By Huang Hongxiang, Chinese journalist and recipient of a China-Africa Reporting Project grant, whose previous pieces published on this site include Spotlight on Zambezi’s ivory smuggling, Chinese ivory smugglers in Africa, Ivory and rhino horn trade thrives in Joburg, and How to Understand China-related Environmental Problems in Africa.
"Other than Spring Festival galas, they do not organize very helpful and meaningful activities and are not playing an active role in organizing the Chinese community," said Vivian (not real name), a member of the Chinese media based in Zambia. Not only in Zambia, but in most African countries, the Chinese will tell you that Chinese business associations and Chinese embassies there are not really functioning well in communities to organize and manage the behavior of Chinese companies.
"Usually the problem is management. If you have a young and ambitious leader in the Chinese business community, and he/she has allowed young people to form an active team to help with implementation, things can be different," says Yu Zuo, who is 34 years old and an active full-time member of the Zimbabwe Chinese Business Association in Harare.
"I know few Chinese people here in Zimbabwe appreciate literature. This event is not targeted at the Chinese, but at the locals for them to see how Chinese communities are integrating into the cultural side of local societies, and for them to understand that the Chinese are not only doing grocery trading but can also be upper class," says Li Manjuan, secretary of the Zimbabwe Chinese Business Association (ZCBA). Along with her colleague Yu Zuo, she just finished a meeting with Chirikure Chirikure, a famous poet from Zimbabwe, to discuss co-hosting a literature festival in Harare. After the meeting, she adds Chirikure on Whatsapp.
The ZCBA was founded in 2004. At that time, Zimbabwe suddenly raised import taxes and this hurt the interests of a lot of Chinese traders. Therefore, a group of these Chinese traders together put pressure on the government to postpone the tax for six months in order to give the traders enough time to adjust. That was how the ZCBA was formed.
Like in most other African countries, since a long time ago the Chinese in Zimbabwe have not been very united, despite that they form an distinct community. Today, there are three major Chinese business associations in Zimbabwe, one for state enterprises, which is closer to the Chinese embassy; and two for private Chinese businesses, among which is included the ZCBA.
"The other Chinese private business association was created in the beginning of 2014. In the past, the ZCBA was not very active in organizing and helping the Chinese community, that was part of the reason why some people started a new one. But now, facing competition and with a new leader, we have been working hard to become a real community organizer," says Yu Zuo.
"The competition has somehow woken up the ZCBA. In the past, if you were the leader of this association you could hold this position forever. But now, if you do not perform, your association will be forgotten, will look bad in comparison, and so would you as the leader," said Zhao Hanqing, who used to work at the ZCBA but is now the leader of the Chinese Federation of Zimbabwe (CFZ), the new Chinese private business association.
Born in 1981, Yu Zuo came to Zimbabwe in 2008 as a translator for a Chinese company. He attempted to start his own business in 2012, but at the end of 2014 he was invited by Li Manjuan to join the ZCBA, and henceforth dedicated himself to managing the association’s online platform and social media. His work focuses mainly on WeChat, a popular and growing Chinese mobile platform similar to Whatsapp.
In March 2014 the ZCBA started a website called Zimbabwe Chinese Network, and a WeChat account was opened in December of the same year. Everyday Yu Zuo posts Zimbabwe-related or Africa-related news on the site and on WeChat. According to Yu, at the very beginning not many people took note of their posts, but these platforms have started to gain influence among the Chinese community in Zimbabwe.
"Can I put our weekly specials on your platform to promote our restaurant?" China Garden, a Chinese restaurant in Harare, asked Yu Zuo to help them advertise. In reply, Yu Zuo would say, "Sure. And we would mention that, as a member of the ZCBA, customers can get 10% off at your place".
"We want to build a business community that helps people to thrive together," Yu Zuo emphasizes. He is passionate about what he is doing, and he appreciates the opportunity of being given such chance.
Currently the main source of funding for the ZCBA, which covers Yu Zuo's salary, comes from the new leader Li Xinfeng, who was elected last year, and other donors from among successful business leaders in Zimbabwe. Li Xinfeng has been in Zimbabwe around 20 years and has become one of the leading Chinese traders. These days he is involved in real estate, mining and other interests. When making money would no longer be his main concern, he plans to do something more impactful than merely trading groceries, namely creating a properly functioning Chinese business association to organize the Chinese community better.
