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Algerians vs. Chinese: a Chinatown show down

August 8, 2009

Algeria and China have quite fine relations. To say “Algeria and China” is to say the governments of the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria and the People’s Republic of China enjoy long and friendly relations The PRC was the first country to recognize independent Algeria. Quite a few Algerian military officers, engineers and others were educated in the PRC. Chinese television once broadcast programs on the Algerian “people’s revolution”. Algerian communists counted many, many Maoists in their ranks in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and the Chinese Embassy is historically one of the more important in Algiers. Any Algerian who has done his national service has held a Chinese made rifle and served in a military modeled after the People’s Liberation Army.

Still, as is the case in any relationship, there is tension. Algerians have not taken well to the large numbers of Chinese that have arrived in Algeria over the last decade, mostly to build the housing units and infrastructure projects president Bouteflika promised Algerians in 1999, 2004 and 2009. Algerians want those jobs. But they’ve gone to Chinese firms on Chinese terms. So the flare ups in Sino-Algerian relations recently have been the result of domestic politics; in other words, areas the two governments historically have ignored in their dealings with one another. But now, rebells in Algeria are setting upon Chinese interests based on the conduct of a Chinese rebellion; and ordinary Algerians are roughing up Chinese nationals, brought to the country as a result of this otherwise long and happy relationship. While these things will mean little for Sino-Algerian relations on the whole (neither government places enough care on such affairs for them to be so significant as, say, the racial violence against Algerians in France in the 1970’s was to Franco-Algerian relations), it is important that they be laid out.

  • Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) issued a threat to attack Chinese interests in Algeria in retaliation for the repression of the Uighur rebellion, last month.
  • The Chinese, realizing that their growing interests in the Arab world require protection and propagation, launch an Arabic language network. It follows that a rising Great Power should broadcast its propaganda as the established others do. Not to mention that without their own “public diplomacy” station, they haven’t much damage control capacity when news of their latest abuse of some restive minority population.
  • Algerians and Chinese workers clash in the Bab Ezzouar neighborhood of Algiers. It is said that the riots came as a result of a Chinese fellow’s bad attitude, which earned him the words and then blows of a shopkeep. He hurried away and returned with some 50 members of the Chinese community. The Algerians, a lot known to rush to a fight, quickly set on the Chinese. Local commentary afterward circles around how the Chinese eat whatever they can get their hands on, refuse to respect Islamic mores (what’s in those dumplings, anyhow?), the risque dress of their women and their bad behavior in general. Even more talk stresses that the Algerians won the battle. Locals organize to have their local government kick out the Chinese. No luck on their part. The Chinese Embassy essentially apologizes for the conduct of the laborers, saying that Sino-Algerian relations are “much greater” than this isolated incident. No evidence links the incident to the AQIM warning. The Chinese Foreign Ministry looks to impress the urgency of the matter on the Algerians; the Embassy handles the situation rather responsibly. Liberte, while writing of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s request for more protection of its nationals, asks Algerians
  • How is it that a country whose community has established itself abroad, daily suffering of xenophobia and racism, can reserve the same fate to its guests doing the building that which we Algerians are incapable of? Need we remind ourselves that the Chinese, whom some would accuse him of all evils, were the first to start construction projects in Algeria? That they have contributed greatly to solve the housing crisis in Algeria? That they invested when many countries have been reluctant? We should also mention that the Chinese are working day and night, come rain or shine, while many of our compatriots sip their coffee and then mock the Chinese who have come so far to build homes? We can talk about the illegality of many Chinese nationals and the conditions under which they opened shops everywhere, and can also emphasize that in this as in the other, the power of the law should apply to all without exception. But we must recognize that the state has largely failed in its educational mission, leaving the ground for charlatans and other thugs who currently dictate law in their neighborhoods and villages in Algeria. Racism and xenophobia have no nationality.
  • A bomb is diffused near a residence for Chinese laborers near Lakhdaria. Security around this and other Chinese hangouts has been beefed up in recent days, a result of the “warning”. Such news is reported regularly, this being of special importance because it is among the first bits of proof that AQIM is attacking non-Western foreigners, where as previous foreign targets had been Europeans, almost exclusively. The growing and rather visible (it is among the first things Algerians living abroad mention upon returning to the country) Chinese presence is not popular, especially among the unemployed. AQIM’s beef with the Chinese is ideological — these are after all the citizens of an atheist, communist regime that has killed many Muslims in recent weeks and before — and political: picking out the Chinese, who are seen as “taking” jobs from Algerians (though most of the projects they work on are Chinese ones, in terms of planning and management), puts them in common cause with ordinary Algerians, in their calculations. Algerian xenophobia is not quite so deep, though (but one notices that the influence of foreigners, especially those from socialist or communist countries, is generally scorned in Algerian history). Algerians like the junk they can buy cheaply in Bab Ezzouar, now known as “Chinatown”. Some even enjoy a bit of Chinese cuisine. For sure there is a class division: anyone who might be described as “Sinophillic” is almost certain middle or upper class; the mass, while they might partake in some of these delights, are surely at one or another level resentful and jelous of the Chinese. Few would look to drive them out based on ideological grounds. That the Chinese disrespect Islamic social mores is merely salt on the fact that they, for the most part, have jobs while the average Algerian does not. It is unlikely that if Algerians go chasing Chinese workers they will doing this out of religious conviction or fidelity to AQIM.
  • A headline like “Brawl breaks out in Algeria,” is the North African equivalent of something like “dog bites man”. One should consider that the day before Bab Ezzouar violence, there were youth riots in El Tarf, on the Tunisian border and that for a little more than a year intermittent violence has taken place between Ibadite Berbers and Arabic speakers Berriane, just north of Ghardaia. This is to say nothing of the numerous fits of car and tire burning that go on quite often elsewhere in Algeria. This is part of the setting of Bouteflika’s Algeria, and it is the failure of the socio-economic order he has setup, that addresses only macro-level economic and social problems, but fails to address the basic tensions in Algerian society in an effective way.

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