Posts Tagged ‘Congo’

[VIDEO] Unreported World: China’s African Takeover

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

Before the Francis’ brother impressive documentary “When China Met Africa” was broadcast on BBC4, rival UK network Channel 4 ITV produced “China’s African Takeover” in 2008.  Reporter Aidan Hartley and producer travel through Zambia and the DR Congo to document conditions in Chinese-run mine and agricultural operations.  In general, they paint a very grim picture of the conditions that local workers endure under Chinese management and it provides a sobering overview of the harsh realities on the ground that confront both Chinese and Africans alike.

While this production is two years old, it nonetheless remains worthwhile viewing.

Segment 2

Click on image to view Unreported World segment 2

Segment 3

Click here to view Unreported World segment 3

The China in Africa Podcast: U.S. vs. Chinese Approaches to Aid in Africa

Monday, May 24th, 2010

300_300The idea for this new podcast series was born from the constant frustration of talking with Western “development experts,” diplomats and aid workers in Africa. In every instance, Westerners were either strikingly ignorant of Chinese engagement there or summarily dismissed the Chinese presence in Africa as “counter productive” because China is not a democratic country. There was little nuance to their opinions about the Chinese in Africa and it reflected a broader ignorance within the aid community as a whole about non-Western methods of development.


Question and Answers About Chinese People in South Africa

Friday, May 7th, 2010

QA in South Africa

The Dutch-based new media organization Couscous Global recently posted an interesting little gem of a video on You Tube that asks young South Africans to express how they feel about the country’s Chinese population. It opens with a young Chinese guy asking the question in English and then turns to a racially diverse group of South African teenagers for their responses.  On the surface, it just sounds like kids giggling and fumbling through their answers.  Yet there were some very interesting, and extremely important, points they used to explain why they get along quite well with Chinese immigrants.


China in Africa: A Critique of Howard French’s “Empire” Article

Friday, April 16th, 2010

china_africa1China is walking down the same path towards empire in Africa as the once former European powers did a century ago writes former New York Times Shanghai and Africa correspondent Howard French in a new article for the U.S. magazine “The Atlantic.”  While his conclusion is questionable on several fronts, French’s article is far and away the best among a recent series of “China in Africa” articles that have emerged over the past year.  In particular, French does an excellent job of highlighting the failure of the West’s engagement with the continent over the past century, noting that billions of dollars in aid and development programs have done nothing to stem rising poverty levels.   Separately, French also delves into one of the less understood, yet critically important facets of the Sino-African relationship: food production.  With China’s arable land supply falling rapidly to environmental degradation and industrialization, Beijing is recognizing that it will soon have no choice but to go abroad for its food supply.  Africa, with its vast supply of arable land and limited capital, offers an ideal solution.  Yet, French appropriately warns that China must proceed cautiously on this front as foreign land-use in any country, especially in parts of Africa, is an extremely volatile issue.

In the end, French reaches the same, stereotypical conclusion that most Western writers come to with their China in Africastories, that Beijing is merely following the same path of colonial exploitation as Europeans and Americans did duringatlantic_logo_M_1col#6CE497_smtheir imperial adventures.  In fact, French’s last paragraph of the article concludes that the relationship between Africa and China will mirror Africa’s previous ties to other empires through the extraction of raw materials and the re-importation to Africa of finished products.  This is where French is either mis-informed or doesn’t fully understand the scope of China’s engagement in the region.

So while you read the article yourself, I propose the following additional points to consider:

