Beijing: A curious case has been bubbling in the small Southern African nation of Botswana for several weeks, which may have disturbing implications for the future of Chinese investment in the continent. Three top local managers of a Chinese construction company have been charged with bribery after allegedly offering a high-ranking local civil servant 250,000 pula ($32,249) to overlook their shoddy construction of a local school in 2011.
Bribery is nothing new in the Chinese construction industry, nor, sadly, in many parts of African government. But if the three Chinese officials thought they could cover up cheap work with a bribe, they were happily wrong about local conditions.
Botswana is ranked as the 32nd least corrupt country in the world by anti-corruption NGO Transparency International, making it the least corrupt nation in Africa and sitting a comfortable 33 places above China itself. After police investigation, the three were charged last month.
According to a report in the Botswana Sunday Standard, the Chinese construction company responded to the charges with admirable quickness, firing all three staff. The company's international president flew into Botswana to apologize and pledge the company's responsibility for any problems with the school, saying, "I am not worried about the financial losses. My main concern is that Botswana should get a fair deal," the Sunday Standard reported.
This is all good. But the bad news is that one of the top local managers has fled Botswana, allegedly returning to China.
China has no extradition treaty with Botswana. But as a gesture of good faith, China would do well to find Wang and return him to face the charges. Otherwise the case could become a powerful weapon for those who see Chinese investment in Africa as more corrosive than constructive.
It's unfortunate that this case hasn't been covered in the Chinese media. Other firms should be aware of the dangers of getting involved in corruption overseas.
Chinese investment and construction, both privately funded and through State aid, are seen positively in the majority of Africa, as US expert Deborah Brautigam points out in her book The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa in 2010. The Chinese construction company itself mentioned in the report has been operating in Africa since its founding, but Chinese aid goes back further. The giant Tanzania-Zambia rail link was built by China in the late 1960s, and still operates, barely, with Chinese government aid.
Yet there are also growing concerns about China's presence, which have been used as an election tool by African politicians, as in the recent victory of Michael Sata in Zambia.
Sata's fervent anti-Chinese rhetoric was toned down after his electoral triumph, but his administration has still put additional restraints on Chinese investment in Zambia's booming mining sector. Chinese firms are often accused of being insensitive to local needs and laws.
If a culture of bribery becomes common among Chinese firms in Africa, this will badly damage the country's image. Scandals around "Toufu schools" and other poorly constructed government projects are tragically common in China. Importing these practices to Africa would mean losing Chinese firms' reputation for delivering quality at a relatively low price.
There are already disturbing signs that this practice is taking hold. According to a 2011 survey by Transparency International, China is seen as the second-most likely country to pay bribes overseas. Dan Harris, a China Law blogger, has posted that in his experience, Chinese firms will sometimes ignore advice not to pay bribes, turning "something relatively easy and straightforward into something difficult and illegal," and that firms are inflexible about adjusting to local conditions.
Many developed countries have already introduced laws that punish companies for attempted bribery overseas, such as the US Anti-International Bribery Act of 1998, even when this bribery isn't charged in the local country. If China passed such a law, it would send a strong signal that the country does not tolerate corruption, either at home or abroad. China needs to be seen as an exporter of successful development and economic growth, not as a source of foreign corruption to add to Africa's existing woes.
* The author is a copy editor with the Global Times. firstname.lastname@example.org
- Related: State drops corruption case against Chinese engineering company (Sunday Standard)