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The Cultural Chasm of China

November 01, 2018

Many of us have encountered clueless tourists from China moving in hordes and shepherded by pushy guides with flags and occasional whistles. However, they are often tolerated by locals as they eventually return home and hopefully enough money remains behind in the local economy to make it all worthwhile. On the other hand, what if they have come to stay and still exhibit the same form of behavior? Increasingly, many developing countries are wondering if it is all worthwhile.

The author lived through a case study in the northeastern portion of Mongolia over twenty years ago as part of an oil exploration venture. Some of us believe that if one is a guest in a foreign country they should behave in a respectful and considerate manner in recognition of the local culture and customs. We could not have been in a more remote and isolated location in a country that had just fled the yoke of Russian oppression. Accordingly, we chose to function as closely as we could with the population without compromising our commercial objectives.

In our geological field trips, we lived like the indigenous Mongolians eating their food and staying in their ger (insulated tent) camps.

We also established a Mongolian seismic company to acquire a significant seismic survey of the acreage which is still in business today.

Moreover, we fished and shared vodka with the Mongolian government and media personnel under the watchful eye of the Director General of The Petroleum Authority of Mongolia on the far right.

We discovered oil, though the only realistic option to develop it efficiently, was to sell the project to the China National Oil Company which also represented the market for the oil. They virtually took control of the area with many thousands of Chinese, bringing their own equipment, food and exclusive Chinese culture with few Mongolian staff and virtually no interaction with the residents. Over time their lack of sensitivity resulted in blowback from the government regarding duty claims and taxation.

It appears that nothing much has changed in the China international approach over this period of time despite the exponential growth in their international expansion. Recently, The New York Times published an article by Joseph Goldstein entitled "Kenyans Say Chinese Investment Brings Racism and Discrimination." A young man by the name, Mr. Ochieng, had never experienced racial discrimination until he was employed in a Chinese motorcycle company that had just expanded to Kenya. His Chinese boss referred to him as a monkey and then expanded that term to all Kenyans.

Mr. Ochieng prevailed when he recorded a cellphone video of one of his boss's commentaries resulting in his recall to China. However, the result was increasing anxiety in Kenya and concern that the Chinese were assuming control of their country while bringing racial attitudes with them. Nothing like that attitude has existed in Kenya since the British relinquished their colonial control in 1963.

Like many other countries around the world, Kenya has borrowed vast sums of money from China to develop infrastructure projects like the 300-mile stretch of an unfinished Chinese-built railroad between Nairobi and Mombasa. In the final analysis, the debts create foreign control, often result in exploitative labor practices by Chinese firms with racism and discrimination directed toward the people.

The bathrooms of Kenyan workers are separated by race from those of the Chinese. The estimated number of Chinese in Kenya is on the order of 40,000 who live unto themselves in large housing developments with little social interaction with Kenyans. They eat alone in designated Chinese restaurants. Hongxiang Huang, a Chinese conservationist and former journalist who has lived in Nairobi remarked, "They do not know very well how to interact with the outside world."

Discrimination has emerged on the $4 billion, 300-mile Chinese railroad as Kenyan-trained railway workers have experienced an atmosphere of "neocolonialism" under Chinese management. Trained Kenyan engineers have been prevented from driving the train, except when journalists are present.

In the final analysis, we can only speculate whether China will be successful in their new form of colonialization using massive loans to control foreign countries and in particular Africa which is referred to as "China's Second Continent." However, history would suggest that suppression and discrimination do not wear well with people.

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