Emerging powers in Africa Watch
2009-12-04, Issue 460
Yoon Park has already written a fascinating study of South Africa’s local-born Chinese community ‘A matter of honour: Being Chinese in South Africa’. But this small group is untypical even of the majority of Chinese in South Africa, let alone of the growing number of Chinese across the continent - whether managers, traders, entrepreneurs or farmers.
Anti-Chinese feeling - and the distinct but interrelated phenomenon of anti-China sentiment - is increasingly referred to and discussed on a scale which implies that it must be growing. But when, where and how is a matter which has so far not been the subject of much systematic or comparative research.
So it was good to hear that Yoon Park, who coordinates the Chinese in Africa/Africans in China International Research Working Group at Johannesburg University, has teamed up with Barry Sautman from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology on a project to research just those questions. They discussed their work so far at a recent seminar at the School of Oriental and African Studies [SOAS] in London under the title ‘Dragon slayers: political oppositions and anti-China/anti-Chinese mobilisation in Southern Africa’.
They admit that their initial working assumption was to posit a link between these mobilisations and the needs of pro-Western oppositions. But they found that the causal factors were more complex and varied. As well as the strength of opposition parties, the nature of bilateral relations with China, and the nature, freedom and inclination of the media, all made it onto the list.
What about the behaviour of the Chinese themselves? That makes an indirect appearance on their list as the ‘ability and will of the state to enforce its own laws’ and ‘the general level and tolerance of corruption’.
Also important, they argue, are the particular local heritage of colonialism; ongoing racial dynamics; local power relations, and the historical and continuing influence of South.Africa
Their research is confined to Southern Africa, and they are keen to point out that they make no claims about other countries. So far they have looked at Namibia, Zambia and Lesotho, with research continuing on South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Namibia’s Chinese population has been widely estimated at about 40,000 out of a total population of 2.1 milion. But Park and Sautman reckon this is a major overestimate, and believe the true total is nearer to 4-5,000.
The main sources of friction seem to be the South African-dominated construction industry, which is said to resent Chinese competition; and the Angolan border, where black Namibian businessmen are said to be frustrated at Chinese domination of the lucrative cross-border trade.The media, according to Park and Sautman, also shows clear anti-Chinese leanings, which are attributed to its white ownership.
Opposition parties also take up these and other issues but, it seems, target their criticisms at the SWAPO government for not enforcing immigration and labour laws, and for general corruption.
In Lesotho by contrast, the Chinese appear to total some 10,000, mostly arrived since the 1990s, out of a total population of 1.8 million. They have been the main target of successive waves of anti-foreigner riots in 1991, 1998 and 2007.
Traders are one of the major sites of contestation. Mostly recent arrivals from Fujian, they attract the usual accusations of ‘clannishness’, lack of English or Sesotho, and selling poor quality goods and time-expired foodstuffs. Their very presence is taken as proof of government corruption, as the law is supposed to reserve small trade for Lesotho nationals.
Labour conditions in Chinese-owned textile plants are another widely-quoted grievance, though labour union leaders told Park and Sautman that conditions had improved substantially since 2005. But the Chinese-owned factories are said to be ‘the only show in town’ still employing some 45,000 as against 57,000 before the recession began to bite.
Zambia has been central to any discussion of anti-Chinese sentiment, ever since opposition presidential candidate Michael Sata played the anti-Chinese card with considerable though ultimately unsuccessful effect in the 2006 elections.That campaign has joined the Tazara railway and the events at the Chambishi copper mine to make up a trio of what are probably the best known facts about China in Zambia.
Most of the current total of 44,000 Chinese in a total population of 12.3 million have arrived since 2004-5. Park and Sautman see Sata’s anti-Chinese campaign as an easy way for him to cash in on popular resentment at the effects of neo-liberal economic policies; which he could hardly attack directly as he shared responsibility for them when in government and his party had no economic alternative to offer.
Though Sata got a similar score in the 2008 elections to the 29 per cent he achieved in 2006 it seems the anti-Chinese rhetoric was toned down, partly because of the cooling in cross-straits relations following the election of the KMT in Taiwan and a consequent reduction in support for Sata from Taipei and from Taiwanese businessmen in Malawi.
On the basis of their research so far, Park and Sautman conclude that the common sites of anti-China and anti-Chinese resentment are chiefly to be found among traders fearful of Chinese competition, and among owners and workers in the construction industry. They also find journalists, especially in white-owned or pro-opposition media, are to blame, especially for presenting anti-Chinese mobilisations as ‘spontaneous’ or ‘patriotic’. This, they argue, aligns opposition groups that go in for ‘China and Chinese-bashing’ with the West and with ‘anti-Chinese NGOs’.
It will be interesting to see to what extent they find these tentative conclusions borne out by the rest of their research; as well as whether their negative view of the role of the media is backed up by a content analysis, and can be correlated with ownership patterns. The degree of reliance on Western news sources might be as important a factor, combined with economic pressures which encourage journalists simply to recycle releases and syndicated material without independent investigation of their own.
Their findings on negative attitudes to the Chinese mesh with anecdotal and research findings from other sources. But we can hope that they will also attempt to gauge the extent of positive reactions, including among those consumers who find cheap Chinese products which they can afford are more use than higher-priced but better quality alternatives which have previously been outside their reach.
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* Stephen Marks is research associate and project co-ordinator with Fahamu’s China in Africa Project
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