August 15, 2009
Algeria & Chinese in Algeria: the riot & fallout
I was somewhat bemused to find Global Voices Online post on Algeria & the Chinese incident although the choice of contrasting blogs was.... interesting (insofar as one is just an ignoramus blithering on without a bloody clue and the other was Moor Next Door). The summary notes
The influx of Chinese immigrants to Algeria ignited a face off between the immigrants and locals in the Algerian capital Algiers. About 100 residents and migrants clashed, using knives and bludgeons, sparking a debate over whether this incident would impact Chinese investments in the North African country
Leaving aside the first blog cited, which is merely stupid, Kal's commentary deserves some further thought. I am going to leave aside the geopolitical relations side of this - which deserve comment as Kal's characterisation's has a slightly .... well I think too much focus on the macropolitics, which in most respects is not the interesting angle.
Also picked up in French:Global Voices en Français » Algérie : Après les affrontements entre Chinois et Algériens
L'opinion algérienne semble considérer que les chinois sont responsables des tensions : ils « ne respectent pas les mœurs locales », ils « boivent de l'alcool », et si l'on en croit Kimo, drogue et prostitution ne tarderont pas à arriver avec les « chinetoques ».
Au-delà de ces réactions, cet incident fait se poser la question de savoir s'il aura un impact sur les nombreux investissements chinois [en anglais] en Algérie.
In any case, the overall profile given here is a fair enough one: Algerians and Chinese: Chinatown show down « The Moor Next Door
Algeria and China have quite fine relations. To say “Algeria and China” is to say the governments of the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria and the People’s Republic of China enjoy long and friendly relations The PRC was the first country to recognize independent Algeria. Quite a few Algerian military officers, engineers and others were educated in the PRC. Chinese television once broadcast programs on the Algerian “people’s revolution”. Algerian communists counted many, many Maoists in their ranks in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and the Chinese Embassy is historically one of the more important in Algiers. Any Algerian who has done his national service has held a Chinese made rifle and served in a military modeled after the People’s Liberation Army.This section, bold added, is what drew my comment. Kal has a tendency to the macro-political.
Still, as is the case in any relationship, there is tension. Algerians have not taken well to the large numbers of Chinese that have arrived in Algeria over the last decade, mostly to build the housing units and infrastructure projects president Bouteflika promised Algerians in 1999, 2004 and 2009. Algerians want those jobs. But they’ve gone to Chinese firms on Chinese terms. So the flare ups in Sino-Algerian relations recently have been the result of domestic politics; in other words, areas the two governments historically have ignored in their dealings with one another. But now, rebells in Algeria are setting upon Chinese interests based on the conduct of a Chinese rebellion; and ordinary Algerians are roughing up Chinese nationals, brought to the country as a result of this otherwise long and happy relationship. While these things will mean little for Sino-Algerian relations on the whole (neither government places enough care on such affairs for them to be so significant as, say, the racial violence against Algerians in France in the 1970’s was to Franco-Algerian relations), it is important that they be laid out.I can say from my rather frequent business trips to Algiers et enivrons that the number of Chinese "engineers" (clearly not "engineers" - actually clearly lower class labourers with all the habits of rural back-country labourers...) in the airport every bloody visit is astounding. Truly astounding, literally nearly a hundred transiting in on any given visit. That makes for significant implied incoming numbers of labour. Now as to the emphasis added part, I can attest that indeed there is quite a lot of angry commentary (in speaking to taxi drivers, average Mohammeds in various places I visit for work) about the Chinese taking jobs. And sour commentary about the Government not trusting "us" (meaning the common folks).
The Chinese labour coming in on Chinese terms, however, is fairly typical of how Chinese firms operate in Africa generally (or shall we say Emerging Countries, but I haven't direct experience with them - Chinese firms - in Emerging Asia). Unlike most other foreign investors (contrary to mythology, when possible the modern multinational prefers to localise as much as possible to reduce cost - exceptions exist such as in oil industry where specific skills are hard to come by), the Chinese tend to operate on a model of "import everything" including basic labour. It is hard to tell how overall cost effective that is, given Specificities of Chinese Accounting, but it is what they do.
As such, I would opine that the labour brought in has fuck all to do with "long happy relationships" (unless the Algerian government is more soft-headed and ideologically confused than I grant them; a possibility given the utter confusion in economic policy), but rather more to do with Chinese firm standard Modus Operendi wherever they can get away with it, by hook or by crook - including giving all their labourers "Engineer" status (my opinion, based on some peeks at the visa documentation, etc). In addition, a system and government that neither trusts nor values its own population's labourers. It is frankly insane to import manual labour on a fairly large scale in a country with massive urban unemployment in the double digits.
