After three years of closed borders under its strict “zero-COVID” policy, China reopened its doors to allow international travelers in — and Chinese with cabin fever out — a move with economic implications around the world, including in Africa.
On the continent, which counts China as its largest trade partner, African importers who sell cheap Chinese-made goods said they were itching to return to China to stock up while many African countries are also hoping to attract Chinese tourists.
While fears about the spread of COVID-19 caused some countries in Asia, Europe and North America to implement negative testing requirements for Chinese travelers, drawing the ire of Beijing, countries like Kenya and South Africa said they would not be implementing any travel restrictions for travelers from China.
African businesses eye China’s reopening
Markets and stocks around the world shot up with China’s reopening, and African businesses are also hoping to cash in on the world’s second largest economy.
“We are open to going there now and we are looking forward to do that to make sure that we get our businesses back on track,” Samuel Karanja, the CEO of the Importers and Small Traders Association of Kenya, told VOA, adding that the pandemic years have been a “roller coaster” for traders.
“For the past three years, it has been a very difficult moment for those traders because they lost touch with their suppliers. Ideally, the traders could go to China, meet their suppliers or manufacturers, go with samples of the goods that they need to be produced for them, some of them could wait for even weeks to be able to see that the production is completed, and the goods are loaded in containers and they’re coming back to Kenya,” he said.
Karanja said that was how business was done before the pandemic where Kenyan small and medium enterprise owners would travel to Chinese cities including Guangzhou, where they bulk purchased everything from electronics and motorbike spare parts to kitchenware and school stationery. After China implemented its zero-COVID policy however, the Kenyan businesses had to make purchases remotely, often with the help of unscrupulous middlemen who ripped them off.
Denis Juru, president of the International Cross-Border Traders Association in South Africa, echoed this, telling VOA that China’s reopening has lots of advantages for his organization’s members.
“The opening of Chinese borders will boost the African economy as Chinese products are cheap. African traders new to the business will be able to go and make their choices physically. New companies in China will take this opportunity to convince traders from Africa by reducing prices,” he said.
He noted that traveling to China is expensive but said while staying in-country and shopping online is easier and more economical “some companies in China sell the wrong products online. Therefore, the process of exchange inconveniences African businesses.”
Optimism with caution
As for large corporations that do business with China, Christo van der Rheede, CEO of Agri SA, South Africa’s biggest agricultural organization, was more circumspect about the pros and cons of China’s reopening.
“It remains to be seen how this is going to impact on South Africa. Remember, South Africa’s a big exporter of particular commodities, for example coal, iron ore, as well as other agricultural commodities to China. Hopefully this will increase the demand for South African commodities,” he said.
He also noted South Africa needs to weigh the economic benefits with caution around the spread of COVID-19.
“I think economically wise, we’ve seen how the clampdown, the zero(-COVID) policy, has impacted on the logistics, especially import and export logistics, and how that has driven up the cost of shipping throughout the world,” he said. “So hopefully we’ll be able to manage it in a way that will boost our economy and our exports to China, but at the same time we need to manage any outbreak in South Africa very carefully.”
Attracting Chinese visitors
So, what about travel from the other direction: Chinese coming to the continent either for business, to work on Belt and Road infrastructure projects or for tourism?
As soon as the country opened, Beijing was quick to send new Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang on his first official visit to the continent on a five-country tour.
In a speech on his first stop in Ethiopia, Qin reassured Africa that China plans to strengthen trade ties and accelerate in-person exchanges.
“First, let us intensify our in-person interactions and connectivity of ideas. The pandemic will be over, and we can see [the] light of hope ahead. … We will expand exchange and cooperation with Africa in various fields and at all levels, including between the governments, legislatures, political parties, militaries and localities,” Qin said. “African political leaders, AU Commission officials at various levels and Africans in the political, business and academic circles are most welcome to visit in due course.”
“We will encourage Chinese companies and people to come to Africa for investment and tourism. We will provide more facilitation to restore two-way personnel exchanges at a faster pace,” he added.
In terms of Chinese visitors to South Africa, however, Rosemary Anderson, national chairperson of the Federated Hospitality Association of South Africa, told VOA the current system leaves much to be desired.
“The Chinese traveler to South Africa has to present themselves in person at an embassy or visa office in China and wait up to months for a visa to be supplied,” she said, noting South Africa only attracted about 93,000 visitors before the pandemic in 2019, out of some 155 million Chinese who traveled abroad.
However, she noted that it was encouraging that Air China has recently started a direct flight between Beijing and Johannesburg.
Anderson said South Africa should do more to attract Chinese travelers, including public and private sector marketing initiatives aimed specifically at the Chinese market, ensuring destination and product information is available on Chinese search engines, and marketing on Chinese social media channels like Weibo and WeChat.
As China reopens to the world, “showing that you are Chinese friendly by, for example, offering payment platforms like WeChat Pay and Alipay, keeping in mind Chinese holiday dates, learning a few key phrases in Mandarin and training tourist guides to speak Mandarin,” would all be useful, she said.