It was no ordinary research study and to Batswana readers, the summary of the results in a 20ÔÇôpage, co-authored academic paper will be variously infuriating, mystifying, astounding and enlightening. At the end of it all, the authors hope for better cultural relations between Batswana and the Chinese.
The very first step in the research process was an elaborate trust-building exercise that saw Yanyin Zi, a Chinese scholar based at The Center for African Area Studies at Kyoto University in Japan, spending three months in Botswana almost every year from 2011 to 2015. Zi lived with Chinese merchants and visited their shops regularly “in order to build enough trust to delve into the sensitive topics we wanted to explore.” The other half of “we” is Professor Monageng Mogalakwe, a sociologist at the University of Botswana. With such trust built, the Chinese merchants began to talk openly about what they think not just about their employees but Batswana in general. Reading what they said, you begin to understand why the authors adopted a no-names-no-pack-drill policy for “Decoding Relationships Between Chinese Merchants and Batswana Shop Assistants: The Case of China Shops in Gaborone”, the academic paper that Mogalakwe and Zi collaborated on.
“Integrity, defined as honesty and truthfulness, is a frequent point of contention between Chinese employers and Batswana shop assistants. Comments such as “everyone here steals whether they are rich or poor” are common among Chinese merchants. Most Chinese shops have security cameras not only to catch shoplifters but also to check for employee theft. Few Chinese merchants trust their shop assistants since the majority of them have had merchandise stolen by employees,” reads one of the most controversial parts of the paper.
In 2011, a female merchant referred to only as CTco74 revealed that the extent of her distrust in her Batswana employees is that “she even locks up the shop and makes her shop assistants wait outside when she goes to the bathroom.” In 2012 and 2014, CTco145 and CTco12 stated that on account of the high rates of employee theft, “many Chinese merchants have low opinions of the local community as a whole and wonder why the locals seem so unashamed of the problem.”
The Batswana shop assistants themselves admitted that shoplifting, either by colleagues or former colleagues, was rife. In 2015, a veteran shop assistant referred to as CTbm61 told the researchers that her friends had encouraged her to steal from the shop because “the Chinese were there to destroy the country.” The researchers conclude that the negative perception of Chinese businesses contributes to the shop assistants’ willingness to steal from them.
The paper may provide an explanation of why one rarely ever sees Chinese aboard road public transport vehicles like long- and short-distance buses, taxi-buses (“combis” as they are called) and standard car taxis.
“Chinese people stereotype the locals as HIV-infected, and they seldom take the local bus or use the public toilet for fear that they will become infected as well,” says the paper adding that “many Chinese also criticize the local women for giving birth out of wedlock.”
On less heavy issues, the Chinese take an equally dim view of Batswana. From what they have observed, they know better than go into business partnership with Batswana because they are “afraid that local partners would squander any money invested due to differing business values. The Chinese are interested in planning for long-term goals, and believe the local people to only be interested in short-term gains.” In a former British colony where perfection in English is widely fetishized, Chinese believe that their mostly imperfect English makes it difficult for them “to gain the respect of their Batswana shop assistants.” In 2011, CTco43 claimed that there are shop assistants who will pretend they do not understand their employers’ English rather than comply with the employers’ request.
While the comments can have the effect of conveying an immediate impression of racism, what the researchers heard from the horses’ mouth is that “most Chinese merchants would not consider themselves to be racist.” The portrayal of Chinese people in Botswana’s media also comes under scrutiny, with one accusation being that the latter have been stereotyped as “dog eaters.”
The paper ends on a hopeful note: that when relations deepen, more problems naturally occur, and with a relationship based on equality and mutual respect, Batswana and the Chinese should be able to work together to find a solution; that as Mao Zedong said, the stated problems are occurring “amongst people and not between enemies” and “can be resolved through more, rather than less, engagement.”