In To Africa
April 26, 2010 9:11 PM   Subscribe

A Glimpse of the World
All across Africa, new tracks are being laid, highways built, ports deepened, commercial contracts signed -- all on an unprecedented scale, and led by China, whose appetite for commodities seems insatiable. Do China's grand designs promise the transformation, at last, of a star-crossed continent? Or merely its exploitation? The author travels deep into the heart of Africa, searching for answers.

World Bank unit to finance Chinese Africa venture
The World Bank's private sector arm has signed its first deal to finance Chinese investment in Africa, a move it hopes will help to discourage violations of human rights and environmental standards.

China Expands Naval Power to Waters U.S. Dominates
China wants warships to escort vessels crucial to the country’s economy, from the Pacific to the Middle East.

Report: China To Overtake U.S. As World's Biggest Asshole By 2020
According to a new report released Monday by a panel of top economists and social scientists, the People's Republic of China will overtake the United States as the world's dominant asshole by the year 2020.

China Has all Their Eggs in Our Basket
The main theme of this second conversation is which country has the leverage over the other, via China's enormous loans to and investments in the United States. Ma and I see this more or less the same way -- but in quite a different way from what you'd think based on mainstream coverage of the topic or, especially, US talk shows or political speeches.

Wham-O Moves to America
Wham-O moving its production of Frisbees, hula hoops and pool noodles from China to the U.S. is reverse colonialism. Does that mean, as Americans, we're going to have to put our own antifreeze in our toothpaste?

Civil Liberties: Learning from China
Here's the point of comparison between the impending Arizona situation and China: it's no fun knowing -- as citizen and foreigner alike know in China, and as Hispanic-looking people in Arizona soon will -- that you can be asked to show proof of your legality at an official's whim. But if it's sobering to think that the closest analogy to a new U.S. legal situation is daily life in Communist China, we should also look on the bright side. With some notable and serious exceptions, I typically did not see Chinese police asking for papers on a whim. Usually something had to happen first. Maybe soon the Chinese State Security apparatus can travel to Arizona and give lectures to local police and sheriffs. They can explain how to avoid going crazy with a new power that so invites abuse. "Civil Liberties: Learning from China" can be the name of the course.

Ethan Zuckerman's China and Africa Bookmarks
posted by kliuless (20 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Mistah Chin—he dead.
posted by orthogonality at 9:36 PM on April 26, 2010

Pretty sneaky, there, kliuless, linking to The Onion under the guise of The Atlantic. Let me go on record as saying I fully support such sneakyness, in this instance.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:42 PM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Interesting post, thank you.
posted by clockzero at 9:46 PM on April 26, 2010

China Has all Their Eggs in Our Basket

I stand in a thrift store and look at the giant stack of invariably busted DVD players - almost all with stalling or stuttering platter drive motors and many only a year or two old... then I think about computer hard drives which, after a period of notorious unreliability in the 90's, have become relatively bulletproof, and I realize that the people who design hard drives actually use and depend on hard drives and the high variable speed motors/bearings within them. The folks who designed these DVD players on the other hand don't give a tinker's damn how long the motor bearings last as long as they get the $5~$30 wholesale price for them before they're loaded into the shipping container.

Then, the conspiracy theorist within me wonders if their exceptionally poor operational lifespan (as with many other contemporary Chinese products) is deliberately designed in at the secret request of the Chinese government to accumulate a huge trade surplus with the bargain-and-gadget hungry West, thereby giving them unprecedented bargaining power without requiring military posturing. I'm sure they scrutinized the role that economics played in the fall of the USSR.

Beating capitalism at it's own game, as it were.
posted by CynicalKnight at 9:54 PM on April 26, 2010

poor operational lifespan

To be fair, they're taking US dollars in return.
posted by pompomtom at 10:10 PM on April 26, 2010 [4 favorites]

Do China's grand designs promise the transformation, at last, of a star-crossed continent? Or merely its exploitation?

Can it not be both? Or, more accurately, some of both? God knows, I'm the last person on Earth to defend the CCP on anything, but I find it interesting, when Western countries get all het up about China currying influence or - heaven forfend - exploiting developing countries.

