Saturday, December 27, 2008

China in Guinea

Guinea is in the news due to a coup, which the US, EU, and AU have condemned. Africa certainly doesn't need any more coups, but it also doesn't need any more direct interference from Chinese mineral concerns. As Africans rightly ask, what's the problem with free trade? The problem is that where free trade with liberal democracies is about benefiting individuals and their voluntary organizations (companies) in those countries, trade with China is about benefiting China - and once the trade link is established, China's doctrine of supposedly not interfering with other countries' internal workings is right out the window. In 2006 China offered to build a soccer stadium for Guinea and in 2008 a hydroelectric dam in exchange for bauxite (aluminum ore) rights.

So far so good. Now look at Zambia. Zambia is an excellent example of the effect of Chinese mineral attention. It's a country whose mineral wealth in the form of copper is being rapidly removed from the country through the backbreaking and poorly compensated labor of Zambians, and to the profit of China. Zambians know this all too well, and in 2006 they came close to electing a candidate (Michael Sata) mostly because his position could be reduced to disliking the Chinese. China stated that should he be elected, they would have broken off all diplomatic ties to Zambia. It's hard to see how that's "non-interference"; I think we English speakers must be mistranslating a word that more accurately means "we should be able to do whatever we want with Tibet and Taiwan".

Unfortunately it seems Zambians recently have only had the choice of either a government that sells them out to Chinese state-run mineral interests, or (in Michael Sata) a student of Bobby Mugabe. Maybe this is why Sata is suddenly more receptive to Chinese investment, as Mugabe has always been.

Should we be surprised by China's neo-colonialism in Africa? Hardly. "In 2001, the Politburo set down its global zou chuqu ("go out") directive, instructing state-owned enterprises to seek long-term access to natural resources." Does this sound familiar? The Chinese government reached the same conclusion that the PNAC did, and they've been acting on it - and more effectively than the US to boot.

There is a way to focus foreign policy and incentivize investment and free trade in commodity-rich (resource-cursed) countries while encouraging the development of infrastructure and liberal democracy in a place where people have struggled with it. It's harder to do it this way, the right way, than to just be overt imperialists, and China is much better at moving in and exploiting moments of vulnerability. What do I mean? We thought "the oil would pay for the war" - and yet China is the first foreign government to sign an oil deal with post-war Iraq. China has the advantage of not having to trouble themselves about the incompetence, barbarism and human rights nightmares of dictators when signing deals with them; and those dictators like not being hounded about reforms, so they're natural allies. Steal elections, arrest and execute your opposition while your people die of cholera and have inflation of literally eleven million percent? No problem! Not for China, not if you have platinum.

A new Great Game has started in Africa; China has had the ball for the whole first quarter of the game, because the West is only now realizing that clock has started. It's difficult not to speak in adversarial terms, and indeed, China and the West still think we're playing two different games. It's critical that China is brought further onto the same playing field in the twenty-first century.

Credit: Economist

No comments: