“Chinese people are too hurried!” laughed a Thai taxi driver in the popular Chinese movie Lost on Journey. The Chinese protagonist had rushed him, an in the process forgotten his own wallet and passport. The scene is etched in my mind, because I’m like this Chinese character: always in pursuit of speed, efficiency and progress, to an extent that I come close to losing things, and sometimes myself. There are millions more like me in China too, all of us not just used to Chinese speed, but proud of it. And Chinese people like this have arrived in Africa.
I started my journey in Africa three weeks ago. When I spent time with Chinese friends, they shared their frustration with “African time."
“If this cashier was in China, she’d have been fired. Why doesn’t this supermarket pay a salary based on the number of customers processed?” asked a Chinese friend after queuing for ten minutes. He’d only have waited two minutes in China.
“In China, a small city changes completely over the course of ten years. But Johannesburg's landscape has changed so little in the past decade!” said a Chinese friend who’s lived in South Africa for over 10 years.
We Chinese want things to happen fast, but of course things are lost on the journey. And corruption happens when a relatively small amount of money can save you time.
“We can't wait too long for our project to be approved,” the manager of a Chinese company said, when explaining his decision to bribe to local middle man, who would in turn bribe the city council.
“I don't waste my time with traffic police,” said a Chinese friend who paid off a traffic officer.
“She couldn't sit in jail for too long!” said the friend of a Chinese smuggler, after bribing her friend out of an African jail.
It isn’t only the Chinese who pay bribes – locals do it too, and have for some time. In fact, the mindset seems to have gone global: for example, an MBA student in America surprised me by saying, “To go to prison for committing a crime? What a waste of time!” To some, smuggling ivory isn’t immoral – it’s just stupid because it’s more risky and less efficient than other businesses.
“What’s wrong with corruption?” asked an African middleman, who Chinese businesses hire to bribe officials. “Imagine, there are not many cars in the highway, so you speed – to save time. Well if you get caught sometimes, and you don't want to waste time, you give the police some money – to save time. Laws need to be implemented with some flexibility, otherwise you’d lose too much time, because your time is worth much more money than the bribe. Corruption brings the law some flexibility and speeds things up.”
Some Chinese follow the same logic. “We’re here to help develop Africa quickly. If we try to keep every project corruption free, Africa won't develop.” As a result, many Chinese businessmen don't like EITI and other transparency initiatives.
What is Chinese speed going to bring to Africa? Development? Development for whom? Development at the price of what? Wait, does “development” itself really outweigh everything?
In cities like Nairobi, numerous high-rise apartment buildings and offices are being put up by Chinese developers. Whether he builds a single room house with a yard or modern 10 storey apartment buildings, the Chinese developer stands to earn a lot of money. But he also does damage: old trees are cut down, for example, because every inch of land is valuable.
“But a house with trees is going to be more valuable in the long run!” I said to a Chinese real estate developers in frustration.
“Long run? We want profits as soon as possible,” he replied. He wanted to earn enough to go back to China in five years, and carry on with his life there.
“Africans can just lie down on the grass for a whole day and be happy!” say some Chinese people, amazed by how Africans can be so relaxed and happy at the same time, while Chinese people are the very picture of hard-working and worried.
“Many Chinese think Africans are stupid and wasteful, but maybe they aren’t,” a Chinese friend who lived in Africa for many years one day suddenly said to me.
“Some people think the world is going from somewhere to somewhere better,” an anthropologist friend told me. “That is how you have ‘progress’ and ‘development’. But some people think, wait, maybe there are only cultural differences, and New York is no better than the Amazon.”
If my friend was right, where do we speed up to? And what we are going to lose on our journey?