A group of more than 200 youth, wielding clubs and swords, attacked and injured 14 Chinese nationals at a railway construction site in Kenya on Tuesday. The group was reportedly demanding jobs on the US$13 billion railway currently being built across the country, and the attack followed other non-violent protests in recent weeks.

While the events appear to highlight ongoing angst against China’s massive and ever-increasing presence in Africa, one China-Africa expert tells The News Lens International that the story, albeit potentially explosive, is far more complicated than what is told in mainstream narratives.

Eric Olander is a veteran foreign correspondent and co-founder of the respected China Africa Project podcast and blog. He has reported from across Africa and Asia.

Olander says within the broader context of China in Africa, the labor story is one of the more sensitive issues confronting the Chinese presence on the continent. While there is a stereotype that Chinese workers are used at the expense of locals, the data does not support this.

Researchers from Hong Kong University of Science & Technology (HKUST) and Hong Kong Polytechnic University (HKPU) found that across 400 Chinese enterprises and projects in 40-plus African countries, more than 80% of the employees were locals. This figure is much lower for top manager and engineering positions. The researchers say that Western firms do not generally have higher "localization" rates than Chinese companies, despite “swipes” to the contrary from U.S. leaders.

“Myths about Chinese firms’ putative non-localization should be abjured and those propagated for political ends by anti-Chinese political forces should be counteracted, so that Africans can move on to reality-based job issues within the China/Africa relationship,” HKUST’s Barry Sautman and HKPU’s Yan Hairong write.

‘The real story is more complicated’

According to the World Resources Institute, China’s outward foreign direct investment in Africa grew from US$1 billion in 2004 to more than US$30 billion 10 years later. President Xi Jinping (習近平) last year promised a further spend of US$60 billion over three years. Five years ago, as many as one million Chinese were thought to have already moved to work in Africa.

However, in most cases hiring locals is simply more cost-effective, Olander says.

“Why would the Chinese, who are very ‘bottom-line’ oriented in their business culture, import labor if it was cheaper to hire locally? The answer is they don't.”

Olander says that notwithstanding the at times “reprehensible” Chinese labor practices, the decision-making of local governments, short project time frames and tight budgets, should also be considered.

“In many instances, the contractor is brought in to do the work according to the budget that is set by the host government – the PRC will often give a grant to the host government to allocate to the various projects – according to the timetable set by the local government and to the specifications determined by the local administration.”

Olander gives an example from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where he met Chinese contractors forced to finish projects under certain timeframes so that President Joseph Kabila could claim credit for the new infrastructure.

“Hiring skilled construction workers in parts of the DRC can be very difficult and then managing those teams under incredible deadline pressure can be even more challenging,” he says. “So the Chinese opted to bring in some of their workers in order to meet the deadlines set by Kabila otherwise they said they wouldn't have been able to finish the work.”

Sautman and Hairong found variation in localization rates in Chinese enterprises and projects across Africa’s 55 states.

“Those in construction in Angola and Algeria have lower than average – but still majority – proportions of locals, Angola because of de-skilling due to 27 years of war and Algeria because of migration of skilled workers to Europe,” they write. “South Africa and Zimbabwe’s higher industrialization and education levels result in especially strong localization at Chinese firms.”

In terms of different sectors, Sautman and Hairong found the lowest rate of workforce localization was at Chinese telecommunications giants Huawei and ZTE, although about two-thirds of the firms’ workers in Africa were local. The researchers also say that the longer firms have operations in Africa, the more they localize.

Statistics compiled by academics at John Hopkins’ China Africa Research Institute (CARI) on the annual number of Chinese workers in African countries paint a similar picture.

“It’s widely believed that Chinese companies refuse to hire Africans and bring in all their own workers,” the institute says. “The real story is more complicated.”

CARI points out that in the case of Angola, which has just emerged from decades of civil war, “skilled and literate workers are scarce and expensive. Here, Chinese firms find it pays to import workers from China.”

More broadly, Olander says that the infrequent labor incidents should be seen within the broader context of “a massive Chinese infrastructure building spree in Africa along with heavy Chinese investment in manufacturing, which all require labor.”

A political wedge

Still, the issue of Chinese labor in Africa remains contentious.

“This is a particularly explosive issue for both Africans and Westerners because it can be used to great effect to stir up nativist, populist sentiments just as anti-foreigner campaigns are currently doing in places like the U.S. and U.K,” Olander says.

“It resonates both locally among African politicians and with the international press that has identified this issue as a case study for the difficulties that the Chinese encounter in Africa.”

He says that U.S. President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State and presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton have used the issue as a “wedge” to position the U.S. as a more suitable alternative to the Chinese.

And he says the former Zambian President Michael Sata successfully used the “labor line” in a presidential election – although after that was achieved “he embraced the Chinese and did little to nothing to move on Chinese labor in the country.”

Somewhat surprisingly, given China’s tight internal control of information, Olander says that the narratives pushed by the West often go unchallenged because of a lack of strategic communications skills on the part of China.

“This allows for a lot of manipulation of the narrative,” he says.

Asked what response, if any, he expected from China on the attack in Kenya, Olander says that the Chinese government or embassies “rarely” respond to these kinds of situations.

He notes that the incidents themselves are far more complicated than they may appear, and it is difficult from the outside to judge what the company’s response would be.

Still, he points out that the particular Chinese involved has "extensive local relationships that they are no doubt leveraging right now and they are probably struggling to figure out how to make this problem go away as fast as possible."

“Just as in China, Chinese managers in Africa are often not well trained on how to deal with this kind of unrest so their immediate instinct is often to close ranks, tap their guan-xi (關係) and try to resolve the matter as fast as possible.”

China’s state-owned Xinhua does not appear to have run the Kenya attack story. However, the news agency has an article today outlining that “with some 50 Chinese companies working on various projects to improve Kenya's infrastructure, analysts say China has become the east African nation's trusted infrastructure development partner.”

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole