“Some Chinese customers treat me like a dog even though I send them deliveries every day”, said Luisa, a waitress working in a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, Windhoek, Namibia. She had been jobless for several months before signing up for a job here and her daily task is to deliver lunchboxes for Chinese businessmen working nearby. After six months in this Chinese restaurant, she finds working for Chinese customers unsatisfying mostly because she does not feel the Chinese communities respect her as well as other locals.
Since establishing diplomatic relations in 1990, China and Namibia have engaged in ever-strengthening economic and trade cooperation: the volume of bilateral trade between the two countries has experienced a constant increase and reached its peak in 2014. According to research in the same year by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), a prominent Namibian think tank, 34% of respondents believe that China has the strongest economic influence on Namibia, compared to the US, Germany and South Africa.
However, since 2011, problems including money laundering, wildlife crimes, tax fraud and other issues have started to create a negative image of China in Namibia and have hindered Sino-Namibia relations. Especially in 2017, there have been two waves of anti-China sentiment: the open letter accusing Chinese of trafficking rhino horns and the 350 million money laundering scandal.
From 2016 to 2017, there were frequent cases of Chinese arrested with rhino horns in Namibia. In 2016 a Chinese man was found carrying 18 rhino horns, and in 2017, two Chinese were arrested for keeping 5 kilograms of rhino horns. At the end of 2016, Chris Brown, the CEO of the Namibian Chamber of the Environment, together with 40 local NGOs, published an open letter to the Chinese ambassador blaming wildlife poaching problems in Namibia on an influx of Chinese.
Before Namibians had forgotten about the Chinese rhino horn smugglers, money laundering made the Chinese image even worse. In January 2017, Chinese companies and businessmen were accused of having trafficked N$3.5 billion (equivalent to US$255 Million) to China, and some Chinese nationals have been arrested.
A long article in The New York Times in 2017 raised questions about this booming Sino-Namibia relationship, asking ‘Is China the World’s New Colonial Power?’
According to the national public attitude survey report from IPPR in 2014, the majority of Namibians view China’s influence in Namibia as positive. Yet there are still certain aspects that undermine its image and these aspects are likely to attract more attention in the future.
“Greeting is very important in our country, but the Chinese never do so,” said Luisa. Even though she delivers food for Chinese businesspeople working in Chinatown every day, none of them ever greets her, not even with a nod of the head. According to interviews in Chinatown, many Namibian workers in Chinese businesses share this same experience. Other than not saying hello, they often experienced personal insults. Luisa’s Chinese customer has once threw soup over her because she had forgotten to bring him a spoon.
Apart from greeting and personal attitudes issues, labor conflict also contributes to the negative image of Chinese in Namibia. Namibian workers in Chinatown often complain that their salary is too low, their working hours are too long and that they don’t get paid for overtime, although they agree that being jobless is much worse. “The pay is not great, but we have to live,” said Tony, a local guard in Chinatown.
While at the grassroots Namibians may care most about basic economic benefits, the elite also pays attention to social and environmental issues like wildlife conservation, as demonstrated by the rhino horn trafficking cases.
Chinese communities are very sensitive to these negative perceptions. Zhong, a project manager of one of the biggest Chinese construction companies in Namibia, said that a half-drunk Namibian in a bar once ranted at him: “Why do you come to our country to poach our wildlife? Get out of our country. ” “Every time I read the newspaper, there is only negative news about Chinese living here”, he added.
“Twenty years ago, when I first came to Namibia, I was astonished by how friendly and nice the local people were. The staff at the airport welcomed me warmly and even helped me with my baggage. This is hard to imagine today,” said another Chinese businessman who has experienced the strong decline of Chinese’s image in Namibia. Nowadays, whenever he passes the checkpoint, he needs to prepare a few bottles of Coke and give to the police when they ask for bribes.
The negative perception of the Chinese community hurts not only the feelings of the Chinese community but also their business operations. According to Chinese businessmen in Chinatown, their businesses are raided three to four times each year by the government inspecting whether they have illegal materials in their shops. Such raids were particularly intensive during the rhino horn trafficking crisis.
