One of the most common complaints about large often state-owned Chinese companies operating in Africa is that they bring in their own labor from China, hiring locals only for the lowest paid work. It’s a claim that raises larger questions about how much Chinese companies, criticized for everything from environmental degradation to operating and living in their own enclaves, contribute to the economies of the African countries in which they operate.
This resentment, according to a recent study on Chinese mining operations in 38 African countries, is justified but the overall picture is more mixed. Researchers Tim Wegenast and Georg Struver of the German Institute of Global and Area Studies analyzed public opinion surveys, employment rates, and other data for areas close to Chinese-run copper, diamond, and gold mines between 1997 and 2014.
“The effect of Chinese mining companies on African local development is ambiguous: While proximity to Chinese‐operated mines is associated with anti‐Chinese sentiments and unemployment, populations living close to Chinese mining areas enjoy better infrastructure, such as paved roads or piped water,” they write.
The mining sector is especially important for perceptions of China in Africa. Between 2005 and 2016, as much as half of all of outbound Chinese investment went into the extractive sector. A third of those funds have come to Africa, where the highest number of Chinese mines are in South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
According to their analysis of surveys by the polling company Afrobarometer, respondents in areas close to non-Chinese mining operations were less significantly likely to report being unemployed than those near Chinese-run mines. Employment data across 20 countries collected by US AID’s Demographic Health Survey also showed that districts hosting Chinese mines had higher unemployment rates, according to the study.
For locals, job opportunities trump having better infrastructure. Though residents near Chinese mines had better access to roads and drinking water than those near non-Chinese operations, Wegenast and Struver found they had more negative impressions of China than those living near non-Chinese operations.