As the 2008 Summer Olympics closed with all the expected fanfare, this international multi-sports event represents an even more significant milestone for the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which has shelled out tens of billions of dollars to host what can accurately be called their “coming out” party. This caps two decades of prosperity involving a political shift from strict communism to what can be called “market socialism,” in which capitalist element systems are introduced as incentives or stimuli to encourage production.
In the interim, the government’s “growing pains” have been on display for the entire world to see, including its perennial rivalry with the island nation of Taiwan, and perhaps most notably, 1989’s Tiananmen Square protest and massacre. Mainland China’s unprecedented economic growth has earned it membership into the World Trade Organization, the United Nations (UN) Security Council, and most recently of course, the right to host the Olympics.
This latest milestone might be seen as China’s symbolic entrée into the ranks of the world’s super powers, and also revisits the issue of its internal human rights concerns, and its questionable interventions into the affairs of others, most notably Tibet.
Not nearly as well covered in the press have been its activities on the continent of Africa, a potential source for sustaining the phenomenal economic growth displayed over the past few decades. China desperately needs an abundant source of natural resources to offset the fact that it has few indigenous stockpiles to rely on. America and the traditional powers it directly competes with already have well-established infrastructures in the Middle East, while the Dark Continent, rife with civil unrest though it may be, offers a more pliable objective economically, especially since the Americans have their hands full with their commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Friendly persuasion: a Sino-African primer
While far less is known to the general public, forays into the Dark Continent by the PRC have been common knowledge to those in the international community for years, and may have been at least a partial motivation behind the American military’s formation of a new African Command (AFRICOM) this past year (see Our Weekly cover story “Marching to Africa,” dated 8-9-07).
Chinese-African relations have been rife with racial overtones since the influx of African exchange students in the 1960s as part of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung’s push for “Third World Solidarity.” Similar to the animosity directed toward black and other minorities during the era of affirmative action in the United States, many Chinese resented the (comparatively) generous stipends given to the foreign students, who’d been encouraged to study in China since the 1960s. At least some of the friction may have stemmed from the romantic liaisons formed between African men and Chinese women.
Part of China’s appeal as a trade partner to Third World countries, especially those in Africa, is its insistence on respecting each country’s sovereignty and in the process refusing to insinuate itself or even criticize the domestic affairs of the nations it does business with. This policy is mutually attractive to the Chinese, who have their own shoddy reputation regarding human rights violations internally. This in turn raises concerns by humanitarian groups who suggest that China’s primary objective is the exploitation of African raw materials to sustain its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), while ignoring the genocide raging in places like the Darfur region of Sudan.
Towards that end, they point to the Chinese tendency to invest in only those infrastructures necessary for the extraction of the raw materials, while giving little thought to the development of fledgling industries (i.e., they’re not committed to nurturing self-sustaining businesses). Thus the past decades have seen the modernization of state-of-the-art airports across the continent in places like Mozambique and South Africa, with a brand-new one under construction in Sudan, tentatively to be called the Khartoum New International Airport (KINA). They often build up their own urban “China Towns,” centers of commercialism, which usually exclude the indigenous Africans.
As far as China’s commitment to a policy of “non-interference” in domestic affairs, it curiously does not apply to the provision of arms and military equipment which leads the way to the continuation of the ritual of violence, instability, dictatorial rule, and corruption that has characterized the African continent since colonialism ended.
Hidden menace behind the ‘peaceful rise’
The struggle toward “Marxist unity” took a different turn with the end of the Cold War as China focused on its financial development via the use of “soft power,” as opposed to the widely held perception of the American government’s tendency toward arrogance, insensitivity regarding indigenous cultures, and insistence on implementing Yankee values in the impoverished countries they are purportedly trying to help.
As a result, this tarnished history affords the Chinese an opportunity to come in and present themselves as benevolent investors (despite the abovementioned differences) bent on elevating another poverty-stricken region to parity in an international display of Marxist co-operation. The most visible of course, is the push for the rich petroleum deposits that range from Sudan, through Nigeria, and along the west coast, but Africa contains vast hordes of cobalt, copper, chromium, diamonds, manganese, uranium, and zinc, particularly attractive to population-heavy but resource-poor China. The PRC has sought out sustenance from other sovereignties as well, including Vietnam (curiously enough, another Communist bastion), which lists among its grievances the appropriation of islands with significant offshore oil deposits in the South China Sea, as well as Malaysia and the Philippines (see “South China Sea Flashpoint” from the April 19, 2008 issue of The Philippine Daily Inquirer).
