A conversation with an African businessman in Beijing
When Celestin, 39, traveled from his native Rwanda to Beijing China on a scholarship to study economics in 1998, his Chinese classmates didn’t know what to make of him.
“They didn’t think I could be very intelligent,” Celestin said, who preferred that only his first name be used in this story to protect his privacy.
When he shared the top score on a citywide economics exam with a Chinese student, they had to revise their opinion. This isn’t the only change he’s seen in his adopted home of Beijing.
In the past ten years, Celestin traded economics for computer science, developing a successful embassy IT-support business as well as exporting electronics to Rwanda.
When Celestin first arrived he appreciated how cheaply he could live, but found most of the Chinese people he met to be very closed to getting to know – or renting an apartment to – a foreigner. “It was hard to have a Chinese friend. But now, people are more open. It is getting better.”
An African businessman in China is not so common, but due to increased collaboration between the Chinese government and several African countries – highlighted by Chinese President Hu Jintao’s eight-nation African tour this past February – Chinese can be found in many corners of Africa.
Celestin is very hopeful about the increasing collaboration between China and Africa. Unlike America and Europe that have been developed for a long time, notes Celestin, China provides a living model of real time development. “When I first came to China it wasn’t like this,” he said. “There weren’t good roads, and the living conditions were still quite difficult.”
But now Celestin has seen modern China bloom before his eyes, and has high hopes that African countries can follow the same path.
Also, while the US and Europe have excellent products and expertise, they come with a very high price. Chinese engineers work for lower salaries, using cheaper goods that African governments can afford.
While Celestin supports the deepening ties between Africa and China, he recognizes a few imbalances. For one, the Chinese government is so closely tied with the major companies getting African bids, said Celestin, that they know any money offered in development aid will come right back to their country through construction contracts to build Rwandan roads, for instance.
Celestin is also frustrated by the lack of reciprocity with business freedoms for Africans in China. While African governments open their arms to Chinese businesses, he said, the reverse isn’t true. As it is for all foreigners, it’s hard for African business people to get visas.
And though the Chinese government and people have become more open to foreigners, they’re still not willing to give business to non-Chinese. “They only call me if there’s a problem that no other Chinese technician could solve.”
As a result, Celestin said, foreigners rely on other foreigners for their livelihoods.
Despite some frustrations, Celestin has found a lot to admire in the Chinese culture. “The Chinese people, they really obey the government,” said Celestin. “If the radio says that it will be cold today, they will all wear their coats, even if it’s hot outside.”
While for many in the West this represents a problem not a prize, Celestin’s roots in a politically chaotic country cause him to see it differently. “In my country, any rich man can give the people a little money and they will help him corrupt the government,” he said. “In China, the people wouldn’t stray so easily against their government. They are patriotic.”
Though his wife went back to Rwanda with their children several years ago – she was too lonely, he said – he hopes that soon they will all return so his children can learn Chinese. “If you know Chinese you can go to Europe, you can go to America and you are a very important person. You can get a job.”
And as for how long he see’s himself in China, he’s optimistic. “If it’s good for me,” Celestin said, “I will stay here.”