I have to lean in to hear Zeng over the howling protests of steel meeting stone outside—although I suspect were we not on an active construction site, I might have still have to strain. A slight man, Zeng strikes me as a guy reluctant to fill a space with his voice.
Zeng is twenty-six. Did I hear that correctly? I scoot my plastic chair closer. He has been in Kenya for two years. Which means he has been overseeing the construction of a massive new skyscraper, an endeavor employing the labor of several hundred people, since, well, since he was my age.
Hailing from China’s Hunan province, Zeng was dispatched to Nairobi immediately after graduating from university. He had never been abroad before. He speaks English, haltingly. I zone out, trying to imagine myself into his position, drifting back to my own mist-shrouded arrival a few weeks previous…
When I tune back in, Zeng is speaking about his life here in Kenya: “There’s not much to it. I work all day, maybe watch a movie before bed, sleep, and then start over.” Zeng does this seven days a week. And the project is still more than a year from completion (after which project, he’ll be assigned to the next one). “I’ll return to China when they tell me to,” he states without bitterness. He does seem tired though. Or am I projecting?
I remember why I am here: labor issues, right. I had just come from the Nairobi County Labor Disputes Office—a drab, dimly lit hallway tucked away on the 16thfloor of the Ministry of Labor’s hive-like building—where a labor officer slapped a thick tan envelope onto his desk. “Complaints against Chinese employers.” I am tasked with visiting some of these employers, talking through the complaints.
Zeng animates when I ask about the strikes. In two years, his site has seen eight. None, however, would technically be considered legally “protected”. Eager to demonstrate my mint-condition knowledge of the Labor Relations Act, I explain that for a strike to be considered legal, both parties must first undergo a conciliatory process. Only when that fails can the disgruntled employees strike, and only after providing written seven days notice.
He nods, patiently humoring me.
“Sure. But in reality does it really matter if the strike is legal? Imagine three hundred people – angry people –standing outside your office doorway, shouting at you. What do you do then?” He doesn’t feel he can rely on the police. The police, Zeng raises his voice, often do not want to get involved, or may not be able to control the situation. I barely need to lean in to hear Zeng over the banging and sawing.
“I might legally able to fire these guys, but in moments like that, you know what I am thinking about? My safety. My safety, and the safety of my team.” He brings up the 2012 Zambia incident: a Chinese manager killed during a pay-related riot. He brings up an incident in Nairobi: rifle-wielding police struggled to contain a protest of more than 1,200 workers.
As Zeng crescendos to a cacophony of construction noises, I am, unexpectedly, struck by his vulnerability.
Vulnerable…not the choice adjective to describe the “Chinese boss in Africa” of my pre-Kenyan imagination—surely not those Chinese managers responsible for abusing and exploiting their laborers, about whom I had read so much. Nor the scrutinizing subject of this widely distributed photograph—bright jacket, clean khaki-adorned figure hovering critically over prostrate, mud-covered Zambian worker. Vulnerable? More like authoritative—villainous, even.
But taking in Zeng’s wiry frame, listening to his whispered story, the word that floats into mind: vulnerable. And when visiting other Chinese managers, often with similar backstories, I have been again and again struck by the various precarities and vulnerabilities of their situation. The challenges of being a foreigner in a foreign land. Demanding (often distant) bosses and skyscraper-sized responsibilities. Operating in a business landscape contoured by informality – by unwritten codes – as by written law.
Which is certainly not to excuse Chinese companies or individuals – or for that matter any company or person – that have caused or are causing human hardship. Nor is it somehow to assign blame to anyone for Zeng or his compatriots’ vulnerability.
It is perhaps simply to wonder at the stories of characters that I thought I knew—like “the Chinese manager.” What are their motivations and ambitions, their fears and frustrations?
If hearing these stories requires a bit of straining (as it often does), well, then, I guess we better lean in.
This post first appeared on Bridging the Great Wall, Zander Rounds‘ blog about his Fulbright Scholarship to study African student exchanges to China. Zander is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He is currently based in Nairobi, Kenya as Director of Research at ChinaHouse.