South Africans and Nigerians were more negative about Chinese business and labor practices in Africa than Kenyans in a recent survey of 15 African countries, Mail&Guardian reports.
An estimated one million Chinese live and work in Africa, the report said.
A study by the Pretoria-based Ethics Institute of South Africa shows that of the 15 countries polled, South Africans are the most anti-Chinese.
Of the 1,056 Africans surveyed, respondents were mostly negative about Chinese business people in Africa (43.3 percent were negative and 35.4 percent positive); the quality of Chinese products and services (55.9 percent negative), and the economic and social responsibility of Chinese business (40.1 percent and 45.7 percent negative respectively).
Perceptions of the environmental responsibility of Chinese business were negative (53.9 percent of respondents) and employment practices in Africa (46-percent negative). Labor practices were seen in a particularly poor light, the report said.
South Africans are the most anti-Chinese, the study found. The survey said that South Africans are also “generally speaking more xenophobic than other Africans.”
Researchers believe South Africans’ perceptions are also more negative “because Chinese companies have been operating in South Africa for a long time and have penetrated deep into rural areas.”
Investment in Kenya, by contrast, is much more recent.
China is accustomed to hearing complaints from Africa about how its businesses are
run on the continent, Mail&Guardian reports.
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For years, negative sentiments from Africans on the ground have contrasted with
deal-making and backslapping between African and Chinese governments – especially
since China is now Africa’s largest trading partner with $200-billion-plus worth of trade.
“There is a perception that Chinese companies do not treat their African staff with respect, do not provide decent working conditions, have little regard for health and safety conditions of their employees and have little regard for basic workers’ rights,” the report stated.
Of the countries surveyed, most respondents came from Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. In most categories, South Africans and Nigerians were more negative about Chinese business than Kenyans.
South Africans see Chinese business people as a threat to domestic manufacturing, especially textiles.
Nigeria and South Africa are more influenced by Western media than (other countries surveyed), “which tend to create a more negative picture about Chinese investment in Africa,” the report states.
Earlier surveys with similar findings were done by the Brenthurst Foundation concerning Africans’ complaints about Chinese traders and the flooding of African markets with inferior Chinese products.
But China-Africa scholars say China has been listening to these complaints.
Chinese academic scholar Bob Wekeza cautions against generalizing about Africans’ perceptions. Chinese state-controlled media and government-funded think-tanks tend to paint a rosier picture, said Wekeza, who is a Ph.D candidate at the Communication University of China in Beijing and visiting researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand.
“People have different experiences depending on what level of interaction they have had with Chinese business,” he said. “In places like Sudan, the perception is very positive while in Zambia it’s the opposite.”
Sven Grimm, director of the Centre for Chinese studies in Stellenbosch, said critics should make a distinction between Chinese government-owned enterprises that do large-scale projects in Africa, and smaller private businesses that often escape the control of the Chinese embassies.
Lately the Chinese government has mandated government-owned companies operating in
Africa to improve social responsibility practices. Small business owners are not necessarily following suit.
The situation on the ground is changing fast because of macroeconomic issues such as labor costs in China, Grimm said.
One of the major complaints about Chinese businesses has been that they employ Chinese workers willing to work longer hours for lower wages than Africans.
This is no longer true, Mail&Guardian reports.
“For many companies, it has now become too expensive to employ Chinese,” Grimm said.
When they first came to Africa more than a decade ago, Chinese companies were inexperienced on the continent but many are now changing the way they operate.
China is extremely concerned about its image internationally, especially regarding how it is
viewed by Western countries such as the U.S., Grimm said.
Wekeza and Grimm are part of a network of about 400 scholars around the world focusing on China-Africa relations, which they say are complex and evolving rapidly.