The Chinese are coming: China in Africa

Chinese Management Studies

ISSN: 1750-614X

Article publication date: 30 August 2011


Foo, C.-T. (2011), "The Chinese are coming: China in Africa", Chinese Management Studies, Vol. 5 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The Chinese are coming: China in Africa

Article Type: Editorial From: Chinese Management Studies, Volume 5, Issue 3

Anyone who has been tracking the papers in Chinese Management Studies (CMS) will see a gap in the literature: there is not a single scholarly piece of research on China in Africa. I will gladly publish a well thought out piece of commentary that is centered on the theme of China in Africa. The prospective author ought to be aware of how controversial the topic can be[1]. If you are thinking about it, please e-mail me straightaway: and we can explore your ideas.

Why the urgency? CMS has been around for five years and as a journal we should reflect contemporary affairs. The presence of China in Africa is a significant event and should attract some scholarly reflection. For example, let us say a piece with insights into the origins, recent past, present and future in the art of Chinese management in Africa. The author should suggest some recommendations for improving Chinese managerial behavior in Africa.

I hope this editorial will elicit some responses. To get a feel of what is happening with China in Africa, I turn recently to the BBC documentary: The Chinese are Coming, hence the title of this editorial. Clearly, the vignettes as taken from the different states in Africa offer contrasting pictures: for example, much brighter for the once war-torn Angola but much darker for Congo. Wherever the Chinese go, the story is very much the same: they win on price.

What strikes me most about the case in Angola is in the transplant of an entire Chinese workforce. It goes far beyond the classical Western model of globalization as implied by foreign direct investment in economics textbooks. Can a strong Chinese presence be a transformative force for Africa? Perhaps, China in Africa may render the continent to be a much safer place for travelers.

Let me cite the fourteenth century observation of China by the medieval world’s greatest traveler: with 75,000 miles behind him, Ibn Battuta had traveled three times more in terms of distance than Marco Polo. He is clearly an African: a Moroccan from Tangier. In his own words, he remarked on how safe China was:

[…] China is the safest, best regulated of countries for a traveler. A man may go by himself on a nine-month journey, carrying with him a large sum of money, without any fear […][2].

One of his observations struck me as suggesting fourteenth century Chinese society to be a far more egalitarian society than its twenty-first century counterpart:

[…] Silk is used for clothing even by poor monks and beggars […][2].

The interesting research question is:Perhaps, it is a deeply Chinese cultural trait that whenever they are doing business, they have a tendency to be very highly competitive in their pricing. Or putting it differently, their natural, competitive quadrant is in keeping with a strong cost leadership:

[…] Its porcelains are the finest of all makes of pottery […][2].

Elsewhere, it is quoted that he observed that such:

[…] fine porcelain costs less in China than common pottery in India and Arabia […][3].

If we treat Ibn Battuta’s observations of ancient Chinese competitive behavior as research material, we may even suggest a hypothesis which may be tested with deeper historical research and analyses: in the ancient world, Chinese manufactured products (e.g. porcelain) tend to be inside the high quality, low-pricing quadrant.

The natural Chinese dynamic in manufacturing will in the future shift towards low-priced, high-quality products. This is presented in the diagram of an extended quadrant, capturing quality, price and most importantly, the role of time (Figure 1).

 Figure 1 Price, quality and time: case of china

Figure 1 Price, quality and time: case of china

Then there is the comment that ties in neatly with the BBC documentary highlighting the intense rivalry over poultry between the Chinese and African farmers in Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia. Specifically, it concerns the accusation that the Chinese “inflated” the chickens that are being sold. Many years ago, Ibn Battuta already found this to be true of the Chinese chicken farmers:

[…] its hens are bigger than geese in our country […].

Do these words render some useful insights into the Chinese society that then existed? Also, his writings enable us to configure in our minds the underlying culture that he had experienced. What made Ibn Battuta so determined to be going into China? A plausible explanation in my own reckoning is his following of the very words of The Prophet Mohammad:

Go in quest of knowledge even unto China[4].

Besides this, there are other possible reasons, one of which is spiritually inspired. It suggests that his journey all the way up to China (according to some sources, to even include Beijing) may well be pre-destined:

[…] persistent memory of the sage in Alexandria, Burhan al-Din, who two decades earlier had predicted that Ibn Battuta would one day visit China and greet his brother of the same name […][3].

Another journal entry in his Rihla, memoirs of his travel, has a foreboding quality for us in the twenty-first century. His words suggest another dynamic path involving China and the Chinese, that it would move beyond a global manufacturing center to become a great future marketplace. He remarked in an age before the emergence of economics with the baggage of statistics:

[…] There are no people in the world wealthier than the Chinese […]

His views on Hangzhou paralleled Marco Polo (“finest” and “noblest”) but emphasizing on scale:

[…] the biggest city I have ever seen on the face of the earth […][5].

Unlike the USA, China has within her own history, her own benchmarks to achieve. Can Hangzhou regain her past glory in modern measures of greatness and become the world’s leading city: biggest (read, modernity), finest (read, greenest) and noblest (read, equitable and law-abiding)?

Like the Rihla, our CMS should, within the pages of a journal, reflect the journey travelled by the Chinese in evolving a discipline from the multi-disciplinary roots of Western management: Chinese management. Through our First Global Chinese Management Studies Conference 2011, we are beginning to engender a scholarly community.

For this issue of CMS, we have an interesting collection of papers with their roots from three different disciplines. The first two lie within the domain of strategy: strategic flexibility and responses. The second pair is from the discipline of finance: economic growth and risk allocation. The third pair lies in human resource management. These papers reflect the diversity of disciplines that underlie management.



RQ1.; How could China be a society where even the downtrodden could adorn themselves in silk, the best of garments? Is it really possible to realize such a world?

Check-Teck FooEditor-in-Chief

Further Reading

Rice, Z. (2011), “China’s economic invasion of Africa”,, 6 February, available at: