Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Atlantic Joins the China-Africa Scare-Mongering

Robert Mugabe and Chinese businesspeople     credit: ZimDaily
I'm disappointed that one of my favorite magazines, The Atlantic, published on June 24, 2011, a short and sloppy article by Max Fisher-- "In Zimbabwe, Chinese Investment with Hints of Colonialism." This is a striking example of some of the superficial, error-ridden, and at times irresponsible China-Africa
analysis that a major magazine can casually publish. Articles like this -- apparently dashed together out of a quick spin through the internet -- are all that America's elite opinion makers are likely to read about China's role in Africa. That's a pity.

Fisher doesn't much care for Mugabe and neither do I. Mugabe is an appalling leader. His policies over the past decade have driven his country into the ground. His refusal to relinquish power in legitimate elections has been devastating for Zimbabweans.

Fisher also highlights concerns by Zimbabwean construction workers, restaurant staff, and labor unions about Chinese employers: these are no doubt a reality: Chinese managers have a well-deserved reputation for poor working conditions. Sadly, there's no news in these claims, which have been voiced often in African and international media (and which form the centerpiece of a good edited volume published in Namibia by the trade union movement).

Fisher ignored something that was interesting and new:  the complaints by Zimbabwe's trade unions were taken seriously by the Chinese who sent a delegation in response. As Veneranda Langa reports from Harare, after the labor problems hit the media, the Chinese government reacted:
A high-level delegation from the Overseas Chinese Affairs Committee (OCC) of the National People’s Congress of China is in Zimbabwe [June 13, 2011] to hold seminars to encourage Chinese nationals to live harmoniously with locals in an effort to boost relations between the two countries.
As for the low salaries, also undoubtedly true -- but the union complaint that that some Chinese companies pay only $4 a day (about $120 a month for a five day week) as wages has to be seen in the context where statutory minimum wage figures in 2009 were $100/month for mining, $150/month for government workers, or $30/month for domestics. (Zimbabwe has no overall minimum wage, only minimum wages for different sectors; these are re-negotiated regularly.)

But let's look at some of Fisher's other claims:
  • China has won "near-exclusive dominance of everything from mineral rights to labor standards" ...
  • "China recently paid $3 billion for exclusive access to Zimbabwe's extensive platinum rights, a contract estimated to be worth $40 billion."

These claims about exclusive access to mineral rights would come as a surprise to the many international mining firms that have ongoing mineral investments in Zimbabwe, particularly those with extensive investment in the platinum sector, including Canada's Caledonia, and Impala Platinum (the South African firm that is the major shareholder of Zimplats) as well as the mining giant Anglo-American.

It's my guess that discussions of a $3 billion line of credit offer (not a contract or concluded deal) appear to be real -- a line of credit has been under discussion since 2006 but there have been many sticking points. However, if this happens, it would clearly not be a "swap" of $3 billion for "all of Zimbabwe's platinum", but rather a resource-secured line of credit linked to a platinum deposit like the one that was earlier encumbered for another Chinese loan. This bears some similarity to the DRC's copper "deal of the century". 

Fisher bends and twists a few things to make his story more colorful:
  • The 87-year-old ruler even relies on Chinese medical treatment.
Well, he does seem to get treatment in Singapore -- he's been six times recently. But isn't this stretching it a bit in an article on "Chinese colonialism"?

Fisher also gives us an alarmist interpretation of a complicated and politically controversial project:
  • A massive military compound is under construction in Harare, built by Chinese firms and with a Chinese loan of $98 million. The open-ended loan, which the already indebted Zimbabwean government has no obvious way of paying back, means that this component of the country's military will be effectively Chinese-owned ... the expensive facility will hand a small but important part of Zimbabwean sovereignty over to Chinese lenders.

Neglecting to mention that the "massive military compound" is actually the site of Zimbabwe's new National Defense College, Fisher puts a scary spin on something that is a tad more ordinary. (And why portray the signed loan as "open ended"?)
Here's the history of this project: In 2008, the Zimbabwe government/military decided to upgrade the Staff College run by the University of Zimbabwe, and enable it to have the capacity to offer a BA and MA degrees in Defense and Security Studies. But they didn't have the money to do this. So they negotiated an "obvious way to pay it back": secure a concessional loan from the China Eximbank with the future export of Zimbabwean resources from a joint venture between the Chinese construction company and the Zimbabwe government (again, this resembles the DRC copper/infrastructure model).

