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WICUTIA!? – China Fouls in Guinea?*

October 20, 2009

Apparently Shells complicity in extra-judicial murders makes Nigerians angry

This week saw another eruption of WICUTIA (What Is China Up To In Africa!?) anxiety in the western media, such as the article in the supposedly more-analytical-than-thou Economist (analytically entitled ‘Don’t Worry About Killing People’). It analytically argued that the deal between the joint Chinese-Angolan firm China International Fund (CIF) and Guinea’s military regime, which still had wet blood on it hands from a violent crackdown on a peaceful demonstration, is bound to reinforce an impression that China cares little about human rights in Africa … China respects human rights only when shamed into doing so.”

Now I know last time I might have pushed my jabs a little too far on China’s energy interests in what some might call pariah regimes, mentioning Guinea as one such example where Chinese firms step in when Western firms don’t have access. To spite my own zealous accusations, the whole thing probably merits a closer look.

Firstly the deal hasn’t been confirmed by Beijing, but the $7 billion mining agreement was unilaterally announced by the Guinean Minister of Mines, Mahmoud Thiam: Screw you Europe and US, your sanctions don’t mean squat with our new buddies the Chinese in town.** However Ma Zhaoxu, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson had this to say on the deal at a press conference:

“As far as we know, this is a corporate behaviour of an international company registered in Hong Kong. I am neither confirming nor denying, and I do not think I have the obligation to do so.”

Read this is: we haven’t decided whether to intervene yet to prevent the deal, but its not like we decided on it in the first place, and we probably don’t have the power to prevent the deal if we wanted to. The first point is that there is not a homogenous all-controlling puppet master of a monolithic government directing China’s investments in Africa, but private companies who have been encouraged to invest abroad instead. Like all global profit-seeking actors, they do this, and they do this wherever there is money to be made. The fictionalised idea of a neo-colonial project directed by Beijing’s all controlling evil plan to take over Africa seems to block out this basic fact to the western media (indeed the very idea of any government directing a centralised colonial project is an equally fictional historical idea). Instead it is powerful private profit-seeking actors running amok being encouraged by the powerful Ministry of Commerce to bring resources home with the rather weaker Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) having to run behind cleaning up the mess.

Secondly, like the rest of us, the Chinese hate hypocrisy. When the ex-PLA, little-prince dominated, politically connected mini-state of a company Poly Technologies was shipping arms to Zimbabwe during the election clashes leading to outrage in western (and, to be fair, African) media, Beijing’s complicity was perhaps more obvious. But what about the UK companies that ran mines in the country and supported Mugabe’s security clamp-down in the areas where they operated to prevent diamond smuggling? Was this the UK government’s fault or was it the UK government’s failure to follow through and put its money where its mouth is by forcing British companies out of Zimbabwe? Complicity in violence has many layers, and to zoom out a little, I think this comment on economist website says it rather well:

OK, economist, I got your point: China does not care about human rights… I am just wondering what you will call China if China invaded Vietnam, took over Panama, occupying Iraq and Afghanistan and result millions of death to people there. Will you call China an international police and defender of human rights instead?

Ouch. But no, I’m not saying western complicity in, or direct cause of, violence justifies China doing the same. I am saying lets all just get rid of this silly notion that the west is any less guilty and has any moral high ground to stand on in the African continent, despite claims to the contrary by governments and their ngos. But wait… this problem seems to haunt the Chinese too! Spokesperson Ma went on to state:

I want to point out here that Guinea and China have longstanding friendship. For years, our cooperation in business and other areas has developed smoothly. China has assisted Guinea in its economic development and improvement of people’s well-being within our capacity. As a developing country, China has South-South Cooperation with Guinea based on equality, mutual benefit, international norms and market rules. It serves the fundamental interest of both peoples.

As long as Beijing wraps up all of China-Africa into a broader theme of warm woolly cooperation, win-win, mutual growth and harmonious wonderfulness, then it will also end up taking the flak when these actors do things that are slightly awkward to swallow. All it can do is selectively distance itself, but that is hypocrisy, and probably one the MFA wishes it had control to prevent. Instead the Minister of Foreign Affairs seemed to be scrambling to distance Beijing from the deal:

“The Chinese government has nothing to do with [CIF’s] business operations, nor does it have knowledge of the specifics.”

This time the deal is especially problematic. Both ECOWAS (the West African regional organisation) and the African Union have condemned the Guinean regime of Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, meaning that it’s not just those silly whiteys that care about human rights and democracy. Chinese justifications for pariah regime support has always fallen back on AU, regional organizations or African government’s statements to back its own position: Look here guys, the Africans don’t think Mugabe is that bad, so we don’t have to either. In this case that’s not an option. Despite this, and because of this, China is learning. Policy is changing, albeit slowly. The scramble by the MFA to distance itself from the CIF deal shows that it is far more sensitive to such incidents than it perhaps once was. This is not only due to its public image, a vital component of its international soft power, but in many cases supporting pariah regimes simply doesn’t pay off over the long run. Despite this the economist continues to contend, rather simplistically, that “as Guinea may show, China’s unconditional approach to doing business may reap benefits, except perhaps for Africans who cherish democracy and human rights.” But as LSE China Don Chris Alden points out in his far more analytical article:

“Whereas once Beijing felt it could only gain access to African resources by working with western-designated “pariahs”, today China no longer seeks new African markets as much as stable, long-term relationships. The days of the military junta in Guinea are numbered and, despite its attempts to claim China as a new source of support, the Chinese government knows this too.”

*Excuse the poor bird pun, but I had to give it a go!

** What is fascinating is how African leaders and political actors try and use China to their advantage even when China doesn’t necessarily agree. For example after US criticism, Nigeria announced it would buy all of its weapons from China, who perhaps taken by surprise, said nothing and then distanced itself asap.

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