Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Chinese Experience in Africa

Over at Al Jazeera, their show Witness has an interesting 23-minute documentary on Chinese people who've made a life for themselves in Senegal.

A few observations:

I liked how Witness spent half the show humanizing the Chinese experience in Senegal. It was a nice juxtaposition - a people who really are seeking a more stable economic situation for themselves and their families, and the economic ruin they (perhaps unwittingly) wrought on the local population that they were so isolated from by virtue of language and other barriers.

I couldn't but compare this to the New Yorker audio slideshow on Nigerian immigrants in Chinese city Guangzhou. Evan Osnos points out here that it's almost always a African buyer and a Chinese seller, showing what I think is the biggest difference between the obstacles that a Nigerian, say, in China has to overcome, and that of the Chinese in an African country. The speed with which Chinese populations grow in African countries ensures (a) they always have a market for Chinese-made products, which allows for (b) growth in Chinese purchasing power.

Of course, Nigerian populations in China grow as well and will ensure a market for popular Made in Nigeria products like Milo, Nido, or Indomie, but that is only true within the Nigerian -- and larger African -- community. The strength that Chinese people have is that they can count on a market, not just from fellow Chinese, but also with the locals as well. With this influence, Chinese people have an upper hand in business dealings that locals don't.

When the Senegalese merchants complained about the quality of goods coming into the country from China, I didn't so much blame the Chinese as I blamed the Senegalese government that allowed such low quality goods in the first place, and the inability of Senegalese government to create a regulatory framework to protect local businesses. Wade's government is probably reluctant to do anything to anger their Chinese benefactors, and I understand why they won't. Individual African countries have a lot more to lose than the Chinese do, and they won't get a better deal on infrastructure and trade with the Europeans or Americans.

Dr. Deborah Brautigam, who blogs here, has a favorable view of China in Africa, and talks about the benefits in the video below.

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