Chinese Organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa

It is some years since the inception of our project Chinese Organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa: New Dynamics, New Synergies. After failed attempts to get UK funding we obtained funding in 2012 from the Sandisa Imbewu Fund at Rhodes University, South Africa, and some financial support from Open University in the UK. We held a seminar at Rhodes University at the end of 2013 from which the foundations of the book were laid, eventually publishing, with the help of some very capable scholars not involved in the original project, in 2021. What a journey! Routledge were very patient. But we learned a lot. And I hope the academic community will learn a lot from the book: knowledge that I do not believe they will get anywhere else at this time.

  1. It’s about managers, organizations and community stakeholders such as local employees, rather than about FDI, resource extraction, national policy (although we have certainly taken these into account when looking at the individual, organizational and community levels).
  2. It takes a balanced account rather than being overtly or implicitly negative towards China’s engagement in Africa (we certainly examine the sources of this negativity, and delve into geopolitical issues impacting on China’s engagement).
  3. We did a lot of in-depth empirical research, talking to managers (Chinese and African) and employees in a number of different countries. This was theory-driven.
  4. We covered diverse topics of increasing importance on Chinese organizations in Africa. These included motives and strategies of Chinese organizations; technology and knowledge transfer; HRM practices and strategies; communication effectiveness within organizations; joint venturing and its implications and differences in different regions; language issues and implications; press representations of China’s presence and organizational implications; commitment of local employees; organizational culture and performance; the importance of organizational mediators in relations between Chinese managers and African employees; implications for training and development.
  5. Apart from making our methodology apparent in the empirical chapters, we discussed methodological issues explicitly, including the importance of appropriate research methodologies and caution about applying western-centric methodological approaches in researching Chinese organization in Africa.
  6. We show the implication of this work to international management studies. We think these implications are huge: this is the new dynamic, new synergies bit!

Let’s take a closer look.

It’s about people

There is a lot of literature on China in Africa. Not much on the individual, organizational and management levels. But I can’t continue on this track without referring you to the brilliant 2009 report by Baah and Jauch on behalf of the African Labour Research Network (which now appears defunct) , Chinese Investment in Africa: A Labour Perspective, which needs to be consulted before any research on China in Africa at organizational level can proceed. Following on from this work, our project although certainly looking at the historic and geopolitical back-story, was not about the macro-level that so much literature from economics and international relations is focused. There was, and still is, little work going on in management studies on Africa, let alone China in Africa, although there are plenty of China specialists. Business in China, how to manage western joint ventures in China, is old news in international management studies. The hot topic is China in the world. What happens when this ancient civilisation reaches out to the rest of the world? We know something about this from world political studies, but wake up international management scholars. You also have something to say. We think our book is a good starting point. But we still need far more empirical research at this level. Lesson: Go into Chinese organizations and talk to people. Don’t leave it to the journalists, for whom digging up dirt is more likely to sell newspapers.

It’s not negative, it’s not positive, it’s balanced

China has sinister intentions in Africa. It is the new imperialist. China has the solution to Africa’s development. It is Africa’s friend. In reality, China has multiple motives for being in Africa. African governments have multiple reasons to welcome the Chinese presence and their investments. Western governments have reasons for their opinions on China’s ‘threat’. We had to look carefully at the geopolitical, geo-economic and historic back-story to understand this, to gain a balanced view that isn’t always present in the press, and also in academia. Historically, China as an imperialist didn’t make any sense at all. It has a long history of anti-imperialism in Africa. Political-seeking made more sense than purely an altruistic motive. But this was coupled with a non-interfering, and political and economic non-conditionality in its dealings with Africa countries. Of course this has its down-side, like attracting criticism of supporting non-democratic governments. Yet this, for many African governments makes a counterbalance to the years of structural adjustment programmes imposed through western aid to Africa. All this makes a difference to the way we set about researching Chinese organisations in Africa, as well as the responses we got from talking to people in organizations. Lesson: Dig up the historic back-story of China’s engagement in Africa. Sift through it to understand the nuances of disparate motivations for different Chinese organizations’ engagement with African communities.

