Port of Spain day 8

Saturday, 28 November 2009:

I asked four persons, two from the Caribbean and two from Africa, what impact China has had on their respective countries. To my surprise, all four reported considerable Chinese involvement. The view of China as a mostly regional power with significant impact only on East and Southeast Asia is clearly out of date. Its economic reach is now global. The question is when its military reach also extends as far.

St Lucia is a small Caribbean island with just 167,000 people. I honestly did not expect Kenita to say, Yes, China is very much present in my island-country, but that’s what she said, with no hesitation.

“They are doing a lot of construction,” she said, “building roads and other things.” Mostly infrastructure projects, as I understood, with the Chinese companies bringing in their own workers.

There was one point when both Chinese and Taiwanese companies, probably government-linked in both cases, were competing for projects, but Kenita recalled that the Chinese government told St Lucia that they had to choose which side they wanted to deal with. Clearly, Taiwan lost out.

The Chinese presence is also notable in Grenada, said Nigel Mathlin, who is attending the same conference as I am in Trinidad. Grenada, another small Caribbean island, with about 100,000 people, used to recognise Taipeh, but when it switched to Beijing about three years ago, there quickly followed an influx of Chinese construction companies, often doing large projects.

“Our National Stadium was built by the Chinese,” Mathlin said, but there was a hugely embarrassing incident at its grand opening.  “The Chinese government delegation came, but the wrong national anthem – that of Taiwan – was played.” The news went around the world.

Is there resentment among locals over the influx of Chinese workers and construction companies? “No, there isn’t, except maybe the local contractors,” he said.

Trinidad's Performing Arts Academy, built by the Chinese

Here in Trinidad, I came across quite a number of Chinese construction workers in the few days that I have been here. In the evenings when I have had a chance to go out, I see them walking about or sitting at the parks, enjoying the evening breeze.

The big prestrige project they have been doing – finished in the nick of time for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, with Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain officiating the opening, is the performance arts centre, pictured above.

The same story is repeated in Africa. And more. In Nigeria, not only are Chinese construction companies prominent in their sector, many Chinese individuals are setting up businesses or taking jobs in the country. Said Zaharadeen Gambo: “They operate small shops or take up highly skilled jobs, especially in the telecoms line, where they have a lot of expertise.”

The increasingly common Chinese shop is the channel for a flood of affordable consumer goods imported from China.

The large construction companies however, tend to form joint ventures with Nigerian companies for projects. Unlike in the Caribbean, where there are not enough workers from the islands’ small populations, the tendency is to use local labour – Nigeria after all has 150 million people – but the skilled and management staff come from China.

So far though,  Chinese companies have not gained significant entry into oil exploration and production – these being dominated still by Western companies, but their presence is beginning to be felt in downstream processing.

Zaharadeen didn’t hold any negative opinion of Chinese inroads into Nigeria, nor did he feel that, generally speaking, Nigerians did so either. By comparison, the US  arouses very complicated feelings. “Everything about the US relationship is politicised, whether it is trade and economics, or aid for HIV programs.”

But when I asked him what feelings he might have if 20 – 30 years from now, China became a global power on the same scale as the US,  he said he quite honestly didn’t know.

Which has a bigger presence in Nigeria – China or India? I asked him. China, definitely, he said.

The same answer came from Monica Tabengwa, a delegate from Botswana, a a landlocked country in Southern Africa. China’s presence in her country is far more noticeable than India’s though there has been an Indian community there for generations.

“Chinese construction companies are building roads and dams; they are also investing in coal mines,” she told me. The largest resource industries, diamond and gold mining, however, are still in the hands of Western companies.

Not only do Chinese companies move staff in and out, Chinese individuals stay on and open shops. “Everywhere now, you can find shops owned by Chinese; they sell many things that people can afford.” The same consumer goods, I suppose, that is flooding many markets.

Is there resentment over the Chinese commerical invasion from local people? She didn’t think so, though she felt that government policy should protect the small retail sector from foreign inroads. So, the local shopkeepers are losing out? I asked.

“Not, not the local ones,” she said. “The Indian shops.”

It took me a while, but I finally grasped that there have been Indian-owned shops in Botswana for a long time. As an example of how the Indian shops are losing out, she explained that the longstanding Indian community is usually Muslim, and the food they sell from their shops is halal.

But the majority Batswana people are Christian and they don’t need to restrict themselves to halal food. “Halal is more expensive,” Monica explained, “because there are costs associated with priests and special slaughering procedures. I think in the whole of Botswana, there are only one or two Imans or whatever they call them.

“So people tend to go to the Chinese shops because food there is cheaper.”

Is there a Chinese military relationship with Botswana? I asked. “No, not that I know of.” What about with India? “Yes, I think there are some training exchanges.”

