Unthinking (and then rethinking) the relevance of “China-Africa”: Some small notes from the wholesale-retail trade in Uganda and Tanzania.

Note: This is a re-posting of an entry I originally submitted to The Africa Daily blog back in December 2013.

The Old Taxi Park in the center of Kampala, Uganda.
The Old Taxi Park in the center of Kampala, Uganda.

“You cannot generalize and say “this is China in Africa”, any more than you can say “China is good” or “China is bad”. China is neither bad nor good. China is a combination of these things.”-Ambassador Zhong Jianhua, Special Representative on African Affairs (Africa Research Institute August 6, 2013)

Zhong Jianhua’s words to the Africa Research Institute, a London-based think tank, earlier this summer, captures an important reality that is often elusive in the hegemonic discussion about African-Chinese relationships. Within the emerging international community of scholars and commentators studying the topic, however, such variation, complexity and “fragmentation” (in Solange Chatelard’s (2011) words) is by now becoming generally accepted. Nonetheless, the very fact that it is possible to speak of a research community dedicated to the topic (with its own newsletters, blogs, podcasts etc.) is evidence that the concept in and of itself exceeds the sum of its parts. I am interested in how this conceptual heaviness weighs on (or not) the range of possible relationships emerging between people from Africa and people from China. Officials like Zhong Jianhua have the burden to theorize and talk about the relationships they produce, but what about the migrant entrepreneurs, factory workers, shopkeepers etc that also produce these relationships? Is the concept of “China-Africa” meaningful to them; do they have anything to say about it beyond the immediacy of their own situations? Ethnographic and survey research has tended to focus on measuring positive and negative perceptions of China and the Chinese in Africa, and their determinants. Rather than perceptions that swing negative or positive, I am interested more broadly in how different Chinese and Africans theorize the particular micro-politics of their everyday interactions in different ways.

The first step is to map the distributions of effects and the new kinds of alignment created by the presence of Chinese businesses. Romain Dittgen (2010) and Suzanne Scheld (2010) describe the effects of Chinese traders in Dakar, Senegal.  A protest by Senegalese importers against Chinese traders in 2004 was matched by a counter-protest of consumers against anti-Chinese xenophobia.

Although both of these protests can be explained in terms of economic interests, both of them could mobilized broader ideas (such as nationalism or anti-racism) with different implications for how China-Africa is understood.  My point is not that, behind generalized claims are deeper interests, but rather that particular alignments (ex. Chinese retailers and Senegalese consumers vs. Senegalese importers) may be the conditions of possibility for mobilizing categories other than “Chinese” versus “African”.

I can illustrate this with an example from Uganda. I arrived in Kampala at the end of June last year (2013), expecting to find lots of Chinese wholesale shops in the area around William St. My first day, however, I thought I might have gone to the wrong place. I did not see anybody who looked like they might be from China. Furthermore, I noticed all the shopping arcades were closed. Through asking around, and eventually seeing one of the newspaper headlines conveniently posted to trees around the city, I learned that I had arrived in the middle of a week-long shut-down strike led by KACITA, the Kampala City Traders Association. Although one man told me the strike was directed against Chinese traders, no one else backed up this story. The reason for the strike, as explained in the papers, was discontent over the Ugandan National Bureau of Standards’ new Pre-export Verification Conformity (PVoC) fees. Importers would be responsible for paying to have their products inspected at the port of origin, to verify whether they were counterfeit. Although this was about counterfeit products, and the ports of origin were primarily in China, the main issue was the relationship between Ugandan importers and the Ugandan state, which eventually backed down and promised to modify its fees. The next Monday, the shops reopened and the Chinese wholesaler presence I had heard about finally materialized.

I immediately had a question. Why did the Chinese traders join the strike? It was a given that they would not have closed their shops to protest themselves, but what about the inspection fees on imports? According to a Chinese man I spoke to, but who was not personally involved in wholesaling, the new inspection tax did not affect the Chinese traders the same as it did Ugandan traders. The reason, he said, was that, whereas Ugandan wholesalers purchasing in China would buy a variety of products on each purchase, Chinese wholesalers tended to import items in bulk, meaning they paid fewer inspection fees.   When I asked about why they closed their shops that week, the response from the Chinese traders was generally the same.  KACITA announced that there would be a strike and that all the shopping arcades and stores would need to close for a week. They had little choice but to participate. If they did not close their shops, they told me, people would come around their shops and cause trouble. Some used my question as an opportunity to complain more generally about the taxes in Uganda. Other than that, the traders seemed generally unconcerned about the reasons for the strike. Contrary to the claims of the man who told me it was directed against the Chinese, nothing in it resembled an earlier protest in 2011 that, according to press reports, was upset that Chinese retailers were undermining the livelihoods of local traders.

I interviewed the current head of KACITA, Mr. Kalule, about both of these strikes, and he told me that relationships with the Chinese had improved dramatically since two years ago. The Chinese no longer did retail, he said, but stuck to wholesale. From what shopkeepers told me, and from what I could see, this seemed to be the case. To reinforce the point, a number of shops had “Wholesale Only” printed on a page hanging on the wall, or written onto the wooden side of the counter. How did this happen? Mr. Kalule told me a story about emerging forms of informal governance in Uganda that entailed the cooperation of the Ugandan and Chinese business community to maintain what he called “trade order”. Several years ago, KACITA, responding to complains from Ugandan retailers, directly approached the Ugandan Overseas Chinese Association. The Ugandan Overseas Association was originally formed in the early 2000s, in response to a wave of crime against expatriate Chinese at the time, by several prominent businesses people including Jeff Lin, the Taiwan-born owner of the Shanghai Restaurant and Nanjing Hotel in Kampala. The Association reached out to the Ugandan police, donating police boxes, motorcycles and helmets. The evidence of this cooperation can be seen in different places around the city on small police boxes emblazoned with the classic logo of international cooperation, two hands clasping and the caption, Sino-Ugandan Friendship. According to Chinese who have been in Uganda for more than a decade, the security situation has greatly improved.

