“Soft despotism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville describing the state into which a country overrun by "a network of small complicated rules" might degrade. Soft despotism is different from despotism (also called 'hard despotism') in the sense that it is not obvious to the people."

Monday, February 05, 2007

Chinese Merchantilism and The Yellow Man's Burden

It seems that the Chinese are discovering the trials and tribulations that go with Global Capitalism. The worst part of business is dealing with people and the Chinese are learning that making money the old-fashioned, merchantilist way isn't good enough anymore. Not even in the third world. This article in the Telegraph illustrates the problem:

Africa discovers dark side of Chinese master

By Colin Freeman in Chambishi, Sunday Telegraph
Last Updated: 1:05am GMT 04/02/2007

The smooth red carpet rolled out across Africa last week for Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, did not quite reach the gates of Zambia's Chambishi copper mine.

His plans to make an official visit yesterday to the plant, which re-opened under Chinese state ownership eight years ago, fell victim to a hitch he rarely encounters at home: the not-so-grateful worker.

Tipped off that miners were threatening protests about poor pay and conditions, Mr Hu changed his schedule, leaving the podium - specially built for the occasion - ungraced with his presence. The miners, who lost 51 colleagues in an explosion at a subsidiary plant two years ago, were a rare dissenting voice on Mr Hu's 12-day, eight-nation tour of Africa, which took in Cameroon, Liberia and Sudan last week and continues to Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique and the Seychelles.

Otherwise, it was choreographed all too smoothly: five-star hotels sealed off to accommodate his vast retinue, surreal "press briefings" at which no questions were permitted, and state functions to which awkward guests like Zambia's opposition parties, who back the miners' grievances, were not invited.

The VIP treatment was not surprising, however, given his country's rapidly-expanding new role in Africa as an investor, trader and aid donor. As well as an army of trade delegates signing business deals by the hundred, Mr Hu came with £2.7 billion to spend in aid and unconditional loans, cash pledged when he entertained 43 African leaders in Beijing last November. Like the Europeans who scrambled for Africa in the 19th and early 20th centuries, his motives are far from altruistic: Beijing wants vast quantities of Zambia's copper, along with Angola's oil, Gabon's timber and Zimbabwe's platinum for its own massive economic expansion, which it hopes will turn it into a new superpower.

Yet to a growing number of African governments - especially the more corrupt and undemocratic ones - Mr Hu represents a much more promising saviour than George W Bush, Tony Blair or U2's Bono. Thanks to his country's long-standing "mutual non-interference policy", Chinese aid and investment deals come on a "no-strings" basis, free of high-minded lectures or conditions about how the cash should be spent.

However, the enthusiasm of Africa's ruling elites for a non-Western benefactor is not shared by the miners of Chambishi township, whose Chinese masters arrived after the mine had lain shut for more than a decade. The sprawling plant is now decked in Maoist-style slogans urging workers to make "vigorous efforts to make the company prosperous", yet the way it is run is capitalism at its most raw.

As well as the mine's questionable safety record, workers' benefits have been slashed, unions discouraged and employees are paid as little as £53 a month, despite rising copper prices.

One miner - who would not give his name for fear of losing his job - told The Sunday Telegraph: "We are glad that the Chinese re-opened the mine, as unemployment here was very high and there were problems with theft and drunkenness.

"But they are difficult to work for. Safety is still poor even after the explosion that killed my friends, and when we ask for more money, they threaten to sack us. I would prefer to work for white managers - they are better educated and they understand what a Zambian needs to live on."

A particular grievance among the miners is that they no longer have the generous cradle-to-the-grave benefits they enjoyed when the copper mines were in state hands.

Today, Chambishi's roads are muddy and potholed, its menfolk spend much of their spare time getting drunk in local shebeens, and mine-sponsored soccer teams that once made the Copper Belt region a talent pool for the country's national team are defunct.

"They have created employment but they should improve the social conditions," said Isaac Lumba, 32, one of a group of miners drinking cartons of strong maize beer outside the Chember Grocery store, a small shack among Chambishi township's rundown, single-storey cottages. "If they are taking our copper they should give something back to the community."

The poor conditions in the Chinese mine were highlighted in a Christian Aid report released last week. It said that while other foreign mine operators, including Swiss and Indian firms, were often slipshod too, they provided at least some social benefits, sponsoring anti-malaria programmes and football teams. The report also described how two miners were shot and injured during a wages protest outside the Chinese managers' compound last year, either by Chinese-hired security guards or by Zambian police. The shooting, it said, "confirmed in the popular imagination the idea that Chinese bosses were uniquely brutal and exploitative, and that the Zambian state's relationship to them was too close".

Fears about the Chinese way of doing business are not just confined to the Copper Belt. In Zambia's capital, Lusaka, traders and manufacturers say the flood of cheap Chinese goods into their markets has made it all but impossible to earn a living. It is a complaint repeated in marketplaces in nearly every African country that has done a trade-for-aid deal.

