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October 29, 2012 4:12 PM   Subscribe

When China met Africa
posted by infini (37 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Where else do you think China is going to outsource their labor?
posted by Thorzdad at 4:37 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


If China wants to do worse to Africa than Europeans have (and I'm looking particularly at you King Leopold II of Belgium), they have their work cut out for them.
posted by mullingitover at 5:32 PM on October 29, 2012 [7 favorites]


Did anyone else, in watching this, have a sense that thes two cultures/continents that much of the world has thought of inferior for many, many years coming together in this manner is some sort of turning point, and the Ameri-Euro-Russian powerhouse has been kicked to the side of the road?
posted by HuronBob at 5:40 PM on October 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


Maybe I don't have a firm understanding of the situation but... aren't countries going to outsource to somewhere? If China is bringing in jobs, is that a bad thing?

Is it bad because the Chinese are losing jobs to Africans? Or are the Chinese going to encourage even worse living conditions than the poor areas they're investing in?

Is this some fear that China is taking over the world?

I don't get it.
posted by Malice at 5:44 PM on October 29, 2012


My cousin (Canadian) is a mining guy, currently busy in Sierra Leone. I asked him a while back about how the Chinese were treating the locals. His quick answer, "Way the hell better than we are." Which he then followed up with, "They get it. They're in it for the long run. They seem to have zero interest in raping, pillaging and then leaving, which sadly, is how most North Americans I've encountered still think. Maximum wealth extracted at absolute minimum cost."
posted by philip-random at 5:49 PM on October 29, 2012 [11 favorites]


The main criticism I've read about Chinese business in Africa is that it's mostly about extracting minerals. Not so much investing in production in Africa, but working to extract metals. Which is certainly nothing unique in African history, but relatively new coming from China.

I'm struck by HuronBob's comment because to my understanding of world history, China has always been an enormous leading world economy. Often the dominant one in the world. It fell behind somewhat in the 19th and early 20th century because it industrialized more slowly, but now it's rushing back with a vengeance.
posted by Nelson at 5:52 PM on October 29, 2012 [7 favorites]


It looks like an interesting documentary that seems to bring a very human perspective to its Chinese and African (or, more precisely, Zambian) subjects, and this sort of humane portrayal is often absent from many day to day stories about both Africa and China.

However, this post needs a little more context:

MAP: Here Are All Of The Big Chinese Investments In Africa Since 2010

Beijing, a Boon for Africa

What does China want for its $20 billion to Africa?
posted by KokuRyu at 6:21 PM on October 29, 2012


Nelson, I'm probably (maybe?) reflecting a fairly typical USAian perspective on that. Interesting in that I can't recall ever hearing, as I moved through high school, and college, China described as a dominant economy. But my education in the area of History stopped with a basic world history class in Junior College.
posted by HuronBob at 6:22 PM on October 29, 2012


In the modern era (ie, the last 400 years or so) China hasn't really been active on the world stage compared to European countries. Obviously China profoundly shaped northeast Asia, as well as Vietnam, via writing, classical thought, and legal codes, but that was a least a thousand years ago. While the Silk Road may have transmitted some Chinese knowledge to Europe, the country's growing influence on the rest of the world over the past ten years has been unprecedented in its history. It's really only been 15 years or so since the China converted to a more mixed economy focusing on consumer growth.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:36 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


to my understanding of world history, China has always been an enormous leading world economy. Often the dominant one in the world. It fell behind somewhat in the 19th and early 20th century because it industrialized more slowly, but now it's rushing back with a vengeance.

I don't have the cite handy but I recall hearing that up until well into the 17th (18th?) century, China's economy led the world, and had for quite some time. Which puts recent geo-political-economic shifts into an interesting perspective (ie: the Chinese view what's going on as an inevitable return to status quo).
posted by philip-random at 6:39 PM on October 29, 2012


When I saw the title, I thought this was going to be about Zheng He (not that it was China and Africa's first introduction.)
posted by Zed at 9:57 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Historically, (like before the industrial revolution) China had a huge economy, of course, since they were an enormous country. But that was an economy that didn't really make much of a difference as far as Europe was concerned. I doubt there was too much trade and it certainly seems like there wouldn't be much competition between Europe and China.

Obviously by the 19th and 20th century they were way behind and Europe/America and the European colonial powers treated them pretty badly, particularly the U.K.