Using aid for a project like this is a good example of the downside of China's request-based aid (the package deal seems to have been cooked up between Anjin Corp and the Zimbabwe Defense forces) and Chinese deference to local ownership (i.e. the Unity government -- and Zimbabwe's Parliament, which ratified the deal) in making decisions on how to use aid finance. (I talk about these problems more in The Dragon's Gift).

Surely Zimbabwe has better uses for its diamonds than using them to pay to build the professionalism of its military. (And surely my own country, the US, has better uses for our money than paying for our military's desires... and yet still we do it, and ironically we also finance it by borrowing from the Chinese!). But rather than China now 'owning' part of Zimbabwe's military, China Eximbank will have a lien on part of the Marange diamond fields.

Fisher then moves into shakier territory with a couple more myths:
  • In 2006, China paid Mozambique $2 billion for a deal to dam off the Zambezi river and send 3,000 settlers to populate the valley, some of the country's most fertile land.
This Chinese "deal" for the Mpanda Nkua Dam on the Zambezi is another zombie myth that has cycled around the internet for nearly six years. When I went to Mozambique in 2009 to look into it, I found that although Chinese credit for a dam had been discussed, it was never finalized. When the contract was given to a Brazilian firm to build the dam in 2008, there was still no financing. There are no Chinese settlers in the Zambezi Valley, and no one I spoke to knew anything about this hypothesized plan. But why check when the truth might spoil a good story?

In a grand conclusion, Fisher widens his scope to the entire continent:
  • China is snatching up agricultural land across the continent, often with leases nearing a century in length.
This claim has an embedded link that brings the reader to an Atlantic article that does describe an African land grab. However, the article has no examples of Chinese "land grabs" and in fact states:  "But neither China nor the U.S. is driving the land scramble: Saudi Arabia and its neighbors are." Did Fisher even read his colleague's piece? It's counter-intuitive, but field researchers continue to report that there have actually been very few big Chinese land deals in Africa.

Fact checkers, where were you when this was published?


Anonymous said...

Hi Deborah,

Just wanted to say that i enjoy your comments and insight. For those of use working elsewhere in Sub-Saharan African Africa, these observations, while subtly different from where i work, are very similar to the processes you describe as part of the blog.

Thanks for keeping us posted!

Stuart said...

"Mugabe is an appalling leader."

He is. I think you need to seriously address the questions of why he is able to retain power, and the cost of in human suffering as long as he does so. Hint: China has rather a lot to do with both.

A Chinese delegation sent in response to complaints of worker mistreatment is eye candy for the apologists. When Beijing stops supplying the likes of Mugabe with the instruments and finances that keep him in power (just where China wants him), then we may have cause to say that China is taking the concerns of ordinary African citizens seriously.

The Atlantic may have skewed a few points in their article, but highlighting the real potential of Africans to fall victim to neo-colonialism out of Beijing is a job well done. This side of the Sino-African story is more important than the 'China-builds-road-for- friend-in-Africa' approach. It's also - quite rightly - not in the nature of a (free) media to focus on the 'grip & grin' propaganda stuff. We should leave that to Xinhua.

Cue 50-centers.

Anonymous said...

I have less space here than Max Fisher in The Atlantic, so only a short one on the Defence College, again because of its wider context ... ..
If you want to track how you do not want to be treated by the Chinese, in your own country, (and this applies not not just to workers, but what do you think of only 4 hours of electricity per day, an never seen hyperinflation, a near halving of your lifeexpectancy ...) I have only one advice for you: take a few months using any news aggregator to see what is happening in Zimbabwe. Even if you do have solid reasons to believe that in such a case you belong to the elite that could benefit, it is encouraging to see how the sky is the limit for the Mugabe crony boys ...

What will not immediately become obvious is how China is organizing this socio-economic imbalances for its own benefit. Every time I see it, I think of Bernard Tapie, and every Frenchman will understand me; you buy on the cheap from a conterparty who is nearly broke…
And as always China is following the politics of his great teacher, the U.S.; listen to my words (for external consumption only), but don’t look to my actions (for internal consumption only).
Zimbabwe must, thanks to Chinese aid and/or contracts produce for the export (tobacco, chrome, diamonds…), while China is nursing its own industry very often through export bans and as soon as practicable, commodity markets for many products (gold, copper, zinc, fuel oil , aluminum to corn) and markets for linked derivative products are created producing worldclass turnover…

For when are the seminars scheduled in which China Inc. will fraternally explain to the Zimbabweans how to imitate the Chinese rare earth politics, so the proceedings of the Zimbabwean tobacco, diamonds, platinum, chromium, can be maximalized?
I hope their delay has nothing to do with the fact that China Inc has a plan, to lead the market for ferro chrome, by jumping over the head of South Africa?