Africa, however, is the prime jewel, and to gain a foothold there, East and West are willing to overlook illicit behaviors, including mass genocide and torture and human rights abuses in general. Although both sides share complicity, Western countries like the United States are more likely to be inhibited by public opinion. China too, has been accused of using its position on the U.N. Security Council to block efforts to apply pressure on the African continent to afford its citizenry better treatment, especially in the area of Sudan. But then again, China had an ulterior motive for being oppositional long before it became heavily invested in the African oil industry or began shipping arms to the continent. The act of addressing humanitarian and other sanctions against other nations externally brings with it the possibility of such scrutiny being turned inward. This is a particularly thorny proposition for China, among the nation’s leaders in the promotion of capital punishment, and alleged human rights abuses in general, accusations presented by a multitude of international watch dog agencies including Amnesty International, Global Policy Forum, Global Voices, Human Rights Watch, and others.
Charges and counter charges
“…China has transferred military, security, and police equipment to armed forces and law enforcement agencies in countries where these arms are used for persistent and systematic violations of human rights. The absence of criterion to respect human rights in the Chinese regulations governing decisions on arms export is a major flaw in controlling arms transfers.” -from China: Sustaining conflict and human rights abuses: The flow of arms continues, released June 11, 2006, by Amnesty International.
Human rights abuses within its borders notwithstanding, China is guilty of supplying arms, and other military and other security equipment to a host of countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America notorious for perpetrating murder and torture, according to a June 2006 report by Amnesty International.
A principle company that comes up in almost any discussion about arms trafficking in Africa (along with a host of other locals through the globe) is the China North Industries Corporation, better known as “Norinco,” specializing in the adaptation of original Russian designs ranging from small arms (including the historical AK-47) and trucks to ordinance for military aircraft. Norinco has also manufactured clones of American firearms such as the M-16 rifle and the Colt .45 automatic pistol.
Norinco 9 mm pistols have made their way into South Africa as ostensibly legitimate implements for security work, but also have been used in the commission of criminal enterprises, including armed robbery, rape, and murder. The path these weapons took to get to these nefarious endeavors is difficult to impossible to trace, since China is among the most corrupt of the world’s large economies behind number one, India, (according to the World Economic Forum Executive Opinion Survey), as well as being reluctant to conform to any attempts at transparency.
Norinco arms have been found in the hands of rebel troops (who as recently as 2007 have included child soldiers, according to the U.N. News Centre) engaged in Chad’s civil war near the eternal caldron of the Sudan border. In the same report, Amnesty mentions Tanzanian police using Norinco-manufactured tear gas guns in riot suppression, circa 2001 on the island of Zanzibar. Norinco assault rifles have even made their way into the U.S., and may be purchased online at www.gunsamerica.com.
The process of transporting small arms across international boundaries is not nearly as monumental as that of shipping sea vessels or even aircraft. The Rand Corporation in Santa Monica documented Chinese arms transactions in a paper titled China’s Arms Sales: Motivations and Implications, listing tanks, transport planes, and fighter jets sent to Zimbabwe and its colorful strongman Robert Mugabe, who has variously been accused of ethnic genocide between 1982 and 1987, and using murder, beatings, and other acts of coercion to ensure the continuation of what leaders in the United States and the European Union call a corrupt, repressive regime. On top of this military hardware, the Chinese have built a palatial 25-bedroom mansion for Mr. Mugabe in the style of a pagoda.
The most visible Chinese trade partner is of course Sudan, which in recent years has been the raison d’etre (roughly translated as “reason for being”) or most current fashionable cause for the socially conscious of the entertainment elite, especially here in Los Angeles. Acclaimed director Steven Spielberg succumbed to pressure from liberal human rights groups and bowed out as artistic director of the Beijing Olympics.
In an exclusive interview with Our Weekly, Eric Sears of the New York and Washington, D.C. based advocacy organization Human Rights First, said that a symbiotic relationship (a close interaction, sometimes mutually beneficial but often parasitic connection between two separate bodies), exists between China and Sudan. More specifically, weapons are exchanged for oil, both crude and refined. The rate of oil exchange dwarfs that of small arms, but still directly impacts the carnage there (between 300,000 to 400,000 fatalities, according to various U.N. officials). Citing a U.N. database from 2004 to 2006, the last period that figures were provided for, Sears reports that Sudan acknowledged that China provided 90 percent of the small arms it received. (A major participant in these dealings has been one Victor Bout, said to be the model for the Nicolas Cage character in the 1995 motion picture “Lord of War.”)
Countering the PRC’s efforts to present an appealing image for the Olympics (including the revocation of visas of potential troublemakers), the Jewish World Watch recently staged a protest march locally to address its human rights abuses (see Our Weekly dated 8-21-08 “Biggest weapons provider to Sudan”). Its Assistant Director, Naama Haviv, acknowledges constructive gestures undertaken by the PRC since its admission into the United Nations, including the authorization of Resolution 1769, which approved the deployment of a 26,000-strong peace-keeping force in Darfur, but points out China’s subsequent undermining of the same using its position on the U.N.’s Security Council to delay or impede that same resolution. She asserts that China’s newly acquired clout in the U.N. (especially its position on the Security Council) has been used to solidify its relationship with Sudan and to inhibit any direct confrontation of the atrocities in Darfur.
