As Africa welcomes more Chinese migrants, a new wariness sets in
In Congo, Chinese are settling in with businesses and bargains that locals love. At one copper smelting plant, Chinese and locals work together but live apart.
Lubumbashi, Congo — Some 6,000 miles away from his home in China, Robin Wei awakes on a cot beneath a white mosquito net. He gets dressed, opens the door of his bunker, and walks out into the rainy season toward the factory where he works.
Four years ago, Mr. Wei bade goodbye to his wife and daughter in Shanghai and boarded a flight to the heart of Congo's mineral belt. He lives and works at a Chinese-owned smelting plant that extracts copper from the rich ore, which is then sold for wire and pipes that go into building skyscrapers and cargo ships.
Congo also holds nearly half the world's known reserves of cobalt. It has vast reserves of high-grade copper, tantalum, and tin. Just 10 years ago, a ton of copper could fetch $1,700 on the world market. Today it goes for about $8,000.
Wei is one of hundreds of thousands of Chinese men and women – as many as 1 million by some estimates – who, at least for now, call Africa home. (Wei goes home to visit his wife and daughter once a year.) China has been investing heavily in Africa for more than a decade, and both China and its migrants are in what could be called a settling-in period as the story of a fast-growing Africa and a rising China unfolds.
Congo is increasingly influenced by the penetration of all things Chinese, and that in turn is bringing high hopes for development.
But it is also raising wariness here that Africa's new benefactor may sometimes be driven by the same self-interested motives as the Western nations that preceded it in the colonial and postcolonial periods.
Like most Chinese here, Wei lives a separate life, socializing exclusively with his Chinese co-workers except for an occasional foray down the street to buy groceries and exchange pleasantries with a Congolese street vendor.
Yet to the Congolese, the Chinese have increasingly become a necessary part of everyday life. To buy a cellphone, people go to Chinese electronics shops that offer knock-off Blackberry models at a third of the market price. When people want to enjoy a soccer game, they take a seat in the bleachers at Kinshasa's "Martyrs Stadium," a gift from China in 1993. A drive through downtown Kinshasa runs along a grand central boulevard, newly widened and repaved by a Chinese construction company.
Down the road from Wei's copper-smelting plant in the town of Lubumbashi, a Chinese doctor treats Congolese and Chinese patients with a combination of modern pharmaceuticals and ancient Chinese acupuncture. Grocery stores sell Chinese rice and sauces; there is even a Chinese casino.
Many Africans have welcomed Chinese migrants and their businesses. In a 2009 survey of 250 people in nine African countries, three-quarters said the Chinese way was a "very positive" or "somewhat positive" model of development.
Increasingly that Chinese model is defined by huge deals in which Chinese companies mine minerals or extract oil and build needed infrastructure for the African nation, often using Chinese skilled labor to do so.
The rising price of copper, for example, has prompted two Chinese state-owned companies to open the largest mine Congo has ever seen. In exchange for the rights to mine potentially billions of dollars' worth of copper for more than two decades, these companies are spending $3 billion upfront to build roads, bridges, and hospitals in Congo.
The Chinese are replicating this minerals-for-infrastructure model in other African countries, notably Zimbabwe, Guinea, and Angola. In 2009, China surpassed the United States as Africa's largest trading partner.
That China has moved 600 million people out of poverty over the past 35 years is a source of admiration for some African elites.
When asked in a different survey which model of development offers more promise for Africa's future – the Western one, which tends to keep private business separate from infrastructure that is considered "aid," or the Chinese model, which blends the two – Africans responded overwhelmingly with the latter. Many see China as more welcoming than the US. Twice a week, a line forms outside the Chinese Embassy in Kinshasa as Congolese students and businessmen arrive to apply for visas to work or study in China. They say it's far easier to get a visa to go there than to the US.
As relations deepen, however, a wider rift is opening between Chinese and Congolese at the workplace. Congo's leaders laud Chinese investors for creating jobs. But some here note that large Chinese companies often employ Chinese workers to do jobs that could easily be done by Congolese. Even Congolese who do get hired by Chinese companies may find their high expectations dashed.
