China’s African Odyssey

The Wall Street Journal has published a Caixin interview with former Chinese ambassador to South Africa and current special envoy for African affairs, Zhong Jianhua. Zhong discusses the shifting triangle of Chinese-African-Western relations, internationalisation of the yuan, and South Africa’s role as a beachhead for Chinese companies: “South Africa is to the rest of Africa as Hong Kong was to the rest of China before reform and opening up.”

He also contrasts the meticulous, military precision of Western companies in Africa with the less mature “guerrilla” approach of their Chinese counterparts, who he admits occasionally attempt to cut corners by paying bribes:

The reason is connected to differences in corporate culture and the degree of openness to the outside world. Multinational corporations have been seizing global market share for many years and have rich experience. Chinese companies always take domestic business practices with them. Thus, the “going out” road for Chinese companies is very long. It requires a lot of learning, and failures are hard to avoid. This is also a process of improving culture [through] internationalization, industrialization and normalization.

You can’t overpoliticize this learning process. Companies are trying to survive, trying to make a profit. While they might have some government backing, it isn’t necessarily a lot. Even if they have political backing, they can only use economic means to resolve [problems]. Companies need to be economic animals with a good sense of smell, with sound bodies and brains.

I’m most concerned that our basic research in Africa is inadequate. Since reform and opening up, we’ve focused research on the most attractive places, or those that constitute major threats. Research on developed countries has been the main focus for a long time, while research on Africa has been on pause. Generally speaking, there isn’t enough, and it’s not deep enough. State investment is also limited.


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