  • The Chinese engagement with Africa cannot simply be defined on an economic level, the arrival of hundreds of thousands (soon to be millions) of poor Chinese immigrants who are moving in to neighborhoods across the continent will have a profound impact.  In less than five years, there are now more Chinese immigrants in Africa than France had at the height of its colonial power on the continent.  These immigrants are not just the workers who labor on the infrastructure and mining projects, but also economic migrants who are establishing small businesses and contributing to an emerging civil society in ways that billions of dollars of wasted Western economic development assistance could never achieve.
  • At one point in the article, French mentions “when the Chinese leave” which is another key difference between the Chinese presence in Africa and former Western colonial powers.  Simply put, the Chinese are NOT leaving.  This is not like the French, Germans or British who left when it was no longer economically viable to sustain their expensive colonies.  Just as there are now a million ethnic Chinese living in Southern California who have no intention of returning to Asia, the Chinese emigres are building a permanent presence in Africa.
  • French, like the overwhelming majority of his journalistic colleagues, concludes skeptically that China will ultimately fail to build any sustainable economic engagement with Africa.  In the end, they contend, it comes down to merely pulling out as much oil, gold, bauxite and other natural resources from the earth.  The reason I challenge French on this point is that he goes to the same guy that every other journalist contacts to get “the other side of the story.”  Zambian opposition leader Michael Sata is the most outspoken critic of the Chinese in Africa, particularly in his own country.  The fact that almost every article on the subject features a quote from Sata is either evidence of journalistic laziness (a real possibility) or the fact that it may be difficult to find articulate critics of the Chinese.  It’s disappointing that French and other writers do not venture off the main roads, past the big construction sites and away from the academic and political elites to get the layman’s perspective on the Chinese in their countries.  When I did this during my time in Kinshasa, I found far more nuanced and textured answers than what was provided to me by so-called “experts.”  French fails to deliver that important perspective strongly enough.
  • French offers a cynical view on the value of low-cost Chinese imports to Africa.  Just as Wal-Mart did in the United States where it recognized there was a viable market among the working poor that most other companies ignored, China is opening new markets for its products at the lowest rung of the economic ladder in developing countries across South Asia, South America and Africa.  Liberal elites in the coastal U.S. cities turn their noses up at Wal Mart with the same dismissive attitude they display for China’s arrival in the Southern Hemisphere.  The fact remains in places like the DRC where people have extremely limited disposal income, the ability to purchase headphones, toys, food products and electronics is nothing short of revolutionary.  These are all products we take for granted in developed societies and things that critics hope developing societies will avoid so as to prevent the corruption their “traditional” cultures.  The overwhelming cultural arrogance of that perspective is a separate issue, while the Chinese offering this critical service deserve praise.  The Chinese are operating in markets with such limited margins where Western and Japanese companies simply cannot compete with their significantly higher cost structures.  Contrary to popular journalistic perception, the Chinese behavior in these markets is nothing like their colonial predecessors and deserve separate analysis.

China in Africa: the BBC’s Annoying Interview of Liu Guijin

Sunday, April 11th, 2010

BBC iplayer imageIt’s not often that senior Chinese officials make themselves available for interviews with the international media, especially in English.  So when I first heard that the BBC World Service’s “Business Today” radio program was to interview Beijing’s top diplomat on African Affairs Ambassador Liu Guijin I was genuinely excited. Unfortunately, that excitement didn’t last long.  Host Steve Evans, like so many of his colleagues in the Western media, employed what has now come to be a rather standard cynicism whenever talking with Chinese officials.  It’s the same tone that we hear in the coverage over the internet in China where despite an incredible expansion in the Chinese information marketplace, journalists like Evans focus on the singular question of “what if someone wants to look up the Dalai Lama on Google?”  While I don’t dispute that China’s limitations on the freedom of speech is a legitimate issue, I do take exception when it becomes the ONLY issue.  There’s a similar trend occurring with the international media’s coverage of the Chinese in Africa.  Just as with the freedom of speech story, there are a numerous areas where China’s African foreign policy deserves credible scrutiny.  Its arm sales to despotic leaders (Robert Mugabe), support of brutal authoritarian regimes (Sudan) and active involvement in official corruption (The DR Congo) are all worthy of questioning and investigation.  However, the story of the Chinese in Africa is far more textured than just the shortcomings of Beijing’s policies on the continent.  Evans, like so many other journalists, approaches the story with a visible level of cynicism that  ultimately deprives the listener of understanding the nuances of this important story.  China’s engagement with Africa has changed the geopolitical landscape on the continent, for better and worse.  Yet, on this rare occasion to engage the Ambassador in a constructive exchange over the pros and cons of Beijing’s policies, we are led down the path of cliches about how China would respond to an African country inviting the Dalai Lama to visit.  Who cares?  This is such an extreme point with little representation of any larger issue relevant to China’s political involvement in Africa (scroll down for more on this part of the story).

