Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Is China exploiting Africa?

Looking for work at the NFC African Mining company in Zambia

As China continues to invest in the vast African continent there are often questions over whether its role over exploits the people and draws too heavily on the rich resources. But while it is true that China does exploit the continent, the West is also guilty of similar tactics. On the Riz Khan show on al-Jazeera several authors who have written books on the subject gathered to discuss the issues. Between 1998 and 2006 China’s increase in exports from Africa rose by 2126%. And during that time low price goods have been dumped on the continent and, some say, there has been a disregard of human rights and an exploitation of the African workforce. Richard Behar, author of China Storms Africa, has called China’s involvement on the continent as being parasitic. But he says China has copied a business model once the stay of Western countries. He says the West also has to “look in the mirror” when placing any criticism on the communist country. John Afele, author of Digital Bridges, says that one also has to see that Africa has invited China. “China has not invaded with arms” he says. When it comes to natural resources David Shinn pointed out that the US buys more oil from Africa than China. The former US ambassador to Ethiopia said that while China buys more timber and minerals, there was investment and exploitation taking place on both sides. One caller to the programme said that the ‘demonization of China’ was unwarranted given that the West had exploited the continent for many years.

But Richard Behar said while China’s investment “could be the best thing to happen to Africa, it could also be the worst thing to happen to Africa”. He added that China very often did not play the rules on the international playing field. When it comes to intellectual property rights and fake goods, Behar said China ignored international law and added that many of these goods flow through the continent. As a whole China’s trade with Africa is still quite small according to David Shinn. Only 3% of trade is conducted with Africa while the US conduct only 1% of trade with the continent. But he saw the only conflict between the two superpowers in the future would be over oil reserves. When it comes to foreign exchange reserves, China certainly holds all the cards with more than $1.65 trillion at its disposal compared to the reserve of $62 billion from the US.
Behar was highly critical of the environmental impact that China was having on the continent. While it was true that some resources were being harvested by the West, China, he said was taking timber and copper at such a rate that little will be left in five years time. For China, Behar says these extractions of materials were important to “feed the machine” of China’s growing economy and keep unemployment low.

There are also questions over investment in countries with dubious regimes. Zimbabwe and Sudan are two countries are of particular focus. But while China may be criticised with regards investment in these countries, there are many Western companies also operating and investing in the very same territories. On the plus side, China has provided much needed work for many Africans. In Zambia, where many Chinese mining companies excavate for the rich copper supplies, workers can be seen queuing outside the installations every day with the hope of securing work. China is also helping to build roads across the country, putting down miles of tarmac replacing what were once little more than dirt tracks. But despite the investment, there is still criticism. Accidents and industrial pollution has angered many and there have even been riots at some mining companies in disputes over pay and conditions. Some miners at the NFC African Mining company at Chambishi are paid only $100 a month, and many have complained of 'slave labour'. The mine's deputy chief executive, Xu Ruiyong, speaks of "local friends" and says there is a cultural gap [BBC]. It is a gap that may widen if China fails to address some of the issues over which it is often criticised.

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