China’s Business and Politics in South Sudan

Letter from Juba

South Sudan's and China's national flags, April 23, 2012. Petar Kujundzic / Reuters

Engineers Luo Minhai, 48, and Sun Xinfa, 44, grew up in Heilongjiang Province, China, but a few months ago, they arrived in Khor Wolyang, a neighborhood in Juba, South Sudan, not far from the barracks of the presidential guard. They are supervising the building of a ten-foot wall for the South Sudanese Ministry of Defence and Veterans Affairs as it expands its soldiers’ living quarters.

Since the project requires demolishing parts of the neighborhood, however, some residents are less than pleased and have taken it out on the Chinese workers. Neither Luo nor Sun speaks Arabic or more than a few words of English, but no words were needed when a local South Sudanese man barricaded the street that Luo takes to work. Luo simply handed the man 200 South Sudanese pounds, about $6.50, and he was allowed to continue on his way.

“These people don’t like us,” Luo told me as he swatted flies from his sweaty face. Behind him, South Sudanese workers slathered cement onto large concrete bricks and then stacked them one by one onto the half-built wall. The finished parts stretched down through the dusty village for 2,500 meters and will be 3,000 meters when complete. Luo’s company, China Railway No. 10 Engineering Group, a subcontractor of the Chinese state-owned enterprise Norinco, is among a growing number of Chinese firms working in South Sudan, especially in construction and infrastructure. But the South Sudanese do not see them as building the country up, at least not in Khor Wolyang. “They think China is robbing, not helping, them,” Luo told me.

A few yards from the construction site, Khor Wolyang’s local leaders sat hunched together in a dirt yard behind a wooden fence. Two of the councilmen, Tabu Samson Awii and Elhag Okidi, looked warily over their shoulders in case government soldiers approached, because they could be kicked out of their homes anytime now. “They say we have to leave by the end of May,” Awii told me at the beginning of May.

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