The misunderstood lives of Chinese traders in Africa

Out to compete

Evident throughout the Brenthurst Foundation’s interviews are Chinese traders’ tolerance for risk, and for pursuing opportunities where none seemed to exist, where profit margins were minimal. They also have a strong willingness to compete.

According to most Chinese shopkeepers, this attitude is not understood by Africans who purchase their goods or work in their stores. “Traders feel besieged by charges that they are using illicit means to rob and cheat Africans, rather than simply out-compete them,” says the report.

“Foreigners who go to visit China are treated as guests, but we visiting foreign countries are seen as a threat. Making a living overseas is very hard,” noted one Chinese trader in Lesotho’s capital Maseru.

In many parts of Africa, Chinese traders are, however, facing stiffer competition from Vietnamese and Somali traders who bring with them their own strengths and approaches to business.

No help from Beijing

Ninety-five per cent of traders that were questioned for the survey said that they have never received help or assistance from their respective Chinese embassies. The vast majority of traders have an extremely negative perception of ‘Beijing’.

Living in fear

According to the report, “Chinese traders have become fearful of the rising tide of resentment among locals, fuelled by China’s perceived dominance over many sectors of their respective economies.” Many local traders have been pushed out of the market because they could no longer compete with the low cost Chinese goods.

In some countries, ill-will is growing among Africans over the poor quality of some Chinese goods and shopkeepers’ business practices, such as a lack of return policies.

“From the Chinese perspective, such resentment is born of misunderstanding and ignorance,” says the report. “As one Francistown merchant from Fujian explained: ‘The Chinese have lower profit and price margins, with little after-sale service, that is why the Chinese have a bad name … as opposed to locals and Indians who have higher profit and lower sale, and much after-sales repair’.”

In Zambia’s capital Lusaka, most Chinese traders spend only a few minutes at a time in their shops, leaving the running of their businesses to locals. “Most of the traders possessed only ‘work permits’ rather than ‘self-employment permits’, which new requirements apparently stipulated were necessary to run a business,” says McNamee. Many of the traders in Zambia are therefore technically illegal and subject to harassment by revenue and immigration officials.

Due to the poor English (or Portuguese, in the case of Angola) of most Chinese shopkeepers, they are often unable to express their grievances to law enforcement officials.