Thursday, October 30, 2008

China and Its African Problem: Anarchy, Natural Resources and the Congo

China has spent the greater part of the last decade catching up. It has moved aggressively to develop its infrastructure, industry and economic and social institutions. China has begun to project its power abroad. And China has become a great consumer of resources. Nowhere has the effects of China's actions abroad been felt more directly than in Africa. China has invested heavily in Africa. It has been the host of great conferences in which the leaders of African states have been invited to Beijing for the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. It has sought to make itself a different kind of trade partner with the nations of the African continent. For all that, China's involvement in Africa has not been completely positive. I recently wrote about accusations of Chinese neo-colonialism in Africa, and Chinese sensitivities to these accusations. Larry Catá Backer, “The Problems of Being a great Power: China and Neo-Colonialism in Africa," Law at the End of the Day, Nov. 22, 2006.China has increasingly been the subject of sometimes understated warnings from important African leaders. I have suggested the nature of those warning issued by the outgoing leader of South Africa. See Larry Catá Backer, China and Neo-Colonialism in Africa: A Warning from South Africa Law at the End of the Day, Dec. 15, 2006.

But now it is not only African leaders, or frustrated workers who are exploiting Chinese presence in Africa for their own purposes. A recent report indicates that African revolutionary and insurrectionist movements are turning on the Chinese as well. It was reported recently that
In the Democratic Republic of Gongo, rebel leader, General Laurent Nkunda, whose forces have reached the edge of the eastern city of Goma has said he is opening “emergency humanitarian corridors” for refugees. An estimated 30,000 people, along with many government forces, fled Goma as Nkunda's forces advanced towards it this week, capturing several key towns from government forces on the way. The rebel leader is demanding direct negotiations with the government to discuss security and to express his objections to a deal giving China access to the region's mineral resources.
DRC rebel leaders opens "humanitarian corridor," Deutsche Welt, World News, October 30, 2008.

There is irony here. In some respects, China appears to be stepping into the shoes of prior foreign powers in search of riches on the continent. One would have thought that China could have avoided this. China has been a great friend of Africa, and progressive causes there almost from the time of the establishment of the People's Republic. Even through the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese have been a great source of ideological inspiration for many in Africa seeking an alternative to post colonial patterns of misgovernment (however debatable that choice might be). But it is one thing to serve as a source of ideological values and a supporter of political causes and it is quite another to engage closely in state to state relations with governments subject to severe criticism for anti-democratic and anti-human rights activities. More problematic are the activities of China as a competitor for the rights to extract the wealth of these African states for its won needs, and in return provide these African states, already struggling to industrialize, with cheap goods. China's Investment in Africa Comes With a Price, New York Times, ("Many African factories that once processed traditional-patterned cloth have been shut down as more affordable Chinese goods have flooded the market. "). Whatever the motivations of the Chinese, the results have not been good for Chinese policy. And it is worth taking a moment to remember that Chinese motives might be well meaning, though their consequences in Africa might be disastrous (for China at least). China has itself suffered through a long period of quasi colonial domination. It has suffered its territory to be used as a dumping ground for questionable goods (not the least of which was opium). From this perspective, a policy of non-interference in internal affairs of partner states reflects more on Chinese history than the history of its state partners. Of course, there is a bit of rosy history here--the same Chinese state that now adheres to strict policies of non interference was at the forefront of interference of the worst sort not so long ago when it served as a financier of many revolutionary and subversive movements throughout Africa. All of this is remembered, of course, when the Chinese state now seeks to support state governments it might have sought to over through a generation ago. While things have changed dramatically for the Chinese, the Africans still see with traditional eyes.

Of course, this is all great news for the West, China's rival for both influence and resources in Africa, but it also reflects African concerns. See, e.g., Deborah Brautigam and Adama Gaye, Online Debate: Is Chinese Investment Good for Africa?, Council on Foreign Relations, Feb. 20, 2007.
Even if Deborah [Brautigan] may be right to highlight China’s role in infrastructural and industrial developments and its swift cancellation of debts owed by Africa, it remains that this generosity is only deployed to buy goodwill. China gets more in return. It has now grabbed huge natural resources while dumping into the continent cheap industrial manufactured products. So far, China’s help has not reversed the unequal terms of trade that attracted wide criticisms against Western nations. The early colonizers came to Africa with alcohol and useless gifts to lure the locals. Is not China doing the same with the help of greedy leaders?
And that is the problem. The Chinese have moved on to new patterns of thinking and action in Africa. Their needs are different. They believe they might be doing good. But to Africans on the ground, they see the Chinese as a perhaps more exotic form of traditional exploiter. Here is yet another powerful state, feeding a corrupt government, using its influence with those government officials to extract good terms for trade between them, then use native labor to exploit natural resources for low wages in return for which the Chinese provide cheap goods that impede the industrialization of the host states. For the African laboring in a factory in Zambia, there may be little to distinguish the English in the 1950s from the Chinese in the 2000s. "“Their interest is exploiting us, just like everyone who came before,” he said. “They have simply come to take the place of the West as the new colonizers of Africa.”" Lydia Polgreen and Howard W. French, China's Trade in Africa Carries a Price Tag, New York Times, Aug. 21, 2007 (quoting Michael Sata, a Zambian opposition politician).

And perversely, those leaders who might at one time have relied on the Chinese for ideological and logistical support in their revolutionary efforts have now recast the Chinese in the role of neo-colonial exploiter. This has significant consequences for Chinese personnel in Africa. It is not for nothing, fopr example, that revolutionary movements in Sudan now target Chinese workers in their campaign against what is viewed in many quarters as a racist and corrupt government. See Anita Change, Chinese Say Hostages Held in Sudan Died During Failed Rescue Attempt, Star Trinune (Minneapolis MN), October 28, 2008 ("Five Chinese oil workers kidnapped in Sudan died during a botched rescue attempt, the Foreign Ministry said Tuesday. . . .China buys nearly two-thirds of Sudan's oil, and petroleum sales account for 70 percent of the African country's export revenue. Rebels have previously warned Chinese and other oil firms to leave the country, saying their operations help support the government in Khartoum.").

But is that necessarily the end of it? One would think so. But that is too easy. Chinese policy can meet this challenge in ways that might have been harder for the Western predecessors in Africa. Here is one suggestion--practice those progressive ideals in the relations between China and African states in which there is significant Chinese investment. How might that e possible? For one thing, in those places where Chinese multinational corporation's operate factories or other entities, the Chinese owner/managers might (1) engage in greater training of local workers for managerial and other higher wage positions, (2) ensure the payment of living wages, (3) share profits with local workers to the extent that such workers meet or exceed production goals, (4) provide systems of technology transfer, and (5) ensure closer ties by seeking local partners where possible. The irony, of course, is that much of this constitutes the core of rising notions of corporate social responsibility as applied to multinational corporations. For China, its political value might exceed it costs.

But this course is unlikely in the near future.

Dozens of major banks and other financial institutions in developed countries, such as Citigroup, have begun to adopt a set of voluntary environmental and social standards called the Equator Principles, said Suellen Lazarus, a senior adviser at the Dutch bank ABN AMRO. But Chinese banks have not adopted the principles, which were created largely in response to pressure from nongovernmental organizations and the media, she added.

However, for Jianzhong Lu, vice president of the China Communications Construction Highway Engineering Co., the need to establish infrastructure, such as water treatment projects, outweighs the need to address the ensuing environmental problems. These projects can sometimes have health and environmental benefits to people far greater than their environmental impacts, he said.

Annie Jia, Roundtable probes the politics of China's large-scale investments in Africa, Stanford News Service, May 16, 2007.

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