Local activist Ayuko Babu, best known as the founder of the Pan African Film Festival, offers an opposing view, having first encountered the Chinese in 1970 when they helped construct a railroad (the Tanzam Railway, alternately known as Tazara or Uhuru Railway) between Tanzania and Zambia via interest-free loans to the tune of $500 million. Prior to its construction, Chase Manhattan Bank, the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and other financial organizations maintained it was not economically feasible, choosing to continue transporting (the land-locked) Zambia’s substantial copper resources through Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa. Rerouting these valuable reserves to Tanzania’s seaports on the Indian Ocean was an important political coup; since Zambia was among the havens used by the Nelson Mandela led African National Congress (ANC) guerrillas in their struggle against apartheid.
Babu points out that the PRC was a long-time supporter of liberation movements throughout the continent including Mandela, even before his 27-year incarceration beginning in 1962, when he had been labeled a communist. He questions the media spin on China’s international position, and is considering the inclusion of documentaries presenting alternative viewpoints in next February’s festival. Babu stressed that the African Union (a confederation consisting of 53 African nations) should be responsible for confronting issues of civil rights or crimes against humanity within any jurisdiction on the continent. “The African Union understands best the problems of Africa,” said Babu.
Preparing for the ‘rise of the rest’
The underlying constant that has continued from the colonial era through the “scramble for Africa” that dominated the late 1800s and the reign of Belgium’s King Leopold II (notoriously credited with the deaths of between five and 15 million Congolese in what was then known as the Belgium Congo) up to the present, is the focus on harvesting the continent’s resources while ignoring any development of self-sustaining industry or a system geared toward autonomy or independence.
It is a tradition that has continued from colonialism, on through the Cold War and on to the present. Foreign interference has been at least partially responsible for this ongoing trend, as well as the inability for most of this landmass to sustain any form of democratic government in the interim.
The glitz and glamour showcased in the Olympics may be seen as an extension of what academics and scholars have called China’s “Peaceful Rise,” wherein the PRC strives for economic advancement while carefully maintaining a peaceful international presence. Good intentions aside, China’s emergence in itself produces friction by virtue of the competition it presents to the United States and other traditional global powers, as well as its sheer size as the most populous nation in the world (one billion and counting, according to the CIA’s 2008 World Factbook).
Colonial exploitation notwithstanding, Africa benefited from a relatively short coastline compared to the sheer size of the continent. Most of the coast is shallow except in a few choice locales (which became staging areas for slave embarkation), then further inland the European interlopers found large, unstable rivers whose rapid movement and turbulence make them ill suited for navigation and exploration. Above all Europeans suffered the sweltering heat which served as a natural incubator for tropical diseases. These hostile elements have ensured that it remained relatively underdeveloped through the dawn of the 21st Century, when technological advancements have helped overcome these obstacles.
Nature’s inhibitions, geographic and otherwise, acted as an environmental fortification to blunt the expansion of European conquerors and their minions. As a result, Africa today beckons like an uncut diamond for those hungry for raw materials. Even so, energy consultants, futurists, think tanks, and the like are actively debating the finite nature of the earth’s reserves as up-and-coming countries compete for these possibly limited resources alongside America and China (as previously noted the ‘big kids on the block’).
China’s intentions, good or bad, are difficult to gauge because of its unwillingness to conform to transparency regulations and their stated policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of others. What is reasonably certain is a shift of power in which formidable newcomers will surface from Latin America, Asia (especially China and India), and inside Africa, termed “the rise of the rest,” by Newsweek editor and best-selling author Fareed Zakaria in 2008’s The Post-American World. These additional participants will all be clamoring for the same commodities that are a staple of the Western world.
All this puts a question mark on the future quality of life in the United States. As the major election approaches, on top of dealing with the general dissatisfaction so pervasive among its citizens, American policy both foreign and domestic, will be pressured to sustain the lifestyle of its upper- and middle-classes, as well as addressing the plight of the less fortunate who, like the Darfur refugees, are but an after-thought in the division of worldly goods.
Sources used in the compilation of this article include the following:
-The 2008 World Factbook, CIA.
-The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria, W. W. Norton, May 5, 2008;
-Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace. A report on the disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands 1980 – 1988. A Summary. Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) and Legal Resources Foundation (LRF), 1999.
-China’s Arms Sales: Motivations and Implications, by Daniel Wyman and Roger Cliff, a monograph prepared for the U. S. AIR FORCE by the RAND Corporation, 1999.
-www.amnestyusa.org/; www.globalpolicy.org/;www.globalvoicesonline.org/;www.hrw.org/;www.humanrightsfirst.org/; and www.jewishworldwatch.org/