- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 27, 2010

ALGIERS | While still struggling with the aftermath of a decade of Islamic insurgency, oil-rich yet impoverished Algeria is getting a makeover: a new airport, its first mall, its largest prison, 60,000 new homes, two luxury hotels and the longest continuous highway in Africa.

The power behind this runaway building spree is China.

About 50 Chinese firms, largely state-controlled, have been awarded $20 billion in government construction contracts, or 10 percent of the massive investment plan promised by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a nation where jobs and housing are scarce and al Qaeda has struck roots.

Algiers, the tense and run-down capital, now has something relatively new to the Arab world: a Chinatown.

The Beijing government has been a supporter of Algeria since the 1960s, after it won independence from France, and today the 35,000 Chinese in the country are the biggest foreign population after the French.

Trade both ways soared to $4.5 billion last year, from just $200 million in 2001, according to Ling Jun, deputy head of the Chinese Embassy in Algiers. China is now second only to France in exports to Algeria.

Algerian exports to China barely top $300 million because China is a latecomer to the North African nation’s biggest asset, the oil and gas under its portion of the Sahara Desert, which is dominated by U.S. firms. “But we’re very active for the prospecting of new fields,” Mr. Ling said.

And meanwhile, they’re earning a hefty chunk of Algeria’s oil money.

The China State Construction Engineering Corp., is building two-thirds of Algeria’s 745-mile east-west highway at breakneck speed and was on the verge of completing it this month after just three years, Mr. Ling said.

The Algerian story mirrors China’s inroads elsewhere in Africa, which are helped not just by its bulging coffers, but by the fact that unlike some Western countries, China doesn’t make human rights and corruption-free procedures a condition for investment.

It has drawn heavy criticism from human rights groups accusing it of bypassing the arms embargo on the embattled Darfur region of Sudan by trading weapons for oil with the Sudanese government. Elsewhere, it is accused of failing to spread the jobs among local workers, and of mistreating those it hires.

Some feel China’s African footprint has gotten too deep.

“Africa shouldn’t have eluded one form of neocolonialism to fall headfirst into Chinese neocolonialism,” Rene N’Guettia Kouassi, the head of the economic commission at the African Union, was quoted as saying in Jeune Afrique, the leading French-language weekly on the continent.

In Algeria, too, that footprint has not been trouble-free.

Last summer Algiers saw its first anti-Chinese riot, apparently touched off when an Algerian got into a scuffle with a Chinese trader in the capital’s Chinese market over a parking space, and the confrontation took on Islamic overtones.

Residents and local media say the Chinese beat up at least one man, whereupon an Algerian mob looted Chinese shops and vandalized cars.

The Chinatown in Bab Ezzouar, a suburb of Algiers, is now heavily patrolled by police cars, and the Chinese continue to sell their wares — bed linens, sports shoes, European-fashion knockoffs — imported directly from China. “Business is good around here, but it’s not as good as it used to be, because there are too many of us now,” said Qing Nei, a shopkeeper from Beijing who moved here two years ago and can haggle over prices in rudimentary Arabic and French.

Also last summer, anti-Chinese sentiment rose after Beijing repressed its Muslim minority in western China. Al Qaeda and its Algerian branch, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), threatened retaliation.

The Chinese Embassy issued warnings to its citizens and heightened security measures, although no specific violence has yet targeted China’s interests, Mr. Ling said.

In June, an AQIM ambush killed at least 19 police officers escorting Chinese workers near the highway-construction site. No Chinese were hurt, and Mr. Ling said the ambush appears to have been against the state, rather than the Chinese.

The Islamic violence today is scattered, sporadic and nothing like in the 1990s, when regular slaughters by rebels and government forces left up to 200,000 people dead. And despite the lingering al Qaeda threat, most Muslims in Algeria and elsewhere express no hostility to the Chinese as such.

“Islam accepts other religions, and we don’t mind that they come to build in our country,” said Abdeljabar Saad, an imam with strong ties to Islamists, who lives in an area with many Chinese construction projects.

What Mr. Saad and others increasingly object to is that there is no trickle-down from China’s investment.

Chinese firms import everything from the largest cranes to refills for their water coolers. On construction sites, even the unskilled workers pushing wheelbarrows are usually Chinese, not Algerian.

Mr. Ling said state firms now have the obligation to hire and train two Algerian workers for each employee they bring from China.

But the few Algerian laborers working for Chinese contractors have begun complaining about their conditions. Some of those working on the new highway construction site went on strike in late September, demanding overtime pay. Two months later, several newspapers reported that they stormed and sealed the Chinese workers’ camp.

Another image problem is a persistent rumor that some Chinese workers are convicted criminals who got a plea bargain for agreeing to work abroad.

Tang, a chief engineer at a site near Algiers where several hundred homes are being built, denied the rumor as “pure fantasy.” Giving only one name because his management had not authorized him to be interviewed, he said every Chinese wishing to work for a state firm must show a clean police record.

He said his site employs 40 Chinese and 10 Algerians.

“Frankly,” he said, “the Chinese work better, and longer hours, without complaining.”

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