China Power

China in Africa: What’s the Real Story?

Recent Features

China Power

China in Africa: What’s the Real Story?

Perceptions of China’s role on the continent depend on who’s telling the stories.

China in Africa: What’s the Real Story?
Credit: Flickr/ George Appiah

When traveling outside China, I rarely seek out Chinese restaurants. For one thing, my few experiences indicate that their taste is usually not the same “taste of motherland” that one gets back in China. For another, my philosophy is that when in Rome, eat as the Romans do. How can you fully appreciate a culture without exposing your palate to its cuisine, an integral part of any culture?

That’s why I was initially quite disappointed to find out that Tip Top, recommended by a street vendor in downtown Accra, Ghana, is a Chinese restaurant. It was March 31, the first day of my four-day visit to the western African country. I was wandering aimlessly with my family on Oxford Street when I came across the vendor. It was lunch time, so I asked him if there was any restaurant nearby. “Oh, yes, Tip Top, just over there, you see the sign?” After saying my thanks, we headed to the restaurant, assuming that Tip Top offers local African food. Not until I walked into the restaurant and noticed the pictures of dishes on the wall did I realize that it is a Chinese restaurant.

I hesitated for a moment, unsure whether we should stay or keep looking for a local establishment. Then my wife helped me make the decision. “It has air-conditioning, and the children are tired,” she said. So I ended up having the only Chinese meal during my two-month voyage. And I have to admit that the dishes were truly authentic (i.e., Northeast China cuisine), so authentic that we went back for dinner the day before we departed Tema.

Gastronomic satisfaction aside, I also gleaned some useful information about China and Africa while dining at Tip Top. Waiting for my orders to be served during my first visit, I started a conversation with two Chinese seated at another table. From the way they dressed and talked, I gathered they are managers of their company’s projects in Ghana. They told me that there are about 70,000 Chinese in Ghana, and that they had never had any safety incident in their two-year stay here. When I asked them which company they work for and what they think about the Western media’s critical coverage of China’s economic activities in Africa, however, they subtly deflected my questions.

Almost anywhere I went, there were telltale signs of a significant Chinese community. Right across the street from Tip Top is another Chinese restaurant (though temporarily closed for renovation). A two-minute walk from Tip Top is a shopping mall, and on its second floor there is a restaurant called 郁金香 (Tulip) and a casino next door named Golden Dragon. A ten-minute walk north of Tip Top on Oxford Street, there is a third Chinese restaurant, next to which is a Chinese grocery store.

Meanwhile, walking on the streets or wandering in shops in the capital of Ghana, I was constantly greeted by locals with the Chinese “ni hao” (i.e., hello). Every ten minutes or so, I would see a logo of the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. Not far away from the entrance to the port of Tema stands a big billboard by the road, which reads, “中国港湾加纳特码新集装箱码头工程项目总经理部,” with English translation below: “CHINA HARBOR ENGINEERING COMPANY (GHANA) LTD. TEMA PORT EXPANSION PROJECT MANAGEMENT.” I was told by taxi drivers that the Chinese company is under contract to upgrade the facilities at the port.

Outside the Accra-Tema area, one can also feel the inescapable presence of a large Chinese diaspora. A colleague of mine, who traveled to Mole National Park, took a few photos at the airports and onboard his flight. One photo shows a placard — in both English and Chinese — atop a check-in counter that reminds passengers of the maximum weight for luggage. In another photo safety instructions are written in the two languages. A third photo captures a poster in English that advertises the China Europe International Business School. A fourth one features a big poster on a wall, which carries a bilingual warning to passengers:









The photo about illegal mining immediately reminds me of my first visit to Ghana in late March 2013. On the day of my arrival at Takoradi, I took a taxi to have lunch. The taxi driver had a copy of a local newspaper with him (the name of the paper has escaped me), and the front page ran a story about 100 illegal Chinese gold miners detained by the Ghanaian government.

