Posts Tagged ‘Labor’

[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.

CTP Podcast – Factory Suicides in China

Friday, June 4th, 2010

Foxconn SuicideEveryone in China and the West heard about the Foxconn suicides, but the manner the story was told varied widely from region to region.   Oddly, but encouragingly, some of the most balanced reporting came out of China.

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In this podcast, Eric and I reflect on his previous rant about US media coverage and discuss the various factors at play on youth as they migrate from the countryside to take up positions at factories in the coastal provinces.

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.

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.