Like Zaharadeen of Nigeria, Monica didn’t have a clear answer when I asked about her thoughts should China one day be a superpower. It seems to me this question has not yet come to the forefront of political discourse in Africa.

3 Responses to “Port of Spain day 8”

  1. 1 Tan Wee Cheng 30 November 2009 at 13:27


    Thanks for your enlightening account of the meetings and your impressions in Trinidad. Your discussions with candidates from other Commonwealth nations about China is illuminating as well. During my travels to many countries in Africa and Latin America over the last 5 years, I have noticed the amazing rise in every country.

    I have an account on my blog about some Chinese bankers I met in Djibouti/Eritrea in East Africa which was particularly telling: http://twcnomad.blogspot.com/search/label/Eritrea

    From Djibouti, I flew into Asmara, Eritrea’s capital located in the Abyssinian Highlands 2400 meters above sea level. During the flight, I had long conversations with a few bankers from China which helped me gained further insight into China’s dramatic entry into African geopolitics. These bankers are young, sophisticated and educated in the West. They belong to the Ethiopia/Horn of Africa team of their bank, and are stationed here for up to 2 years (with quarterly home visits to China) just to do deals relating to these few countries (Ethiopia, Eritrea & Djibouti). They were on their way to Eritrea to evaluate some projects and were very knowledgeable about social-economic-political aspects of many African countries.

    The fact that this bank – merely one amongst other Chinese banks, has dedicated teams in over 20 African countries, financing all sorts of projects and deals, is to me a clear illustration of China’s involvement in Africa. Having worked in a Western investment bank, I could not even recall if any of the western investment banks have any African country team. Anytime they need to do a deal, they fly expensive teams from London, New York or Dubai, and most of these teams won’t stay a long time in these “hardship locations”. The commitment to the region by banks from the new boy on the block, China, is very impressive indeed. And laden with onerous lending conditions and terms, plus the need of a whole host of environmental due diligence plus an army of overpaid of management consultants and constantly harassed by difficult NGOs and human rights activists, it would be a miracle if the West can compete at all in Africa.

    While in Suriname (South America), I wrote this: http://twcnomad.blogspot.com/2008/01/suriname-french-guiana-would-you.html

    In Suriname, I was told, the Chinese built many of the good roads in the last decade. Tired of the many demands and conditions made by the Dutch for developmental loans, the Suriname government told the Dutch to keep their cash. The Surinamese went to the Chinese instead and got multibillion dollar interest-free loans with ten years repayment terms. And more importantly, no political or social conditions attached. “We are glad that there is now competition with the Europeans. The Chinese now have the biggest embassy in Suriname, even larger than the Dutch and American embassies, and we are happy about that,” said a Surinamese businessman.

    And I wrote this after my one year journey in 2007/08: http://twcnomad.blogspot.com/search/label/Odyssey2

    Everywhere I went, people greeted me “Ni Hao”. China has become the new emerging power, followed behind by India, Russia and Brazil. As I walked on the streets of St George’s (Grenada), Paramaribo (Suriname), Aden (Yemen), Conakry (Guinea), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Tripoli (Libya), young people approached me to practice their Mandarin Chinese, as people used to approach Westerners to practice English in some parts of the world. On my international and domestic flights to the most obscure places, such as towns in upriver Bangladesh, Wadi Hadramaut of Yemen, the Sahara of Mali, highlands of Eritrea and the Eastern deserts of Iran, I have counted the odd Chinese businessmen, banker, engineer and technical advisor as my fellow passengers, on their way to their import-export business, negotiate the next deal, or to finance or build yet another power station, oil pipeline or national highway.

    Best Regards,
    Wee Cheng

  2. 2 Teck Soon 1 December 2009 at 02:03

    “constantly harassed by difficult NGOs and human rights activists”…

    Yes, the Westerners actually care. Caring about human rights and environmental due diligence would seem to put them on the moral high ground compared to the Chinese, no?

    I am actually quite curious how Chinese construction workers overseas are treated (and how the local workers they hire are treated)…better or worse than workers in Singapore (you know, like the ones they had living in shipping containers)? If rule-of-law Singapore has so many unhappy Chinese workers at the Ministry of Manpower trying to claim back wages they were cheated of, I can’t imagine the situation in corrupt African dictatorships. No wonder the West can’t compete with that.

  3. 3 Russell 3 December 2009 at 22:33

    Alex, you have given a very different account from the Time Magazine cover story on China’s growing influence in the world. The Time article drew extensively from what China has been doing in Papua New Guinea.

    What the article said about the wretched lot of Chinese workers in foreign climes strike a chord with me because of my familiarity with similar problems in Singapore.


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