Where are all the Chinese?

Since arriving in Somaliland about four months ago, I still have yet to see a Chinese person. To be honest, I have not seen many foreigners at all except for the occasional Western aidworker, Saudi sheikh, or Sri Lankan gemstone prospector. By and large, every new person I meet here is a Somaliland local or a Somali from the diaspora who has come back.

You may be wondering why I would even expect to see any Chinese here – Beijing is thousands of miles away from Hargeisa and the two countries are worlds apart culturally.

But a fact largely unknown to many Westerners is that China’s interest in Africa has skyrocketed in the last decade, and the country is far outpacing the West in terms of business and investment on the continent. The Chinese can now be found in nearly every African country, and the jobs they are employed in are just as diverse as the places they choose to inhabit. There are roughly 1 million Chinese in Africa today, working as salesmen in Guinea, engineers in Kenya, restaurant proprietors in Uganda, coalmine managers in Zambia, roadworkers in Ethiopia, and oilfield technicians in Sudan.

A professor of mine in college, a former US diplomat in sub-Saharan Africa, recalled to our class how he had even encountered Chinese shopkeepers in N’Djamena – the sleepy and desperately poor capital city of Chad in central Africa. A student in our class from Zimbabwe chipped in, saying that in his hometown of Harare, the Chinese are everywhere. Their business acumen and increasing domination of Zimbabwean merchants has caused resentment, he said, as well as the fact that they tend to stick to themselves and make little effort to interact with the local population.

In analyzing Beijing’s relationship with the continent, the numbers speak for themselves: trade between China and Africa has increased from $9 billion in 1999 to roughly $100 billion this year. China is by far Africa’s largest trading partner, and the proof is everywhere I look. From mobile phones to flip-flops, nearly every good for sale here in Somaliland is a Chinese import.

Unlike China’s trade with America – which largely flows one-way with cheap Chinese goods being sold to American consumers – the import-export relationship between China and Africa is much more balanced.

On the export side, low-cost Chinese products have now reached even the most remote areas in Africa, including war-torn villages in the Congolese forest where cheap Chinese plasticware is imported by bicycle. Chinese firms have also signed deals with African governments to build huge infrastructure projects such as highways, stadiums, and railroads.

The Chinese have been very active in Ethiopia and from personal experience, the results are noticeable. Almost as soon as we crossed over the border from Somaliland to Ethiopia, the road to Harar transformed into a brand-new sealed road. This sparkling, Chinese-built motorway made the journey much faster and less bumpy than I had expected.

But the Chinese are equally invested in the other side of the trade equation – African commodities that can be imported to China. The African continent is home to a plethora of valuable natural resources that have been prized by colonial powers, imperialists, and traders for centuries. China, as the world’s largest country and most prolific manufacturer, is capitalizing on Africa’s vast supply of oil, minerals, timber, and even farmland.

Beijing has cozied up to petro-regimes from Angola to Algeria for decades and continues to import hundreds of millions of barrels of oil from the petroleum-rich, democracy-poor states of Sudan and Equatorial Guinea. It has also made massive investments in extracting minerals. China is currently building the world’s largest iron mine in Gabon and is the biggest buyer of coltan, a conflict-mineral almost exclusively sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo and used in the production of mobile phone and laptop batteries. Thousands of tons of West African timber are shipped to factories in the Far East and Chinese agribusinesses have been busy securing land deals to allow them to begin industrial farming plots of land in Ethiopia and Mozambique.

The topic of China’s relationship with Africa is a heavily debated one. Skeptics criticize Beijing’s interest in the continent as the “2nd wave of imperialism”, finding fault with the fact that China only seems interested in the extraction of Africa’s resources, not in the continent’s economic development or helping its people graduate from ultra-poverty. Chinese firms look at investments in Africa from a business perspective, and spend little time assessing the political, humanitarian, or environmental impact of their projects. They overwhelmingly tend to hire Chinese laborers and often have little interaction with the local population. Internationally, China has been chastised for turning a blind-eye to human rights abuses in Africa and continuing to do business with authoritarian regimes that Western companies won’t go near.

