China’s ‘eat bitter’ business model doesn’t work in Africa

Cobus van Staden
By Cobus van Staden
Senior China-Africa researcher, South African Institute of International Affairs

Cobus is the head of research and analysis at the China Africa Project (

Posted on Friday, 30 July 2021 13:46

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang gives a speech at a presentation of the new book "A Monument to China-Africa Friendship -- First Account of the Building of the Tazara", at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi gives a speech at a presentation of the new book "A Monument to China-Africa Friendship -- First Account of the Building of the Tazara", at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, China, July 23, 2015. REUTERS/China Daily

Forget debt traps, Huawei 'back-doors' and vaccine diplomacy. They might be the disputes that define our current polarised moment, but I'm willing to bet they won't have the staying power of the one - the original - dispute that has haunted Chinese engagement with Africa since the late 1990s: labour.

Those who’ve followed the Africa-China discourse for a while will know that African workers’ complaints about their treatment by Chinese managers crop up year after year, from sectors as diverse as mining to media and beyond. The complaints differ, but they keep circling around key themes: arduous working conditions, long hours, low wages, limited promotions, and disrespectful, or downright abusive, treatment by managers.

What has changed?

What has changed since the 1990s is that these complaints fly around the globe on the wings of social media. Mobile video has added massive impact, as we’ve seen with recent videos from Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo purportedly showing violent altercations between Chinese managers, local workers, and other stakeholders.

The irony of course is that Chinese-built data networks and the cheap Chinese mobile phones now sold in every country on the continent are amplifying these scandals and speeding up responses. The Sierra Leonian case was a rare instance of a Chinese company (in this case China Railway Seventh Group) swiftly taking responsibility, apologising, and dismissing the manager in question. More often, the scandal creates an opportunity for local politicians to grandstand, and for the Chinese company and local embassy to go into a defensive crouch, as we saw this week in the DRC.

Chinese vs Western employers

Research has shown that Chinese firms are frequently not markedly worse employers than their Western counterparts. For example, this 2019 report by Carlos Oya and several other prominent Africa-China scholars found that Chinese firms’ attitudes to local trade unions were roughly the same as those of other foreign firms (that is, negative.)

There are many different Chinese firms in Africa and they all have different labour approaches, defined in part by their sizes and business models. The wider, sadder, truth is any foreign firm doing business in Africa is trying to make something grow in soil that has been salted by centuries of the worst labour practices in human history.

This labour-related PTSD is one of the less-examined aspects of the African industrialisation story, and a key reason why a China-style ‘eat bitter’ (吃苦) model faces challenges on the continent. Asian developmental states’ classic bargain with their workers (work your butt off for minimal pay now in return for national prosperity later) sets up a logic where everyone suffers and everyone then prospers, both workers and business owners.

Bottom line

That logic doesn’t play in Africa, where low wages and overwork have been the default as long as anyone can remember with no prosperity in sight, despite many promises to the contrary.

Add to this the fact that the historical experience of exploitation tends to warp human relationships in ways that beget more exploitation. When foreigners start African enterprises they’re stepping into a trap set by the poisonous labour relations of the past. To avoid recreating them means working twice as hard and being doubly innovative. ‘Eating bitter’ isn’t enough when bitter has been the continent’s staple diet for centuries.

This article was first published as a newsletter on The China Africa Project. 

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