Monday, April 30, 2012

"Zombie" Chinese Land Grabs in Africa Rise Again in New Database!


How durable is a bad news report? How many lives does a zombie have?

How often are we going to find hugely expensive efforts to collect and "verify" land grab "data" that include verification methodologies where one NGO collection of news media stories serves to validate the cases collected by another NGO?

Last week, the new Land Matrix "land grab" database was released at a big World Bank conference on land. The Land Matrix project is "an international partnership involving five major European research centres and 40 civil society and research groups from around the world." On paper, they have a strong methodology and very strict criteria about projects that are to be included. But in practice, they seem to violate their own rules routinely, at least when it comes to Chinese "projects" in Africa.

A colleague who attended the launch told me that "China" was named as the biggest "land grabber" worldwide. He knows my work on this, so he raised an eyebrow, and so did I when he told me. (Were any other eyebrows raised? I don't know.)

I understand there is a lot of Chinese land investment in Asia, especially in Cambodia and Laos. I don't know the Asia cases, but when the database was made public, I checked the China-Africa cases in the online database, which supposedly only lists the cases that have passed their "robust" fact-checking process (which apparently involves checking to see if another NGO has published a link to a media report on an alleged case).  I was interested to see which "Zombie Chinese projects" (i.e. dead projects, or projects that in fact never had any life to them at all!) are in their database as confirmed. Here is a sample:

(1) ZTE oil palm project 2.8 million hectares in DRC The project was discussed but never finalized, land was never allocated, the project -- which was almost certainly a maximum of 100,000 ha -- was never this large -- and has been dead in the water for years.

(2) ABSA Biofuels 30,200 ha in Ethiopia. Huh? This proposed joint venture is not "Chinese" but South African-Chinese-Ethiopian, and was listed in an Ethiopian database in 2008 as in the "pre-implementation" phase. It has never been implemented.

(3) Malibya 100,000 irrigated rice project in Mali. This is identified as Chinese/Libyan investors. In fact, it is only Libyan. They hired a Chinese contractor to develop the irrigation. It is not a Chinese investment.

(4) Uganda 40,500 ha Heibei [sic] multipurpose project. This project, "Hanhe Uganda Hebei Farm," is a reality, but the figure of 40,500 ha is a wild hope for the future, not an actual concession. Today, the Hebei entrepreneur, Qiu Lijun, is cultivating vegetables and mushrooms on 173 ha, with an initial capital of 9.9 million RMB (a bit more than $1.5 million). A 2010 article on a Hebei website in China provided a figure of 8097 ha (20,000 acres) for the project, but it isn't clear if this is an actual land concession or a plan. In late 2011, he spoke about plans of expanding to 17,333 hectares (260,000 mu) 'in the near future'. *

(5) Zimbabawe 101,170 ha irrigated maize project. I've written about this countless times. It was a construction contract given to a Chinese company by the Zimbabwe government, not a Chinese investment. They were not paid. They went home. The land never ended up being developed. This all happened almost ten years ago, in 2003 for Pete's sake!

So, another pretty awful collection of so-called "data", with strong media attention that will give yet another round of life to these Zombie Stories. For more from me on this topic, search this blog under "Land Grab".

A hat tip to Poul Wisborg (and to Duncan Green at Oxfam for circulating the link).

*My analysis of the Uganda case was revised on June 18, 2012.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Are the Chinese the Worst? A Comparative ILO Study in Zambia

In all the heat over the Human Rights Watch study of a Chinese mining company in Zambia, I may have missed discussions of a 2010 study by the ILO (authored by Chrispin Radoka Matenga) that actually compared companies in Zambia's copper belt: "The Impact of the Global Financial and Economic Crisis on Job Losses and Conditions of Work in the Mining Sector in Zambia." 

This paper has data on employment, accidents, and so on across the mines. According to the study: "Comparing these [accident] figures with the total number of employees for each mine in Table 3 and 4 above, NFCA [the Chinese copper company] has the highest accident rate for all the mines in the country" (p. 12).

A Zambian official said: “Safety records for most companies have drastically gone down, with most companies recording slightly higher levels of accidents. For example, the Chinese have the worst safety record. In some of these mines, you find the boss himself is going underground with flipflops”.