Listen to the full interview here.

Here is a summary and critique of the issues addressed in the interview:


Evans opens the interview by asking Liu about “China’s motive” in Africa.  There’s nothing actually wrong with the question, there’s just an arrogance to it through the use of the word “motive.”  It’s comparable to how the BBC, CNN and other international news organizations selectively use the word “regime” to define a government.  Somehow,  Beijing is a “regime” and Washington is a “government.”  The word “regime,” as does “motive,” has a distinctly negative connotation that is rarely applied to Western governments.  I have never heard a comparable question of what “America’s motive” is anywhere in the world.   It should go without saying that China’s “motive” in Africa is multifaceted driven by a blend of economic, political, humanitarian and military interests — no different than Washington, London or Paris’ “motives” in the region.

Importantly, Liu does highlight a key difference between the Chinese perspective on Africa and that in the West.  For most government and populations in the U.S. and Europe, Africa is regarded as a basket case of war, disease, famine and decades of failed development policies.  In contrast, Liu highlights, the Chinese see Africa as opportunity.  Beyond the obvious extractive industries, the Chinese are engaging the continent as an export market that the West long ago abandoned.   Furthermore, China’s development policies in Africa are proving to be far more effective than those of bloated, expensive and ineffective Western aid agencies.  Liu rightly points that China’s effectiveness is leading to enhanced political ties in the region at the expense of the former colonial and international powers.


Following the international community’s successful sanctions campaign against South Africa’s former apartheid government in the late 80s and early 90s, a pipe dream still exists within the UN, US and the EU that sanctions are an effective tool at isolating despotic governments.   Yet after two decades of evidence to the contrary where Myanmar, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Zimbabwe and many others have defied international sanctions policies, the presumption that sanctions actually work persists.   It was refreshing then to hear Ambassador Liu challenge this conventional wisdom by clearly stating that China does not support sanctions measures because mass populations suffer disproportionately compared to the elites.  Liu was responding to Evans’ question about China’s unwillingness to join the West to coordinate a sanctions policy against Robert Mugabe and Zimbabwe.   China, as mentioned earlier in this post, should be scrutinized for its military sales to Zimbabwe but not on the issue of supporting yet another failed sanctions policy.


One has to wonder what the Western media would do without the Dalai Lama.  He is such a convenient package for journalists who are either too lazy or too uninformed to know better that a question about the DL offers very little insight on Chinese policy.  Ambassador Liu stuck to the party line with his response that the DL is a separatist political figure who seeks to divide China.    Now, I understand what Evans was trying to achieve with the question by implying that if an African country invited the Dalai Lama to visit it would no doubt complicate relations with Beijing.  The reason why it is such an objectionable question in the context of Chinese foreign policy in Africa there are so many  more pressing and relevant issues that need to be addressed with someone at Ambassador Liu’s level.


1) Describe China’s military presence in Africa specifically the PLA base in the DRC’s Katanga province.  Is the purpose of the base to be part of a multilateral peacekeeping operation or its own deployment to protect Chinese interests in the eastern DRC?  Should we expect to see a larger presence of Chinese military and armed private contractors on the continent?

2) The industrial deforestation tools the Chinese are using for logging in Mozambique, Congo and Zimbabwe among other areas is raising serious concerns that the Chinese are hollowing out Africa’s forests at rate that is unsustainable.  Is China monitoring this trend and what specific protections, if any, are in place to prevent this from occuring?

3) With hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants coming to Africa each year, what is the feedback he is receiving from host governments on the presence of this large, new population?  In places like Namibia and Zambia, there is growing discontent by political leaders over the presence of an increasingly large Chinese population.  How is he responding to these challenges?


