Conference Review – Importing China: Exploring the Economic Opening of Algeria towards China
How are Chinese economic activities and the import of Chinese products in Algeria affecting local development processes? To discuss this question, Abderrazek Adel (Khenchela, Algeria), Thierry Pairault (Paris, France), and Fatiha Talahite (Paris, France) brought international junior and senior researchers together at the international conference “China in Algeria: Global Economy and Local Development” (programme), which took place at the Université Constantine 2 in Constantine, Algeria, from 10-11 May 2015. The two-day conference was the follow-up of a first meeting on the Sino-Algerian relationships in Paris in 2013, which resulted in the publication of the volume “Chine-Algérie: une relation singulière en Afrique”.
Against the backdrop of the ongoing debate about the Chinese presence in Algeria, the participants were invited to investigate its concrete effects on the Algerian economy and Algeria’s current development. China is present and active in Algeria on three levels. Firstly, Chinese people are working in, or have migrated to, Algeria, triggering debates about migration. Secondly, Chinese products are being imported to China and influence the internal market. And thirdly, Chinese economic policies are inspiring Algerian ideas about development. Within this context, the following key questions were addressed: where and how can Chinese actors and goods be found in Algeria? Who are the actors involved in the Sino-Algerian exchange? What are the strategies of actors involved? And what are the effects the import of Chinese products, ideas, and workers to Algeria is having on the Algerian economy?
During five panels and a concluding round table discussion, the participants – who came from Algeria, China, France, and Germany – offered first insights on how these questions could be answered. The presented empirical case studies and theoretical reflections centred around four main topics: (1) the economic opening of Algeria and its concrete impacts on the micro- and macro-level; (2) the migration of Chinese people to Algeria and the strategies they employ; (3) China’s economic policies and their role-model function for Algerian development strategies; and (4) the Sino-Algerian relations within the broader context of Sino-African relations. The trilingual discussions, which took place in Arabic, English, and French, did not only underline the international character of the conference, but also the importance, impact, and limits of language skills within a transregional context – be it academic or economic.
Key notes: setting the stage
In order to open up the debate, the conference started with three keynotes introducing the stage of the art. The first speaker Yacine Belarbi (Alger, Algeria) pointed at two challenges of the current development policy in Algeria: the Algerian development strategy should encourage the industrialization of Algeria while reducing the existing spatial inequalities between different parts of the country. However, as Belarbi observed, even if development takes place within the different wilayas (provinces), there is no catching up between the richer provinces of central Algeria (including the urban centres Alger, Constantine, and Oran) and the rest of the country. By analysing Chinese enterprises doing business in Algeria, Thierry Pairault (Paris, France) raised the question, if the role China plays in Algeria was a role chosen and encouraged by the Chinese officials or if it was imposed on the Chinese actors. Furthermore, he insisted that – given that the globalization of production processes leads to a de-localization of production sites – the analysis of Sino-Algerian flows of goods has to overcome linear attributions of “brand <=> nation state” and a spatial concept that interprets nation states as containers. Additionally, Fatiha Talahite (Paris, France) stressed that a better understanding of the opening of the Chinese economy since the late 1970s can enrich the discussion about the ongoing economic transformations in Algeria. Moreover, she highlighted the importance of taking the trade currency into consideration when analysing the external trade of Algeria.
Sino-Algerian relationships: theoretical approaches
The presentations of the first panel approached the Sino-Algerian relationships theoretically and pointed to the advantages and limits of the existing frameworks. Mohammed Dehane (Constantine, Algeria) criticized that the term “Chinafrique”, which emerged similar to the term “Françafrique”, neglects the particularities of the various interrelations between China and the diverse African states in general and with Algeria in particular. Complementing Dehane’s observations, Asma Benmechira (Tizi Ouzou, Algeria) suggested the concept of “soft power” to illustrate that the Chinese government uses three mechanisms to increase its visibility in Algeria: via the Chinese foreign policy; by making the Chinese culture and language accessible and learnable for Algerians; and by emphasizing the differences between the Chinese approach and the approach of traditional powers such as France. Taking up on this argument, Bi Iri Sverin Zan (Bouaké, Ivory Coast) broadened the debate by introducing the framework of “south-south cooperation”. He characterized the growing economic exchange between Algeria and China as a new way of south-south cooperation and argued that it might offer development potentials for Algeria different from those offered by existing north-south relations with Europe.