The flip side of this is that China gets things done in Africa. When a Chinese construction company is hired to build a road, they build a road. They don’t spend months plodding through feasibility studies, environmental impact surveys, and letters from concerned donors like the UN, the IMF, or Western companies would. Chinese laborers are hard-working, rarely complain, and are willing to work for comparatively low wages in dangerous and desolate locations. Dambisa Moyo, a renowned Zambian economist, has praised China for its no-strings-attached, results-based investment in Africa, a far cry from the Western aid that she believes has crippled the continent and has accounted for its ongoing stagnation.

With all of this laid out on the table, the question remains – where are all of the Chinese in Somaliland?

Well, there are some, and I think Beijing will become increasingly interested in Somaliland in the years to come. I polled my students to see how many of them had ever seen a Chinese person in Somaliland, and was surprised to find that about 70% of them had. They assured me that there were Chinese dentists in Hargeisa, businessmen responsible for importing goods from Beijing, and engineers working for the country’s telecom and satellite television stations. One girl even said her next-door neighbors in Hargeisa are Chinese. I guess I have been looking in the wrong places.

To emphasize the magnitude of China’s takeover of Africa, I asked my students to think of everything they own – clothes, mobile phones, shoes, even their traditional Somali macawiis, a skirt-like piece of fabric worn by men here. Then I asked them where all of these things came from. They all replied, “China!” Their homework assignment for the next class was to ask their parents whether they owned anything from China when they were growing up in Somaliland or Somalia. The answers were overwhelmingly no. I pointed out to the students how cheap Chinese goods have effectively killed many African textile and clothes manufacturers, and they agreed that being a Somali shirt-manufacturer would be a doomed profession; one would clearly go bankrupt trying to compete with dirt-cheap Chinese products.

Realizing the potential importance of Somaliland, Beijing has begun to develop ties with Hargeisa. Somaliland’s president, Ahmed Silanyo, made a two-week trip to China in August to discuss potential opportunities in the country for Chinese investors. A trilateral deal has been signed between China, Somaliland, and Ethiopia to develop oil and infrastructure projects in the region. Reportedly, China plans to invest close to $4 billion on the project, which would build oil and gas pipelines from the Ogaden in Ethiopia to the Somaliland sea port of Berbera. In addition to the pipelines, China would expand and renovate Berbera’s port and build a major road and rail system from Berbera to Addis Ababa.

With a population of roughly 70 million, Ethiopia provides a huge market for Chinese goods. However, the country is land-locked and Djibouti’s port currently has a monopoly over the Horn of Africa. The hope is that a modern, renovated Berbera port could provide some competition and potentially overtake Djibouti or Mombasa as the premier port in East Africa. Such an investment in Somaliland would provide a much-needed boost to the country’s economy, which largely relies on diaspora remittances and livestock exports to keep afloat.

The question I am curious about is when the Chinese ultimately decide to come to Somaliland, will they be well-received or will they quickly wear out their welcome?

I am sure that China’s expansion into Somaliland is just over the horizon. There are roads that need to be built, a power system that needs to be laid, and plenty of opportunities for business-savvy entrepreneurs to introduce their goods to a new market.

Until that happens, the roads are potholed, consumer goods remain pricy, and I still can’t find any decent chow-mein in the whole country!

**If you are interested in reading more about the Chinese in Africa, check out:

The Atlantic’s “The Next Empire” and The Guardian’s “China’s Economic Invasion of Africa”

**Regarding China’s potential investment in Somaliland:

Reuters’ “Somaliland in Port Deal with China Businessmen” and SomalilandPress’ “Somaliland, Ethiopia and China to Sign Trilateral Deals”

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7 thoughts on “Where are all the Chinese?

  1. Stephan says:

    Is the question, “Where are all the Chinese,” or “Where is China?”

    My hunch, John, is that serious immigration from China into African countries happens only after the Chinese government gets involved: If the Chinese government decides to lend for an infrastructure project in Somaliland, you can count on finding an influx of Chinese engineers and a Chinese management team to supervise a mix of Chinese and Somali workers. Accompanying those will be service-providing entrepreneurs and those that go with them including, perhaps, prostitutes (http://shanghaiist.com/2011/11/15/chinese-prostitutes-ghana.php).

    If the Chinese government doesn’t get involved, however, it’s up to only the entrepreneurs. Without a multi-billion dollar infrastructure project, immigration is a much slower process.

    You’ve already answered, “When will the Chinese decide to come to Somaliland?” Based on your students’ answers, they’re already there. “When will China (Chinese government funding for projects besides pipelines) get there,” is a trickier question.