Some Chinese have experienced similar treatment in being pulled over by police to be searched for ivory carving. Or they might be required to go through the scanner at the airport several times on suspicion of possessing ivory or rhino horns. According to those who have been pulled over, during the rummage, there were some local Namibians gathering around and shouting “Rhino Horn! Rhino Horn!”
This negative image of Chinese in Namibia has impacted on government policy towards the Chinese. The most obvious phenomenon is that Chinese applicants now have a harder and harder time getting work permits and visas. Moreover, “To prevent the illicit flow of money to China, wiring money abroad is now much more difficult, even for us,” said a US expat who has been working in Namibia over a decade.
Many Chinese feel they are innocent. Chinese state-owned companies and large private corporations believe that they are being damaged by the behaviour of these Chinese businessmen in Chinatown. These companies claim that they provide a decent payment for their local employees, together with insurance and overtime. Other Chinese businessmen stress the difference between themselves and the wildlife traffickers: “They are just a tiny part of us. I don’t care how you treat them. Fine, throw them into prison or punish them in any way that you see fit. I just want my own interests as a foreign entrepreneur properly protected. ”
Some Chinese even feel angry and believe that Namibian government officials are just taking advantage of them. For some, the 3.5 billion scandal in which some Chinese businessmen are accused of money laundering may have deeper causes. According to a Chinese source with close ties to the Namibian central government, local officials have shown great interest in getting their hands on that money for the Namibian government whose finances are at present in a dire state.
“They just want money,” said Xu, a Chinese businessman operating a small shop in Chinatown. This is his third year in Namibia. Xu said that sometimes the police may lock the door with a special padlock and owners have then to pay for unlocking it. Also, when searching for fake products, even when the police are unable to find anything, they refuse to go away until a substantial bribe has been paid. For a small shop, $1000 will be demanded, for a bigger one $2000.
Most Chinese living in Namibia believe China also gets a bad name because the “anti-China white Namibians” are trying to protect their interests against the newcomer. “These white Namibians are defending their interests by bashing our businesses because they cannot defeat us in the market,” said Mr. Yuan, a Chinese company manager who has been in Namibia for seven years. “Namibia still has a post-colonial status and the white Namibians are the dominant power here in the economy and media.
According to Mr. Zhao from a Chinese construction company, the Chinese have experienced severe discrimination. “If there is any tiny defect in our products when we are cooperating with local partners, even though it will not impair its safety, we are required to replace it. But white Namibian companies never need to do so even if they have similar problems. ”
Those whose shops have been raided by the police believe that it is white Namibians who prompted them to raid their property. “When their (the white Namibians) businesses don’t go well, they will tell the police to come and inspect the Chinese for counterfeit products.”
Of course, the negative image of Chinese is not groundless as there are many grey areas in which Chinese businessmen operate here. The money-oriented, short term focused business model leads some Chinese enterprises to neglect to try to integrate into the local market and ultimately this will hinder their potential to develop sustainably. When being asked whether any Chinese company has initiated any goodwill social responsibility project to promote more friendly relations with local communities, a Chinese working in a construction company answered: “Our company is too busy for that. Providing Namibians with a decent job and a high salary is the best way of fulfilling our CSR”.
But the locals also lack understanding about their new Chinese neighbors. For example, the open letter stated that all Chinese businesses in Namibia are representatives of or even controlled by the Chinese government, although there are many Chinese businessmen who have no relationship or interaction with the Chinese state or the Chinese embassy at all. The Namibian media also presents tax evasion as money laundering, which is something the Chinese find ridiculous.
The Chinese government has already taken measures to tackle the situation. The Mao Zedong high school has been founded to teach local students Chinese and promote Chinese culture, while more than 200 students in the University of Namibia receive scholarships to Chinese universities for higher education every year. Through the business associations, the Chinese embassy also pressurizes Chinese business communities to be more law-abiding. However, both the Chinese government and the business communities still have a long way to go in terms of finding the best way to repair the image of China.
“At a public event, the Chinese embassy staff publicly told a Namibian journalist not to write negative coverage about China. It sounds as though they are telling the Namibians what to do and it doesn’t go down well here”, said a cultural officer at a European Union embassy.
“Every government wants to control media coverage about itself and enhance its country’s image, but the Chinese could have been smarter about the way they went about this,” added this EU cultural officer.
Jie Zhu is a youth fellow at China House Kenya in Nairobi.