Sunday, October 25, 2009

African view: China's new long march

In Ghana as in other countries on the continent, the Chinese are here, very visible and very busy.

The relationship between Africa and China is a love-hate one - the love is more on the side of the governments and the hate on the side of business, civil society and the unions.

But those of us of a certain age know that the Chinese are not new to Africa.

The first wave of Chinese flirtation with Africa was in the early years of independence and at the time when they themselves were serious communists and seemed to frown on business and all things capitalist.

They came to Africa to make friends, they built the first football stadiums and organised projects that the World Bank frowned upon.

They set the fashion for our presidents, getting the likes of Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania into Mao suits.

This time around they are here for business, and let nobody forget that.

Bulldozer diplomacy

Sixty years of communism in the People's Republic has lulled some people into forgetting just what committed businessmen the Chinese have been for 3,000 years.

Their methods might be slightly different from those we have been used to from the Western nations we have been dealing with for the past 300 years, but the Chinese I have come across are as ruthless in business as any "master of the universe" on Wall Street.

I have seen them operate at first hand over the past eight years, when I was in government in Ghana.

Many are willing to work seven days a week; if they can get away with paying $2, they will not pay $3; and if you are late with the payment of one interim invoice, they will stop work.

If it suits them, they claim they cannot speak or understand English to get themselves out of sticky situations.

Here is an example of what I mean: A Korean company was building a highway westwards out of Accra for more than a year.

The work stalled because the authorities could not, or would not, pull down the structures demarcated to be pulled down and for which compensation had been paid.

Indeed, the gossip was that more people started putting up structures after the demarcation exercise so they could be paid compensation - but that is another story.

A Chinese company started building a highway northwards out of Accra.

Once the demarcation was done and the compensation paid, they waited for seven days and one fine Sunday morning, as people made their way to church, they brought out the bulldozers and by the time church was over, the houses and kiosks in their way had all been pulled down.

No amount of shouting or pleading or threatening impressed them - they claimed they couldn't understand English.

After a few days of shock, the communities resigned themselves and concentrated on the beautiful road being built for them.

Meanwhile on the western front, it took for ever before the project could be completed. And guess who got kudos for delivering the work on time?

We'll get the cheque

I recall a gathering in Oxford University in the early 1990s that brought together investors, business people, academics, UN types, pseudo-politicians and journalists to deliberate on Africa.

I forget his name now, but I think he was a boss with a mining company.

He told a story of his experience of doing business in China and in Zimbabwe.

He and his team arrived in Zimbabwe to a muted reception and slightly shambolic series of meetings and concluded a low-scale deal, or at least that was their view at the time.

Next stop Beijing, where the full panoply of state protocol was on display, complete with a 27-course dinner in the People's Hall in Tiananmen Square.

They signed a deal and were highly impressed with all the arrangements.

Yet four years later they had made no money in China but were making a lot of money in Zimbabwe.

And, by the way, at the end of the Chinese trip, they had been presented with a detailed bill for the 27-course dinner and the protocol laid on for them - and they had to pay.

The Chinese are here and everywhere else to make money and let no-one forget that - ever.