In October 2010 miners gathered outside the Chinese-owned Collum Coal Mine in southern Zambia. They were there to protest poor working conditions and demanded higher wages. Facing them were armed Chinese supervisors, who ended up opening fire on the crowd. In 2012 another protest ensued around the same mine; this time the miners killed one of Chinese staff.
China has been steadily increasing its business presence in Africa over the past decade, as China’s diverse capital and labor resources continuously traverse the conflict zones of Sudan and South Sudan, contend with the xenophobic excesses in the southern African region, and encounter local fury in eastern, western, and northern Africa.
Although Chinese economic interests are primarily located in democratically governed and politically stable parts of Africa, made-in-China goods and services continue to reach every part of the culturally diverse continent.
However, with this well-documented and widely touted continental embrace comes the creeping phenomenon of anti-Chinese fervor and populism in different communities across Africa where financial capital and labor from China competes with African development efforts.
Though such sentiments often occur when capital and labor cross foreign shores, especially to economically distressed regions, this emergent anti-China populism in Africa holds important implications for China as a rising global power, and Africa, an economically promising region seeking foreign direct capital and expertise.
Much has been reported on the residential wedge between Chinese migrant labor and their host communities as a contributory element to deterioration in relations between the migrants and their African hosts. It’s a common sight to spot Chinese labor in sponsored projects across Africa housed in makeshift containers located on or close to the project sites, often far removed from the dwellings of the local Africans or communities.
As much as this may have the merits of proximity to project site and reduced transportation costs, it often limits the contact between Chinese laborers and the locals, and further produces avenues of discord that help foment workplace disagreements between Chinese and African workers.
Partly stemming from the residential problem is the language barrier, which further primes or fuels anti-Chinese fervor. The inability of Chinese migrant workers to quickly learn English in Anglophone Africa or French in the Francophone parts can easily make them targets of criminal activities or even lead them to unintentionally disregard local laws and conventions. When Ghana cracked down on illegal gold mining in 2013, arresting over 160 Chinese citizens, local media reported many of the miners blamed their unfamiliarity with local precepts on language differences.
For African workers, especially the unskilled or semi-skilled, the lack of clear communicative links with their Chinese counterparts easily breeds frustration over the difference in expectations. With language nestled in the culture of work, any emerging contempt for the Chinese and their work ethic often begins on the factory floors, oil platforms, and construction sites.
Another issue contributing to this toxic relationship is politics. In economic engagements and diplomacy in Africa, Beijing often finds itself between a rock and a hard place. In democratic African states like South Africa, Zambia, and Kenya, Chinese labor and capital often encounter frustrated unemployed or underemployed masses with the lawful right to protest, petition, and vote against “all things Chinese” that often compete with “all things local” — as was the case in 2010 with the Collum Coal Mine in Zambia.
Moreover, while managing such local anger, Beijing also risks being caught between politically opposed parties, who are normally in relentless pursuit of political armor to depose each other. In his successful 2011 presidential campaign in Zambia, Michael Sata employed heavy anti-Chinese rhetoric to gain votes.
For many outside parties — especially Western countries suspicious of the Chinese and their economic engagements in Africa — it is perceived rational to lend support to voices of local pro-democracy or environmental movements that label some Chinese ventures in Africa as purposive plunderers of resources in poorly governed and mismanaged African states. Negative media depictions of the Chinese in Africa or African residents in China only serve to fuel anti-Chinese populism there.
Predictably, China’s continued profiting by access to vital resources and markets in Africa comes with the risks of inciting local anger at Chinese involvement in unlawful and unregulated activities, or perceived connivance with elites and locals in exploitative ventures.
Consequently, sometimes the trigger for latent xenophobic sentiments against the Chinese may range from competition for local resources or markets to blowbacks from treatment of African residents in Guangzhou.
Whatever the causes and effects of these sporadic anti-Chinese outbursts in Africa may be, they are definite, bitter reminders of globalized capital and labor, and their struggle for local spaces.
(A Chinese supervisor gives instructions to Zambian workers in Kabwe, Zambia, March 23, 2007. Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images/VCG)