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How China has moved into Africa

by Mat Ward for Green Left Weekly:

In his 2009 film Rethink Afghanistan, director Robert Greenwald suggested that the US should not try to control the world through military means, but by building schools and hospitals in the countries it wishes to invade.


In his 2009 film Rethink Afghanistan, director Robert Greenwald suggested that the US should not try to control the world through military means, but by building schools and hospitals in the countries it wishes to invade.

Journalist Howard French's book China's Second Continent shows how such a model can work in practice.

French estimates that more than a million Chinese are now living in Africa, many of whom entered through China's "Trojan horse" gifts of stadiums, hospitals and other big infrastructure projects. The result is nowhere near as ugly as that of US-led imperialist wars, but it's still not pretty.

Make no mistake, French is a journalist for the US corporate media, so he reports his subject through that lens. In the opening pages he writes: "China is increasingly writing its own rules, and reinventing globalization in its own image, gradually jettisoning many of the norms and conventions used by the United States and Europe throughout their long and hitherto largely unchallenged tutelage of the Third World."

The innocuous-sounding "tutelage" sums up the way French glosses over the rapaciousness of the West. But the fact he casts such a critical eye over the West's ascendant rival - China - is not without its merits. As he puts it himself: "Any act of generosity can only be properly understood by considering the motives of the would-be benefactor."

Travelling the length and breadth of Africa, the multi-lingual and gregarious French speaks to "thousands" of Chinese immigrants. Although mostly anecdotal and broadly unscientific, the picture that emerges is intriguing.

China claims to have built forty-two stadiums and fifty-four hospitals on the continent. But French says such projects are built by Chinese contractors using mostly Chinese labour, meaning the money flows straight back to China and there is little training for locals. When local labour is used, it is menial and poorly paid.

French describes an encounter with such workers at a stadium in Zambia: "All three workers grew animated as they vented over their low pay and routine thirteen-hour workdays. They complained about the harsh way they were addressed by their overseers, who they claimed threatened them with firing or beatings. And they said the Chinese taunted them, saying that their complaints would go nowhere because the stadium project was a favour China was doing for Africa."

Herbert Jauch, the founder of a think tank that has studied Chinese employment practices in Namibia, tells French: “What we found is that they are frequently paying as little as one-third of the legal wage, and for some people here this feels like a new form of colonialism. If the practices of the Chinese firms had been engaged in by other companies there would have been a severe crackdown. What is most interesting is the Chinese don’t deny that they aren’t paying minimum wages here and yet the government is still willingly issuing them tenders. This is just unacceptable.”

Labor union activist Justina Jonas tells French: "The people employed by the Chinese are the most exploited workers in Namibia. Their labourers are paid as little as 2 Namibian dollars per hour [21 cents], which is far from the minimum wage of 9 Namibian dollars per hour [95 cents]. We are not against the Chinese, but those are not wages someone can survive on, and they must respect our laws.”

Many of the Chinese with whom French speaks describe Africans as lazy and unwilling "to eat bitter", as the Chinese call the practice of working hard. But one Chinese immigrant offers a refreshing reality check: "What I can say is that if you pay them well, even blacks can eat bitter just as much as any Chinese."

The poorly-paid African workers are also often denied the protective clothing given to their better-paid Chinese colleagues - and the working conditions can be fatal. As one Chinese blogger put it: “While Westerners like exporting their ideologies, Chinese like exporting exceedingly low labour standards. Then, tragedies result.”

One blast at a Chinese-owned explosives factory killed nearly fifty Zambian workers. "It was the biggest industrial disaster in the country’s history," says French.

China's broader motives are also questioned. It posits its move into Africa as a "win-win" situation, but those interviewed French aren't so sure.

Kwadwo Tutu, a senior economist at independent Ghanaian think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, tells French: “Countries are not philanthropists. They are in business for themselves, and like many businesspeople, they will like to cheat you if you don’t enforce your own rules and regulations."

French predictably views the success of any country through its GDP growth and he sees China's gradual move into China as smart, long-term economic thinking.

"There is a more farsighted motive, one overlooked in almost all the speculation about China’s ambitions in Africa: to cultivate, or perhaps even create, future markets for China’s export-oriented industries, markets that could one day pick up the slack from the aging consumers and debt-ridden economies of the West and of Japan... The most frenzied period of imperial expansion the world has ever seen was not driven by arms alone, but also by an unprecedented expansion of global trade between the mid-eighteenth and early twentieth centuries. The new manufacturing centres of the West were only able to sustain growth of this magnitude by continually opening up new markets and inundating them with their goods."

To this end, China is already creating consumers in Africa - often at the expense of local merchants. Samuel Inokye, a senior policy officer of the Association of Ghana Industries tells French the Chinese are not only beating his members badly on price, but are stealing popular Ghanaian designs, like the country’s most distinctive traditional fabric, kente cloth.

China is also buying up arable land, but often waiting for the right time to cultivate it - as in Mali. Jon Anderson, the head of the American aid mission to Mali, talks to French about Mali's rarity. “Technically, biophysically, its potential is incredible," he says. "The whole Delta region is a huge, flat expanse of land that can be irrigated by gravity. You just open the canals and water flows downhill from the river, with no pumping... what is certain is that one day, when world food prices start to go up, this area will come to be seen as one of a select few places in the world with big, untapped potential. It will be hugely attractive.”

This is the key interest that drives French's book - money - and how to makes lots of it, fast.

"This is a good time to be in Africa," he writes, "because the door and window frames and roofing materials and bathroom fixtures and plumbing and electrical systems that millions and millions of new homes will require constitute fabulous new markets. The continent’s rapidly rising population means lots of new mouths to be fed, lots more people to be clothed, devices and appliances and goods of all kinds to be sold... no other big outside players in the world besides the Chinese have fully understood the opportunity this represents."

Little wonder China's Second Continent has been shortlisted as one of The Financial Times's Business Books of the Year.

But although China's motive may be money and the outcome empire, even French admits that its move into Africa has "unquestionably been peaceful".