China rapidly expanding its presence in Africa

July 19, 2012


At a vast construction site, a Chinese national flag flutters above Chinese engineers and laborers who are busy working on the biggest project ever in the country.

The action is taking place in Kigali, capital of fast-growing Rwanda. And it is just one example of China’s growing presence in Africa.

An estimated 1 million Chinese now live in Africa, many working at construction sites in Rwanda while others sell goods in the slums of Congo. Chinese-language schools are growing in number on the continent, and even a Chinese TV station has expanded its influence.

“All the buildings in the neighborhood were built by Chinese companies,” a Rwandan government official in Kigali said. “Once they receive an order, hundreds of Chinese arrive in and complete the buildings before we know it.”

After its economic reforms, the east African country has seen its economy expand by about 8 percent in recent years. Much of the help has come from China.

High-rise buildings and other infrastructure are popping up everywhere in the capital, including the $300 million (about 24 billion yen) project that will create conference halls and offices in front of the parliamentary building.

A 20-story structure in Kigali, viewed as a symbol of Rwanda’s recovery from civil war and genocide in the 1990s, was also constructed by a Chinese company.

Hatari Sekoko, Rwanda’s most renowned real estate tycoon who ordered the construction of the building, has had business experience in both Japan and China.

Sekoko, 52, raised capital for his sprawling empire by working as an apprentice at a used car dealership in Osaka in 1995 and exporting cars older than 10 years to Africa.

One of his bases is in Guangzhou, an economic hub in southern China, from where he ships construction materials and furniture to Rwanda.

He said the strength of Chinese products is their prices.

“Japanese and Chinese are both hard workers,” Sekoko said. “China’s advantage is that it has a good balance between the quality of products and prices due to fierce competition.”

He established a foothold in China to lure investments from the growing ranks of extremely wealthy Chinese. Sekoko also travels to Beijing and Hong Kong to seek investment deals in Africa.

He and three Chinese have invested in a $60 million project to build the largest luxury hotel in Rwanda. It will house more than 250 guest rooms in front of the Chinese Embassy in the capital.

A Chinese contractor, with about 250 Chinese workers, is building the hotel, while a Chinese-affiliated dealer is providing the construction materials, which helps rein in the costs.

A Chinese official said no rivals--foreign or Rwandan--can complete a project as fast as the Chinese company.

“Local laborers are not hard working,” the official said. “But Chinese workers can work around the clock. For instance, Chinese workers built a five-story building only in three months.”

China’s push into Africa has been promoted by the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, which was scheduled to start in Beijing on July 19 with about 100 heads of state and senior government officials.

First launched in 2000, the forum draws up an action plan every three years to improve economic ties between China and African nations.

In the 2006 forum, attended by leaders of 49 countries, participants adopted the Beijing Declaration that endorses strengthened ties between China and Africa on the premise of nonintervention in internal affairs.

The overall value of trade between China and Africa exceeded $166 billion in 2011, more than 16 times the number in 2000. Direct investment from China to Africa jumped to $1.7 billion in 2011, about four times the figure in 2005.

China’s presence is also unmistakable in Congo.

Beijing bolstered its relations with the country by announcing the extension of a $9 billion loan in 2008 in a bid to gain access to the African country’s deposits of cobalt, a metal vital in the production of high-tech products.

An estimated 20,000 Chinese live in Congo. And they are not limited to work in natural resources development or infrastructure projects.

In a shantytown in the capital of Kinshasa, shoppers often swarm a large number of Chinese-operated shops that sell daily commodities and brand knockoffs imported from China.

A 43-year-old man who was selling shoes in the vicinity complained that the Chinese were stealing jobs from the locals.

In fact, resentment toward Chinese merchants has led to arson attacks against shops operated by Chinese in recent years.

But that does not seem to discourage Yan Ximing, a 55-year-old owner of a grocery store who arrived in Congo with his older sister in 2009 from Fujian province in southern China.

“I am fearful of such fires, but my business is going strong,” Yan said. “I would like to bring my family here.”


China is also trying to spread its culture in Africa.

Since 2005, 30 Chinese language schools of the state-assisted Confucius Institute have opened in about 20 countries on the continent.

About 500 students are now enrolled in the school on the campus of the University of Nairobi, Kenya, compared with 29 when it opened in 2005.

One of the students, Ann Valentine, 23, plans to study in China on a scholarship.

“I am also interested in Japan, but learning Chinese will be more advantageous in my job search,” she said. “I want to work in a Chinese-affiliated company.”

China also established a large broadcasting studio of the state-run China Central Television in Nairobi in January.

The outlet reports live stories on news and cultural affairs in Africa in English for an hour daily. The coverage is expected to be expanded to two hours next year.

Apart from its studio in Washington, the Nairobi station is the only foreign base of the TV network that broadcasts independently.

The recognition of the Chinese TV station is now as high as that of Britain’s BBC, according to observers.

Ondeko Aura, a Kenyan worker at the TV station, said CCTV offers viewers coverage of Africa that is different from that of Western media organizations.

“Western media outlets only report on the issues of poverty and epidemics, turning Africa into a victim of biased coverage for years,” Aura said. “But the CCTV aggressively covers bright aspects, including what is going on in the business sector.”

(This article was compiled from reports by Tadashi Sugiyama in Kigari, Rwanda, and Kentaro Koyama in Guangzhou, China.)

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Hatari Sekoko, second from right, talks with workers from a Chinese company at the construction site of a large hotel in Kigali, Rwanda, on July 6. (Provided by Tomoaki Nakano)

Hatari Sekoko, second from right, talks with workers from a Chinese company at the construction site of a large hotel in Kigali, Rwanda, on July 6. (Provided by Tomoaki Nakano)

  • Hatari Sekoko, second from right, talks with workers from a Chinese company at the construction site of a large hotel in Kigali, Rwanda, on July 6. (Provided by Tomoaki Nakano)
  • A Kenyan student talks in Chinese with her teacher at the Confucius Institute, a Chinese language school, at the University of Nairobi in Kenya on July 13. (Tomoaki Nakano)
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