Africa: China’s Long Game and Bad Press

China is getting bad press in Africa on labour and wage front these days just when its products have lost shine over price factor. African traders, in their quest for profits, are turning to countries in Southeast Asia, where ‘the quality is just acceptable but prices are cheaper than in China’, says the author, and opines that this development will have a bearing on Dragon’s long game in Africa.

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China has been getting bad press these days in Africa, giving more currency to the accusation that Dragon has become the neo-colonialist in the once dark continent.

From factory workers in Nigeria to fishermen in western Africa everyone appears to treat the emerging super power as the New Imperialist. And have dumped for good the old concern: “Is the Chinese investment in Africa a good or bad thing” since China has settled itself as a major player on the continent.  The Forum on China-Africa Co-operation was established in the Year 2000.

The allegation that Chinese masters are treating African workers as slaves has appeared in local (African) press just when the Chinese media started doling out homilies to the Chinese companies. One recent headline in Global Times, for instance, said: “Chinese businessmen must resist mercenary thinking in Africa”.

This is a clear and unambiguous signal that the Chinese leadership is acutely aware of the ground level practices.

The downslide in the country’s image has not pleased Beijing since these headlines have appeared within days after Djibouti a naval base was set up as a logistical support facility in the vicinity of the US’s Camp Lemonnier, a special-operations outpost in the sweltering East African country.

Both Lemonnier, and Djibouti, are strategically located in the Horn of Africa, and sit on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a gateway to Egypt’s Suez Canal, which is one of the world’s busiest shipping corridors. They’re also close to Somalia and a short distance from the Arabian Peninsula – particularly Yemen, where al Qaeda is still active.

NEO-IMPERIALISM – TWO ASPECTS

There are two aspects to “Chinese imperialism” in Africa, going by local media reports.

One treatment of workers as slaves, if not much worse.

Two exploitation of local resources that range from agriculture to mineral wealth. Even fisheries has not been spared and Chinese overfishing has come to threaten Western African economies.

First about workers plight.  

An exclusive report to Naij.com, a leading Nigerian portal, said in August, “workers are treated like slaves, and they are cheated of their wages”.

A worker of the Chinese company Wempco said: “…I and my fellow workers here at Wempco groups of company especially at Magboro branch want to speak out to the public and human rights.  Slapping, breaking of backbones, firing and punishing our Nigerian fellow workers has become a pride to our Chinese masters; at times when we are sick and couldn’t make it to work for a day, we will have to work for 3 days for free, 2 days not in work then we wait firing, throughout the week from Monday to Sunday we have to be at work with no rest throughout the year and no time to plan for our future or family”.

One more excerpt : “It’s always all times in work with frustration with different principles, now the new principle is we cannot urinate while we are at work even though there are no toilet and health facilities and lots more. We think this is modern slavery of the highest order”.

Obviously such reports have alarmed Beijing. More so since even Voice of America (VOA) carried a report critical of Chinese labour practices in Africa. The victims mentioned in VOA’s August 24, 2017 report included Chinese migrant labourers.

A Chinese worker Li Dong (pseudonym?) working in Angola said their Chinese energy major “treated them like slaves.” More startling was his allegation that the Chinese workers were tricked into working overseas. The “unfair treatment” they are subjected to includes limited   personal freedom and harsh overtime work besides delayed wage payments.

Officially the Chinese have denied the VOA charge-sheet. In fact, Chinese official media has walked the extra mile to discredit “the US government-funded news organization”, and asserted that its claims as “untrue and distorted”.

Name of the company on the firing line was not mentioned in the Chinese dispatches. This Chinese company is said to be a top 500 global enterprise; it is doing business in Angola since 2005.  And it is one of the many Chinese SOEs that have been putting many small local enterprises out of business.

The VOA report is based on a study undertaken by the Institute of African Studies of Zhejiang Normal University.  Noting the plus and minus of Chinese foray into Africa, the study observes that “55 percent of Chinese firms cannot meet the standard working hours in Africa”.

There is a positive fall-out of VOA expose, though. While rejecting the criticisms, “the company began an overhaul at the request of the Chinese Embassy in Angola to avoid any legal disputes or illegal labor practices”, Yang Sheng reported in Global Times on Sept 5, 2017.

