Welcome to the Congo, now pay up!

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.

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