"In South Africa, the Chinese community has become very segregated and there are even gangs and violence. Zimbabwe is a place with great potential, I hope it will not become like South Africa," Li Xinfeng says.
With decades' accumulation of capital and social relationships, Li Xinfeng is powerful enough in Zimbabwe now to take the lead in achieving this. Last year, two Chinese were stopped by policemen who threatened to take them to the immigration office, despite that the two Chinese both had legal documents on them. When asked for help, Li was annoyed by the situation and called a senior official in the police station to intervene. The policemen knew what they were doing was not authorized by law, and therefore left, saying "we just wanted to get a little money."
Right now Li Xinfeng’s ambition is to launch a civic-police cooperation center in Harare to protect the Chinese community, like the one established in Johannesburg, South Africa. He believes this could significantly improve the security situation for the Chinese community in Zimbabwe, and also better help the ZCBA gain influence and support.
At 21:00 pm on Friday, March 13, a group of about ten Chinese businessmen gathered in a district police station in Harare. They range in age from 20s to 50s, all wear police uniform, and work with local policemen. With five good vehicles provided by Chinese businessmen, the team conducts patrols until 1 am. While the local police station suffers from a lack of funding and equipment, the ZCBA organizes the Chinese community to provide support.
"If setting up a Chinese civic-police cooperation center would require any inputs like personnel, equipment or funding, we will cover it," says Li Xinfeng. But Li Xinfeng has bigger ambitions than this, in the future he wants to help build an orphanage and help create a "Chinese brand city" where Chinese products of high quality can be sold.
To make the ZCBA thrive, Li Xinfeng wants to cultivate young Chinese people to thrive with him. Other than Yu Zuo, Chen Nan is also working for the ZCBA while starting his own business. In 2005, Chen Nan joined Huawei and was sent to Nigeria, and then Angola and Zambia. Despite the high salary paid by Chinese companies, he eventually quit his job in Zimbabwe and started his own small printing business.
"The culture of Huawei does not encourage you to have a personal life and integrate into local societies. They want you to spend your life in endless over-time work," says Chen Nan. He prefers to work and grow with the ZCBA. He has also spent his savings to buy a piece of land in Harare, with plans to settle down. He knows that today if you want to thrive in an African country, you need to be ready for lifetime integration.
"We have been damaging our own image for a decade. At the very beginning of my stay in Zimbabwe, the local people did not treat us like they do now," says Li Xinfeng. 20 years ago when he first arrived, locals treated Chinese people with respect, he says, and never asked for a bribe so blatantly as they do now. Those days are gone, he sighs, but he believes they can return.
On March 14, 2015, the ZCBA invited over 20 Chinese people to participate in a garbage collection activity organized by a local NGO called Miracle Missions.
"The first time Frank came he invited two people to join, and today he has brought 20!" Gacqualine Anderson is an organizer working for Miracle Missions. She says before this year she had never seen Chinese joining such activities. According to her, there is a lot of misunderstanding between Chinese and local communities in Zimbabwe because the Chinese are easily stigmatized and local people never get to know them properly. However, after engaging them, she now understands them better.
Frank's Chinese name is Guo Baoning. He has been doing corn processing business in Zimbabwe for 18 years and is now heading the ZCBA's community work department. According to him, Chinese businessmen like him used to be very reckless in supplying poor quality products and in how they treated local workers. But they eventually came to realize that this is wrong and they should change their behavior. "Through community work, we get to understand local people and allow them understand us," said Guo Baoning.
Yet organizing the Chinese community is not easy. Let alone the state companies which do not interact much with private businesses, even among Chinese private businesses, the two business associations face competition and members in these two groups have complicated personal relationships with each other.
"If we can work together, we do so; but if we cannot, at least we try not to harm each other," Li Xinfeng says. But that is not easy, as vicious internal competition is a long-lasting challenge for Chinese communities in Africa.
"That is a problem with many Chinese: although it is better to cooperate, they are often unable to do so. There are days when young staff members of the two rival Chinese associations in Zimbabwe would not play basketball in the same yard," says Zhao Hanqing. He hopes that the two associations can learn to work together again, but this is not the case right now.