So, while Africa and China are both places where European colonialism played a big role.
posted by delmoi at 10:12 PM on October 29, 2012


> It's really only been 15 years or so since the China converted to a more mixed economy focusing on consumer growth.

... aka experimenting with capitalism.
posted by de at 11:23 PM on October 29, 2012


> ie: the Chinese view what's going on as an inevitable return to status quo

Not status quo, I don't think.
This time China's competing.

The Chinese are very aware of the stakes.
posted by de at 11:27 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


philip-random: If China's involvement is equitable economic involvement in resource extraction with the local population that I whole heartily support that compared to previous resource extraction methods. Do I believe that will hold up over the long term; heh, haha, heheh, MWUAHAHAHA!
posted by ZaneJ. at 12:02 AM on October 30, 2012


> heh, haha, heheh, MWUAHAHAHA!

W h a t  could possibly go wrong?
I have no idea why you're laughing, ZaneJ. Capitalism is good! ;)


Critique of Documentary:
"When China Met Africa" directed by Mark and Nick Francis-Cine Politics-10-01-2011
I'm going to have to PAY! for the DVD

thanks infini
posted by de at 12:19 AM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


If China wants to do worse to Africa than Europeans have

I love how the modern world gives carte blanche to China (or anyone else) for their unrestricted edeavors in Africa because of enduring white guilt. Because that really makes sense.

I've written about http://www.metafilter.com/73450/China-Colonizing-Africa-With-Dire-Consequences-for-Africans#2190119 (and, specifically in Zambia) before. I'm a layman - I work in the humanitarian sector in Africa, and specifically in logistics - supply chain management. So, I'm not in the mining sector - but that's just one sector that China is interested in here in Africa.

It isn't hard *at all* to see what is really going on. China is investing, very shrewdly, in their future. In minerals, in oil, in food - basically in any raw material that comes out of the ground. Any very basic economic projection of their country's demand vs. its supply over the next hundred years screams that they need to be doing this, and not just in Africa. But Africa is where it is easiest for them, because it is where the world will turn a blind eye to their massively corrupt modus operandi. Because hey, the Belgians, the French, the British...amirite?

There are a lot of very familiar scenes in this clip - pretty much any time you pass any kind of roadworks in Africa - in Kenya, in Chad, in Zambia, you name it, there will be a Chinese foreman in a sunhat directing 20-50 sweaty Africans in tatters, and 1 steamroller / back-hoe / etc.. Let's break it down.

The Chinese guy, in the scope of things, he's not that well off. His country typically ships him off there on semi-false promises and tells him to build a road from here to there. They pay him in USD because this is one place in the world where they can offload the shit-tonne they are sitting on which they know are becoming worthless at a rate approaching the amount they continue to take in. Sucks for him, he has to figure out how to hide that cash on his person when he flies back via Doha or Dubai to his family once every two years, because he'll get screwed on exchange rate if he tries to turn it into Yuan in Africa. China makes it exceedingly hard for him to sneak his money back in too, they don't need the extra dollars coming back into their economy. He's in a shitty situation, but he's better off than the Africans he's managing.

The local laborers? Well, they're not as well off as their Chinese boss - they're getting pennies on his dollar. But that's 100% more than 60-80% of their countrymen are typically making as subsistence farmers are making on their small plot of land that they don't own but some tribal chief lets them camp on until the next conflict. So they're pretty happy, even if they get generally yelled at all day for their incompetence.

Who else is in the equation? Well of course the two governments - China and the host country in Africa. China wants mineral rights to Zambia's copper, and land rights to build farms for food futures. Zambia wants nice roads and a convention center in Lusaka and maybe...just maybe...if you get a public official on a good day, they'll even ask for some local community development projects - something off the side of the road. What the Zambian government really wants though is the suitcases of cash that each and every MP and other politician who can get interwoven into the process is requiring for the requisite visas, permits, etc..

Everybody in the equation wins...Zambia wins, China wins.

Its a lie. Zambians don't win, a couple hundred of their "leaders" in Lusaka do. What does a Zambian benefit from a tarmac road that they can't afford to board a vehicle on? Sure, a few of them get menial jobs, the Chinese have to publicize that to make the whole thing work. Its not like they could get away with outsourcing all of their workforce to Africa to do it better, faster - but you better believe they would if they could. What does a Zambian benefit from working in a mine or on a farm that is going to export 100% of its product?