We did a lot of theory building, but we also talked to people

We had to reimagine and reshape theory before, during and after doing in-depth empirical work (talking to people). What made this special was the different countries, industries and organizations we explored. We learnt a lot, like the importance of the mediator in relations between Chinese managers and local staffs. This came from Uganda. In Tanzania we gained valuable insights into the different perceptions of Chinese and local staffs. We found out about employee commitment in South African organizations and how this impacted performance. We didn’t do enough. We probably only scratched the surface. We likely didn’t understand all there was to understand. But we did learn some lessons. Lesson: Go in with preconceived ideas, but informed ones based on well conceived theories that are not necessarily in line with western-centric ones. Be prepared to have your theories disabused. Be open to this. Go back to the drawing-board and reappraise your theory. And go back and talk to people again.

From macro to micro, and back again

We did cover a lot of topics, although this was skewed towards people management. But for us, issues such as political perceptions of the Chinese presence represented in press coverage (we did this analysis in Zimbabwe) was important as was countries’ policies on Chinese investment, technology transfer, the nature of Chinese FDI, types of firm and Chinese motivations were important and we treated this as a layer underneath the macro-level of geopolitical relations and global dynamics that shape these aspects, and ultimately the nature of Chinese organizations and HRM practices. This, for us was a hierarchy that we had to understand in order to make sense of practices that effect the lives of both Chinese expatriates and local people and communities. Lesson: To understand how people are managed in Chinese organizations, you have to look at the connections within a hierarchy from macro- to micro-levels, otherwise you’ll probably understand nothing.

 

Why won’t anyone speak to us?

It was difficult sometimes to get into Chinese organizations. We thought maybe it was a deliberate obstructive attitude from Chinese managers, but this was unlikely. It is a methodological issue. If you can’t do research because you can’t get access, you don’t blame the people who won’t see you. You blame yourself because you have got it wrong, not the people you can’t interview. You have to review your methodology. Kris, Gummerson & Quasi (2014:30) note that in business dealings with Chinese managers ‘guanxi needs to be carefully crafted for those wanting to “step across the door”,’ yet ‘there has been little discussion of its possible methodological implications’. Their article is well worth a read. Lesson: don’t rely on western-centric concepts and methods.

International management theory will never be the same again

My view of international management studies is very simple. It is infected by modernisation theory. It is western in perception and conceptualisation. There is a known antidote for this. It’s called postcolonial theory. But this isn’t very effective when it comes to studying China in Africa. Western involvement in Africa is post-colonial, but China’s involvement is not. It is mostly anti-colonial. Looking at China as the new imperialists is not very helpful because it is ahistoric. The interesting thing about studying China in Africa is that it gives us new ways of looking at things. Although there is much western influence in management and management education in China, Chinese management and ways of doing things are different. The modernisation motive does not appear to be there. They do not seem to want to ‘modernize’ African economies or governments. These don’t seem to be conditions of doing business with African countries, or for providing infrastructure or aid. Management is different. Expatriation is different. Technology and knowledge transfer is different. Yet, not wanting to impose management and technical knowledge on African partners can be seen from both a positive and a negative angle. As China, India and other BRICS countries have entered the global arena over recent decades, not only have dynamics changed, but international management has changed. There is new knowledge about appropriate ways to manage, from the global south to the global south, rather than from north to south. Motivations are different. Modernisation is less of a contender. Lesson: New ways of managing need to be absorbed by studying these new dynamics, the appropriateness and synergies between south and south and incorporated into the text books.

 

We aren’t finished yet. This is just a beginning for our project group. We are absorbing these lessons, designing new projects, making new theories and, importantly welcoming on board new colleagues. If you are interested please take a look at our book. The hardback is a bit on the expensive side, but the ebook is much cheaper (although both reduced), and we hope it will appear in paperback soon.

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