Conditions of work are bad in a number of non-Chinese mines, especially for contract workers:
"For example, Bresmar Investment Limited, a contractor company with Kansanshi Mine in Solwezi, has reduced wages for its workers from K3,600 per hour to K2,900.40 per hour. These workers toil for 12 hours a day for seven (7) continuous days and rest for four (4) days."
I found out about this study via an April 8, 2012 posting by Research for Development at the Rural Modernity blog.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

China's Health Aid in Africa: Same Old Problems

When I wrote my first book on Chinese aid to Africa in 1998, I documented how problems with language and local capacity led to difficulties in technology transfer with material goods -- although skill transfers ("learning by doing") were more successful.

Today Chinese journalist Beibei Yin sent me his newly published article in the Financial Times -- "Chinese donations: Tale of frustration that lies behind health aid to Africa."

Yin shows how little has changed. Chinese medical teams appear to be popular, but Chinese equipment and medicine donations are still coming with instructions only in Chinese. Training is inadequate (five days!), and, consequently, donated goods and machinery sit gathering dust until they expire -- a huge waste for China and for the recipient. This probably doesn't happen at the few places where Chinese doctors practice in revolving medical teams -- but the malaria centers built by the Chinese in an number of African countries do not have any Chinese staff or assistants.

Changing this would require a number of things to change:
  • Chinese exports -- even if donations -- need to come with instruction manuals in English, French, Swalihi and other languages used by educated people in recipient countries. The Ministry of Commerce has been pushing Chinese companies to do this for years, why can't they get the aid donations to follow suit?
  • The Chinese government could finance a Chinese expert (or a small team) who speaks the local language and could operate the machinery together with local technicians, for a year or so. This would allow learning by doing, while working out the kinks while a machine was still under some kind of warrantee.
Yin was not able to study a number of the malaria centers, but this is also an area ripe for student (and other) research. I saw how Ethiopia appears to have good plans for its agro-technical demonstration center, while Tanzania was not at all clear how they would use their "Chinese gift." How have the malaria centers fared across the various countries that have received them? What explains the outcomes.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Africa's Free Press Problem: Is China Causing It?

Source: Henry Hall's China Africa News
On April 15, 2012, the New York Times published an op-ed by Mohamed Keita on Africa's free press problem, arguing that press freedom was getting worse in Africa -- because of China.

Keita's piece makes a lot of good points. Investigative reporters have a very tough road in many parts of Africa and there are many examples of courage under impossibly tough conditions.

However, his opinion oversteps his evidence in linking increased Chinese economic activity in Africa with increased repression of the media.

Asking "Why this disturbing trend? (of media repression)" Keita points to (inter alia) "the influence of China, which surpassed the West as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009."

As an example of this causal linkage, Keita wrote: "The volume of trade between Rwanda and China increased fivefold between 2005 and 2009. During the same period, the government has eviscerated virtually all critical press and opposition and has begun filtering Rwandan dissident news Web sites based abroad."

I had to bite my fingers to stop them from typing something snarky after this statistical analysis.
Keita actually does make a good point in his observation that with growing trade, "China has been deepening technical and media ties with African governments to counter the kind of critical press coverage that both parties demonize as neocolonialist."

Rather than training African reporters to be like Xinhua reporters, the Chinese goal in stepping up training and PR activities is to present a different picture of Chinese activities in Africa to counter the negative reporting eminating from "the West". Here's where Keita gets it right:  
"More than 200 African government press officers received Chinese training between 2004 and 2011 in order to produce what the Communist Party propaganda chief, Li Changchun, called “truthful” coverage of development fueled by China’s activities." (emphasis added).
It is easy to understand why both the Chinese and African governments might want a more balanced picture of their activities. Cambridge (UK) academic Emma Mawdsley has written the classic piece on negative media coverage of China in Africa, juxtaposed with positive reporting on the west's engagement: "Fu Manchu Versus Dr. Livingston on the Dark Continent? Representing China, Africa, and the West in British Broadsheet newspapers" Political Geography 27 (2008).

And the fun continues. See the new report on "China's Global Media Image," launched by Renmin University and Sweden's 21st Century Frontiers (and spearheaded by Dennis Pamlin) which analyzed 100 major media magazine covers featuring China -- more than 60 percent clearly pictured China as a threat, and not open to dialogue.

While Keita rightly emphasizes many African governments' reluctance to hear criticism, it is also clear that Africa has long been presented to outside audiences as the dark continent of chaos, child soldiers, famine, etc.

