Are Chinese corrupting Africa?

A 23 June article in the Shanghai newspaper Dongfang Zaobao, circulated on the Minjian China mailing list (an English version is available here), describes how the journalist was told at a Kenyan airport that ebony statues could not be carried in hand luggage, then waived through despite this obviously spurious infraction after paying a couple of dollars. A friend of the author’s, a Chinese resident of Africa, subsequently put it to him that it was Chinese businessmen who introduced this sort of petty corruption, or indeed extortion, by bringing with them the habit of paying off officials whom they wanted to get something done, until finally this payment came to be expected from them.

The article then goes on to say that Africans sometimes criticise Chinese businesses for selling counterfeit or substandard merchandise and for capitalising on corruption and “bad governance.” The author asks: “What standards of living, working and doing business are we [Chinese] bringing to Africa?”

The article is yet another reflection of the shifting tone of Chinese media discourse about China’s overseas ventures. Significantly, the English version was published in the English-language Global Times, an offshoot of People’s Daily. But the article also raises a real question: are Chinese agents or victims of corruption here?

The story reminds me of many I heard from Chinese entrepreneurs in Eastern Europe during my research there in the ’90s and the early 2000s. An extreme example was the businesswoman in Hungary who told me she would never buy a train ticket but always pay the conductor on the train a smaller amount: this, in her view,  saved her money and secured the conductor’s friendship. In a situation of legal vulnerability and xenophobia, Chinese entrepreneurs consistently avoided litigation or public debate and preferred to create private clientelistic relations with officials — even as minor as a train conductor — as protection against the unpredictable punitive actions of the state, whether or not they were engaged in anything illegal.

But the strategy was not always voluntary. Most of my informants, like their counterparts in Africa (as we know from Gregor Dobler’s research), acknowledged underreporting the value of their merchandise at customs and paying off customs officers privately. Yet even those who claimed that they did not want to do so said that they had virtually no choice: customs officials expected these payments and would not allow them to clear their goods in the legal way. In other words, they appeared to be caught in what Donald Nonini, describing ethnic Chinese businessmen in Suharto’s Indonesia, called “predatory clientelism:” a classical catch of “middlemen minorities” in vulnerable positions. I suspect that some of this might be happening in Africa, and although responsibility for the vicious circle — if it is indeed arising — rests with both sides, I think resisting it is not simply a matter of personal integrity.

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