The import of Chinese goods to Algeria: consumer goods and industrial equipment
Based on empirical micro-level case studies the presentations of the second panel elaborated on the effects of the economic opening of Algeria. Belkacem Hanniche (Bejaïa, Algeria) and Rachid Mira (Paris, France) both chose the Chinese automobile industries in Algeria as case study examples. Mira demonstrated that between 2007 and 2013 the Algerian National Automobile Company (SNVI, Société Nationale des Véhicules Industriels) relied on European partners. Consequently, he described the Sino-Algerian relationship before 2014 as a purely commercial one, where Algeria served exclusively as a target market for Chinese cars. Since 2014, however, as Hanniche remarked, there has been a strategical shift of the Algerian authorities and the Chinese producers from importing Chinese cars to setting up production sites of Chinese brands in Algeria. Wenke Krestin (Leipzig, Germany) then shifted the attention to the import of Chinese industrial equipment by Algerian agro-food industrials. She claimed that the accessibility of low-price Chinese equipment could contribute to an expansion and further industrialization of the Algerian agro-food industry and might consequently play a role for enlarging national food security. In their joint paper, Pierre Bergel (Caen, France) and Brahim Benlakhlef (Constantine, Algeria) demonstrated how the trade with Chinese consumer goods has changed the social and urban structures of a local trader community in Aïn Fakroun and Bir-El-Ater (Constantine, Algeria). These transformations, they concluded, are blurry and ambivalent, so that their analysis has to overcome dichotomous representations such as “traditional-modern”, “local-global”, and “formal-informal”.
Chinese migrants in Algeria: between invisibility and integration
The case studies of the third panel concentrated on the migration of Chinese people to Algeria. Defu Xie (Wuhan, China) showed that in addition to the lack of knowledge concerning language and culture, organizational restrains and the high competition with local as well as with other Chinese and international businesses characterize the daily work of Chinese construction enterprises in Algeria. But who are these Chinese migrants in Algeria? A possible typology of Chinese migrants in Algeria was presented by Loïc Le Pape (Aix-Marseille, France), who identified three types: the invisible construction worker; the Chinese tradespeople; and the Chinese executive staff, working only temporarily in Algeria. As the Chinese culture in Algeria takes place in invisible and informal settings, he asserted that the existence of a Chinese identity in Algeria is rather constructed by the members of the Algerian majority society. Focusing on the second type of Le Pape’s typology, Assia Bakir (Paris, France) then shed light on Chinese merchants in the neighbourhood of Bab Ezzouar in Alger and their strategy to employ young Algerians. She demonstrated how the young locals serve as an important social network as they ensure the mobility of the Chinese goods, capital, and traders and facilitate the contact with the Algerian administration and customers. The construction sector was the focus of the presentation by Hicham Rouiba (Paris, France), who studied the interactions of Chinese and Algerian businesses and state organizations involved in repairing a hydraulic and gas crack in a residential neighbourhood in Bejaïa. He concluded that both the individual as well as the organizational relationships are marked by accusations against one another. The paper of Hoachen Deng (Paris, France) finally linked the micro-level case studies of the Chinese migration to Algeria to the international political strategy of the Chinese authorities. He stressed that the expansion and deepening of the Sino-Algerian relationships have to be seen in the framework of the Chinese strategy to re-position China within the global world order.