My wife lived in a rural village in China when we were dating, when I was working in all kinds of places in Africa where the Chinese are still today exploding their very profitable business model. It was strange, but telling, for me to go from downtown Beijing, with its Cartier and Mont Blanc and Ferarri stores, to just 1 hour outside the metropolis, where you have villages with open sewers, no waste disposal in the streets save fire, open air butchers with flies on sides of beef because there's not enough regular electricity for refrigeration. Villagers using roads for drying their corn more than for transit. China, in my limited estimation, is a stark dichotomy of 3rd world and 1st world culture. They have every aspect that a rural village in Kenya does in a rural village an hour's drive from Beijing, where they have every aspect of Champs-Élysées lifestyle, which I can promise you doesn't exist anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa.

They are perfectly positioned between Africa and the rest of the world's economy, and I don't see anything about it changing any time soon.

They get it. They're in it for the long run. They seem to have zero interest in raping, pillaging and then leaving, which sadly, is how most North Americans I've encountered still think. Maximum wealth extracted at absolute minimum cost.

I agree they get it, and that they are in it for the long run. I don't agree that it doesn't still equate to pillaging natural resources and then leaving - they are going to run out at some point. Chinese oil drillers aren't any different from the Texans I board the plane in Ndjamena with. If anything, they are much better at extracting maximum wealth at minimum cost, because they can pay their labor much, much less than American companies can, and send them home less often.
posted by allkindsoftime at 12:38 AM on October 30, 2012 [20 favorites]


Every African I have talked to and asked about their opinion of China has liked what they are doing. Of course, this is only anecdata.
posted by infini at 3:23 AM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Have you talked to a lot of those further dispatched diaspora who stand to benefit little from good roads? Any Nairobite will sing the praises of China now that they have a smooth 3 lane highway to the airport and a flyover at Museum Hill, which their own corrupt government never could have completed on their own. But does this really help Kenya develop more, or Chinese goods transit from Mombasa to parts further west more rapidly?

I'd offer that most Africans don't get a fair or accurate picture presented to them by their media or government of what China is actually there doing in their country. They just get the nice road improvements that the top 5% benefit from.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:31 AM on October 30, 2012


My only anecdote is this. At a big Chinese restaurant I went to out of curiosity in Kampala, almost all of the waitresses are Chinese. There are Ugandan waiters, but I noticed that they're not allowed to handle money. Not kidding.
posted by 1adam12 at 3:45 AM on October 30, 2012


I love how the modern world gives carte blanche to China (or anyone else) for their unrestricted edeavors in Africa because of enduring white guilt.

Huh. The "modern" (i.e. Western) world can't stop belaboring the Chinese Menace. The only reason Chinese-Menace-in-Africa gets relatively little attention is that Westerners just don't care about Africa all that much. Any Chinese attempt to invest in the energy/resources sector in the West is met with due scrutiny - Canadian media has been obsessed with this - because the West cares about the West (and ~allies the West could play against its rivals).

I remember watching an ~investigative report~ on the Chinese ventures in Africa from one of the ~internationally esteemed~ UK news outlet. It featured the white host asking the locals how they thought about their Chinese overlords (thumbs down). To be honest, it did peeve me when a Chinese businessman gave food to the locals in a condescending manner - you could feel the condescension from the camera work, which also captured the locals' affronted reactions at the host's prompt. Thank heaven there was an impartial Western journalist giving a voice to the poor Africans against filthy rich Chinese business owners. Western journalists are the Africans' kindred spirits in class terms!

(I can track down the video if anyone insists on seeing it for themselves. It's been a while.)

The local laborers? Well, they're not as well off as their Chinese boss - they're getting pennies on his dollar. But that's 100% more than 60-80% of their countrymen are typically making as subsistence farmers are making on their small plot of land that they don't own but some tribal chief lets them camp on until the next conflict. So they're pretty happy, even if they get generally yelled at all day for their incompetence.

The comparisons to Apple-Foxconn et al. write themselves.

China, in my limited estimation, is a stark dichotomy of 3rd world and 1st world culture.