    Somaliland, based on my research (Wikipedia), is a self-declared sovereign state, recognized as an autonomous region. The Chinese government is in no place to take sides in territorial disputes (Tibet, Taiwan, South China Sea). Funding a self-declared sovereign state is not much different from selling weapons to one. Chinese government backing for major infrastructure projects in Somaliland, in my ever humbler opinion, can’t happen (without permission from Big Brother Somalia). If China does back Somaliland, it sets a bizarre political precedent.

    This being said, I’ve never been to Somaliland! What do I know?! You are a terrific writer!

  2. Haywood Rankin says:

    What a superb essay, John. You have taken the concept of the blog to a whole new dimension for me: the former student goes to remotest Africa and uses the blog as the quintessential analytical modality while he is the middle of the desert. It reminds me of the best journalism, or of a geologist who is at the top of his scientific investigation in the midst of extreme discomfort. I plan to suggest your blog to my upcoming seminar, especially this one on China and the one on Islamist perceptions of you class — assuming i can figure out how to get into your blog then!

  3. Liz Waller says:

    Dear John,
    Again I am impressed with your writing skills and fascinated with all of the detailed information you have and the professional way in which you present it. I had read about the Chinese and road building and also their poaching of animal parts that they feel are aphrodisiacs (sp?). But they are much more invasive than I had realized. I see parallels, too — the Chinese who built the railroads in the US and the fact that most all of our consumer goods seem to come from China — a complete turnaround in a relatively few years. Anyway, thank you for your blogs. And hope you can have an interesting Happy Holiday. Best wishes, Liz Waller (neighbor in Palo Alto)l

  4. wpse says:

    Good post! Also, I liked the article you linked to from SomalilandPress along with the 103 comments following it. Some of these raise interesting issues about Berbera’s prospects as a global port and whether it can ever compete with Djibouti:
    >>
    If need be Djibouti can build Tadjourah in the north as another viable area for ships to dock. Currently the ships docking in Doraleh are the super ships, next generation ships. The Doraleh Container Terminal cost $400 million to build it and it is the most advanced, technologically developed port on the African continent. Not even South Africa can match Djibouti’s ports. So each your heart out. http://webapps.dpworld.com/portal/page/portal/DP_
    http://somalilandpress.com/somaliland-ethiopia-and-china-to-sign-trilateral-deals-23306

  5. Mr Hargeisa says:

    If you want a decent Chow-mein, well visit Oriental Hotel in the city center in Hargeisa. I think they have about two or three Chinese dishes on their menu.

    They used to be a Chinese restaurant in Hargeisa (Ming Sing) but it shut down due to lack of interest by locals. I heard Ming Sing use to be the carter for the old Somali Airlines.

  6. Elyaß says:

    When you asked the students if they have seen a Chinese person in Sland and their reply was “yes” you have to be mindful that Somalis call all small eyed people “Chinese”..LOL..Can you tell apart a Chinese from a Korean?..So when that girl said her neighbor is Chinese I’m almost certain that the people she refering to are actually Malaysian or Filipino bc there happened to be a lot Filipino NGO workers. As a matter of fact there use to b this Filipino lady that was perhaps the first person to blog from Sland, back in 02-05. She had the most interesting blog about Somaliland I’ve ever came across although yours is challenging that title of hers. Check it out, it was called “Inside Somaliland blog” or ill get you the address to it so that you may compare and contrast the progress since her time in Somaliland.

    When it comes to the Chinaman in Africa I think that eventually people will hate them so much. My main reasoning is that they do flood the market with their products but that’s not it because when they decide to build infrastructure what they do is they use their own imported Chinese laborers. Even as far as bringing their own prostitutes. Everything they do in Africa they use their own manpower. Also they practice a form of apartheid. They do not inter mingle with their hosts. And they practice an in your face racism. So combine all that and you will see a peoples uprising in these countries. The host governments are in concert with the Chinese and so they are not affected because they profit from them.

  7. hodan says:

    hudhud says:

    very informative article. Would say make your own Chow-MEIN with all the fresh vegs. all you need is the Soy and sweet and sour souses which ‘mI sure will be available in Saadadiin Supermarkets or I will send you some from UAE under your name to Mansoor Hotel or Ambassor Hotel which ever closer to you..

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