The raw side of Chinese traders

Four years ago, I suggested that going by the Chinese migration trends in the East African Community (EAC) and Africa, in general, it would be just a matter of time before the Chinese hawker would stump his presence in Kigali (see “The Chinese hawker is assuredly coming”.

Four years ago, I suggested that going by the Chinese migration trends in the East African Community (EAC) and Africa, in general, it would be just a matter of time before the Chinese hawker would stump his presence in Kigali (see “The Chinese hawker is assuredly coming”.

I was wrong. Instead, a firm footing has since been established by the likes of the Chinese supermarket, T2000, in Downtown Kigali, which is famous for its cheap assortment of products imported from China.

It is in the nature of Kigali’s orderliness that the Chinese hawker is yet to venture. Though there are local street vendors with frequent run-ins with city authorities, the numbers are nowhere close to those in Kampala or Nairobi, whose teeming and chaotic hordes clog entire pavements along busy thoroughfares.

In a chaotic multitude, a Chinese street dealer easily blends in.

I observed how a picture circulated widely on the internet bemusedly showed a Chinese man seated on the pavement by a busy road roasting maize for sale, with others spotted doing brisk business such as selling assorted items in the suburbs.

Others were said to be engaging in small-scale farming and fishing in western Kenya. Their numbers have somewhat since diminished following media attention and noisy protests by aggrieved hawkers in Nairobi.

In Kampala, as in other major urban centres in Uganda, they are engaged in retail business and local traders have long bemoaned loss of business to Chinese small-scale traders who have set up shop among them vending cheap wares.

But matters have come to a head. This week, following a petition by irate Kampala traders, the Parliamentary Committee on Trade, Industry and Cooperatives issued a three-month ultimatum to foreigners, with the main target being the Chinese traders operating retail outlets in the capital Kampala, to either invest in bigger businesses or return to their home countries.

The discontent has, however, not just been in East Africa. Not too long ago similar conditions were set in Namibia with a threat to ban medium-sized public transport business and hair beauty salons run by Chinese immigrants in the country.

Namibia’s Trade and Industry ministry sought enforcement of legislation to make foreign investors obtain retail permits in a bid to protect local jobs and the country’s economic well-being.

In the capital Windhoek, there is a town known as “Chinatown”, where Chinese traders rent shops to sell “Made-In-China” merchandise.

In Malawi, the resentment is as palpable. Local business owners have also been reported to have ganged up against Chinese nationals wanting them to be kicked out for causing “frustrations” in the local market.

While most of the Chinese in Africa are legitimate traders or workers in the China-funded infrastructure projects, there are enough examples of hostility among local small businesses with which one can go on and on with the continuing influx.

Though exact figures are difficult to come by, in his book, China’s Second Continent, journalist and author Howard French estimates the number of Chinese in Africa to be over a million.

But migration between China and Africa has been a two-way traffic, with the number of Africans living and working – or trading – in China estimated at over 200,000 in Guangzhou City alone in the industrious Guangdong Province, which is said to be the world’s workshop – manufacturing anything from toys to laptops.

However, even as Sino-Africa trade and investment pacts have expanded significantly, Africans may also not be having it too smooth in China.

There are documented claims that China’s Exit-Entry Administration Law, passed in 2013, is “draconian” (see “African migrants let down by the Chinese dream”).

Previously, Africans could renew their temporary visas by crossing into nearby Macau or Hong Kong. Now, with the new law, they have to return to their home countries and apply for visa renewals.

Some view this as a clear indication of Africans unwelcome in the Asian country.

Back in Kigali, a new market has just been unveiled to house the vendors and keep them off the streets. To pull them in, the traders are exempted from paying rent and all kinds of taxes for a year.

 

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