The Debate

China Is Carelessly Losing Its Soft Power Battle, One Project at a Time

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The Debate

China Is Carelessly Losing Its Soft Power Battle, One Project at a Time

The case of a Chinese flag flying over an Angolan construction site.

China Is Carelessly Losing Its Soft Power Battle, One Project at a Time

Xi Jinping at the 2015 Asian-African Conference Commemoration /Bandung Conference.

Credit: AACC2015/Jerry Adiguna/Spt)

In an article that I published last year in The Diplomat, the headline asked the question “Could Han Chauvinism Turn the ‘Chinese Dream’ into a ‘Chinese Nightmare’?” As an admirer of what China has achieved domestically in the last 35 years and internationally more recently, I wish that the worry was unfounded. At the time, I suggested that the Communist Party of China (CPC) had to harness Han chauvinism if it wanted President Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream to help revive the glory of the great Chinese civilization. Today, I argue that the CPC needs to harness it to ensure the success of its constructive contributions to developing countries.

China has become a global country and the CPC now also needs to act for the benefit of the populations of the countries in which it has significant business interests. In the international arena, the CPC has been mostly effective in establishing good government-to-government relations. This success is predominately based on genuine respect and a concerted effort to identify mutually beneficial cooperation, such as the financing and construction of large infrastructure projects. When it comes to interpersonal relations between Chinese and local peoples, the situation is not as positive at all.

In the article mentioned above, I warned of the tendency that “Chinese chauvinism has already started poisoning China’s interpersonal relations in foreign countries.” I gave the example of increasing interpersonal tensions and disputes between Chinese businessmen and the local populations in Central Asian countries that resulted from Chinese ignoring local traditions and values, and forgetting that they were guests in someone else’s country. Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Tajiks already feel uneasy, if not fearful, of the increasing presence and influence of Chinese in their respective countries. Today, I want to briefly discuss the case of Chinese-Angolan relations.

Interpersonal relations between Chinese and Angolans are often marred by a sense of Chinese superiority and disdain for the local populations. China’s failure to win Angolans’ hearts despite its massive constructive contributions to their country can be felt by Chinese from the moment they land in Luanda, Angola’s capital. Angolan immigration officers target Chinese citizens to extract easy bribes from them. After having bribed their way into the country they are helping build up, Chinese are again disproportionately targeted by thieves as they walk the streets of Luanda. As a result, most Chinese will seclude themselves in their hotel rooms or compounds, and only go out and interact with locals if necessary.

It seems unjust and absurd that the Chinese representatives who are helping Angola climb out of its dire state of poverty are harmed by those benefiting from China’s construction of massive infrastructure projects. Part of the explanation for this conundrum might be found in the details of the very infrastructure projects that China is financing and constructing. Let’s explore a few real incidents related to Chinese projects in Angola to help elucidate this conundrum.

Angolans feel strongly discriminated against by Chinese. In most of these massive Chinese infrastructure projects there are large numbers of Chinese and Angolans working together. Numerous tensions and disputes arise from misunderstandings resulting from the fact that Chinese workers are not familiar with the most basic local language and culture skills, and consider locals as inferior. Thus, Chinese workers often shout and mistreat local workers, or at least Angolans perceive it this way. In one case, a Chinese worker unable to verbally communicate with an Angolan worker threw a stone at him to get his attention. This incident resulted in all the Angolan workers accusing the Chinese company of mistreatment and calling in the police.

Also, in one of these large Chinese run infrastructure projects, a well-intentioned Chinese manager decided to raise the Chinese flag after a motivational exercise. This flag that was flying over the project, seen as innocuous by the Chinese management, was, however, perceived as a sign of Chinese arrogance and “invasion” by the local people, who were angered that no Angolan flag was raised above this Chinese flag. This incident had a very detrimental effect on how Angolans workers perceive China’s constructive role in their country.

There are also institutionalized practices that make Angolans feel that they are being discriminated against by Chinese. On Chinese projects, Angolans are predominately hired for unskilled or low-skill labor, are paid very low wages, and do not get any benefits such as transportation to the construction site or insurance. Furthermore, Angolans are often hired without a contract, leaving them with a sense of insecurity that undermines any personal commitment to the Chinese company. This institutionalized ill-treatment of the Angolan labor force is particularly exposed when non-Chinese companies are involved in the same project. Unlike the Chinese companies, these companies often hire Angolans for both management and labor work, and provide significantly higher wages and better contractual terms. This ill-treatment of local workers results in Chinese companies and China having a poor image in Angolans’ minds, despite the massive contributions that China is making to their country.

When it comes to solving disputes with Angolans, Chinese management does not welcome criticism and resists accepting culpability over any incident. This chauvinistic attitude prevents them from learning from their mistakes and improving their management of local workers. They focus on completing projects successfully and at the lowest cost possible. The Chinese managers seem not to be aware, or simply do not care, that their policies and action, and the resulting repeated interpersonal incidents with locals, are carving a very negative image of Chinese and China in Angolans’ minds.

It is beyond the scope of this article to provide detailed advice on how to reform this corrosive impact that Chinese chauvinism is having on many of China’s constructive projects around the developing world. I will just provide some suggestions on how to improve the interpersonal relations between Chinese and local workers.

For example, it is fundamental that every Chinese who is going to work for an extended period in a foreign country and is expected to frequently interact with the local peoples should undergo basic cultural and language training. Language training should help promote communication and minimize misunderstanding with the local populations. Cultural training should build up the awareness that, despite China financing and executing the projects, Chinese are guests in someone else’s country and, as such, Chinese must behave in a sensitive and respectful way toward the local populations. Each Chinese who visits a foreign country and will regularly interact with locals, particularly in a professional role, should feel that he is an ambassador representing the whole country and is, therefore, responsible for safeguarding the long-term Chinese interests in the region, and not just his own personal interests. This respect for locals will result in reciprocal appreciation by locals for Chinese, which is fundamental for China’s long-term positive standing in the world.

Additionally, to avoid repeating the same mistakes, it is necessary to encourage site managers to record and report disputes. To handle these disputes, it would be useful to institute the position of an on-site dispute manager, which should be held by a person familiar with the local population’s culture and values, and with right personality to defuse conflicts. Other improvements in the practices of Chinese companies should include hiring more locals in leadership positions and giving local workers more stable jobs and improved benefits.

The objective of this article is to raise awareness among the Chinese leadership for the need for closer supervision of how Chinese interact with locals abroad. They should recognize the negative long-term impact that Chinese chauvinistic attitude can have China’s global image. They should follow Chairman Mao’s advice to make concerted efforts to ensure that Chinese representatives become humbler, respect different cultures, and accept input and criticism. Chinese should proudly fly their flag on Chinese construction sites overseas, but should be aware that a local flag must fly higher. I urge the Chinese leadership to take the necessary measures to prevent Chinese chauvinism from corroding the constructive benefits that projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative bring to China and the people around the world.

Patrik K. Meyer holds a PhD in International Studies from the University of Cambridge and currently is a Visiting Professor at Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta and a New America Security Fellow.