pro bono services to the Accountability Counsel. He previously clerked for the Center on Wrongful Convictions during law school and worked with NGOs focused on building civil society and rule of law in China.
  • Guest

    “tens of thousands more Chinese have immigrated to Africa” I really think it’s better to say emigrated in this case, rather than immigrated, since they have left one place to go to somewhere else.