Anonymous said...

Compared to the post about Australia I’m happy to see a post wich has body.
I welcome all the cited articles with open arms because I am looking at reality with fly eyes; the more info, the more refined the image becomes(see my comment at "BBC Where Art Thou").
Probably for (editorial? / Commercial?) reasons, The Atlantic article is as short as this post and is really substandard.
Ambassadors are extremely well educated to defend the interests of their country and Eastern imperturbability should be a plus in the diplomatic affairs.
But since last year we can see that China's representatives suddenly more and more lose their diplomatic coolness.
So, very recently, Beijing's representative in Harare fulminated, not against the Western press, but against the Zimbabwean press.

What is written in the Zimbabwean press about the Chinese presence is easy to discover in the Internet age (for everyone who want to spend a little time) following it daily or checking it retroactively. Please have also a look at all the comments of the readers!
Unfortunately, besides neocolonial mechanisms, racism is also playing a major role.
That China wants to put a stop to this is easy to understand and just proves the correctness of the African reports about those relations.
Incidentally, I see it as business as usual: China has very often been very proactive to respond to all kind of events. But when it comes to social relations between Africans and Chinese people it will always wait till the public opinion could turn against China and thus its greater interests might be affected.
A recent ans simple example is after the shooting in the Collum mine when the embassy took the necessary steps to silence the victims rather than to do anything to have better labor relations at the mine itself.
Rather than quoting in this context the article by quoting Veneranda Langa the following article seems to me beeing more relevant because it place the issue in a broader context.

Every day you may notice a similarity between China's actions in Africa, SE Asia, the small Pacific Islands, the Caribbean and some countries in Latin America, but only in Africa racism plays a major role.
The use of the term "slave traders" is therefore obvious when a worker is literally beaten.
Imagine for once that we were talking about a Westerner and the Western press would reveal that an English foreman of eg Unilever hit his Congolese laborers because they were not able to understand his English explanations of how they had to win palm oil?
Should not all the NGOs of the world tumble upon Unilever, who should be lucky to escape a consumer boycott and would p m Cameron not have to set up one government study commission at least?
Maybe not, but I bet it is same to assume that no UK government delegation would be necessary to hold seminars for the Unilever Congo management encouraging them to live harmoniously with UK nationals locals in an effort to boost relations between the two countries.

Deborah Brautigam said...

Many issues here, but let me address only one: the familiar disjuncture between the common allegation that the Chinese are going to "bring in all their own workers" (i.e. to build the National Defense College) and the reality that Chinese companies are hiring local construction workers for the National Defense College project, but under very poor (read: typical Chinese) working conditions. This comes out clearly in this article reposted on a Zimbabwean blog: https://newsdzezimbabwe.wordpress.com/2011/05/25/we-are-beig-beaten-by-chinese-bosses-defence-college-workers/

Anonymous said...

Very few people try to understand why president Mugabe chose to antagonize a number of former colonialist powers (always the same, those that are trying to charge China with neo-colonialism in Africa to-day) by embarking on a tough policy of seizure of the best arable lands in Zimbabwe that had been monopolized by these colonialists. These seizures led, inter alia, to the western powers' retaliatory measures consisting in all kinds of sanctions imposed on the Mugabe regime. So, we can see that the current difficulties in which the Zimbabwean people are stuck are not fortuitous. China also suffered from this kind of ostracism at the hands of the western powers. Why should it join hands with those western powers in their isolation campaign against Zimbabwe? It should absolutely not.


Ona Akemu said...

Thank you very much Deborah for your posts. I enjoy reading your 'correctives' to the hackneyed stereotype that China is re-colonising Africa and grabbing all the land from the feckless natives.

I am a Ph.D. student at Eramus University Rotterdam, where I am conducting research on the internationalisation patterns of Chinese firms, principally in sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia; therefore, I am very interested in China's role in Africa.

Why, in your view, does China's involvement in Africa steer so much pathos from the Western political and intellectual estalishment?

The tone of the articles on China's involvement in Africa(such as in The Economist) is particularly irksome because they present Africans (leaders and ordinary folk) as 'victims' being bullied by the Chinese and needing to be rescued. How credible is this picture portayal of servile Africans and malevolent Chinese?

Deborah Brautigam said...

Ona, contact me directly at American University or IFPRI -- I am trying to be in touch with Ph.D. students doing research on China going global.