“Due to the impact of the international financial crisis in 2008, Angola’s government has defaulted on payments. Some Chinese companies could not be paid on time, and this had caused labor disputes in the past few years”, Yin Yiqiao, President of privately owned Future Group Stock Corporation Limited of China, was quoted as saying in the dispatch.

Well, this is no more than a tacit admission of the key charge of workers.

AFRICAN CHILDREN-CHINA’s PREY

Now cut to another dispatch, also from Global Times (August 9, 2017). It puts China on the high imperial pedestal once occupied by the British East India Company amidst the perception that ‘the Chinese generally look condescendingly on the humanity of black Africans’.

“Recently, video clips featuring dozens of African children reciting advertisements or words of blessing and good luck in Chinese can be easily found on Chinese e-commerce platforms. The clips, no more than 20 seconds in length, are shot by Chinese expats in Africa while their business partners take orders to sell the clips on China’s online platforms, including Taobao.

“Sometimes more than 100 orders are placed in one day. Such videos sell for as much as 220 yuan ($32.82), and video vendors declare on their online store page that they only take the cost out of the revenue and the rest is used to buy food and other necessities for those African children.

“The video buyers gain a sense of satisfaction as they believe they are doing good by buying them. After all, when a large number of Africans live under the international poverty line on less than $1.9 a day, those children must be glad to make money to subsidize their households by simply shouting Chinese words and shooting videos.

“The reality, however, turns out to be the other way around. According to investigations, those children only get paid in snacks or a few yuan from each video, and the majority of the revenue is shared by the Chinese photographers and businessmen. In other words, these Chinese are making money from African children.

“Of more concern is that in some videos posted online, the African children were taught to shout rude language or advertise websites with pornographic content. And most advertisements have no relation to children or Africa at all. This violates Chinese law and must involve stepped-up supervision”, the dispatch says.

And it concludes thus: “What has been done to these African children is very likely to trigger a colonialist association and jeopardize China’s image overseas”.

FISH SUBSIDIES

Chinese love for fish is doing no less harm to African economy.  And it is aided and abetted by the government in Beijing, which has been showering subsidies – some $6.5 billion in 2013.  Between 2000 and 2011, 64 percent of China’s average annual catches, valued at more than $7 billion, came from West African coast, Salem Solomon reported in the VOA two months ago.

A fish-processing factory, the Chinese have set up in Mauritania, for instance, has hurt the small-scale fisheries sector in a big way, according to Coalition for Fair Fisheries Arrangements.

Chinese engagement in African agriculture is faring no better either whether it is Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique or Zimbabwe – all these four countries had featured prominently as priorities for Chinese investment during President Xi’s Africa visit.

The Chinese Agricultural Technology Development Centres are flagship investments. There are now 23 across Africa, funded by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce but are run mostly by private or state run companies.

There is no single success story as yet. But the continent has seen a big jump in informal migrants getting involved from farming to processing to retail to restaurants, according to Conversation Africa, a news and analysis website which is a collaboration between academics and journalists.   Reason: demand for specialist Chinese foods to burgeoning expatriate populations.

These Chinese families have arrived in Africa as  part of Chinese government contracts, and have since established business connections and stayed, encouraging others to join them from China. What will be the impact of this new, emerging Africa-China engagement? Well, it will have a big impact over time, though not in the near or short term.

In his highly readable, “China: the New Imperialists & Neo- Colonialists in Africa?” Ghana -born author, Kwame A. Insaidoo makes some interesting observations that deserve attention.

“It is true that the Chinese are currently building monumental stadiums, presidential palaces, conference halls, but as much as Africans are grateful for these they do not represent economic progress for Africa. What we see though is Chinese offering huge loans to African nations in return for their raw materials. Ironically, most of the loans end up in the hands of Chinese contractors undertaking the construction projects, Chinese labour working in the projects, and Chinese materials and products used in the projects. In the end African governments are left holding the bag of huge repayments back to China. Moreover, some, if not, many of the infrastructure are often shoddy as the case of Angolan hospital, and many roads in Africa have demonstrated”.

His contention is simple: Beijing Consensus though has helped lift many Chinese out of poverty cannot be replicated in Africa because of its authoritarian nature.