It's not just 54 African governments that are tired of outsiders determining their global image. France is also tired of Anglo domination of the TV media, hence they've launched their own English media service: France 24. A perception of Western bias in coverage of the Middle East, Islam, etc., in part underpinned the launch of Al-Jazeera.

As a Chinese reporter put it, "Although they are geographically far apart, China and Africa have long learned about each other through Western media." Farooq Sulehria, a Pakistani writer added, "We largely view the world through the media. It is our window on the world. If we see the world through the eyes of the West, we will be siding with Tarzan instead of blacks without asking: what is Tarzan, a white man, doing in African jungles?"

IMO, this"media balancing" is far more important for the Chinese than any effort to get African reporters to modify or soften their reporting on African governments, as impled by Keita. In fact, with their reluctance to intervene in internal affairs of other countries, I would be surprised if the Chinese do training focused on anything to do with African journalists vis a vis their coverage of African governments). But who knows? He wasn't reporting. He was giving an opinion.

Instead of these general op-eds that are only, after all, opinions, wouldn't it be better to have some actual investigative reporting on this issue? What about doing an indepth study of the Chinese media training programs, or interviewing a random sample of the press officers and African journalists that have attended them?

For those who are interested, I have written about this topic earlier, in a piece "Comments on Winds from the East," a National Endowment for Democracy study. My comments were published at Pambazuka in January 2011.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The lonely world of Chinese Traders in Africa

Researcher (me) interviewing Chinese trader
The Brenthurst Foundation in South Africa has just published a sensitive, detailed and eye-opening study by Terence McNamee (with others) of more than 200 Chinese traders in several South African countries: "Africa in Their Words: A Study of Chinese Traders in South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zambia and Angola." It's also beautifully written!

The study's main points match my own research and experience, particularly the bitter belief by nearly all small traders and "China shop" owners that the Chinese government does nothing for them. As a trader in the Kariakoo market in Dar Es Salaam told me: "The Chinese government helps the Tanzanians. It doesn't help me." Highly recommended.

I'm sorry the researchers apparently never saw the very good paper by my former student Rachel Laribee, who did similar research in South Africa with Chinese shop keepers, "The China Shop Phenomenon: Trade Supply within the Chinese Diaspora in South Africa." Rachel pointed out how competitive the different China shops were with each other, not just with African shops. There was no "China, Inc." in her study, either.

Another hat tip to Yoon Park.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Whatever Happened to the Chinese special economic zone in Algeria?

Jiangling Motors SUV ... but probably not in Algeria
En route home from speaking in Chapel Hill, I learned a bit more about one of the failed Chinese efforts to establish an overseas economic zone (in Algeria) in a new paper written by Chris Alden and Faten Aggad-Clerx for the African Development Bank.
(p. 10) "... in 2008 China and Algeria entered into an agreement to establish a second Chinese Special Economic Zone in North Africa, the Jiangling Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone, which was to be hosted in Mostaganem (western Algeria) with the focus on assembling cars. The agreement involved the Chinese Jiangling Motors Cooperation and Jiangxi Coal Corporation Group and their Algerian partner, Groupe Mazouz. The activities of the Jiangling Zone were expected to assemble 50000 units in the five years that would follow. The deal was welcomed as Algeria seeks to revive its automobile sector, which collapsed in the 1990s."
Tang Xiaoyang and I found that the Algerian zone was cancelled after Algeria changed its laws on foreign investment to require Algerian ownership of at least 51% of a project. But this paper adds some new details and theories:
(p. 10) "Others have argued that the decision was influenced by ongoing negotiations between the Algerian government and the French car manufacturer, Renault, for the establishment of the Renault car-assembling factory in Algeria. Renault was said to be concerned that it would face  stiff competition from Chinese car manufacturers if they were to also produce in Algeria. (Renault eventually withdrew its offer and opened a factory in neighbouring Morocco). Subsequent interviews with Groupe Mazouz also indicated a concern over the quality of Chinese products given the high demands of the Algerian consumer and their attraction to anything produced by the West. Furthermore, as noted above, the Chinese companies and their Algerian partners have been involved in fraud cases further damaging the reputation of Chinese companies."
Another case perhaps of reputational risks sliding across sectors and companies.

It's good to see Chris Alden return to the China-Africa research field. A hat tip to Hayley Hermann via Yoon Park.