Clashes between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) police and political protesters that left about 40 people dead last week also revealed the level of hostility toward Chinese in Kinshasa.
“Congolese, please” implored a sign in one store window, hoping it would be spared by the marauding protesters who attacked and looted about 50 Chinese-owned stores in the gritty Kinshasa neighborhoods of Ngaba and Kalamu. Other stores displayed the message “Ya bino moko” — “it belongs to you, too” in the local Lingala language — in a bid to discourage the rioting demonstrators who shattered windows, broke down doors and picked shelves clean in nearby shops owned by Chinese nationals.
“We’ve got a printing shop and spare parts store here, [but] nothing was touched besides the Chinese store,” said a 37-year-old businessman who owns dozens of business premises in the area.
According to rights groups, about 40 people have died over the past week in protests ostensibly against a proposed bill that could extend Congolese President Joseph Kabila’s hold on power in the vast African nation.
Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Saturday that security forces used excessive force during the protests and then tried to remove the evidence. The advocacy group said it had confirmed 36 dead in protests in the capital, 21 of whom were fatally shot by security forces, and four dead in the eastern city of Goma. The government put the death toll at 12.
The political demonstrations, confrontations with police and subsequent rioting targeting Chinese entrepreneurs may be rooted in the same popular disenchantment with Kabila and the power base he rules from.
Though the protests primarily opposed a change to electoral law that would allow Kabila to remain in office beyond next year — sidestepping a constitutional prohibition of running for office again — the rioters’ targets appeared to have been influenced by the government’s decision to boost economic ties with China.
DR Congo lawmakers on Saturday agreed to scrap the contested part of electoral bill, with Congolese National Assembly speaker Aubin Minaku saying that members of parliament will withdraw a provision from the planned legislation that required a census to be held before the next election.
Gigantic contracts between Kinshasa and Beijing signed in 2007 and 2008 gave Chinese companies the right to operate many of the mineral-rich DR Congo’s mines in exchange for developing the country’s road system and other infrastructure — deals Western nations denounced as unfair.
As a result, some observers say, when the protests opposing Kabila’s effort to retain power in the impoverished country turned to rioting, the focus fell on Chinese businesses.
Thousands of Chinese workers have come to the DR Congo to provide labor for the projects covered by those contracts, many in Katanga in the country’s southeastern mining center.
The Chinese embassy says that between 4,000 and 5,000 Chinese nationals live in the DR Congo, though the actual number is believed to be far higher. Many of those Chinese citizens work in and around Kinshasa on infrastructure construction projects, running businesses serving their compatriots and living together in packed housing in the capital’s poorer neighborhoods.
Some Kinshasa residents resent what they see as the Chinese preference for sticking together in segregated communities, retaining the customs, habits and language of their native land.
Local business owners also begrudge the shops opened by Chinese nationals to serve the needs of their compatriots, whose low prices also draw in Kinshasans as well. Today, signs written both in letters and Chinese characters are a common sight, hanging from storefronts and other businesses in Kinshasa’s working-class neighborhoods.
However, such signs also made the outlets easily identifiable targets when the political demonstrations turned into rioting in the capital.
“They sell everything, [and] we’re no longer doing any business because of them,” said a Kinshasa telephone card vendor, who said he hoped the spate of looting would serve as a “lesson” to his Chinese rivals.
“The Chinese slash prices,” said a 24-year-old resident, who called the competition from Chinese businesses “too much.”
Not everyone agrees.
“The Congolese are simply jealous,” said a woman selling bread from beneath an umbrella, shaking her head in dismay. “It’s a pity.”
A Chinese diplomat, who requested anonymity, told reporters the apparent targeting of Chinese businesses by rioters were isolated instances as part of wider unrest, and of no long-term significance.
Because of that, the diplomat said, no specific security instructions to nationals had been issued by the embassy, which insists there is no “plot against Chinese” citizens in the DR Congo.
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