Apart from photos, my colleague brought back several print copies of local newspapers. One copy was Business & Financial Times, published Monday, April 3, 2017. The right-hand column of the front page carries the headline “Chinese yuan can offer cedi [the Ghanaian currency] respite.” The lead paragraph sums up the story to follow: “The Association of Ghana Industries (AGI) has called on the Bank of Ghana (BoG) to consider enhancing its yuan [the Chinese currency] trading capacity to provide an alternative to the dollar to importers who do business in China.”

Another copy was the Daily Graphic, published Saturday April 1. It runs an opinion piece on page 8 by Nana Awere Damoah, “‘Galamsey’ and the ‘Wassanese’,” in which the author lashes at the Chinese for what has become of his childhood village.

I visited my holy village of Wassa Akropong last December, and I was ashamed of what my hometown had become. China town! With so many ‘Wassanese’ that I couldn’t even see my own people! It had undergone a Chinese invasion — our chiefs in collusion. With Chinese signages [sic] everywhere! The rivers now look like milo drinks with expired milk. Parcels of land look like cooked beans mixed with gari and palm oil….Landing at Kotoka Airport on February 18, from Lagos, I saw so many Chinese travellers [sic] coming into the country….I am sure many of them will be going to Wassa. To continue the gold rush, to continue decimating our lands, with our complicit consent….Yet today we sit and watch as we sell ourselves cheap to the Chinese (and many others by extension and in other activities apart from galamsey) for yen, fried rice, and sweet and sour soup. Acting as if we are a people available for rape by the rest of the world, turning our backsides up and supplying our own petroleum jelly. Aren’t we ashamed of ourselves?

Before my second visit to Ghana, I had spent six days in Cape Town, South Africa. One day I hired a taxi to go to the Cape Point National Park. On our way out of the park, we stopped by a beachfront filled with rugged rocks, about five minutes’ drive from the Cape of Good Hope, to take a few more pictures of the Atlantic Ocean at sunset. Before we got off the car, the driver asked if we had our passports with us. He explained that sometimes government officials would show up and check the documents of Chinese tourists. “Many Chinese do illegal poaching, you know, ivory, rhino,” the driver grinned at me. “When they [government officials] see you at a place out of the sight of tourist attractions, they suspect you are poaching or looking for poached animals.”

What all these add up to is a picture of China taking away Africa’s precious resources and polluting the local environment. This is certainly not a pleasant picture, but is it the whole picture? Probably not. Many Africans have undoubtedly benefited — directly and indirectly — from more than $20 billion of aid Beijing has provided over the years: roads, railways, hospitals, stadiums, plus medical staff, engineers, and other professional personnel. Additionally, trade with and investment from China must have created hundreds of thousands of local jobs. Also, by the end of 2016 China had established 48 Confucius Institutes in 38 African countries and 27 Confucius Classrooms in 15 countries. The number of African students in China reached nearly 60,000 in 2015.

Perhaps the stories I have been exposed to are a skewed sample, which do not necessarily represent the views of the average Ghanaian or African. As the aphorism in journalism goes, “When a dog bites a man, that is not news, but if a man bites a dog, that is news.” Thus bad stories about China may have crowded out good stories about China in both African and Western media outlets. Maybe the views of a vocal minority — both within and outside Africa, which is highly critical of increasing Chinese economic and political presence and influence — are widely publicized, while those of the silent majority — particularly the beneficiaries of China-Africa economic ties — are ignored or dismissed.

Two weeks before our arrival at Tema, an American colleague from the ship told me that she was planning to take her students to the Chinese embassy in Accra. I was certain that Chinese diplomats would be delighted to have this opportunity to tell their stories about China in Africa. But later I found out, to my profound disappointment, that her visit to the Chinese embassy never happened. Instead she took her students to the U.S. embassy and the World Bank. The reason, she told me, is that she tried every means possible but couldn’t get in touch with the Chinese mission. I don’t know what stories would have been told by Chinese diplomats had they hosted my colleague and her students, but I presume those stories would almost certainly be quite different from the ones they had heard at the U.S. embassy or the World Bank.