"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Chinese in Africa–A Good Thing

For years the United States has been China-bashing, watching an emerging world power extend its influence worldwide.  If it is not the suppression of civil rights and freedom of speech, it is the undervalued yuan; and if it is not the distorted currency, it is the country’s exploitive moves in the Third World.  America’s exceptionalism is being challenged – a social and economic model other than that of the United States is working quite well, thank you.  China readily admits that social cohesion is an important element of economic development – all must pull on the same track towards a common goal if the country is to develop.  The mantra of the Chinese government has always been ‘economic development first, American-style freedoms second’; and they have never been shy about admitting, supporting, and promoting these priorities.  However much the United States can carp, whine, whinge, and complain (which is all they can do because China owns us, and finances our profligacy), China’s economic progress has accelerated with lightning speed and hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty.

What irks America most is the fact that China has taken over international development, a province once uniquely held by the United States with some minor investments from the Europeans.  The Chinese have negotiated business deals very profitable to both sides.  China purchases the raw materials needed to fuel the countries rapid growth and emergence from poverty; and the supplying country benefits from Chinese investment in and in many cases construction of needed infrastructure.  These deals are no-questions-asked agreements without the ponderous and rarely-respected ‘conditionalities’ demanded by the United States and the World Bank.  That is, there are no demands for reforming government, increased transparency in accounting, greater community participation, etc.  They are business deals common in capitalism.  Buyer and seller agree upon a fair sale price and the deal is done.

These deals have moved out of raw materials and moved into agriculture, especially in Africa.  Ethiopia is a country which, because of wars, corruption, endemic mismanagement, and parochial regional disputes, has a pitiful rate of agricultural (or industrial) productivity.  The Chinese are negotiating agreements there and in other countries such as Mozambique whereby they will develop unused land, build the infrastructure to serve it, transform it into a fertile region and make it bloom like the Negev, and send the yields back to China.  China gains valuable agricultural produce for its population, African countries benefit from the modernization of an agricultural system which has been neglected or poorly managed for decades. Without Chinese investment, vast acres of potentially productive land would continue to be arid wastelands. 

China has indeed begun to put down substantial agricultural roots on the African continent. China's investment in Mozambique illustrates both its commitment to the agricultural sector and the diversity of Chinese investment in Africa. Through a series of agreements, China has pledged $800 million to modernize Mozambique's agricultural infrastructure and has financed the building of a dam and canal to bring water to arable land. Additionally, at least 100 Chinese agricultural experts are stationed in several research stations within Mozambique, working with local groups to increase crop yield and otherwise improve the performance of the agricultural sector. (Asia Times Online)

The United States is unhappy for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost, it is losing economic advantage in Africa.  The vast natural resources of the continent, once thought to be within the economic arc of the Unites States are no longer secure.  Second, it is losing political influence.  The deals cut by the Chinese are far more favorable to ruling elites than the condition-burdened aid projects offered by the United States.  Third, and in a way most importantly, the United States cannot simply abide the notion that an anti-democratic, Communist, aggressive country is taking turf from the anointed, exceptional United States which brings not only development but enlightenment.  An article by Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian, in the New York Times today (6.28.12) chronicles these sour grapes: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/28/opinion/beijing-a-boon-for-africa.html?ref=opinion

IN June 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave a speech in Zambia warning of a “new colonialism” threatening the African continent. “We saw that during colonial times, it is easy to come in, take out natural resources, pay off leaders and leave,” she said, in a thinly veiled swipe at China.

Since China began seriously investing in Africa in 2005, it has been routinely cast as a stealthy imperialist with a voracious appetite for commodities and no qualms about exploiting Africans to get them. It is no wonder that the American government is lashing out at its new competitor — while China has made huge investments in Africa, the United States has stood on the sidelines and watched its influence on the continent fade.

The Americans have yelled ‘neo-colonialism, exploitation, moral indifference’ and far worse.  Yet the situation is far different:

Despite all the scaremongering, China’s motives for investing in Africa are actually quite pure. To satisfy China’s population and prevent a crisis of legitimacy for their rule, leaders in Beijing need to keep economic growth rates high and continue to bring hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. And to do so, China needs arable land, oil and minerals. Pursuing imperial or colonial ambitions with masses of impoverished people at home would be wholly irrational and out of sync with China’s current strategic thinking.

Just as importantly, these invectives and politically-motivated charges of exploitation of the poor are unfounded:

To the contrary, China’s role is broadly welcomed across the continent. A 2007 Pew Research Center survey of 10 sub-Saharan African countries found that Africans overwhelmingly viewed Chinese economic growth as beneficial. In virtually all countries surveyed, China’s involvement was viewed in a much more positive light than America’s; in Senegal, 86 percent said China’s role in their country helped make things better, compared with 56 percent who felt that way about America’s role. In Kenya, 91 percent of respondents said they believed China’s influence was positive, versus only 74 percent for the United States.

The rap on China has been that it imports everything – labor and capital – to the partnering country, thus depriving it of any increase in employment or enterprise.  This, too, is largely false. “In countries like Zambia, the ratio of African to Chinese workers has exceeded 13:1 recently”.

Finally, American criticism has been unfairly placed on the Chinese for not promoting civil and human rights – in other words to insist on the same conditionalities as the United States.  However, there is little evidence to show that the American moralistic posture has worked.  Most corrupt leaders say ‘yes’ to condition-laden projects because they know that because the US government wants to give them money more than they need it, they ignore the conditions.  USAID ignores this poor performance, grants more money on the principle of ‘Next time will be better’.

The Chinese understand that it is up to the leaders of recipient countries to reform their governments, not them:

If anything, the bulk of responsibility for abuses lies with African leaders themselves. The 2011 Human Rights Watch Report “You’ll Be Fired If You Refuse,” which described a series of alleged labor and human rights abuses in Chinese-owned Zambian copper mines, missed a fundamental point: the onus of policing social policy and protecting the environment is on local governments, and it is local policy makers who should ultimately be held accountable and responsible if and when egregious failures occur.

In one of the best-articulated arguments against American-style aid, the author states:

China’s critics ignore the root cause of why many African leaders are corrupt and unaccountable to their populations. For decades, many African governments have abdicated their responsibilities at home in return for the vast sums of money they receive from courting international donors and catering to them. Even well-intentioned aid undermines accountability. Aid severs the link between Africans and their governments, because citizens generally have no say in how the aid dollars are spent and governments too often respond to the needs of donors, rather than those of their citizens.

America’s criticisms are particularly ironic because it owes so much to China.  China holds a significant proportion of America’s sovereign debt, without which the United States could not function.  Also, the American foreign policy establishment has once again been blinded by the belief in American exceptionalism.  Our diplomats and aid workers are no different from the missionaries in the jungle who believed that once the savages saw the Light, they would reject their primitive ways. They ignore the facts, however, that corrupt regimes need to reform from within; that economic progress trumps idealistic notions of freedom and liberty, meaningless terms for the poor; and that the Chinese are disciplined, on-message, smart, savvy, and relentless businessmen. 

It is time for America to keep quiet, accept its diminished and beholden status, and to either take the gloves off or go home.

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