The Western media’s blatant double standard for how it treats different governments is the most annoying aspect of this whole affair.  Compare, for example, this CNN feature that goes behind the scenes on how their reporter & camerawoman interact with the U.S. military in Afghanistan.  The CNN crew is embedded with Alpha Company and as such eats, sleeps and seemingly enjoys each other’s company.  ITN and the BBC did comparable puff stories embedded with British troops in both the Iraqi and Afghan theater of operations.  This chuminess with the militaries extends to their political leaders as well when journalists like Steve Evans rarely use that same cynical approach in interviews as they so often do with Chinese leaders.

It’s really too bad as we would all benefit from less fluff coverage of Western governments and more balanced coverage of China.

The West’s Tragic Blindspot in Africa

Sunday, March 7th, 2010

I have been living in Kinshasa for almost three weeks now and since I landed here I’ve been asked countless times what I find the most interesting/bizarre/unusual about life in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For me, the answer is clear. It’s not the vibrancy of Congolese culture, how incredibly warm most people are, or even the tragedy of the endemic poverty that defines life here for so many. No, the biggest surprise so far comes from the attitudes of the many American aid and development personnel I have met. These are the people who work in both the large multinational relief organizations or in the development sector of the US government itself. Pretty much, anytime you socialize with these folks the conversations almost always centers on who is more dysfunctional: Congolese society or their employers at the major NGO/government agencies. Beer after beer goes down while they detail the overwhelming bureaucratic challenges they confront each day just to do their jobs. They complain passionately how their management rarely cares if anything actually gets done just whether or not reports are written and rules are followed.

picture of HUSo it’s in this context that I raise the issue that I consider to be the proverbial elephant in the room. If you accept that a global battle of ideas is currently underway among three competing ideologies: religious extremism (the Middle East, North Africa, the Persian Gulf and arguably even in the United States itself), the so-called Western democracy agenda promoted by the U.S. and Europe and then what’s referred to as the “Beijing Consensus.” This “Beijing Consensus” at its core is an ideology modeled after China’s own 30-year economic success that emphasizes social/economic issues over civil/political rights. China is exporting that philosophy across the developing world, especially in Africa, where governments are being lured with billions of dollars in low interest loans, debt forgiveness and massive infrastructure projects in exchange for access to natural resources. The Chinese bring to Africa their own development experience from working in comparably disadvantaged environments. Specifically, the Chinese have developed low-water agricultural expertise, enhanced irrigation techniques and an unrivaled efficiency for building infrastructure projects. Yet none of this — and I mean NONE — matters to the Western development staff that I have met so far. The Chinese, in their minds, are “communist dictators” who don’t value “democracy” and “transparency.” Just like that, the conversation ends. They have no patience to talk about anything the Chinese are doing other than fueling corruption, importing poorly made products and exporting dictatorship. What I find so interesting about these discussions with supposed “professional development specialists” is how remarkably unsophisticated they are about alternative models from non-Western countries. There is a confidence in the American/Western method that borders on evangelical.

The real tragedy here is that none of what I am observing here in the DRC among Western aid officials is new. Experts having been sounding the alarm over this blind spot for years. Prominent Sino-African relations scholar Professor Deborah Brautigam raised the issue in 1998 when she too singled out western aid agencies for their nativism. “Ignorance about China’s development aid program [in Africa] is even more complete among development analysts,” she wrote. Professor Brautigam explains some of the reasons for this ignorance, attributing it to the language barrier, China’s former diplomatic isolation and “the Chinese work style which emphasizes productive labor over report writing” (source: Deborah Brautigam, Chinese Aid and African Development, 1998). While the Western development agencies bury themselves in reports, spreadsheets and analysis, the Chinese are out there seven days a week building roads, dams, bridges, hospitals and more. Simply put, traditional Chinese pragmatism is getting things done while the Western model dithers and dithers and dithers with endless paperwork. After dozens of conversations with Congolese on this subject, it is abundantly clear that either the Western development officials either don’t see or don’t care that they are in fact losing the ideological battle for hearts and minds. The Congolese can see firsthand the immediate impact of Chinese development. They can feel it, touch it and understand it. The same cannot be said for American and European aid where the complex world of spreadsheets, templates and development models is lost on the very people they are trying to help.

