Chinese in Algeria find shoe on the other foot

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 October, 2009, 12:00am

On the evening of August 3, a shop owner in Algiers objected to a Chinese trader parking outside his shop. After the two traded blows, the Chinese man fetched 50 of his compatriots, leading to a brawl in which five Chinese shops were looted, sacks of rice were emptied on to the street and dozens of people were injured.

'They drink beer and smoke in the street, and often walk around in shorts,' which many Muslims regard as indecent, one Algerian trader said. 'They do not respect our religion and culture.'

The government quickly moved large numbers of police into the area and both countries played down the incident, saying it would not affect good relations.

The Chinese in Algiers are the converse of the Uygurs in Urumqi , a minority living in a city under the government and security forces of a Muslim country.

There are an estimated 35,000 Chinese in Algeria, working in trade, retail and construction projects. The August incident provoked anti-Chinese sentiment on the internet, with some calling them 'cat-eaters' - Muslims are not allowed to eat cat meat - and 'Ali Baba', meaning 'thief', and telling them to go home.

Part of the anger stems from the fact that many Chinese stores undercut the local ones and open for longer hours, so they attract more business. Also, Chinese contractors use 80-90 per cent Chinese labour, arguing that Chinese work harder and are easier to manage. Unemployment is high among Algerians, especially those below 30. In some cities, 70 per cent of the young are out of work.

Professor Simon Shen, a Hong Kong-based social scientist, sees parallels between the French colonial rule of Algeria and the Chinese rule of Xinjiang .

Writing in a recent edition of Chinese-language Asiaweek, he said France regarded Algeria as part of its territory and settled a million people there.

It brought education and infrastructure development, and offered people citizenship as long as they accepted French law as being above Islamic law.

'It believed that the values of the French revolution were universal values. But many Muslims considered that to accept them would mean giving up their identity and culture.'

Nonetheless, thousands of Algerians fought for the Free French army in the second world war and nearly 200,000 fought on the French side in the war of independence, which the country gained in July 1962 after 132 years of French rule.

The war, which lasted eight years, was vicious and bloody, with atrocities on both sides. The torture and violence used by the French army against civilians turned many Algerians against the colonial ruler.

In the months that followed, 1.03 million European settlers and 81,000 of the pro-French Algerians in the French army fled across the Mediterranean to France.

'We cannot make a direct comparison between Algeria and Xinjiang,' Shen said. 'The rule of China in Xinjiang is much more stable. But we cannot deny that as Algeria became a part of France, the government made mistakes in the assimilation process. It became a snowball effect as the Muslims sought international help. This can be a warning to Beijing.'

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