Now, the remainder of the post is somewhat of a fact summary which I shall skip over other than noting this queer editorial (quoted by Kal, see his post for link, my emphasis in italics):
How is it that a country whose community has established itself abroad, daily suffering of xenophobia and racism, can reserve the same fate to its guests doing the building that which we Algerians are incapable of? Need we remind ourselves that the Chinese, whom some would accuse him of all evils, were the first to start construction projects in Algeria? That they have contributed greatly to solve the housing crisis in Algeria? That they invested when many countries have been reluctant? We should also mention that the Chinese are working day and night, come rain or shine, while many of our compatriots sip their coffee and then mock the Chinese who have come so far to build homes? We can talk about the illegality of many Chinese nationals and the conditions under which they opened shops everywhere, and can also emphasize that in this as in the other, the power of the law should apply to all without exception. But we must recognize that the state has largely failed in its educational mission, leaving the ground for charlatans and other thugs who currently dictate law in their neighborhoods and villages in Algeria. Racism and xenophobia have no nationality.While it is hard to argue with the line racism and xenophobia have no nationality, the hint of devaluation of own-nationals labour (italics emphasis above) states obliquely also what one hears (sometimes from the same person ranting on about the Chinese...) about Algerian labour being worthless, lazy and low-quality. Certainly lazy and low-quality are true enough, in particular in the public sector. But then, one might very well pose the question is it Algerian labour as such or is it the State System? In my mind the answer is clear: the system which renders both incentive pay and ability to sack the lazy impossible. And surprise, surprise, the real value of good quality labour and work is diminished.
It is also worth noting this from Kal's post:
A bomb is diffused near a residence for Chinese laborers near Lakhdaria. Security around this and other Chinese hangouts has been beefed up in recent days, a result of the “warning”. Such news is reported regularly, this being of special importance because it is among the first bits of proof that AQIM is attacking non-Western foreigners, where as previous foreign targets had been Europeans, almost exclusively. The growing and rather visible (it is among the first things Algerians living abroad mention upon returning to the country) Chinese presence is not popular, especially among the unemployed. AQIM’s beef with the Chinese is ideological — these are after all the citizens of an atheist, communist regime that has killed many Muslims in recent weeks and before — and political: picking out the Chinese, who are seen as “taking” jobs from Algerians (though most of the projects they work on are Chinese ones, in terms of planning and management), puts them in common cause with ordinary Algerians, in their calculations. Algerian xenophobia is not quite so deep, though (but one notices that the influence of foreigners, especially those from socialist or communist countries, is generally scorned in Algerian history). Algerians like the junk they can buy cheaply in Bab Ezzouar, now known as “Chinatown”. Some even enjoy a bit of Chinese cuisine. For sure there is a class division: anyone who might be described as “Sinophillic” is almost certain middle or upper class; the mass, while they might partake in some of these delights, are surely at one or another level resentful and jelous of the Chinese. Few would look to drive them out based on ideological grounds. That the Chinese disrespect Islamic social mores is merely salt on the fact that they, for the most part, have jobs while the average Algerian does not. It is unlikely that if Algerians go chasing Chinese workers they will doing this out of religious conviction or fidelity to AQIM.All of the above strikes me as true, but mass violence need not be driven by coherent ideology as such. An AQIM that mixed religious appeal with anti-foreigner sort of Poujadiste populist discourse might very well succeed in sparking some serious confrontations and anti-Foreigner / anti-Chinese incidents. The goal of an AQIM, to undermine the State, does not coincide perhaps with the Bab Ezzouar shopkeeper and unemployed youth as such, but they can be made to look similar. Whether AQIM, as true believers has the rhetorical cleverness, well I am not convinced of that, but the potential is there.
A final comment as well, Kal is quite right that this comes in the context of a country on a low boil.
This is to say nothing of the numerous fits of car and tire burning that go on quite often elsewhere in Algeria. This is part of the setting of Bouteflika’s Algeria, and it is the failure of the socio-economic order he has setup, that addresses only macro-level economic and social problems, but fails to address the basic tensions in Algerian society in an effective way.While agreeing with the failure of the socio-economic order, actually, I would say that Boutefliqa's Algeria doesn't address in any coherent way macro-economic problems. Quite the contrary, in fact the incoherent mish-mash of foot-dragging liberalisation (which reeks of 'we're only doing because our hands are forced') and then backtracking to failed 1970s era quasi autarkic import substitution regimes seems to be merely muddling forward by a group of elderly fools who can't admit that their revolution failed.
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Good post. Just to add some local color..
I recall speaking with some young men from Batna who said "I've heard the Chinese sleep only 2 hours a night"; "they never stop working"; "they eat whatever moves because they want all the energy to work!"; etc. You would think they were super-human, the next thing they'd tell is that the Chinese can fly, lift 10 times the strongest Algerian and that it took one Chinese to defeat all the Uighurs. An elderly guy (from a town between Batna and Biskra and who claimed to be a mujahid) had just seen the new Algiers airport (Houari Boumediene), and said "the Colonel would be furious to see so many foreigners there coming to steal jobs!"
Posted by: Kal at August 15, 2009 05:55 PM
And you were wondering about the usefulness of Chinese government Arabic language broadcasts? Perhaps glimmers of its relevance or harbingers of future relevance, in this situation.
Posted by: matthew hogan at August 16, 2009 07:30 PM
Insofar as the Chinese can - as a State broadcaster in the old school non-BBC sense - recycle its peeps elsewhere, they might actually benefit.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at August 17, 2009 08:18 PM
I'd agree with L. The Algerians don't have a problem with China. They don't have a problem with the Chinese government, they have a problem Chinese people. I haven't seen the Chinese station of yet, but I understand it uses Chinese Arabic speakers; an interesting feature considering that France 24/BBC/al-Hurra use actual Arabs for their services.
Interestingly, while I'm pretty sure (almost certain) that most Algerians (in Algiers at least) rather hate the black migrants in their midst, the same problem doesn't seem to exist with the Vietnamese in the country. I've never heard anybody complain about them in the way people rail about the Chinese.
Posted by: Kal at August 20, 2009 04:23 PM