Posts Tagged ‘Construction’

[VIDEO] Is China Colonizing Africa?

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

Colonialism remains a very strong filter through which a sizable portion of Westerners still see Africa.  So it’s not surprising that when a new foreign power emerges, particularly one as opaque as China, that many Europeans and Americans default to that initial impulse and attempt to frame Beijing’s engagement in Africa as “colonial.”  The only real connection to colonialism is the fact that China is yet another foreign power operating in Africa in pursuit of the continent’s vast natural resources.  For the most part, the parallels end there.

Since the Chinese have no designs on “civilizing,” “converting” or involving themselves in African domestic social affairs, colonialism, in the traditional sense, is an inaccurate characterization of Chinese policy in Africa.

The Chinese are mercantilists.  Beijing’s agenda is driven by a desperate need to secure an ever growing list of natural resources to power their continually expanding economy.  Unlike their Western predecessors, the Chinese are not imposing themselves on African states.  Instead, they are using the levers of the 20th century economic system to its maximum advantage.  Whether it’s through the globalized trading system, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank or increasingly the United Nations, there is little to no evidence to indicate that Beijing is anything other than a welcome investor.

That said, it is worth noting that Chinese investments and political activities do not receive sufficient scrutiny and lack a reasonable level of transparency.   Serious concerns about Chinese labor, environmental and corruption practices in Africa are all justified, but their behavior is hardly colonial.

Les Chinois En Afrique

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

The French radio network “Radio France International” has published a very interesting interactive map detailing Chinese investments, populations and infrastructure projects across Africa.  Although the map is in French it’s nonetheless easy to follow for non-Francophones and offers a great visualization of how vast China’s engagement with Africa has become.

It is important to remember that just five years ago this map would have looked entirely, with just a fraction of the dots on the map that highlight China’s economic activity.  For better and for worse, the Chinese have moved with unprecedented speed to enhance diplomatic ties with governments across the continent.  Furthermore, the migration of hundreds of thousands of Chinese peasants, laborers and entrepreneurs is another important facet of this engagement that the RFI map nicely illustrates.

The Chinese Construction Boom in Kenya

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

construction-machineryIt may be hard to believe but half of all construction work underway in Kenya is now being done by Chinese firms, according to the U.S. public radio program “The World” (audio link below).  It appears the Chinese infrastructure building juggernaut in Africa is showing no signs of slowing down.  Kenya’s Business Daily newspaper reports the capital’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport has received a new round of funding for expansion and modernization where much of the work will likely go to Chinese contractors. Already, China National Aero-Technology International Engineering Company (CATIC) is on board to build out the airport’s new terminal four and a larger parking facility.  One would likely expect Chinese construction and engineering firms to compete vigorously for the millions of other dollars that have yet to be assigned.

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China in Africa: The Transparency Paradox

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

Publish-What-You-Fund-logoTransparency is a loaded word in the development business.  The idea that aid and investments in places like Africa should be subject to external audits and review is a sacrosanct principle within the industry.  Never mind the irony that organizations like USAID, the United Nations and the World Bank among others devote a majority of their time/effort with their aid programs to sorting through a byzantine bureaucracy that is anything but transparent — nonetheless, these very organizations maintain the “black box” that is China’s aid and investment agenda in Africa is alarming.   However, transparency can cut both ways and ultimately the West may regret its insistence that China pull back the curtain. (more…)

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.

The Chinese in Africa: What’s on the Web this Week

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

Backlash Against the Chinese? Kenya ConstructionThe International Political Economy Zone blog highlights the growing tension in Namibia between local shop owners and the burgeoning Chinese presence there.  IPE Zone details the dilemma for many African nations about how to manage China’s emerging clout.  On the one hand, the infrastructure deals and cash Beijing brings to the table is welcome.  Yet, there are strings attached — and in the case of the Chinese and Namibia it’s the presence of legions of Chinese entrepreneurs who are posing new competition for indigenous businesses.  I share the author’s conclusion that it is just too early to conclude whether or not China’s presence in Africa is an asset or a liability.  Too many analysts want to marry the old, dated paradigm of “colonialism” to the current Chinese activities in Africa.  It is hard to overstate how egregiously wrong that is as Beijing is approaching the continent with very a different set of objectives and tactics than did Europeans in previous centuries.

Does China Help or Hurt? Over at “The China Beat” blog writer, Angilee Shah posts another in a wave of reviews of Deborah Brautigam’s new book on the Chinese in Africa,  “The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa.” Shah raises a few good points in her post about the important fact that is overlooked by most Western diplomats here in the Congo and elsewhere that China itself is a developing country with specialized expertise in working in under-developed conditions similar to what is available across Africa.  That specialization in low-cost, effective development offers tremendous potential especially when compared to American and European aid efforts that are seemingly obsessed with process and paperwork over results.

Do the Chinese hire locals? Speaking of Professor Brautigam, her excellent blog “China in Africa: The Real Story” links to a You Tube video from one DR Congo’s TV stations that confirms my own observations here in Kinshasa that the Chinese use a blend of Chinese and local labor for their massive construction projects.  From what I have seen here, each construction crew has dozens of Kinois who work under the supervision of a handful of Chinese foremen.  This is among the most sensitive issues both here in the DRC and elsewhere in the region where political leaders are expressing their frustration with the Chinese over the use of too many imported Chinese laborers at the expense of local hires.  Furthermore, several sources have told me that in other Congolese provinces, Chinese employers are regarded to be “overbearing” and are often embroiled in disputes over pay with local employees.  This is definitely an issue to watch as Chinese investment here continues to grow.

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.

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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