Zambia, however, is unusual in Africa in that the Chinese presence has become a major political issue. Last October, Michael Sata's opposition Patriotic Front party nearly unseated Levy Mwanawasa, the Zambian president, after campaigning on a populist anti-Chinese ticket, benefiting partly from resentment over conditions in the mines.

Guy Scott, the Patriotic Front general secretary, believes Beijing already wields unhealthy influence over African governments, effectively turning whichever party is in power into a client faction. "They are out to colonise Africa economically," he said.

But it is easy to blame the Chinese for problems that have more to do with the former British colony's longer-term economic woes. Unemployment, for example, is 50 per cent, and 85 per cent of Zambians live below the poverty line, a point not lost on Mr Mwanawasa, who insists Chinese investment offers a leg-up to prosperity after four decades of post-independence mediocrity.

In speeches last week designed to head off protests against Mr Hu's visit, he spoke scathingly of anti-Chinese riots that erupted after last year's elections. "The Chinese government has brought a lot of development to this country and these are the people you are demonstrating against?" he asked.

Despite the controversy, Chinese businessmen are flocking to Lusaka in such numbers that five months ago, the city opened its first Chinese-owned casino.

A Chinese-built five-star hotel is also going up in Livingstone, named after the British missionary who spearheaded the first great colonial venture here. It may be some time, however, before President Hu or any of his successors is accorded a similar honour.

We are witnessing a passing of the torch from the United States to China. China will learn the meaning of the old saying, "To whom much is given, much is expected." Let Africa become the "yellow man's burden."


  1. Obviously it is risky making a blank statement about the Chinese, but unlike the Americans or Europeans they have no sense of historic guilt about Africa, or any other part of Latin America. China itself is far from being a worker's paradise and the Chinese attitude towards labor seems to be that worker's should be grateful for having a job. this should be interesting.

  2. In the interests of adding occult wisdom to the content of the Elephant Bar, I contacted Cecil John Rhodes by ouija board for his expert commentary. Aside from a few pithy comments on Mugabe, all Mr Rhodes had to say went along the lines of :

    "Good luck chinee, you gonna need it."

  3. The pressure on the Taliban remains unrelenting. So, take that you big meanies!

    NATO Urges Taliban to Leave Afghan Town

  4. Where does the Taliban get it's power?

  5. Faith in a Mohahammedan allah.
    The Pashtun Tribe
    The ISI
    The Sauds

  6. OK, lads, fix bayonets! On my command, move forward at the double. Let’s give the bastards a taste of cold rhetoric.

    I don’t see a motion picture comparable to Zulu coming out of the littering of Musa Qala.

  7. Q: Where does the Taliban get its power?

    A: NATO

  8. I think that NATO just takes a knee before the awesome power of the Pakistani.

    We're trying to win these insurgent wars without disrupting the Enemy's sanctuaries and supply routes.

    It's never been done, in the past, hard to see the tactic succeeding, for the first time, against the 30 million Pashtuns living in Aghanistan and Pakistan.
    Or againt 20 million Arab Iraqi, for that matter.

  9. Not Another Taliban Organisation?

    NATO "urges" while Bush "vows" firm response. And only a few months ago, we were talking about "scorn".

  10. Gee, the white guy wasn't so bad after all. As usual,the big man gets the money and the little guy gets the shaft.

  11. These Taliban fellows just don't get it. Maybe it's time to use "pretty please" in our communications.

  12. ___Dialog___

    Q: (NATO) Is there someone else up there we can talk to?

    A: (Taliban) No, now go away or I shall taunt you a second time. I don't want to talk to you no more, you empty headed animal food trough wiper. I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.

  13. OT but for Rufus:

    . The aptly-named "tactical biorefinery" processes several kinds of wastes at once, which it then converts into fuel via two parallel processes before burning the results in a diesel engine to power a generator.

    "he device, which comes in just a hair smaller than a "small moving man," can crunch through multiple kinds of garbage at once, creating energy completely without discrimination towards certain kinds of gunk, and is already being eyed by the US Army for future battlefield usage. Interestingly, initial prototypes are showing that it can produce "approximately 90 percent more energy than it consumes," and considering that it pulverizes everything inserted into it, soldiers won't have to worry about leaving behind remnants of their stay."

  14. As a chinese, I don't find it a surprise. The chinese have a long record of construction on the broken bones of the workers, all the way back to the Great Wall.

    I don't like it, but it did prove an economic law: whatever is in excess supply becomes damn cheap. And if lives could be priced, the average chinese peasant's worth could be measured in grains of rice.

    Also, the smart Africans would do well to heed Lee Kuan Yew's plan for Singapore and concentrate on getting their economies straightened out before they start bitching about the conditions. It might be economic colonization but better that than empty stomachs.

    Oh wait, I forget. The Africans are used to starving. They'd rather have their useless, stupid pride than food.