For the love of your own considerable experience and knowledge (I mean this sincerely), rise above this kind of generalization. China has 一线城市 vs. 二线城市 vs. 三线城市 vs. the rest of the cities/towns vs. the countryside vs. special zones like Tibet. Parts of the A-list and maybe a small number of the B-list cities enjoy 1st-world-ish living. Much of the countryside, and some migrant workers in cities of every level, live in 3rd-world-ish conditions. The rest of them are squarely in the Developing World, except for the special regions that range from Macau to Xinjiang that are so different I can't begin to categorize.

The U.S. is also a collection of cities and countryside and special regions that occupy different spots on the rich-poor 1st-3rd World spectrum, though America as a whole obviously falls more to the rich side than China does. Africa is a collection of nations with diverse economic standings and cities vs. countryside and all that - which you must know far more about than I do - though Africa as a whole falls more to the poor side.

The "Two Extremes" vision you saw in/outside Beijing does not apply to a nation as huge and diverse as China; it will not apply to a continent as huge and diverse as Africa. China is not sucking Africa dry any more than the West is sucking China dry. Short of apocalypse, odds are that, in a couple of decades, some African nations will have amassed enough wealth for the Chinese government/citizenry to be weary of the South African Menace (to pick one African country) and debate African investments in key Chinese industries.

A different version of this process already took place in the Asian Tigers, with human capital (rather than natural resources) flowing Southeast Asia => Asian Tigers => The West, and money flowing in the opposite direction.
posted by fatehunter at 3:52 AM on October 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


Personally, I am very happy with the ubiquity of authentic Chinese food in Africa. I'm just not sure the ubiquity of Chinese business in Africa is as good for it as everyone is quick to believe.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:54 AM on October 30, 2012


allkindsoftime: " I'm just not sure the ubiquity of Chinese business in Africa is as good for it as everyone is quick to believe."

I don't think there's anybody who thinks it's an unalloyed good, but what's the alternative? They are providing jobs, infrastructure, training and long-term thinking. These are things that are very hard to come by in most developing countries. I think we'd all be very pleased if they raised their wages and employment standards, but nobody else is doing anything at all, AFAIK.
posted by vanar sena at 4:36 AM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


> I love how the modern world gives carte blanche to China (or anyone else) for their unrestricted edeavors in Africa because of enduring white guilt.

I disagree that's what's going on. The OECD has hardly apologised for its members' past transgressions, so much for guilt; but the OECD is attempting to curb exploitation and corruption into international aid and trade agreements.

China is not a member of the OECD but China provides what it considers sufficient transparency to its agreements with Africa through its UN seat.

If anything, rather that give China carte blanche access to untapped resources in which everyone has a vested interest, China will be watched for transgressions.

Biggest trouble is: China is not known for interfering with the internal affairs of other nations and won't appreciate the OECD having privileged opinions on its bilateral arrangements with Africa. (China and Africa go back a long way - 1970s? Earlier?)

Transport is vital infrastructure to developing nations. The cars will come.
posted by de at 4:47 AM on October 30, 2012


Some of that assessment sounds kind of conspiratorial. Yet, humanitarian endeavors have delivered relatively little to the table. Is it really better to restrain Chinese investment in the African continent in the cause of preserving (inadequate) humanitarian purity? The desire to restrict profitable development translates into a desire to keep Africa poor and dependent on Western handouts, regardless the good intentions.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:19 AM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't think there's anybody who thinks it's an unalloyed good, but what's the alternative? They are providing jobs, infrastructure, training and long-term thinking. These are things that are very hard to come by in most developing countries.

Yeah, I'm anything but an expert on this topic, but again, my cousin (the mining guy) is worth consulting. He's rather withering when it comes to many of the NGOs and other aid groups, not because of their intentions but at how inefficient they can be. As he put it, "We mining guys just have by far better people on board when it comes to engineers, contractors, etc. We can dig a well, put a roof on a war blasted school, fix a road far quicker, better, cheaper than any crowd of earnest humanitarian types. But do we? No, not unless we get our arms seriously twisted. With the exception of the Chinese. They just tend to roll in and do it. Because (again), they get it. It's good business."