The Chinese live in a practical world, a world the Congolese can identify with. Westerners may have once been as pragmatic and practical, but no more. The mere fact that these aid officials can’t even discuss it illustrates how serious the problem is.

Pictures: China’s Infrastructure Building Machine Comes Home

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

The great Chinese infrastructure parade rolled right under my window and I jumped on the extremely rare opportunity to take some pictures of the operation.  This is quite exceptional in the DR Congo as it is both culturally and legally not permitted to take peoples’ pictures without their permission.  Add to this that Chinese work crews are equally camera shy, you can now understand my utter joy this morning snapping away at the road paving team that came right past my apartment early Sunday morning.

China Construction3

The Chinese have completely ripped up Kinshasa’s main road “Boulevard 30 Juin.”  Ironically, this was essentially the city’s only functioning road so why the Congolese and Chinese governments thought it would be necessary to re-do this particular street remains a mystery to everyone.

China Construction5Before they decided to “improve” 30 Juin, it was a truly wonderful boulevard.  Today, it’s a barren, dust filled desert whereas until 2007 it had huge trees that lined both sides of the road and there was a center divider that did an excellent job of slowing traffic and giving pedestrians sufficient guidance as to where to cross.  Now the situation couldn’t be more different.  The whole city center along the boulevard is not considerably hotter than it was before due to the tree removal.  Sadly, several different locals have told me that due to the Chinese “renovation” there are now one to two deaths per day on this street.  Notice how they have not laid down a single drop of paint on the road for either cars or pedestrians.  It’s a very dangerous road for everyone.  We are all hoping that the Chinese are eventually going to make this boulevard safer by adding traffic lanes and crosswalks.  No one is too optimistic though.

In this particular instance, a small number of Chinese foremen and construction engineers are overseeing local Congolese crews.  The Chinese have also imported tens of thousands of their laborers to work on projects like this so it is not unusual to see construction teams that are almost entirely Chinese doing the exact same work.  It should also be noted that the temperature at 10:30 in the morning when these pictures were taken was somewhere in the low-90s already.  This is back-breaking work under very difficult conditions.

Chinese Construction1

A Chinese construction engineer (below) supervises the operation.  A fellow observer of this morning’s construction operation noted that on an early Sunday morning the Chinese are working in the hot sun paving roads.  Can you imagine an American doing this same work, speaking the local dialect and being part of a basic infrastructure project?  Americans used to do this kind of work, but it seems far fetched to think that they can rival the Chinese in this endeavor.

China Construction4

China Construction2 The China Railway Seventh Group is one of several multinational State Owned Enterprises (SOE) that are operating here in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Equipment like this from other SOEs can be seen everywhere around town as the Chinese work furiously on a number of high profile projects in Kinshasa ahead of next year’s presidential elections.  The objective here, as it is in most African countries, is that the Chinese build out the infrastructure and incumbent politicians claim credit for their work just in time for national elections.   The situation in Kinshasa is no different where the President Joseph Kabila is reportedly pressuring the China Railway Seventh Group to speed up the pace of construction on Boulevard 30 Juin.

It is important to remember that none of the construction equipment the Chinese are using in the DRC was acquired locally.  Everything — that is every truck, crane, shovel, you name it — was brought in by sea and air.  It’s even funnier to walk up to the trucks and see what Chinese province they come from.  So far I have recorded heavy equipment with Henan, Jiangsu and Guangdong license plates.

China Construction6

The Chinese in Africa: Let the Backlash Begin

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

octopus chinaI may be wrong on this but I don’t think the United States or Europe ever had to contend with restrictions on the ownership of beauty parlors in Africa.  BusinessWeek offers an interesting insight this week on the growing discomfort between the waves of Chinese immigrants and the local population in Namibia.  This is an extremely important trend to watch in Africa as the shine from China’s billions of dollars in investment begins to wear off.  First, it was Zambia, then recently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (source: Africa Asia Confidential) and now, according to BW, Namibians are beginning to mount increasingly vocal opposition to the Chinese presence in their country.

