China in Africa: From a Chinese perspective

China’s growing presence in Africa has received much criticism over the past years. In a recent interview with Jeune Afrique magazine, Lu Shaye, director-general of China’s Department of African Affairs, gave a Chinese view on the whole debate. 

“China-Africa cooperation brings much more benefits to African countries than the problems, or the western countries would not be so nervous. Indeed, there are some problems with China-Africa cooperation, but these problems are not unique to China-Africa cooperation,” said Shaye.

China has in the past been condemned for its “loans-for-resources” approach, whereby it offered loans to African countries in exchange for raw materials. Criticism against this is that it puts African countries in more debt. However, Shaye said such accusations are unfounded. “With some resource-rich countries, we did launch the large-scale loans in exchange for infrastructure cooperation because these countries are able to repay the loans. They can repay the loans with their resources. What’s wrong with that? If they repay the loans with their resources, there is no problem of heavy debt burden…You see how good the development of Angola is. It is thriving everywhere. There are … construction sites everywhere.”

Shaye also defended the export of cheap Chinese products to Africa that have been blamed for the collapse of local manufacturing on the continent. “Why are there so many poor-quality Chinese products in Africa? I think the first reason is that Africa’s consumption level and ability is not very high, and people love cheap products. One only gets the quality that one’s paid for. That is a well understood principle. African traders procure low-end goods from China in order to meet the domestic demands. Second, many African importers, in order to drive down the cost of goods, pushed the Chinese manufacturers to lower prices when they placed orders. As profits were squeezed, the quality can hardly be guaranteed.”

He explained that not all Chinese products are poor quality, and that many high quality Chinese goods are sold in the west. “You cannot say that the quality of all the Chinese products is not good, or Chinese products will not be marketed around the world and China cannot become the world’s factory. When I went to Europe or the United States, it was difficult to buy a garment not made in China.”

Shaye also shed some light on why Chinese workers in Africa often live in isolation and are reluctant to interact with local people. “I think this is a problem of cultural gap and language barrier. The Chinese workers cannot speak the local languages. Usually they will leave in two or three years when they complete the project. They are reluctant to commit themselves to learning the local language. So it is hard for them to communicate with the local people.”

Zambian workers employed by Chinese enterprises last year went on strike to demand higher wages. Commenting on this, Shaye said that some African countries need to rethink their rigid labour laws. “Improving workers’ income is justified around the world. It is the high moral ground. But any government must take into account the level of their economic development and their own actual situation. They cannot go beyond reality; otherwise it will scare off investors…In some African countries the labour laws are very strict.”

He added that Chinese workers’ willingness to work under harsher conditions are one of the reasons why the country’s companies are so competitive. “The Chinese employees work in tougher conditions than the employees of western companies. The Chinese have a spirit of enduring hardship. They live a hard life, eat simple food and live in simple domiciles so that they can send home the money they earned to raise their families and improve their living conditions. The Chinese workers can endure hardship. They work in three shifts a day and work all day and all night to speed up project schedules. That is why the Chinese companies are competitive. They spend less on the workers. Take government assistance projects as an example, China spends 95% of the money on the project and on the recipient countries, while the west may spend 80% on their own staff.”