Chinese companies have been at the forefront of China’s rapidly expanding footprint in the Global South in the past two decades. In their engagement with Chinese companies, some local officials and communities in Asia, Africa and the Pacific marvel at the speed of construction by Chinese companies. This so-called“China speed”, largely achieved through efficient management and hardwork of Chinese labour, often faces local challenges. In Ethiopia, for instance, some Chinese engineers think local Ethiopian supervisors are unnecessarily strict with their oversight duties, which suggests the agency of local societies in their interaction with Chinese companies.
A large number of Chinese companies have conducted business overseas since the Chinese Communist Party adopted the ‘Going Global’ strategy (from 2000) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (from 2013). By 2019, 27,500 Chinese companies had established branches in 188 countries. Most of them are in the Global South to construct roads, railways, airports, bridges, and buildings.
In many countries, Chinese construction giants such as China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) and China Railway Engineering Corporation, are more visible representatives of China’s image than the Chinese Party-State. These and other state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are a crucial part of China’s global outreach.
Privately-owned small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) have followed the steps of SOEs, expanding their markets and networks across the Global South in pursuit of export and investment opportunities. One example of such an expanding ground for SME is Ethiopia, which is one of China’s key strategic partners in Africa. In the early 2000s, Chinese expatriates in Ethiopia were mainly medical volunteers and agriculturalists working on aid programs. By 2016, the number of Chinese expats in Ethiopia had sky-rocketed to some 60,000, working mainly in construction and infrastructure projects as well as in the manufacturing sector (especially leather and plastics).
In Chinese projects overseas, distinctive business practices with ‘Chinese characteristics’ shape local perceptions of China.
One example relates to local officials and the public’s perceptions of China’s speed of construction. In 2015, a former government minister in Timor-Leste told the first author, ‘Chinese work 24 hours a day (by working in shifts) … I am sure if you ask Chinese to develop this part of the city, in one year you will get it. These Chinese people are hardworking people. If they have the deadline, they will finish before that.’
In 2019, a high-level official from the Federal Attorney General’s Office of Ethiopia told the second author that the construction of a road contracted by the Ethiopian Government to a local Ethiopian company had started earlier, but lagged far behind a different road project — one that was contracted by Addis Ababa City Road Authority to China Road and Bridge Corporation. When the latter project was completed first, Ethiopians joked self-deprecatingly that it was a ‘Chinese surprise!’ The joke became a meme, and soon spread over social media, used by Ethiopian netizens to criticise local officials for failing to adequately oversee the construction of municipal facilities.
Some locals regard Chinese workers on the construction site as so hard on themselves that they seldom take leave from work. During fieldwork in Port Moresby in 2014, the first author encountered ninety workers from China Harbour Engineering Company, CCCC Third Highway Engineering Corporation and Hubei Xingda Road & Bridges Corporation. These workers lived in dormitories inside a compound that was guarded by armed local security personnel. They worked from 7am to 6pm on workdays and had little entertainment in their spare time. The Chinese companies confined them to the worksite and dormitory, thus their engagement with local communities was limited.
The efficiency of Chinese workers, as Miriam Derissen argues, is often due to the puritan work ethics they inherit from their migrant worker parents in China. Young men, in particular, hope they can climb up the Chinese social ladder through hard work and the doubled salaries they can earn overseas. They tend to see engagement with local society as being neither necessary, nor instrumental, for their dreams.
Frustrations can arise between Chinese companies and local stakeholders, however. The pride Chinese earned from speedy implementation does not guarantee them an advantageous position vis-à-vis their Ethiopian partners. Instead, the power-dynamic is never clear-cut but resembles a tug of war. In the construction project of an Ethiopian bank headquarters starting from 2015, for example, the bank appointed an architect institute that was affiliated with Addis Ababa University as the supervisor. Chinese engineers and managers often complained that the Ethiopian supervisors were unnecessarily strict in their oversight. These supervisors, they complained, would meticulously check everything on the site construction drawings and demand the project halt completely if the Chinese did not explain the operations clearly enough. But the Chinese find such explanations demanding in the realm of technology and in a foreign setting.
This kind of situation stems at least partly from the fact that Chinese engineers follow the Chinese construction code, while Ethiopian supervisors follow ESEN, a combination of Ethiopian standards developed during Haile Sellassie’s modernisation programs and an adapted version of contemporary European standards. Chinese contractors can apply Chinese standards in design, but the delivery of the project must be checked against ESEN or European standards. Although the process of demanding that work halt and seeking explanations of Chinese ways of operation allowed Ethiopian engineers to absorb Chinese techniques and adapt them for domestic development, the resultant slowing down of the projects antagonised Chinese engineers.
As the Chinese government is actively promoting the BRI, Chinese companies’ engagement with local stakeholders in the Global South is set to grow. Some of the misperceptions the Chinese companies and the local stakeholders have about each other will likely persist. Mutual learning from each other may reduce misperceptions as well as tune in expectations. For example, an obsession with speed may hamper organic, collaborative growth, if one recalls a Chinese proverb “more haste, less speed” (欲速则不达) and another one from Ethiopia ‘slowly an egg will walk with its two legs (ቀስ በቀስ እንቁላል በእግሩ ይሄዳል)’.
The authors acknowledge Bingkun Liang for his fieldwork in Ethiopia.