Here’s the key issue to focus on:  unlike emigres from Europe or the United States, this is the first overseas mass migration of foreigners to Africa who hail from the same economic class as indigenous Africans.  Hundreds of thousands of economically disadvantaged Chinese are moving in to neighborhoods and starting businesses in the same communities and under the same challenging circumstances as their African counterparts.  Inevitably, this can cause tensions as the Chinese often employ far more aggressive business tactics than what people are locally accustomed to in this part of the world.  So in Namibia the issue is beauty parlors and transportation, elsewhere it will be something else.  Make no mistake, the backlash against the Chinese is building momentum.

This assessment may appear to contradict my earlier post on how well the Chinese seem to be assimilating in cities like Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The Chinese migration to the DR Congo and other countries is happening at such a rapid pace and on such a massive scale that obvious contradictions like this are going to appear for quite some time.  It is by no means a linear process.

Chinese, it’s the new black in Kinshasa

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

china_africaThe arrival of an estimated one million Chinese across Africa is having an impact far beyond what anyone could have expected.  With many of those Chinese immigrants assigned to the mines and construction projects that are rapidly changing the face of African cities, a more complex and radical transformation is happening far off the main roads.  Here in Kinshasa, as in many other major African cities, tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants have taken up residence smack in the middle of indigenous local communities.  While an elite minority of Chinese expatriates live in the gated compounds with their western counterparts, the vast majority of Chinese immigrants are far less fortunate.  They live side by side in the densely packed shanty towns with the 8-10 million other Kinshasans who struggle each day with water, electricity and security.  Never before have so many people from such divergent cultures had to assimilate so rapidly on this continent.  This is a dramatic departure from past waves of foreign migration to Africa say, for example, by the British who imported South Asians to their former colonies.  In those cases, Indians and Pakistanis were tightly segregated from both their white patrons and, in many cases, Africans themselves.  This sparked the creation of large South Asian ghettos in Kenya, Uganda and South Africa among other places.  No, instead, the Chinese are assimilating themselves in truly unbelievable ways.

Just as it is everywhere else, race relations across Africa are extremely complicated.  That said, there is one exception.  For most Africans the difference between themselves and foreigners is straightforward: you are either black African or you are “white.”  No matter if you are South Asian, Middle Eastern or even African-American, you will likely be described as “white.”  It’s essentially an “us and them” mentality.  That is, until the Chinese arrived.

On a recent drive back to the office, I asked one of my local colleagues where the Chinese communities were in Kinshasa.  “There is no Chinese community, they live with us,” he said.   “They live right next door to me.  They eat with us, they shop with us and they even sell “beignets!” (tasty donut-like fried dough).  He said when the Chinese first arrived in his neighborhood a couple of years ago, he thought it was a bit strange and kept his distance from the “mundele” (the Lingala word for “foreigner” or more generally used to describe “white people”).  Over time, though, he said attitudes started to change as he and his neighbors began to see the Chinese as different from most of the other “mundele” who live in Kinshasa.  “They’re learning Lingala,” he went on, “they eat with us and, most importantly, they are not afraid of us.”   Now, more and more, the Chinese peasants who live among the vast neighborhoods of Kinshasa are being seen as less foreign and, incredibly, less “white.”  “We joke among ourselves that the Chinese skin is becoming browner and browner to where it’s now black,” he said.

When we arrived back at the office I wanted to find out if his experience was isolated or represented something broader.  I asked three other of our local employees what their views were of their new Chinese neighbors and astonishingly they were the same.  On a personal level, many of the Chinese immigrants who now reside in Kinshasa have transcended a legendary cultural and racial chasm.  It is a testament to the power of making the effort to learn someone’s else language, share the experience of eating with your neighbor and resisting the impulse to be afraid of people who are different.  The Chinese have always been amazingly adaptive to different cultures and this may yet be one of their greatest advantages in the latest foreign scramble in Africa.

Welcome to the Congo, now pay up!

