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21 Feb 2014 00:00
A labourer works at the construction site of the Africa pavilion at the 2010 World Expo site in Shanghai. Chinese business in Africa has drawn a lot of criticism. (Reuters)
China has become accustomed to hearing complaints from Africa about how their businesses are operating on the continent.
For years now, negative sentiments from Africans on the ground have been at odds with the deal-making and backslapping between African states and the Chinese government – especially since China is now Africa's largest trading partner with over $200-billion worth of trade. There are an estimated one million Chinese people living and working in Africa.
A new study reveals, however, that perceptions of China in Africa differ from country to country.
Done by the Pretoria-based Ethics Institute of South Africa (EthicsSA), it shows that, of the countries questioned, South Africans are the most anti-Chinese.
The results show that, of the 1 056 Africans from 15 countries surveyed, the majority were largely negative about Chinese businesspeople in Africa (43.3% were negative and 35.4% positive), the quality of Chinese products and services (55.9% negative), and the economic and social responsibility of Chinese business (40.1% and 45.7% negative respectively).
Perceptions of the environmental responsibility of Chinese business (53.9% negative) and of their employment practices (46% negative) in Africa are bad. And labour practices are seen in a particularly poor light.
"There is a perception that Chinese companies do not treat their African staff with respect, do not provide decent working conditions, have little regard for health and safety conditions of their employees and have little regard for basic workers' rights," says the report.
Of the countries surveyed, most of the results came from Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.
The researchers say the negative perceptions among South Africans are partly owed to the fact that South Africans see Chinese businesspeople as a threat to the domestic manufacturing sector, especially in the textile industry.
The survey states that South Africans are also "generally speaking more xenophobic than other Africans".
The researchers believe South Africans' perceptions are also more negative "because Chinese companies have been operating in South Africa for a long time and have penetrated deep into rural areas".
Investment in Kenya, for example, is much more recent. Countries such as Nigeria and South Africa are also, to a greater extent, influenced by Western media, "which tend to create a more negative picture about Chinese investment in Africa", the report states.
The findings of the survey are largely corroborated by earlier surveys done by institutions such as the Brenthurst Foundation concerning Africans' complaints about Chinese traders and the flooding of African markets with inferior Chinese products.
But China-Africa scholars say China has been paying attention to these complaints.
Bob Wekeza, a PhD candidate at the Communication University of China in Beijing and visiting researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand, says Chinese state-controlled media and government-funded think-tanks tend to paint a rosier picture of the situation, but great care should be taken when generalising about perceptions by Africans.
"People have different experiences depending on what level of interaction they have had with Chinese business. In places like Sudan, the perception is very positive while in Zambia it's the opposite," he says.
State versus private
Sven Grimm, director of the Centre for Chinese studies in Stellenbosch, says one should also make a distinction between state-owned enterprises that engage in large-scale projects in Africa, and smaller private businesses, which often escape the control of the Chinese embassies.
Lately the Chinese government has, for example, compelled state-owned companies operating in Africa to put in place better social responsibility practices, but those are not necessarily followed by small-scale operators.
Grimm says the situation on the ground is rapidly changing because of macroeconomic issues such as the cost of employment in China.
One of the major complaints about Chinese business is that they employ Chinese workers who are willing to work longer hours for lower wages.
This is no longer true.
"For many companies, it has now become too expensive to employ Chinese," he says.
Chinese companies, which were very inexperienced when they first came to Africa more than a decade ago, are now changing their ways of operating on the continent.
China is extremely concerned about its image internationally, especially regarding how it is viewed by Western countries such as the United States, says Grimm.
Wekeza and Grimm are part of a network of about 400 scholars around the world focusing on China-Africa relations, which they say are complex and evolving rapidly.
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