Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Guest Post: Human Rights Watch Responds to Critique of China in Zambia Study

Zambian miners
Below is Human Rights Watch's response to Sautman and Yan's critique, summarized yesterday in China Africa: The Real Story.

My blog post and comments on the debate continue below the Scribd text. (If you can't read the insert, please let me know! This is a novel technology for me, as the coding in these guest posts for some reason made them impossible to simply insert.)

Human Rights Watch Responds

From my point of view, an anonymous comment on my original blog post sums up some of the valid criticism: "This report is a case of truth in facts, not truth in reporting..."

I agree that the report provides pretty convincing evidence of human rights problems, and some improvements, in one Chinese company in Zambia -- unlike Sautman and Yan, I don't have the knowledge or the stamina to examine all of the details of the research. And it's likely that other Chinese companies share some of these problems across Africa. But I am bothered that the draft of the study that I reviewed did not contain a comment that later jumped out at me when I read the published summary. Here it is, in bold:

Over the past decade, China has rapidly increased its investment throughout Africa. But while many commentaries have examined the ambivalent relationship between China and Africa, few have systematically examined what Chinese investment means in human rights terms, particularly for Africans employed by China’s state-owned companies. By investigating the specific practices of particular Chinese employers, the conditions of a given set of workers, and the enforcement of labor laws by a particular African government, it is possible to begin to paint a picture of China’s broader role in Africa (emphasis added).

Why does this bother me? Two reasons:

First, the particular Chinese company in Zambia chosen for the study has had a history of very highly publicized labor conflicts, and one terrible disaster where over 50 Zambians died in an explosion. Imagine if the Nature Conservancy had written: "by investigating British Petroleum (BP)'s Deepwater project in the Gulf of Mexico [remember? the big spill?], it is possible to begin to paint a picture of Britain's broader role in North America." I think most people would say: huh?

Second, I was also surprised by the choice of words, that HRW felt that their study was "the beginning" of painting a picture of China's broader role in Africa. Many serious reseachers have already done detailed studies of a number of aspects of China's role in Africa. These studies are, together, aggregating up into a more detailed picture. The HRW study surely fits into this picture, but it is not the start. And the picture of China in Africa is far more complicated than labor relations in one -- or even all -- Chinese-owned mines.


  1. HRW did a similar hatchet job on Venezuela, arguably the most democratic country on earth. If I recall rightly, they refused to respond to the storm of criticism from people who know Venezuela very well indeed.
    I have long hesitated to join the chorus of criticism of HRW for beng a right-wing propaganda outfit. I feel that they do valuable work in some areas, and I feel that one of their principle sponors, George Soros, is a decent person.
    But the entire concept of "human rights" is too malleable and too dominated by the US media. And the US is probably the greatest human rights violator on earth.
    It's time we came to an international understanding about the term, or dropped it altogether.

  2. With respect to the claim that the Chinese companies take a low-cost strategy in the contract market of Africa, the advantage of Chinese companies is actually low cost. The Chinese companies are more competitive than local companies in African market because the Chinese companies have low labor cost, low materials and equipment costs and high labor productivity. Putting them together, the competitive advantage of Chinese companies is stronger than local companies. This is good for the local government, because the local government can spend less in constructing a project. Of course, it will have a big impact on local companies of the same trade. It is indeed a dilemma. The Chinese companies have no other purpose than making more money. So they may have neglected the feeling of local companies. They think that it is about market competition. The free economy is about free competition. That's why they do not have such awareness. Now the competition with local businesses created by the Chinese companies has also attracted the attention of the Chinese government. We request the Chinese companies not to be obsessed with economic returns only and ignore the relationship with the local people. The problem cannot be solved unilaterally by the Chinese side. The local companies also need to increase their competitive power. Any company only can grow in a competitive environment.

    · With respect to the issue that Chinese workers are isolated and reluctant to communicate with the local people, I think this is a problem of cultural gap and language barrier. The Chinese workers cannot speak the local languages. Usually they will leave in two or three years when they complete the project. They are reluctant to commit themselves to learning the local language. So it is hard for them to communicate with the local people. Considering that the workers do not understand the local language, the management usually enforces strict control on them because they are unable to communicate with the local people if something happens in the outside. So they build up their own social circle. It is true that the Chinese workers work in harsh working conditions. The Chinese employees work in tougher conditions than the employees of western companies. The Chinese have a spirit of enduring hardship. They live a hard life, eat simple food and live in simple domiciles so that they can send home the money they earned to raise their families and improve their living conditions. The Chinese workers can endure hardship. They work in three shifts a day and work all day and all night to speed up project schedules. That is why the Chinese companies are competitive.
    End part I

  3. Part II
    They spend less on the workers. Take government assistance projects as an example, China spends 95% of the money on the project and on the recipient countries while the west may spend 80% on their own staff.

