16 October 2012

Kenya: Why Chinese and African Traders Are Not On Good Terms

Ever since former US President Richard Nixon set foot in China in 1972, the country has been on a growth trajectory never before witnessed in the history of the world.

So phenomenal has been the growth that China recently overtook Japan as the world's second largest economy. As China has grown economically, Chinese businessmen have made the world and in particular, Africa, their playground.

Many of those who have come here in droves have not found a too rosy a welcome. Jaffa Shaibu, a 32-year-old Malawian merchant in a clothes market in Salima near the shores of Lake Malawi, feels less than welcoming to the Chinese traders who have moved in over the past four years.

"The way it looks, one day there will be a big fight with them," Shaibu said. "One day there will be blood." He told Reuters in a recent interview.

Shaibu's concern resonates throughout Africa-- that the Chinese businessmen are engaging in small businesses meant for Africans thereby driving them out of business; they have better access to cheap imports of clothes, shoes and electronics from China, and most importantly, they have more money to start small businesses.

As China's influence has grown, so has the resentment increased in many parts of Africa. Even in South Africa, the continent's biggest economy, resentment is building up.

In Beijing, in July this year, President Jacob Zuma said the trade relationship with China was "unsustainable in the long term". In response to a growing skepticism from many African leaders, outgoing Chinese President, Hu Jintao, recently assured African leaders, "China would forever be a good friend, a good partner and a good brother to Africa."

However, all is not well as the Chinese President would like us to believe. News reports indicate that the resentment is boiling over with Chinese becoming casualties in the confrontations.

Officially, China insists that Chinese nationals in respective African countries should comply with the laws of their host countries. "If Chinese traders engage in activities that violate your laws, we would not seek to shield them. We would not protect Chinese citizens' illegal behavior," said Zhong Jianhua, China's Special Representative on African Affairs. "We just hope the relevant parties can handle the situation justly," he told Reuters.

However, in many cases, China is only concerned with big government officials from Beijing, and not the small scale Chinese businessmen.

In an interview with Reuters, Yoon Jung Park, a China-Africa researcher at Australia's Monash University, says. "There's a disconnect between the documented Chinese, who are frequently from Beijing, and the small scale businessmen."

"Quite frankly, they are embarrassed by them, but there's nothing they can do to stem the tide when word gets out that there are opportunities and money to be made in Africa."

This means that in months and years to come, there will be more demonstrations, as recently witnessed in Nairobi in August this year, when hundreds of Kenyan traders blew whistles and trumpets, waved placards and chanted "Chinese must go."

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