Zimbabweans' mixed feelings about growing relation with China

Jun 16, 2011

For the Mugabe government, its relations with China have been a lifeline during its toughest times since coming to power. For ordinary Zimbabweans the close and growing ties with China are a much more mixed blessing.

China is developing economic and business relations all over Africa, but with the government of Zimbabwe seems to have a more involved relationship than with many others. China has indeed been a bulwark for the Mugabe government against considerable pressure against it by Western governments. Chinese buyers in recent years become important players in Zimbabwe's recovery tobacco sector and there are Chinese investors in many other sectors. Mugabe government officials have expressed gratitude for China being 'an all weather friend' from the days of the liberation struggle right up to the present, when Zimbabwe has been estranged from Western countries.

But ordinary Zimbabweans are much more ambivalent about the Chinese. The sudden high visibility of their presence in Harare has made many people uneasy. Monied, highly-visible foreigners who are able to buy prime properties at a depressed time for most locals has inevitably produced jealousy mutterings.

The complaints one hears in many countries about the poor quality of Chinese goods that are flooding the market are just as rife in Zimbabwe. As everywhere, the flip side is that the low prices have made many types of goods accessible to people who could not have dreamed of owning them before, even if the ownership experience is relatively short and fraught.

More substantially, there are complaints that many Chinese who come in as 'investors' are really just petty traders out-competing locals at the bottom rungs of the economy.

Complaints of ill-treatment by Chinese employers are becoming increasingly common. The Chinese have a different employment ethic from the Western-derived ones Zimbabweans had grown accustomed to during the bygone good years, even amongst themselves. Zimbabweans in some jobs felt entitled to 'perks' which the Chinese do not give themselves, so a clash was inevitable, and it seems to be happening in many situations.  

Newsday columnist Tangai Chipangura wrote, "Zimbabweans should be very afraid of the increasing Chinese presence that our government is inviting upon us. Zimbabwe is slowly but surely getting her living standards eroded to levels acceptable as normal only in China."

"When Zimbabweans employed by these Orientals in this country complain of poor working conditions, cruel treatment and general oppression, Chinese employers, in genuine belief what they are doing is normal practice, deny they are ill-treating anyone. Professionals who had such benefits like company cars found themselves stripped of such entitlements because the new company owners from China found it unnecessary and extravagant."

Unfortunately part of what is happening is that Zimbabwe is slowly waking up to the fact that some of the pampered employment practices that some of the well-employed had got used to are not the norm outside the developed countries. For a long time Zimbabweans had consumption and expectation patterns far removed from the country's level of productivity. When that productivity took a steep nosedive, the expectations of the 'perks' to expect on a job remained largely the same.

Today, one still finds certain levels of government and even private sector employees whose contributions to their employing institutions are hard to measure enjoying out-of-proportion perks because this is 'normal' for certain positions. It is not at all surprising that thrifty Chinese investors with a very different mind set find this puzzling and unacceptable. At least part of the perception of the Chinese as being poor employers can be attributed to this 'cultural' difference.  

But then there are more clear-cut violations of labour laws, underpayment and so forth. Along with them are frequent complaints that when reported to the concerned regulatory authorities, the Chinese are often treated with kid-gloves because of their 'favoured nation' status.  

Workers at a defence college for the Zimbabwean army being built in Harare by a Chinese company recently went on strike to protest poor working conditions, including the lack of protective clothing that any Zimbabwean construction company undertaking such a project would have automatically provided, knowing the regulatory and public relations costs of not doing so. Other charges included verbal and physical abuse. Only after a local newspaper published a story on it did the contractor address the concerns. It is an accumulation of passed-around stories like these that help to breed resentment against the Chinese.

Chipangura also says, "The tragedy for African countries is that the Chinese companies have exported their domestic management style to Africa, expecting the local workers to work in the same conditions and the same standards they would expect workers in China to work in, conditions that are pretty bad. Chinese factory staff are commonly expected to work long hours and at high speed, expectations that have created resentment in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Africa." 

Although the Chinese amongst themselves may use the same labour and pay standards that Chipangura says cause so much resentment in many African countries, he is quite right to point out that these don't 'export' well. It is one thing for Chinese businesspeople to practice labour standards that elsewhere (increasingly in China too) would be considered exploitative.Taking them outside China has the additional dimension of creating blanket resentment against the Chinese because of cultural, linguistic, racial and other overlays to the mix.  

Yet it must also be pointed out that it is precisely partly because of factors like the expectation/ability of Chinese factory staff work long hours and at high speed that the China has become an unparalleled  manufacturing dynamo that is flattening everything in its path. The dodgy labour and other 'thrifty' business practices that Chipangura understandably laments are exactly an important part of the reason for China's current ability to out-compete virtually anybody. Zimbabwe may have 'good' labour standards but unfortunately they include things like an old-style expectation of managerial perks that are out of all proportion to national productivity and competitiveness.  

 While a clash of expectations and cultures for peoples still getting to know each at interpersonal (rather than political and national) level may explain part of the tensions between the Chinese and their Zimbabwean hosts, it appears the Chinese government is paying attention to complaints against its nationals, fair or otherwise. A delegation has been sent to Harare 'to meet the Chinese people in Zimbabwe and particularly learn how they live and how they deal with the Zimbabwean people.'

It will be interesting to monitor the work in progress that is the growing relationship between China and Zimbabwe.

The Zimbabwe Review


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