David R. Henderson  

Chinese Entrepreneurs in Egypt

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Nobody in the family seems intimidated by life in Asyut, and they don't consider themselves successful; Chen and Lin often say that their factory is just a low-level industry. But, whenever I visit, I can't help thinking: Here in Egypt, home to eighty-five million people, where Western development workers and billions of dollars of foreign aid have poured in for decades, the first plastic-recycling center in the south is a thriving business that employs thirty people, reimburses others for reducing landfill waste, and earns a significant profit. So why was it established by two lingerie-fuelled Chinese migrants, one of them illiterate and the other with a fifth-grade education?
This is from Peter Hessler, "Learning to Speak Lingerie," The New Yorker, August 10, 2015.

Often, when I hear people connected with the U.S. Department of Defense talking about the Chinese presence in Africa, their tone is ominous, as if they fear the Chinese taking over. There's some of that, I'm sure. But the piece in the New Yorker quoted above gives another perspective: it's on private, for-profit Chinese entrepreneurs in the retail lingerie segment. The entrepreneurs whom author Peter Hessler discusses are relatively "uneducated." I put that term in quotation marks because it's clear from the article that, although they lack formal education and some cannot even read or write, they are educated about things that matter most for their business.

The quote above is my favorite from the piece, but the whole article is well worth reading. Especially notable is the contrast between efficient use of resources by private-sector Chinese people and the bloated white-elephant projects of China's government.

HT to Jeff Hummel.


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COMMENTS (2 to date)
Scott Sumner writes:

Peter Hessler is probably the best Western reporter who writes on China. His three books on China are outstanding.

_NL writes:

Hessler is really interesting to read. His article about the informal trash collection in Cairo has some really interesting economic insights.

It sounds similar to a Shikha Dalmia article on dalits and trash collection. Basically, informal systems among lower social groupings form binding unwritten contracts and business norms. Because the lower tier of society was historically ignored in India and Egypt, and I assume elsewhere, the norms have developed without state intervention but are considered very strong within the grouping. And in a sense, the people taking out the trash have leverage to exercise.

Hessler even goes through the different permutations of the Cairo trash industry, and how trash was previously used as cooking fuel and now is used for its recycling and salvage opportunities.

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