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Cowboy Capitalism: Chinese Companies in Africa

Posted by Amelia Hight on October 10th, 2007

Transit riders switching trains at the Montgomery BART subway station in downtown San Francisco will find it difficult to miss the new ads covering the walls, the floor and even the stairs with pictures of Sudanese refugees. The advertisements' message is attention catching: "Are you invested in genocide?" As part of the Save Darfur Coalition's Divest for Darfur campaign, the ads urge transit users to visit their website, where they are asked to demand that investment firms - specifically JP Morgan, Franklin Templeton, Fidelity Investments, Capital Group (American Funds), and Vanguard - withdraw investments from companies like the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), which are, according to the website, "filling the coffers of the Sudanese government and helping fund the government's actions in Darfur." (As a side note, the use of the term "genocide" by groups like Save Darfur to describe the conflict in Sudan is highly controversial. For more information, read the transcript of Professor Mahmood Mandani's June 4th interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, titled "The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency."

The CNPC has been heavily censured for continuing to do business in Sudan, despite the ongoing conflict there. Attempting to place pressure on firms invested in the state-owned CNPC, rather than on the CNPC itself, is a way for activists to circumvent the "no strings attached" stance of the Chinese government toward investment in Africa and other parts of the world. China prides itself on having a different approach to investment than western lending organizations like the World Bank or IMF, which have numerous development and human rights stipulations attached to investments. In Sudan, this means that the government doesn't have to bend to international pressure to, say, allow UN troops into Darfur. Many African governments welcome Chinese investment specifically because of this hands-off approach. In a recent article in the New York Times, Lydia Polgreen comments on the increasing presence of Chinese companies in Africa, especially in the rich natural resources and mining sector. Manganese mines in South Africa, uranium pits in Nigeria and cobalt mines in the Congo are all areas of investment for state-owned Chinese companies, like the Nonferrous Metals Corporation.

African citizens view Chinese investment with ambivalence. Some see economic relationships with China as a source of much needed income and a step up from paternalistic relationships with the West. "Let the Chinese come," said Mahamat Hassan Abakar, a lawyer in Chad. "What Africa needs is investment. It needs partners. All of these years we have been tied to France. Look what it has brought us." Others are more critical, seeing China as just another country robbing Africa of its resources and in the process enriching local elites, bolstering repressive governments and perpetuating Africa's secondary economic status. Cheap Chinese goods flooding Africa inhibit local manufacturing and the jobs that accompany it. Unsafe working conditions lead to industrial accidents like the 2005 blast at a Chinese-owned explosives factory in Chambishi, Zambia, which killed 51 people.

The investment of Chinese state-owned companies in Africa is hardly a win-win situation, but it is easy to recognize the attraction for African governments doing business with Chinese companies. In judging if China is a partner or colonizer in Africa, the answer is probably, a little of both.