The reality is, in many cases, they are (mostly) merely currying favour where we stopped giving a shit long ago, and exploiting marginally less than we have exploited for centuries. So - at the risk of being accused of ethnocentrism - if the west has such a fucking problem with China's actions in the developing world there's a pretty simple solution for much of it: we do better.

But of course, that doesn't sit too well with a coterie of nations that have historically viewed exploiting the poor of Africa as their natural and god-given right. Yes, there are the thorny ones like Sudan, but for every Sudan there's heaps of other countries receiving Chinese aid in forms that are no less corrupt, tainted, political etc than what they receive from the West, or received from the West in the past.

If we are to confront China's ethics on the international aid stage, we'd best get out own house in order, and that means confronting the political expediencies behind our aid to people like Karzai, and countries like Kyrgyzstan.
posted by smoke at 10:58 PM on April 26, 2010 [4 favorites]

...the secret request of the Chinese government to accumulate a huge trade surplus with the bargain-and-gadget hungry West, thereby giving them unprecedented bargaining power without requiring military posturing.

Like a wise man once said, "If you owe the bank a thousand dollars, you have a problem; if you owe the bank a million dollars, the bank has a problem."

Raise that a few orders of magnitude. We're joined at the hip - if they crash our economy, whose consumer demand will keep their factories pumping like mad?
posted by codswallop at 11:18 PM on April 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Good post, kliuless. I'll have something to read all evening here.
posted by Harald74 at 11:29 PM on April 26, 2010

There is no reason to expect China not to become the next great imperial power. It's just a question of what its character will be by then. (And "then" will be sooner than most folk think.) Will it be, by then, a relatively nice imperial power that smooths everything over with lots of decent local jobs and minor power sharing and free Mandarin classes, so that the nice people in Kansas finally have some work and don't really mind the new boss? Or will it smooth everything over the way you smooth over a new asphalt road?
posted by pracowity at 11:38 PM on April 26, 2010

Barry Sautman has long been writing on Sino-African relationships; can't seem to find much online concerning his monograph written with Yan Hairong, East Mountain Tiger, West Mountain Tiger: China, the West, and 'Colonialism' in Africa but there's this article by the pair up at Japan Focus:
Our arguments are threefold: 1) given the world system, it is difficult to assess the pluses and minuses of China-in-Africa as a single phenomenon; 2) as a player in the world system, China in Africa has more in common with the West than is usually acknowledged; 3) there are nevertheless notable differences between Western and Chinese presences in Africa; many derive from China’s experience as a semi-colony, its socialist legacy, and its developing country status, features which together make PRC policies presumptively less injurious to African sensibilities about rights than those of Western states.6 In what follows, we focus on PRC activities in Africa often denounced as harming African interests, particularly trade and investment. We also examine why the China-in-Africa discourse has emerged as it has and African responses to its main tenets.
Worth your time.
posted by Abiezer at 12:14 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

The last country to accumulate as great a foreign currency surplus as China today was Japan in the 1980s, and before that it was the U.S. in the 1920s.

this Charlie Rose with James Chanos is a pretty fascinating look at the problems with the Chinese economy, particularly with respect to realestate.
posted by delmoi at 1:45 AM on April 27, 2010

Should mention another work I've seen reviewed but not had an opportunity to read yet: The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa; author Deborah Brautigan did write a piece on her theme for Foreign Affairs earlier this year:
Westerners think they know what Africa needs to do in order to develop: liberalize markets, get prices right, promote democracy. And they think they know what China is doing there: offering huge no-strings-attached aid packages to resource-rich countries that prop up pariah regimes.

But a closer look reveals a somewhat different story. Over the past few decades, China has managed to move hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty by combining state intervention with economic incentives to attract private investment -- the kind of experimentation that the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping once described as "crossing the river by feeling the stones." Today, China is feeling the stones again but this time in its economic engagement across Africa. Its current experiment in Africa mixes a hard-nosed but clear-eyed self-interest with the lessons of China's own successful development and of decades of its failed aid projects in Africa...

