Iringa, Tanzania is a dusty town of some 150,000 people situated on the busy trucking route across the East African highlands connecting the Indian Ocean with inland regions. A town dominated by the local Kihehe tribe, it is surprisingly full of shops selling imported foods for the occasional European tourists heading for safaris in the nearby Ruaha National Park. It is in one of these shops that I first met Mr. Liu.
Mr. Liu is a Shandong native in his mid-40s, operating a tiny car parts shop on Iringa’s main street. Perpetually smiling, he told me about how brisk the business has been for the past two years that he had his business here. “You know, so many trucks come through here from Zambia. The roads are so bad that they need parts here before going any further. It’s a good location for my business!” Perhaps he was so happy to see another Chinese face in this part of the world that he directly jumped into a monologue about his business after a brief self-introduction.
Of course, he talked only in Mandarin. Mr. Liu, after two years in Iringa, has yet to acquire even the very basics of the local Swahili language. Unlike in the NGO where I worked, language lessons are not part of Mr. Liu’s daily work schedule. “Car parts are easy to see. People point at what they want, and I write the price on a piece of paper.” He was rather dismissive about the need to learn the local language, “I don’t talk with the people around here, so why learn their language?”
The story of Mr. Liu is not unique on a continent that has recently seen an increasing number of Chinese entrepreneurs. Attracted by the lack of competition and potentially high profit margins, they are fanning out across the continent, establishing small businesses even in small towns like Iringa. With little prior knowledge of the continent, the Chinese entrepreneurs still make their commercial presence felt by leveraging their connections with suppliers back home and a keen sense of local demand.
Yet, even as Chinese traders like Mr. Liu change the local business landscape, they often punch far below their weight when it comes to cultural impact. With little cultural ties with China, Africa sees little effort by Chinese residents to connect with the local population for anything other than business transactions. Chinese residents often find local cuisines, customs, and mentalities difficult to stomach, and assume locals feeling exactly the same way about their Chinese counterparts. The result is a lack of social connections between the African populace and the Chinese community, despite vibrant business connections between the two.
Such a massive gap between the economic and cultural relationship does not bode well for the future of Chinese businesses in the region. Aggressiveness and competitiveness of Chinese businesses are creating resentment among local businessmen, even as local consumers benefit from lower prices and greater varieties. Such businessmen band together with local politicians to launch populist campaigns seeking restrictions on Chinese businesses for providing shoddy products and violating the rights of their local employees. As such campaigns are projected to the general public via mass media, the Chinese community becomes increasingly perceived as a public enemy.
Mr. Liu, without saying so explicitly, understands the negative sentiments he faces everyday operating in Iringa. He dismayingly remarks on how his customers always doubt his products, claiming them to be used rather than new, or too pricey for what they are worth. An accumulation of such mundane conflicts has only made him even less willing to reach out to the local people and learn the local language. To him, Tanzania has become no more than a vehicle for economic sustenance, not a place to call home. A vicious cycle ensues as his social isolation makes him an even greater target for distrust among the locals.
Mr. Liu’s experience speaks to the need for Chinese businessmen to resist becoming complete outsiders in Africa. Despite starting from almost complete ignorance of the locals, Chinese residents can leverage their commercial ties with locals and develop them into something much more substantial and all-encompassing. But putting in efforts to learn about local cultures, the Chinese can still change themselves into insiders and mitigate local resentments unfairly placed upon them.
Image Credit: http://www.informafrica.com/africa-report/africa-in-their-words-a-study-of-chinese-traders-in-south-africa-lesotho-botswana-zambia-and-angola/