Monday, July 11, 2011

this week

News is slim, so I hope you’ll settle for a few highlights and a few more thoughts about Sino-African relations.


 - I can’t believe I forgot to mention this: the 90th Anniversary Celebration of the Chinese Communist Party went off swimmingly. Our company’s group piece was so-so at best, but I pulled off my solo (with – did I mention? – three backup dancers) without incident and it was very well received. I had a chance to meet the Chinese ambassador to Zambia, as well as the head of the embassy’s Council on Commerce; however, they didn’t seem terribly interested in meeting with me. My only good lead was a reporter for CCTV and former Chinese teacher, so we’ll see what happens with that. After the event, we all went out for a delicious dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant, paid for by the boss, and were informed that two karaoke machines had been ordered in the hopes of keeping the workers amused during their free time. (I guarantee they’ll still get bored and sneak off to the casinos.)

 - I’ve been slowly meeting people from other Chinese companies: a girl at a gas(-canister) company; a guy at a paper factory; and a project manager at a small construction enterprise, who was able to invite me to dinner and then charge it to the company, and whose compound I’ll probably be visiting next week.

 - Reckoning by the amount of malaria prophylaxis left in my cupboard, I’m already more than halfway through my stay in Africa – in fact, the halfway mark was Friday.

 - I’m still waiting for a breakthrough before I can improve my ping-pong... and new ears before I can improve my listening comprehension. Am I destined to be mediocre at everything I do no matter how hard I try?

 - Today I helped make baobab fruit juice! It’s certainly not the new pineapple, but it’s actually pretty good if you add enough sugar.


This past week, while renewing my visa (and, harrowingly, having my business ties exposed by a local coworker, who was so bent on being helpful that he didn’t heed my warning that we should do our visa business separately), I had a chance to talk privately with our Zambian HR Director about how he, and other Zambians, see the Chinese. Our offices are adjacent so we see a lot of each other, and he didn’t need any urging to speak freely with me.

His views on expatriates in general seemed passively negative – he blames high unemployment on a population boom brought on by an influx of refugees from less stable area regimes, though he doesn’t seem to blame the people themselves for their actions. His views on local Chinese-run companies were mostly couched in general terms, but he made it clear that his own views were only slightly more positive.

When he tells people he’s working for a Chinese company, he said, they ask him if he’s crazy. Chinese companies are known – especially in comparison to the more deeply rooted British and Indian firms – for trying to turn over a profit at any cost. This means, in his words, taking advantage of the high unemployment to pay low wages and  inhumanely disregard workers’ religious/family/rent situation. In this respect, he sees our company as occupying the middle of the spectrum in relation to other Chinese companies – and the lower end overall. Zambia’s business and labor laws are fairly comprehensive, but he says that some Chinese companies (not ours) will even pay “slave wages” because 20 people are clamoring for the same job. His own salary, he says (which is about the same as my subsidy, though the man is a full-time employee with a college degree and work experience) is just enough to cover his gas to and from work every day; he makes his real money off of the farm he owns, and is mostly here because he likes working HR and wants some experience under his belt. I don’t think he’s putting on airs – I’ve seen his enrollment certificate for the six-year correspondence program in HR at a local university.

Another problem that locals have with the Chinese, he says, is that the latter are seen as irresponsible investors (or, as the HR director calls them, “so-called ‘investors’”) - people who will drop in for a few years, make some quick cash, and go home, leaving behind nothing of lasting value. He doesn’t think that our boss falls under that category; on the contrary, “Mr. Li” has been here for 13 years, built a villa here, sent his daughter to school here, and is even rumored (incorrectly) to have received Zambian citizenship. When speaking with local workers, I’ve found that despite the scarcity of his smiles, the boss seems very well-liked for his understanding of, and especially investment in, Zambia.

Another issue is that locals want foreign investors to come and do things that Zambians themselves don’t do very well (e.g., construction or manufacturing), not to add yet more competition to already crowded markets (e.g., farming). Frankly, I myself don’t see this as the responsibility of an investor in any sense. For instance, I know from the Economist that farming – one of the biggest industries the Chinese engage in here, after mining and construction – has a long way to go in terms of efficiency, and I say that that if any investor sees an opportunity (particular a technological one) to produce more efficiently, then more power to him or her. The real enemy is still the massive set of  American and European subsidies that push down global market prices... but that’s a discussion for another day.

Another thing I take issue with is that our HR director at no time recognized the fact that, well, employment is better than unemployment. We can agree that each company should pay the minimum wage; we might even be able to agree on a higher amount, as a humane or living wage; but I’m not buying his higher standards of long-term investment and the like. Most investors are not philanthropists: they come to make a profit. And from a more long-term viewpoint, even lacking a minimum wage, any employment is good for the country – it lessens the pool of workers competing for each job, and strengthens competition by employers for labor. Have enough companies looking for workers, and wages will rise, while unemployment drops to a reasonable level. This is, of course, ideal... but I return to my point that, executives’ individual moral imperatives aside, employment is better than unemployment.

At any rate, Chinese companies are a huge force in Zambia right now – Chinese citizens or their representatives must have accounted for a third of the business in the Immigration Bureau when I was there, and 80% of the non-African. But, given the politically influential anti-Chinese sentiment that I’ve heard expressed from locals and the media, it will be interesting to see what the new government’s policies will be like if there is a change in power. I would predict a lot of rhetoric and a few symbolic gestures, but nothing significant: employment aside, Chinese contributions to local manufacturing and technology are too great to casually toss aside. It’s also worth noting that a lot of money is flowing into Zambia in terms of Chinese government-run enterprises, government investment, and government loans (notably through the Chinese Export-Import Bank [Ex-Im]), and I’m sure that the Chinese government will have plenty of leverage if it feels that the Zambian government has turned against local Chinese businesses.

That turned out to be a fairly long treatise; I hope it interests at least a few of my quasi-loyal readers.

Until the weekend,

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