Simply put, Kwame A. Insaidoo does not buy the argument that Chinese investment will create virtuous cycle for sustainable cooperation in Africa.

A Chinese economist, Xue Li recently undertook a 10-day trip to Africa for a reality check on China- Africa cooperation against the background of the “One Belt and One Road” (B&R) initiative. He visited Egypt, Ethiopia and Tanzania. All three are major players in the China-Africa industrial capacity cooperation, but only Egypt is on the B&R route.

LONG GAME -NOT SELFLESS

After visiting Chinese embassies, Chinese-funded enterprises, investment projects and parks, local government agencies and think- tanks in the three countries, his declared: “China needs to develop detailed Africa strategy”.

The three countries on Xue itinerary have each more than 20,000 Chinese workers engaged in areas like manufacturing, services, medicine, planting and mining, as well as in areas of infrastructure such as railways, highways, bridges, airports, ports, factories, telecommunication networks, housing and municipal facilities.

“These countries need investment in a wide range of areas, but they generally lack the ability to pay. They are also eager to enhance economic cooperation with China and to reduce their trade deficit, but they don’t have many products for exports. Moreover, there is disagreement between areas or projects some African countries hope to prioritize and those in which China is willing to participate”, Xue Li, (Director of the Department of International Strategy at the Institute of World Economics and Politics under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences) wrote in Global Times on 14th May, 2017.

Clearly, China’s assistance to Africa is neither totally selfless nor altruistic, as Beijing claims.   The aid is pragmatically tailored to suit the economic and foreign policy goals.

The long Chinese game in Africa has just begun to unfold. How it will be impacted by the cost factor, which in turn is pushed by rising labour costs in mainland China, is difficult to crystal gaze.

As of now, African traders, who have been laughing all the way to their banks, are finding it harder to make money importing goods from China. Guangzhou has become less attractive to them. And they are turning to countries in Southeast Asia, where, to quote a trader from Mali settled in Guangzhou, “the quality of the products is just acceptable but prices there are cheaper than in China”. 

REFERENCES

  1. Chinese businessmen must resist mercenary thinking in Africa, By Su Tan, Global Times, Published: 2017/8/9,  http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1060344.shtml
  2. Chinese firm in Angola slams report on ‘slavery, By Yang Sheng in Global Times, Published: 2017/9/4,  http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1064758.shtml
  3. Chinese engagement in African agriculture is not what it seems, A Conversation Africa report, Mar 28, 2016, http://theconversation.com/chinese-engagement-in-african-agriculture-is-not-what-it-seems-56779
  4. Chinese Overfishing Threatens West African Economies, By   Salem Solomon, VOA, July 17, 2017 6:34 PM,  https://www.voanews.com/a/chinese-overfishing-threatens-west-african-economies/3947764.html
  5. Chinese investment will create virtuous cycle for sustainable cooperation in Africa, By Hu Weijia in Global Times, Published: 2017/2/28 0:08:39, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1035166.shtml
  6. China must address African rail project risk: by Song Wei in Global Times, Mar 6, 2017,  http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1036198.shtml
  7. China not to weaken support for Africa: FM,  Xinhua report| 2017-03-08, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2017-03/08/c_136112843.htm
  8. China needs to develop detailed Africa strategy,  By Xue Li in Global Times, Published: 2017/5/14 23:08:40,  http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1046911.shtml
  9. African traders feel the pinch as China produces fewer cheap products,  Report in Global Times, Sept 5, 2017, at 18:53:39,  www.globaltimes.cn/content/1064883.shtml
  10. Is China good or bad for Africa, By Peter Eigen, Special to CNN, Oct 29, 2012, http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2012/10/29/is-china-good-or-bad-for-africa/
  11. Maximizing China-Africa e-commerce ties, By Song Wei in Global Times, Published: 2016/11/28,  www.globaltimes.cn/content/1020587.shtml
  12. Corporate China’s Africa invasion, By Teddy Ng in South China Morning Post, 07 May, 2013, http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1231786/african-companies-fear-chinas-corporate-invasion
  13. China’s Aid to Africa Monster or Messiah?, By Yun Sun, Brookings Institute, Feb 7, 2014,  https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/chinas-aid-to-africa-monster-or-messiah/

 

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