On a rainy morning in Kinshasa, a group of Congolese men huddle under the overhang of a tin roof. The men are employed by the China Railway Engineering Corp. (CREC), a large construction company that is widening and paving the road that connects Kinshasa's airport to its downtown.
The men have been hired to dig trenches, direct traffic, and carry supplies, for which they earn $65 per month, just slightly above the minimum wage here.
The workers say they hardly interact at all with their Chinese managers. They eat and live separately from them. And they say most Chinese don't learn the local languages, French and Lingala, making conversation impossible. The men dress in street clothes because CREC doesn't provide them with uniforms.
"They don't give us boots or helmets. We work like this," says Maba Litile, pointing to the sandals he's wearing. "We work really hard, but the money is too little. If I found another job, I'd leave."
Far away on the outskirts of a mining town called Kolwezi, men, women, and often children spend their days digging with picks and shovels for bits of copper ore. Each week they push bicycles and wheelbarrows laden with bags of those rocks to sell to the Chinese.
In a riverbed that runs through town, Kayenda washes and cleans a batch of rocks before selling them. Like most Kolwezi miners, Kayenda says she's grateful to the Chinese for providing a means by which her family can earn an income. But also like many, she resents that the Chinese are getting rich off her hard work and her nation's minerals. "The way they are helping is giving jobs, but also they are stealing from us," she says.
Some see China as merely the newest player in a centuries-old pattern of foreign powers coming to make their fortunes from Congo's natural resources.
In theory, Congo should be rich, given its vast mineral wealth. But one wouldn't know it by looking at how the majority of Congo's 76 million people live. Rural families sleep in huts that flood when it rains. Only 4 percent have electricity.
Life in cities can also be bleak, as urbanites hustle to earn enough income to subsist. Despite its resources, Congo is the least developed country in the world, and it is also the world's most unlikely place for an individual to improve his or her livelihood, according to the United Nations.
It is hardly lost on Congolese that billions of Western aid and investment dollars have not alleviated Congo's poverty. Some say the West has had its chance. Yet the question of whether China will improve life in Congo more than did the investors who came before it remains unanswered.
On a rainy morning back at the copper-smelting factory where Wei works, a group of muscular Congolese men swing sledgehammers over their heads, then bring them crashing down upon black boulders. More men enter the machinery yard through a metal gate.
"Congolese, they really don't have a sense of time and distance. They're supposed to work at 7:30 but they come at 8 or 8:10 or 8:20," says Wei, who seems more intrigued than concerned.
Behind them, the three-story furnace melts the ore into copper lava, sending dust particles into the air. After an hour of watching rocks transform into molten copper, it becomes impossible to take a full breath without a burning sensation in the lungs. Yet only the few Congolese workers who handle the molten copper are given protective face masks.
All week, Wei and his Chinese colleagues work side by side with the Congolese men. As is typical for first-generation Chinese abroad, they eat only Chinese food while their Congolese employees place a pot atop the hot copper at the factory to cook cassava flour – a traditional East African lunch.
But on the weekends, Chinese workers struggle to feel at home in a place that remains largely foreign to them. Wei is one of only a few who speak the local languages. Some of Wei's Chinese co-workers say they have come seeking adventure. They are often new college graduates who face scarce job prospects at home, or they are leaving jobs in China to earn more money in Africa.
But in reality, Wei's co-workers tend to stay isolated from Congolese society altogether, rarely venturing beyond the concrete walls of the smelting complex. They spend their weekends tending gardens planted with Chinese vegetables, playing table tennis, and singing karaoke. Many are simply reconstructing their lives in China, here.
For many, China's influence in Congo will depend upon whether the Chinese stick around.
Some Chinese have lived here for more than a decade and intend to stay. But the business that brings so many Chinese migrants to Congo today could one day lure them away again as opportunities arise in other places. Whether the Chinese will be transient or put down roots here in Congo remains to be seen.
This story was adapted from the new e-book "China's Congo Plan." Reporting was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.