...Why would the Chinese government push some of its labor- and energy-intensive industries to move to special economic zones in Africa, even as the U.S. Congress bans the U.S. Agency for International Development from financing any activities that could relocate the jobs of Americans overseas? Because Chinese planners want industrialists at home to move up the value chain. Polluting industries such as leather tanneries and metal smelters are no longer tolerated in many Chinese cities. And as the world economy recovers from the recent economic recession, wages and benefits will resume rising in China's coastal belt, as they had been before the crisis. Some factories will move further inland, but others will go offshore, closer to both the sources of and the markets for raw materials.

The early stages of industrialization might bring pollution, low wages, and long workdays, especially if the Chinese zones are successful. But like China's resource-backed loans, the planned economic zones promise to provide African countries with some things they very much want: employment opportunities, new technologies, and badly needed infrastructure. This is an opportunity for African states to ride into the global economy on China's shirttails rather than remain natural-resource suppliers to the world.
I think this speaks to codswallop's point about the apparently binary codependency of the US and Chinese economies - it's something strategists in Beijing are well aware of and they have a wider scheme to help promote a 'multipolar' world that will mitigate the risks of such a relationship (for China).
posted by Abiezer at 2:16 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Economist Debate
This house believes that China's growing involvement in Africa is to be welcomed.
posted by adamvasco at 4:34 AM on April 27, 2010

On a conspiracy theory note, Henning Mankell writes about thepossibility of forced migration of Chinese peasants to Africa in The Man From Beijing.
posted by Xurando at 5:01 AM on April 27, 2010

Then, the conspiracy theorist within me wonders if their exceptionally poor operational lifespan (as with many other contemporary Chinese products) is deliberately designed in at the secret request of the Chinese government to accumulate a huge trade surplus with the bargain-and-gadget hungry West...

I suspect it's more like a messy confluence of China's drive to emerge as the world-wide economic giant, with the WalMart-type thinking to relentlessly drive-down prices. Quality will suffer, but prices will fall.

That said, even if China didn't exist, and those DVD players were US-made, I seriously doubt you'd see any change in the cheap crappiness. The bottom line is the bottom line, and there would be no let-up in the ceaseless march to push prices ever lower, with quality taking the hindmost.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:30 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Actually that interview with Brautigan linked above is on "Can the West learn from China?"
posted by infini at 7:46 AM on April 27, 2010

There is no reason to expect China not to become the next great imperial power.

There's at least one: demographics. Within a generation, this is a country with more old people than young due to the one-child policy. There's an imbalance of males to females in the countryside. Per capita GDP is still something like one-fourteenth that of the US. I just don't see the place getting rich enough before it starts getting too old to support growth. Don't believe the hype.
posted by reformedjerk at 8:38 AM on April 27, 2010

reformedjerk, you can pay people to conceive over and over again just as easily as you can pay them to only conceive once.
posted by spicynuts at 9:55 AM on April 27, 2010

a pretty fascinating look at the problems with the Chinese economy

yea, the authorities are definitely cracking down on real estate speculation, but i think LSR makes a useful distinction between boom and bubble:
China's massive monetary expansion has led to a boom in property prices, stoking fears of a property bubble. Bubbles burst and when that happens, the impact on the property market and output growth can be vicious. But a bubble is underpinned by an excessive accumulation of debt, while a boom is brought on by a mismatch between demand and supply. With a large part of Chinese investment in property being financed with savings, not borrowed money, and mortgage debt being a low share of output, it is more difficult to argue that China's property market is a bubble...
cf. China Real Estate

re: moving SEZs to africa, a correspondent of james fallows -- "a doctoral researcher at Oxford, Charlie Pistorius" -- recently made the same point:
Putting aside the huge resource investments China has made in Africa this past decade, it is now establishing special economic zones (SEZ) in Africa. Seven are currently planned, similar to those earlier ones in China from the 1980s. These zones may indeed follow more along the lines of the larger special economic development regions like the Yangtze and Pearl River Delta's. China has the opportunity, and I would say vision, to act in the role of rich industrial foreigner that moves into the host country for export-processing relations (at first), and eventually capitalizing with small-and-medium private and wholly-owned ventures, servicing both their own needs and that of the respective African host economy.

