Chinese – Algerians: The big tension

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Chinese presence in Algeria has become the source of heated debates among Algerians as violent anti-Chinese clashes hit the Algerian capital. The Chinese, who have been urged to remain calm by their government, don’t understand Beijing’s reticence in the face of such violent eruptions. The Algerians, on their part, think the Chinese have taken advantage of their hospitality. In a backdrop of huge Algerian contracts negotiated by Beijing and skyrocketing numbers of unemployed Algerian youths in the middle of an economic crisis, anti-Chinese sentiments could be headed towards a boiling point. The situation could undermine relations between China and Algeria.

The clashes that erupted Monday between Chinese and Algerians in the district Bab Ezzouar, Algiers, have triggered a host of reactions. For the first time, the Chinese government has broken its silence and called on the Algerian government to take the necessary measures to punish those responsible for the violent attacks and also “prevent the reoccurrence of such incidents.” More often than not, very diplomatic and reticent, Beijing’s warning reflects their concern vis-à-vis the growing xenophobia to which their citizens are falling prey to and which could also adversely affect their economic interests in Algeria.

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Made in China

Chinese presence in North Africa has increased exponentially since 2004. A high percentage of major projects in Algeria have been awarded to Chinese groups like the all powerful China State Construction and Engineering Corporation (CSEC), whilst the China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (Sinopec) has only recently signed a multi million contract with Algeria. China could not possibly afford the loss of such contracts, which explains why Beijjing has, rather than take further action, urged its citizens in Algeria, instead, to remain calm, watch out for their own security and respect their host country’s laws and customs.

But the all too simple discourse has done little to appease Song, a young Chinese who works as a translator for a construction company in the Algiers suburbs. “All the people I know are very respectful of Algerians and their religion. The government is accusing us despite the fact that we have been victims to such attacks for a long time… and they have never intervened,” says Song.

Chinese insecurity

Since Monday’s violence, which resulted in several casualties, the Chinese government has advised its nationals not to walk the streets. “I live on the site where I work and my boss has advised me not to cross the street, where shops that sell essential products are run by Algerians. But I go anyway,” Song told About thirty thousand Chinese immigrants currently live in Algeria, with most of them working on construction sites or owning their own commercial enterprises.

The massive numbers of Chinese residents has become the source of discontentment and resentment among local population in Algeria of which 70% under the age of 30 remain unemployed. Among the Chinese, the feeling of insecurity is rife. According to Song, who arrived in Algeria four years ago, “I almost always carry a knife… I don’t feel safe when I go out. I was attacked three times when I lived in central Algiers.” The clashes between Chinese citizens and Algerian natives are not new to Song. “As many as six attacks took place in one day during last year’s Ramadan.”

Self-defence or bones of contention?

On the Algerian side, it is all about self-defence. According to local sources, the brawl that sparked the violence took place early this week after an angry dispute ensued between a young Algerian man and a Chinese whom the former had accused of parking his car too close to his shop… the attacks began when the young man’s brother came to his aid. Several witnesses indicate that some fifty Chinese, armed with swords, knives and iron bars rushed to the scene to rescue their fellow countryman.

“Let’s not see this as a result of a simple brawl or define the brawl as the only bone of contention. Self-defence here could be physical as well as economic,” Patrick Johnsson, an analyst told

Talking to AFP, Mounir, an Algerian said that “the Chinese have taken advantage of the kindness of the Algerians. They were accepted despite their faults, today they are attacking us.” Abdellah, another local resident added: “They drink alcohol in front of their shops and in full view of the Algerians and often parade about in shorts in the area. This sort of behaviour is against our religion and our culture.”

Song believes that the anti-Chinese sentiment is as a result of “competition and jealousy.” In the Bab Ezzouar neighbourhood in Algiers, the Chinese own over 200 shops. “Their products are sold at very competitive prices and they are open every day, so they make money. This displeases the Algerians,” says Song.

These clashes, albeit seemingly inconsequential at face value, could undermine relations between China and Algeria. They reflect an endemic tension between the Chinese and Algerians. The animosity between the two communities could reach unbridled heights if the economic crisis persists and Beijing’s attitude reveals how delicate the issue is.

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