When KACITA came to the Overseas Association several years ago for help in maintaining trade order, they agreed to help them. What followed, according to one long-term Chinese resident, was “very difficult” effort on their part to persuade other Chinese that their continued ability to do business in Kampala depended on restricting themselves to the wholesale trade. Eventually, through a combination of these efforts with stricter Ugandan government policy, the semblance of a trade order emerged. “Things are much better now”, Mr. Kalule said, providing an account very different from the conflictual environment political scientist Margaret Lee encountered in 2007. Mr. Kalule went on to describe how KACITA, with the encouragement of the Ugandan government, provided an informal mechanism for resolving trade disputes, including those between Ugandans and Chinese. When I asked about relations between Chinese and Ugandan wholesalers, he claimed both sides accepted the competition of the market. KACITA did not define its identity as “Ugandan”, he told me, but as an association of “businessmen”. Regardless of where they came from, he argued, they shared common interests in the protection of the market. This sense of joint interests and joint subjectivity as businessmen continued with the PVC strike. The Overseas Association agreed to support KACITA, and even updated Chinese shopkeepers by cellphone about the upcoming strike. One long-term Chinese resident described the bargaining strength of KACITA in the collective tense of “we”.

Accounts that look at Chinese-African interactions in cultural terms can easily overlook these other configurations and solidarities that may be more significant. It is possible that in some places, such forms of capitalist self-consciousness may be one way that Chinese and local businesses manage to “integrate”. One can speculate whether similar alignments are possible among the employees of Chinese enterprises.

However, while this may be taken as a positive story of cooperation, things are never that simple. Despite the cell phone announcement, many individual traders I spoke to, when asked why they closed shop for the strike, described themselves as being subtly or unsubtly threatened to do so by Ugandans informing them of the strike. If they did not close, their shops would be vandalized. As Hung Wing Lok and I have both noticed, Chinese traders in Kampala, many of whom envision only short-term stays, claim to maintain a distance from Chinese associations. More significantly, however, the harmony of trade order also has its limits insofar as it entails a hierarchy in the exchange chain. The idea that Chinese should let local retailers “eat”, as one Chinese trader told me, presumes that it is the Chinese who must benevolently restrain from a position of strength. In Tanzania,  a place with a similar trade order, Tanzanian shoe wholesalers resented the trade order that emerged, arguing that Chinese competition was  forcing them out of wholesale and down into retail. “They don’t want us to grow” one man said, “they don’t want us to go to China, they want us to stay here and buy from them”.  For one wholesaler selling high quality shoes, this was not just about economic competition, but also about self-identity. Me and my Tanzanian friend asked him whether he would sell cheaper shoes in order to compete with the Chinese wholesalers. “I would go up- market before going down market,” he replied solemnly. Tanzanian retailers on the other hand, praised the Chinese as offering them new opportunities to go into business. Every morning, informal traders would crowd around the Chinese wholesaler selling the cheapest shoes, cooperate to purchase a variety of shoes, and then go off to sell them around the city. The Chinese were not an economic threat, one man told me, because they remained “above” and did not compete directly with them.

The point I am making is not simply that Chinese economic activities have differential benefits, but these differential benefits produce different ideas about what China is “doing” in Africa, and an interesting question is how personal experiences converge or diverge from the stories that circulate in media and scholarly discourse on the topic. As the case of Uganda, shows, it might not even be “China-Africa” that emerge as the most relevant categories for particular situations. This does not mean they disappear, but that their salience may depend much more on other categories and alignments that emerge on the ground. How they do so, however, can not be assumed or generalized, but requires careful contextualized research in each location.

I would like to thank the SSRC for the funds for the trip, Mr. Moses Kalule and Mr. Jeff Lin for agreeing to interviews in Kampala, and AbdulRahman Salim in Dar es Salaam, for assistance in speaking to Swahilli wholesalers and retailers.

Chatelard, Solange Guo

2011 Unpacking the New “Scramble for Africa”: A Critical and Local Perspective of Chinese Activities in Zambia. In States, Regions and the Global System: Europe and Northern Asia-Pacific in Globalized       Governence Pp. 175–197.

Dittgen, Romain

2010 China in Africa Project From Isolation to Integration ? A Study of Chinese Retailers in Dakar. South Africa Institute for International Affairs. Occasional Paper, No. 57

Hung Wing Lok

2012 Chinese in Twentieth-century East Africa: Patterns of Economic Activities in Uganda (1980-Present). MA Thesis. Unpublished.

Lee, Margaret

2007 Uganda and China: Unleashing the Power of the Dragon. China in Africa: Current African Issues. 35: 26-40

Scheld, Suzanne

2010 The China Challenge: The Global Dimensions of Activism and the Informal Economy in Dakar Senegal. In Africa’s Informal Workers: Collective Agency, Alliances and Transnational Organizing in Urban Africa. Illa Lourenco-Lindell, ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillion/Zed Books.

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