Monday, February 12, 2007

Africa - Hu's exploiting who?

Thebo Mbeki: China represents an "important economic" partnership

China has been under fire recently over its ‘exploitation’ of the African continent. A number of issues have to be acknowledged however. It is true that China may invest in African countries without setting conditions as to whether the countries concerned treat their respective populations fairly. It may also be partly true that so called cheap Chinese products are being foisted on an unstable market and the local labour force is being exploited in the form of ‘wage slavery’. But for all this there is the issue of who would otherwise invest in Africa as a whole.

Much of the criticism about China’s investment in Africa comes from America and other western nations. But both historically and currently, these nations have exploited labour forces and other nations to procure their resources. Sino-African trade accounted for more $55 Billion in 2006. President Hu Jintao said in a recent statement that, “A new China-Africa strategic partnership is a shared desire of our two people, it is also the calling of the times. We must sustain the momentum of this trend by maintaining close friendship treating each other as equals, and working closely to promote mutual beneficial cooperation, and common development.” During his recent 12 day tour of the African continent Mr Hu said he was "looking for strategic and mutual friendship" in Africa [BBC].

China’s interest and investment is by no means altruistic. China relies upon Africa for over 30% of its oil imports. Despite criticism from African leaders, including South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, there is an acknowledgement of the importance of Chinese investment into Africa. South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki backtracked on earlier criticisms recently, when he said, “From our point of view, China is indeed one of our critical, most important economic partners globally. And that will increase.”
China has helped build a number of infrastructural projects over many decades. These include roads, railways and most recently telecommunications networks. But it is China’s failure to criticise human rights, that has brought the loudest voices. David Monyae, from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, speaking on BBC’s The World, said that whilst many welcome the trade China offered, there was disquiet. There was “a need to emphasise the issue of human rights … particularly in countries like Sudan” he said.

Speaking in defence of China, Yan Xueting, Tsinghua University, said that the issues pertaining to Sudan are not representative of Chinese investment in Africa as a whole. He said although he, and his country, supports the UN in sending peacekeepers to Sudan, China has a “principle of not interfering in domestic affairs of foreign countries”. He said his country would join any peacekeeping force that was mandated by the UN. But there was, he said, “a difference between advice and interference” and China would not use force to implement change.

Also speaking on this contentious issue was Anver Versi, editor of African Business Magazine, who said much of the criticism was exaggerated. During the Cold War, “interference was common place” by western governments and the Soviet Union and “no-one was talking about governance” he added. He said that it was “patronizing to Africans, by talking about conditionalities [preconditions]; suggesting that Africans cannot rule themselves unless you hold them in tight reign.”

Yan Xueting added that whilst help and advice can be given, “we cannot force countries to accept these kind of decisions.”

With regards cheap Chinese goods flooding the market and whether African markets need protecting, Yan Xueting claimed that China does do not export goods that can be made in the countries concerned. The absolute truth of this may be in dispute, but the very nature of globalisation brings with it risks to local economies. This is true both in European and US markets as well as African ones. But Yan Xueting said that by investing in factories on the African continent, China was providing new employment opportunities. Indeed, while Anver Versi said he was no advocate for the Chinese, he acknowledged that China’s investment in Africa was good for the African people as a whole. “The Beijing Construction Company, which is State owned, was in Sierra Leone before the end of the war. They built one of the hotels, they built the houses of parliament, they’ve built government offices…but the problem with the Chinese is the Chinese workers”.
Western nations are less concerned over the rights of African workers than they are for China’s increased position in a global economy. But where other nations have declined to take risks in investing in unstable or fragile regimes, China has taken the initiative. In the long term both Africa and China will prosper.
As to how African workers are exploited it must be remembered that many have died from cancers associated with the mining of Uranium for western companies over many years. Rio Tinto Zinc which continues to mine Uranium in Africa [] has blocked many attempts to take the company to court besides well documented cases of Uranium miners dying from cancer associated with radiation. One worker who worked at the mine from 1977 to 1982, told the BBC that when he started working at Rossing in Namibia, "Nobody had a mask there, nobody, at the mine... they never offered them a mask. We were told it was quite safe, it's low grade.” Little is said of this exploitation of African states, perhaps because it affects western interests! []
The press has remained divided over President Hu’s visit and what the future offers for Africa, China and the world [BBC].

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