China and Africa and Us


As Steven Spielberg's withdrawal from Beijing's Olympics reminds us, China's resource interests in Africa are tied up in blood. But China's material hunger hasn't just protected unsavory governments. It's driven up the price of resources like oil and put strains on already fragile ecosystems. That's especially worrisome in war-torn and extremely poor sections of Africa, where environmental damage can lead to deadly, vicious cycles of devastation.

But let's remember why China is in countries like Sudan, which provides 40 percent of its oil supplies to China. There are the thousands of new cars that hit its roads daily. There's all that massive construction. And then, of course, there's all that stuff they make and do for the rest of the world. China may be exploiting the developing world's raw resources in ways that make former colonial powers blush, with little regard for good governance, human rights or the environment. But for those of us who depend upon cheap Chinese goods, China is in Africa on everyone's behalf.

It makes me wonder, why stop at the Olympics? What if Steven Spielberg "boycotted" his iPod, his computer, his furniture?

Okay, maybe that's going too far. Or maybe not.

China is late to the resources scramble. The world's superpowers spent the past two centuries exploring and exploiting resources around the globe, carving up countries and sowing all kinds of problems along the way. The mere fact of the U.S.'s oil-based relations with Africa and the Middle East makes it a dubious critic of China on this point (the UK and France are also suspect finger-pointers). For it's part, China has pointed out this hypocrisy, talked of its brotherhood with Africa, and emphasized that it has no "colonial" intentions there.

But the country's demand for resources also means that it is exploring in places other countries have considered too risky, and doing it in unsavory ways.

Africa is not standing idly by. Observer Peter Bosshard of International Rivers recently described some ecological impacts of China's global scramble -- and the growing complaints of locals -- in the San Francisco Chronicle:

A Chinese company is building a large dam on the Kafue River in Zambia that puts important wetlands, including two national parks, at risk. The dam will generate power for nearby mines, which produce copper and cobalt for China's industry. When Western financiers hesitated to fund the Kafue River project because of environmental concerns, the Chinese developer immediately stepped in, and urged Zambian authorities to cut the environmental assessment process short.

A backlash against the social and environmental impacts of Chinese investments has already begun. Workers have protested the poor labor conditions in Chinese mines in Zambia. Rebel groups have targeted Chinese oil installations in Nigeria and Ethiopia. Environmental groups in Burma and Sudan have asked Chinese dam-builders to stay away from their rivers. And the government of Sierra Leone has outlawed timber exports because of the ravaging impacts of Chinese logging.

But China-Africa trade continues apace. In 2004, China's exports to Africa rose by 36 percent year-on-year to $13.82 billion, while imports, mostly natural resources, surged 81 percent to $15.65 billion, according to Chinese figures. In 2005, total trade between Africa and China surged to $40 billion. In 2007, it reached $74 billion.

Some have wondered whether other countries will be left to sit on the sidelines as the biggest embrace within our agnostic, globalized world, grows even stronger.

While looking in the mirror, it is worth asking ourselves how to treat China. Forgetting even its policy of non-interference, China, like every other oil-hungry country before it, is acting in its own interest by securing resources for its growing economy. And the growth that China is achieving, it argues -- a growth it is sharing with Africa -- is the best way toward security, poverty alleviation, and peace. This is an idea considered part of the Beijing Consensus (as opposed to the neoliberal "Washington" variety, or Cheney-style neo-conservatism).

However, if China is hoping for real growth in Africa (and at home), sustainability--whether we call it political, social or ecological--cannot be an after thought. If China is really a true friend of Africa's, then it ought to consider how its business there, and indeed its business at home, is effecting the environment. It must be concerned with finding alternatives to its domestic model for growth -- get rich first, ask questions later -- lest that particular model infects African nations too. After all, both countries are bearing the brunt of climate change, but especially Africa.

If we are left to sit on the sidelines--and I'm not convinced that we are--but if the role of the U.S., Europe and the U.N. in the world's stickiest situations continues to be both hypocritical and somewhat impotent, if indeed we can't save China or Africa because they were never ours to lose, then China and Africa have only themselves to lose. Or save.

China is not simply engaging in trade. It is offering massive infrastructure and aid programs to its partner countries, like Congo, which in September received a neat $5 billion in Chinese aid. But how much can massive Chinese infrastructure and aid programs mean without good governance and sustainability? Will they really benefit anyone but the countries' elite? Increasingly, those who can speak for the fragile peoples and environments of Africa are trying to do so.

And if China's state-owned oil companies and government officials do not fully appreciate the value of good governance or environmental protection in partner countries -- after all, these are areas with which China itself is still struggling -- there are signs it may be serious about one thing: reputation.

Like the food and toy safety scandals and continuing concerns about pollution during the Olympics, Spielberg's withdrawal from the Games is a big slap in China's face, against the backdrop of what is arguably the country's most face-building event. If China (or indeed any country) has little use for good conscience now, its global aspirations and connections mean that it has lots of need for good face.

But when its growth (and so much pride) is at stake, challenging China's reputation is not only not enough, it is counter-productive. Whatever other countries say or do regarding China's relations with Africa, they need to remember part of the reason why China is there. As Bosshard writes

A large part of the minerals and timber that China extracts around the world ends up in furniture, computers and toys in our homes. An estimated 70 percent of China's timber imports are re-exported in products for the world market. And the copper from China's mines in Zambia may well provide the wiring in our television sets.

China has become the world's factory, but its own per-capita consumption is still modest. The carbon-dioxide emissions of average Chinese citizens are only a quarter of the U.S. levels. Most Chinese don't drive cars, and already now, the fuel economy of Chinese cars is higher than the standard that the U.S. Energy Bill has set for 2020.

If we're going to point fingers at China, and we should, we need to point them at ourselves too. If we can acknowledge that we are not standing on the sidelines of China's African adventure, but are involved in it, there is hope for change. Spielberg, and few others, are willing to give up their cheap goods or their iPods. But if we can find ways to trade good ideas, and not just engage China cynically, as some argue it is engaging Africa -- we might begin to have an Olympian impact that means more than any boycott.

See We Are All Chinese

Also on Treehugger:
For China's Environment...

Photo by GafferBee

China and Africa and Us
As Steven Spielberg's withdrawal from Beijing's Olympics reminds us, China's resource interests in Africa are tied up in blood. But China's material hunger hasn't just protected unsavory governments. It's driven up the price of resources like oil and

Related Content on