Exactly like China's own experience between 1984 and 1994, the roles can reverse, with Africa as the industrial backwards and poverty-laden host country, ready and willing to transform. We see that China is today uniquely positioned and equipped to assist the Africans in building up their countries, not just through infrastructure projects, but with non-colonial proactive cooperation.


I would postulate that if China moves its heavy polluting industries - tanneries and smelters for instance - abroad to Africa, as well as subsidizing heavy state-owned industries and other over-capacity manufacturers to move their businesses into these African SEZ, and if they adopt an export-processing relationship, whereby low wage local (African) workers are utilized in assembling the goods which are then in turn sent back to their Chinese parent companies, and gets re-exported as final goods, [then all this will form] part of China's external trade balance.

At a quick glance I'd say that this scenario benefits China greatly - locally they release pressure on their controversial environment costs... as well as reducing pressure on domestic industry by spurring manufacturing competition... In all, this has positive effects in keeping China's domestic productivity and unit labour costs in check, and the knock on economic effects (which is a thesis in itself) is overall good for the Chinese economy.

The fact that China can extend its arm to Africa, transferring the skills, workers, technologies and capital from both the agricultural and industrial sector, should allow [the Communist Party of China] to stay put on its current growth path, and earn itself more mercantilist-time to gradually advance the education and consumption capabilities of their citizenry.

For Africa, the yields are immense; in short, Chinese producers working out of Africa will inject the benefits of agglomeration economies - knowledge and technical spillovers, technological and capital investments, opportunities for local firms to form joint-venture partnerships and build their capacity in capturing a regional African economy of scale; and as the firms increasingly locate within the development zones, local labour migration and massive employment opportunities will follow - raising the subsistence level of the poor and hopefully out of severe poverty is Africa's most tangible and immediate gain!

If China takes a sustainable equity interest in the development of Africa via these SEZ, the corruption and mismanagement that African nations have been prone to, can be subverted. And what of the "green-tech" impetus? Could this relationship be a platform for China to assist Africa in undergoing industrialization and development at discounted environmental costs, and possibly via a eco-friendlier path...
judging by howard french's article tho, this seems like it's a bit overly optimistic, if not wishful thinking. perhaps however, as hinted in the 'commercial contracts signed' link -- "there is no reason why others cannot compete on the same terms" -- maybe african countries can play the US and others against china to negotiate better terms to their 'colonisation' (like a reversal of how some states and municipalities get corporations to locate to their districts), e.g. to actually demand the benefits of what pistorius calls "agglomeration economies."

indeed, paul romer has been advocating charter cities as sort of an SEZ alternative:
A charter city starts with a vacant and voluntarily provided piece of land large enough to hold a city, a charter which specifies the rules that will apply in this new region, and a commitment that potential residents can freely move in to or out of the city. The people, employers, and investors will follow, attracted by the chance to work together under the rules that the charter specifies.

There are three distinct roles for participating nations: host, source, and guarantor. The land is provided by a host country. The people who choose to live in a charter city come from a source country. The guarantee that a charter will be respected and enforced for decades into the future comes from a guarantor country...

Kenya could fill the roles of host and source. Given the recent political turmoil there, they might opt to partner with other governments that could act as guarantors. One good partner might be the government of Mauritius—an African country with experience managing special export zones of its own. Another might be a respected developed country like Germany, which could act alone or in conjunction with Mauritius. The guarantor country or countries would provide credible assurance to investors that the charter and the rule of law will be respected for decades to come. With this assurance, Kenyans could immediately attract private investment that provides the urban infrastructure that they lack. Countries that do not serve as guarantors could supply services as well. For example, Kenyans could draw on Singaporean expertise in ports and airports or British expertise in common law.
also btw...
-Global Prosperity Wonkcast
-EconTalk with Russ Roberts
-Glaeser on the Economic Advantages of Agglomeration
-China and Latin America: Re-evaluating Macro Linkages
posted by kliuless at 1:23 PM on April 28, 2010

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