Algeria is in Africa: Sino-African relations
The fourth panel repositioned the Sino-Algerian relations in the broader context of the Sino-African relations. Zakia Chenaker (Constantine, Algeria) and Amani Azzouza (Constantine, Algeria) emphasized the importance of reaching a cultural way of understanding in Sino-African and Sino-Algerian interactions. Khadidja Benbraham (Constantine, Algeria) in turn concentrated on special economic zones in China and Africa in general and in Algeria in particular and looked at the different ways of implementation. She argued, that the Algerian ruling elite could profit from the Chinese experience but should create a more favourable investment climate in Algeria. With regard to the Sino-African and Sino-Algerian economic interactions also the question of technology transfer arose. Messaoud Zouikri (Nanterre, France) claimed that currently knowledge transfer is rarely achieved due to missing investments in local African industries. Last but not least, Wahiba Aiane (Bejaïa, Algeria) compared the economic opening of China and Algeria. While she identified a political economic project in China, which stimulated the local production and invested in human capital, the Algerian economic policy would be missing a stringent vision.
Threads coming together: the round table discussion
The round table discussion led by Ihsane El Kadi (Alger, Algeria) summarised the two-day discussions along four questions. First, what distinguishes Sino-Algerian relationships? Second, what is the identity of the Chinese actors in Algeria? Third, what are the strategies of Algerian actors? And fourth, what is the future of Sino-Algerian relations and will they last?
By considering these questions, the conference once again underlined the findings from the first workshop in 2013, namely that the Sino-Algerian economic interactions differ from the Euro-Algerian ones since they are addressing a different clientele and are reaching different economic levels and social groups. Nevertheless, China’s rising presence – Chinese businesses, goods, and people – is challenging Algeria’s traditional economic partners from Europe as well as the Algerian government and society. It was the latter aspects, this conference addressed in more detail. Especially, the actor-centred studies offered new insights and perspectives on involved actors, applied strategies, and regional impacts. Moreover, social, urban, and economic transformations in Algeria were investigated together with the Sino-Algerian interactions. In addition, the conference succeeded in contextualizing the micro-studies within their broader frameworks, such as the national political strategies of Algeria and China and the Euro-Algerian in comparison to the Sino-African relationships as well as the theoretical debate on transregional interactions in general.
Outlook: challenges of conducting transregional research
Nonetheless, further research, especially empirical case studies, are needed to deepen our understanding of the dimensions and effects of the Sino-Algerian relations. It became clear, however, that these studies will be faced with the various challenges of conducting transregional research. Most of the interactions and transformation processes are not immediately visible but rather informal. Thus, the different kinds of mobilities between China and Algeria – be it Chinese actors, goods, or ideas – will first need to be identified to then further determine their scope, reach, and implications. In doing this, container space concepts that see nation states as the major unit of analysis have to be overcome. Instead, the focus needs to be on the multifaceted interlinkages while paying attention to the diversity of Sino-Algerian relationships and avoiding dichotomies such as the construction of homogenous entities like “the Chinese” or “the Algerian society”. Rather, future research should highlight both the flows but also the constraints of movements.
In sum, the two-day conference created not only an open space to discuss these challenges but also reinforced the network between the small group of researchers, who are currently studying Sino-Algerian relations. As during the whole conference the final discussion once again revealed that the understanding of the Sino-Algerian interrelations has just begun. The meeting demonstrated that particularly early career researchers are exploring this promising field of research while it also revealed that our understanding of Sino-Algerian interrelations is still at an early stage.
 For a short introduction about the findings of the Workshop in 2013 in Paris, France, see the Call for Papers of the International Conference in Constantine 2015.
 Algeria is currently divided into 48 administrative provinces.
 Take as an example the brand “Renault”: while “Renault” originated in France, today the Groupe Renault has production sites in 14 countries world wide. Thus, a “Renault” imported to Algeria does not necessarily originate from France. Analysing the imports of cars from “Renault” to Algeria as a France-Algerian relationship ignores the economic linkages with the other 13 countries, where the Renault Group produces cars.
Citation: Wenke Krestin, Conference Review – Importing China: Exploring the Economic Opening of Algeria towards China, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 29.07.2015 https://trafo.hypotheses.org/2591.