Sunday, July 21, 2024
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When in Africa, do as the Chinese do – in China

Dear Editor

For 99.9 percent of foreigners working (studying) and living in China, this singular opportunity can only be realized under the complete control of the Chinese government. Unlike many countries in Africa, you cannot just drift into China, pay a visa on arrival and then hustle your way through an ethnic-based network of informal support.

When I first applied to be a teacher in China, I first had to undergo a full medical check-up at Hyatt Hospital. With the all clear from this medical check-up, I could then take a copy of my contract and my Letter of Invitation for a visa application at the Chinese embassy in the vicinity of Tor Hailoch.

As soon as I arrived in China, I was taken to a police station and duly registered. This police station visit is the first part of getting your residence permit. Then, as if there were a difference in medical science in Africa and China, I had to undergo another full medical at a Chinese government approved hospital, and only when I passed this second medical was I able to get my work and residence permit.

But the authorization process did not stop there. The last thing I had to do was to open a Bank of China account in order to receive my salary, and whenever I travelled in and out of China, upon my return, I was obliged to register at the nearest police station within three days.

I should, moreover, state what any traveller in China knows – you cannot, in China, travel on trains or stay in a hotel without your passport, and even as I write this, the Chinese government is amending laws so that what it calls ‘Foreign Experts’ will be required to undergo medical check-ups every six months.

Why does the Chinese government do all this? Because like a loving and protective father it wants to ensure that foreigners who work in China benefit the state as well as the ordinary Chinese citizen. And procedures such as the ones I have enumerated are critical in ensuring that foreigners in China do not ride roughshod over Chinese interests. So what then is the case in Africa – in this instance Ethiopia? Let’s begin with two questions.

When was the last time you saw a Chinese in the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia, or any other bank in Ethiopia – especially without an Ethiopian translator? And if the Chinese are not using

Ethiopian banks, then how do they satisfy their need for large financial transactions, especially with regard to foreign currencies? We must also ask why the Chinese are not using Ethiopian banks, because the why and the how are connected, but let’s first briefly look at the how. In a word, the how by which an untold number of Chinese satisfy their financial transactions is simply: laundering.

Money laundering through the informal ethnic network I alluded to earlier. A Chinese, who arrives in Addis and is in need of Ethiopian currency, the birr, has to simply find a restaurant in Addis serving food from the province in China that he comes from. Once there, he can exchange his yuan or dollars for birr, and set himself up in Addis without having to deal with a single Ethiopian intermediary. And it doesn’t take much thought to realize the considerable sums of money that the Ethiopian government is denied by this species of illegal activity.

At the time of writing this, the premises of a long-established Chinese restaurant in Bole was raided by inspectors from the Ethiopian Revenues and Customs Authority (ERCA); a raid which resulted in the seizure of a large amount of foreign currency and the arrest and detention of the Chinese proprietor. I myself have been a customer at the restaurant in question and I have a friend who for over 10 years has been part of the waiting staff there.

This friend has long told me of the money laundering that she herself has seen taking place between her boss and other Chinese individuals – a naturally galling situation for a waitress who earns 1,600 birr a month and who in over ten years of work has never been entitled to sick pay, and, moreover, loses 100 birr a day for each missed day of work. This is one Chinese business in Addis that has been depriving the Ethiopian government of much needed revenue – one can only imagine how much else the Ethiopian government is losing by all the other money laundering that is yet to be detected.

Why does this occur? The first answer is: because it can. Because the Ethiopian government is still in the process of developing effective preventative measures. The second answer is because many Chinese here speak neither Amharic nor English, and an Ethiopian intermediary means extra costs as well as a busy-body local who is not supposed to know how much money the Chinese are dealing with. Banks in Ethiopia are not known for the speed of their face-to-face customer interactions, and this is probably another – minor – factor that deters the Chinese from using Ethiopian banks.

To address this, the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia and other banks could easily employ and train Chinese speaking Ethiopians to provide a VIP service to the Chinese in Ethiopia. I was invited to the VIP room at the Bank of China, in Chengdu, and my needs were efficiently attended to by a fluent English-speaking Chinese teller. This provisioning of Chinese-speaking Ethiopian bank tellers, is one step towards addressing the problem of money laundering by the Chinese in


The second preventive solution is to require all Chinese workers in Ethiopia to open a bank account at a local bank. The application and issuance of a residence permit should be based on the requirement that the foreigner in Ethiopia opens a bank account through which even the Ethiopian employees will be paid. This in other words is part of an institutional working mechanism to prevent illegal financial transactions.

Through procedures such as the ones I was required to go through in order to live and work in China, the Ethiopian government can realize substantial sums of money that can be used to benefit both the state and Ethiopian citizens. For the new Ethiopian government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD), whose unprecedented aim is to be the loving and protective father of all the Ethiopian people, it could do worse than not to heed the title of this letter: When in Africa, do as the Chinese do – in China.

Scriptus Africanus

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