Evelyn Winston Perez
The World Bank is working with the Chinese government to fund major industrial development in specific areas across Africa, as part of an effort to spur development and create jobs. The effort is needed in order to breathe new life into African cities that are experiencing population explosions, with little new investment to match the demand for resources and jobs. But three key factors raise questions about whether the China plan for African industry will be good for Africa.
Those factors are human rights, environmental protection and the legitimacy of governments associated with the ramping up of Chinese investment. China has been heavily criticized for taking advantage of politically precarious situations to win favorable investment conditions, leading to Chinese money and technology helping to prop up sometimes brutal regimes. It has also been criticized for alleged plans to use Africa as a colonial dumping ground for its own industrial waste.
And the question of human rights is crucial: China has long resisted nearly any effort by the international community to lobby on behalf of downtrodden minorities or dissidents in any country, a policy generally considered to mirror Beijing’s concern that its own internal power would be destabilized if intense international scrutiny of its rights standards were permitted and/or published. China’s censorship and persecution of dissidents is thought to be a threat to already fragile democracies in Africa.
But the Chinese investment goes beyond the admittedly fearsome complexities of those three main points. The depletion of Africa’s resources is already a serious problem for nearly every nation on the continent, and China is very explicitly seeking to expand its own direct exploitation of those already scarce resources. China is facing a severe crisis in food production, with grazing ranges and arable land being reduced dramatically by desertification and industrialization.
As a result, China is seeking to lease or buy land in countries in several African countries, including Zambia and Mozambique, as well as Russia, the Philippines, Australia, Myanmar, Kazakhstan and Brazil. In the Democratic Republic of Congo —a desperately poor country whose abundance of natural resources has made it the site of a catastrophic regional proxy war in which 5 million lives have been lost— China has secured a lease for 50% more land than the entire nation devotes to growing corn, its staple food, for 66 million of its own people.
What’s more, human-induced climate destabilization is having a more direct impact on Africa than on any other continent, in part due to already unfavorable climate patterns, and so geography, but also due to the inability of governments to adequately fund both sustainable practices and the regulatory regimes necessary to maintain stable conditions for climate-sustainable practices. China is fast catching up to and will likely soon eclipse the United States as the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases.
This means Chinese industrial expansion, whether in China or in Africa, poses a direct threat to the environmental, economic and political stability of African societies, and therefore a significant conflict of interest for the African populations whose governments would be negotiating with the World Bank to secure fresh Chinese investment. There are significant reasons for concern about what strings come attached to that investment, like a demand for neglect of environmental concerns or an incentive to slow democratic progress.In much of Africa, infrastructure is failing or non-existent, with only one in four having regular access to electricity, while one in four also lack access to safe drinking water. This crisis-level situation, across whole regions, helps explain the appeal of China’s investment strategy. But African nations will have to study very closely what the impact of any specific project will be on their local environment, living conditions, political freedoms, and economic dynamism. Standards should be adopted that require both Chinese entities operating or investing in Africa and the local authorities, to meet certain criteria that advance the interests of the population on each of these fronts.