Worth noting, my cousin is not remotely naive when it comes to the Chinese and their internal affairs, or what their long term goals may be for Africa. He's just reporting what he sees. And, I should point out, he's active himself in trying to get his Canadian compatriots to approach things differently, because yes, " ... we're getting our asses handed to us by the Chinese."
posted by philip-random at 7:38 AM on October 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


I've only ever done my exploratory user research amongst the lower income populations in Africa.
posted by infini at 7:41 AM on October 30, 2012


Did anyone else, in watching this, have a sense that thes two cultures/continents that much of the world has thought of inferior for many, many years coming together in this manner is some sort of turning point, and the Ameri-Euro-Russian powerhouse has been kicked to the side of the road?

No, I didn't, since China has been dominant for most of the last 2000 years, excluding a small period of time that began around 1800.


Apart from this, I saw the director speak at Full Frame last year. He was pretty delusional about the parity between China and Africa. He seemed to think this was more of a partnership, and less a new form of colonialism, even if his film demonstrates the opposite.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 8:19 AM on October 30, 2012


China was the center of the civilized world for three or four thousand years. Then it slept for a while.

The west invented a better way to use gun powder and sailing ships, and created a model of colonialism that subvert monarchical prerogative in favor of individual avarice--we call it capitalism, but we don't distinguish among its flavors. Now China seems to be working the model we created. Let's hope they use some of their "long-run" perspective to improve on it.

When the rocks are gone, Chinese entreprenuers can set up off-shore manufactories with cheap African labor. Ex-pats will show up to live in an economy that's better than what they left in China, and they'll run shops, their grandchildren will marry into the local population. By the time the Sino-Africans catch up, they can ship jobs out to North America. We'll be ready to put toys together for wages by then. The idea, as always, is the Sinification of the new territories, not their abject conquest. Africa has lots of room.

In my lifetime I saw the sun set on the British Empire, and I thought it was about time. Now it's our (America's) turn.
posted by mule98J at 8:36 AM on October 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


While I won't be shedding any tears for the end of American Empire, I think the Schadenfreude at the collapse of one empire and the rise of another is unwarranted. It's not like exploitation stops just because someone else picks up the baton.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 8:45 AM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


> We'll be ready to put toys together for wages by then.

Now you stop that, your new focus is innovation and creativity for the jobs of the future. Have you not been given your brief?


Here's China's six reform policies for:
"China 2030: Building a Modern, Harmonious, and Creative High-Income Society"

If I read it in Gillard's voice I've heard it all before.
posted by de at 8:47 AM on October 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


NGOs apparently also cause brain drain among local populations with their relatively high salaries, as mentioned in this article about a nascent tech industry in the West Bank.

When asked about the greatest potential danger for his company, the Israeli occupation was not his concern – it was the omnipresence of international aid organizations. "I believe that the private sector, not the organizations, is what’s going to get Palestine up and running," the young entrepreneur says. What’s more, the NGOs distort market reality: "They pay $1,500 salaries while we in the private sector can only pay between $500 and $700."
posted by Apocryphon at 9:47 AM on October 30, 2012


Strictly speaking, China is (was?) a Second World nation.
posted by mbrubeck at 1:54 PM on October 30, 2012


Certainly African governments prefer working with China to working with the West. In the West, there's a lot of NGOs and humanitarian types who get upset if you open fire on striking miners or employ children (as witnessed in all those Westerners interfering with Foxconn). Chinese investors have no such squeamishness, so they're a much more attractive partner.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 2:49 PM on October 30, 2012


Elephants Dying in Epic Frenzy as Ivory Fuels Wars and Profits
posted by homunculus at 4:16 PM on October 30, 2012


> Strictly speaking, China is (was?) a Second World nation.

I suspect Second World nation has never been part of China's modern narrative. China's narrative throughout the American Century has been the century of humiliation, and they talk of it being over.

China acknowledges the British Century, acknowledges the American Century, predicts an Indian Century (next). Right now China has reasonable expectations based on free market economies and global trade agreements, the American Century's most prominent legacy, that this is its century.
posted by de at 7:44 PM on October 30, 2012


NGOs apparently also cause brain drain among local populations with their relatively high salaries

Speaking as a staff manager at an NGO who has to spend an inordinate amount of time recruiting new staff to fill empty positions vacated by those who went elsewhere for more money, I can confirm quite emphatically that this is not at all an accurate statement if you're trying to apply it across the board. I can't pay people enough to stay, HR won't let me. We can't even compete with the markets we work in, and that is a good thing, in one sense.
posted by allkindsoftime at 2:15 PM on October 31, 2012


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