    Concerning low pay for local employees by Chinese companies, we should look at this issue objectively. The big Chinese enterprises in Africa are much more compliant. They comply with local labor laws and follow the relevant rules of the minimum wage. Some small companies are probably not so standardized. This phenomenon did exist, but it is not the mainstream. The local employees working in Chinese enterprises get lower salaries than those working in the western companies. It is determined by different national conditions. Because the salaries of Chinese employees are lower than the employees of western companies. In some cases, the salary paid by Chinese companies in Africa for local employees is even higher than our domestic workers of the same industry. As you just mentioned, the local employees in the Chinese-funded enterprises in Zambia went on strike to demand wage rise. The salary and benefits of local employees in the Chinese enterprises in Zambia were more than 3 million kwacha (local currency), equivalent to $700 to 800. They required an additional 2 million kwacha salary rise, equivalent to an increase of about $ 400. $700 to $800 is equivalent to 4,500 to 5,000 yuan. The minimum wage of Shanghai, the most developed city in China, is 1,100 yuan. The average wage of construction workers in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and other developed cities in the east of China is just over 2,000 yuan. The wage of manufacturing workers is between 2,000 to 3,000 yuan. What does 4,000 yuan a month mean? It is the wage of an ordinary white-collar in China. $700 to 800 plus an additional $400 is as much as what I earn. This is the wage of a local Zambian miner. Is it realistic? Improving workers' income is justified around the world. It is the high moral ground. But any government must take into account the level of their economic development and their own actual situation. They can not go beyond reality; otherwise it will scare off investors. They cannot achieve their economic development. In some African countries, the labor laws are very strict. The governments even copy the laws of western countries. With such labor laws, companies are afraid of recruiting staff, including the western companies. They will not easily recruit employees because they cannot fire employees once they are recruited.

    Lu Shaye, Secretary-General of Chinese Follow-Up Committee of FOCAC and Director-General of Department of African Affairs at China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs,

    and consistant with China's postion
    as work and assembly house of the world globalisation...

  4. The problem with Deborah Brautigam's writing is that she 1) fails to understand the basic instincts, ideology, and nature of the Chinese Communist Party, 2) partly as a consequence is unable or refuses to see broader patterns associated with its impact on the world and things that happen as a result of 1). To put it simply, labor abuses are rife in China, where the authorities care nothing for the rights of workers. And why should they? It is a communist state and it is not held accountable by its citizens. Individual liberties are available to the extent that the regime makes them so (i.e. this religion that we approve, not that one that we don't; this media that we censor, not that one that we don't, etc.) Why on earth would Chinese companies coming from that system all of a sudden start loving the notion of labor rights in their operations abroad? Obviously the sentence she highlights in bold has problems, but I will never understand this tendency to nitpick on details, scoring these little victories, while failing to see the genuine big picture that is far more momentous. I always feel that Brautigam's is a kind of sophisticated, well-practiced apologism.

    1. Insightful comment. I do believe there is a whole other angle of analysis that is missing. It is related to what the implications are for Chinese society of China's overseas forage for resources, economic profit/influence, political support, etc.. There is very real evidence that the situation in China is rife with problems and the kinds of social, political, environmental, corruption that China may or may not be engaging in abroad, IS widespread within China. This is not a criticism of the Communist Party in China, as many would correctly conclude that the violations in practice are violations of the very codes of the Communist Party in China. Thus, whether or not the impacts of Chinese investments overseas has problems, it is quite possible they are exacerbating the domestic problems in China. Increasingly powerful SOEs in China (whose business interests abroad are important economic drivers given some restrictions in China's domestic market) are contributing to the widespread practice of asset reallocation away from core business that has created asset bubbles and inflation affecting the normal lives of Chinese people. Objective analysis of China's domestic economic and social conditions are curtailed through the extension of the nation's soft and hard power. This is not China-bashing, this is the voice of what is happening inside China by those who wish to see a better, more balanced, rise of China.

  5. Just to clarify, the two postings by 'anonymous' on February 9 are excerpts from a very interesting interview with Lu Shaye, the only place that I've seen clear Chinese positions on almost all the controversial aspects of China and Africa. It can be found at It is authoritative because Mr Lu is Director-General of African Affairs in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as Secretary-General of the Chinese Follow-Up Committee of FOCAC.