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

Sicomines(Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo) — on this my first night in the capital, I thought it would be fitting to talk about what it actually takes to get here.  For the average visitor, it’s rather straightforward: pay the $75 visa fee, show your Yellow Fever vaccination card and you are a welcome visitor to the DRC.  Now, if I happen to represent a company, say a Chinese company, the price of admission is considerable higher.  No, let me rephrase that… ASTRONOMICALLY higher.  In some excellent reporting by the website Africa-Asia Confidential, some of the first reports are emerging over just how much the Chinese have paid to access the DR Congo’s vast natural resources.

  • Chinese contractors in the Sicomines mining consortium are reported to have paid a $350 million dollar entry fee that includes some $50 million in signing bonuses given out to varies Congolese entities.
  • $23 million of that $50 million is now reported to be “missing” or “unaccounted for,” according to Africa-Asia Confidential.
  • The $350 million dollars was a small part of a $6 billion ore-for-infrastructure contract between Chinese state-owned companies and the Congolese mining giant Gecamines (other Congolese companies are also reported to be included in this deal).

Read the full report “Kinshasa’s Missing Millions” from Africa-Asia Confidential here…

The lack of accountability and transparency in China’s natural resource deals in both the DR Congo and across Africa are now starting to show signs that it may ultimately weaken China’s position on the continent.   Here in Kinshasa, President Joseph Kabila is making some of his first public remarks on his growing impatience with the Chinese.  It’s worth noting that Kabila’s comments are worth taking with a huge chunk of salt as he is likely posturing to pressure the Chinese to finish their infrastructure projects so he can claim credit ahead of next year’s presidential elections.  Furthermore, there is widespread speculation that Kabila himself may be among the beneficiaries of some of those “missing Kinshasa millions.”  Nonetheless, that he feels sufficiently embolden to begin using public pressure against the Chinese is noteworthy.

Kabila may in fact be following the lead of Zambian opposition leader Michael Sata who came within a hair’s breadth of winning the October 2008 presidential elections.  Sata ran his campaign on a platform opposing Chinese investment in Zambia, calling the nature of the deals unfair and “colonial.”  Sata, and potentially now Kabila, may be the first indications of growing unease over the speed, scope and scale of Chinese investments in the region.  Their main criticism: labor.  Unlike the waves of foreign investment by former colonial powers, the Chinese have added a distinctive twist to their investments.  Rather than rely on local labor to implement the huge number of infrastructure projects across the country, tens of thousands, possibly even hundreds of thousands of Chinese peasant laborers have been imported to build the ports, roads, mines and telecommunications infrastructure projects Beijing promised in return for access to the host country’s natural resources.  Before anyone else in Africa complained, Sata was a vocal critic of these deals.  If elected, he promised to re-negotiate the labor contracts to make them more equitable for Zambia by reducing the presence of Chinese workers.  Sata’s threats were heard in Beijing with the government there threatening to end its investment program in Zambia if the opposition leader was elected.  Sata lost by a very small margin.

The DR Congo and Zambia are not alone in their gnawing frustration over the use of imported Chinese labor.  In Southeast Asia, the New York Times reports growing resentment in Vietnam and other nations over the presence of Chinese workers at the expense of local labor.  So the key question now is how will Beijing react to what appears to be a small, yet discernible trend opposing their overseas labor policy:

  1. Will they ignore the criticism and continue to employ the aggressive natural resource-for-infrastructure deals?
  2. The Chinese are extremely sensitive to public opinion at home and have become quite adept at responding to shifting political winds.  Will they apply that same dexterity with their natural resource-driven foreign policy?
  3. Will they offer a few minor face-saving public gestures to satisfy their overseas critics that provide sufficient political cover to continue their operations minus a small percentage of imported Chinese labor?

It would be unwise to bet against the Chinese.  I have done it numerous times in the past and I have regretted it later.  That said, the Chinese are in a totally new space here and they are operating without precedent in international relations.  No country has expanded its natural resource extraction footprint as quickly, aggressively and with as much man power as the Chinese have.  So Beijing must learn as it goes.  For the rest of us, this will be among the most important foreign policy lessons of our generation.