Katie Farineau. Originally published in the HIR Summer 2013 Issue.
During the summer of last year, the International Monetary Fund declared that Africa would soon be home to 70 percent of the world's fastest growing economies, with Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Congo, Ghana, Zambia and Nigeria each growing at rates higher than six percent a year. In light of the ongoing Eurozone crisis, this boom has been heralded as promising and reassuring—the start of a new age for a continent rich in natural resources and untested potential. However, the gleam of such a gem is paled by a dark shadow cast thousands of miles away by the largest country in the world. With China's heavy involvement in Africa's booming economy, words like "exploited" and "corrupted" replace rosier depictions of the region's activity. Recently, phrases such as "human rights abuses," "volatile race relations," "unsustainable trade," and "labor violations" have resonated with oppressed diamond miners in Zimbabwe, subjugated copper miners in Zambia, and global watchdogs who had hoped the world had seen an end to the horrors of neocolonialism.
Since 2010, China emerged as Africa's most important trading partner and has had spectacular profits. Its strategy has been to provide loans for fledgling governments in exchange for natural resources and foreign markets for exports. African trade grew by over three percent in 2011, and the numbers speak volumes for the two-fold benefits that the dominant nation has enjoyed: over half of the US $110 billion netted from trade reached China in the form of natural resources, while Africa saw significantly less gain. Africa's importation of massive quantities of cheap Chinese goods has supplied Beijing with a steady source of alluring raw materials and a large market for exports. One cannot help but be reminded of the legacy of French occupation in Vietnam, the Dutch sphere of influence in Indonesia, and the sweeping ramifications of unequal trade and foreign exploitation throughout African history. South African President Jacob Zuma remarked at the July China-Africa Forum: "Africa's commitment to China's development has been demonstrated by a supply of raw materials, other products, and technology transfer. This trade pattern is unsustainable in the long term. Africa's past economic experience with Europe dictates a need to be cautious when entering into partnerships with other economies."
Imbalanced economics and resource exploitation by China pose pressing long-term concerns. China's human rights abuses, labor violations, and alliances with dictatorships in Africa are subjects of tension. Racism is inherent in the neocolonial actions of the Chinese, as well. African workers are paid significandy less than their Chinese counterparts, and working-hour statutes are regularly flouted. In Zambian mines, Chinese workers are paid three times more than their native counterparts. Worse yet, cheap manufacturing in China often undercuts the competitiveness of other African industries. According to Mara Hativagone, former president of the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce (ZNCC), "There is no way Zimbabweans can compete with the Chinese, because they use cheap labor and mass produce while half the time we have no water and electricity in our industries."
Zimbabwe, the nation that recently had only $217 US dollars in the bank but whose elite reap billions from backroom diamond deals each year, has made itself the perfect mark for Beijing's ambitions. Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe recently forged a relationship with the Chinese government in exchange for funding for a new US $98 million military academy. The only catch is that the Zimbabwean government must repay the Chinese in massive shipments of questionably-obtained diamonds over the course of the next decade. Putting aside concerns about a dictatorial military academy, Zimbabwe's diamond mining industry has proved to be one of the most horrendously abusive in the world.
Discovered only in 2006, the Marange area in eastern Zimbabwe has become one of the most lucrative diamond mines in the world and one of the most targeted by smugglers, illegal miners, and international buyers. In 2008, the army positioned over 800 soldiers in the area, taking over mining operations and using coercive tactics to force locals to extract the gems for government profit. Most of the illegal diamond transactions can be traced back to government officials smuggling the stones over the country's borders.
Many Sino-African businesses profiting from the diamond trade struggled with US sanctions in late 2012, which were instituted "against individuals and entities in Zimbabwe undermining democracy," according to US Department of State Spokesperson Victoria Nuland. The director of Anjin, a Chinese-Zimbabwean joint-venture mining company, said in November of last year, "The U.S. sanctions are the biggest challenge. They depress prices, depress revenue and they scare away buyers." These practices have also been questioned by representatives of the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme (KP), a UN initiative to stem the flow of conflict diamonds internationally. Three years ago, KP representatives called into question the ethics of the Mugabe government's mining activities, adding fuel to the international regulatory fire.
Furthermore, in 2009 Zimbabwe's government was banned from exporting diamonds from Marange unless it withdrew its military from the mines and stopped international smuggling and official corruption. A KP monitor declared Zimbabwe to have adequately met KP certification standards in 2010, but this does not mesh well with continuing tales of human rights abuses and smuggling by the military and Chinese companies.
In the Marange Diamond fields, one Chinese and Zimbabwean joint-venture company in particular, Anjin Investments, has profited greatly from a period of civil unrest punctuated by rape and other brutalities, which culminated with the 2008 massacre of 200 independent diamond miners by Mugabe. In 2012, Zimbabwe reported that the Chinese own half of Anjin Investments, and the other half is held jointly by the Zimbabwe army's Defense Industries (ZDI) and another army venture.
Testaments to Chinese abuse in the Anjin Marange enterprise have recently surfaced: 1,500 miners were fired for striking to raise the minimum wage of $235 dollars a month, and many of the workers claimed to have been repeatedly sodomized by Chinese managers. One mining watchdog group said, "There are credible indications of gross human rights abuses against workers by Anjin management" as "workers have been beaten with clenched fists, kicked around and called racist names by their Chinese employers. There are also reports of sodomy against the locals by the Chinese. These [crimes] ought to be investigated and if found to be true, perpetrators must be brought to book."
The obvious disparities between the Kimberly Process report and the ongoing atrocities in the area are well documented by Zimbabwean activists, who are often jailed for "providing false information." Farai Maguwu, the director of the Center for Research and Development in Zimbabwe, was recently released from prison and is known for chronicling misdeeds in the Marange mines. In a 2012 interview, he stated, "This militarization of the extractive sector in Zimbabwe, where the generals have become company directors and shareholders on behalf of the government, is extremely worrying."
The conflict in Zimbabwe and the business ties China has forged with the government and military are extraordinarily worrying. In addition to the Zimbabwean government's access to diamond wealth, China's investment in the nation and status as an intimidating overlord to local citizens will influence elections and force Zimbabweans to live in a state of fear. The same phenomenon is likely to continue and spread across the continent to other nations in which China and Chinese businesses operate. Given their close relationship with the Mugabe government and apparent lack of ethical scruples, there is absolutely no question that China will support other authoritarian regimes in Africa and overlook human rights abuses in the name of fiscal gain. Despite the human rights violations in Zimbabwe, in July the KP agreed to two supervised Marange diamonds auctions at a talk in St. Petersburg. In a KP discussion about how the West should lift sanctions on the Marange field, China and Russia stated that "Zimbabwe badly needed the revenue [from the diamond trade] to rebuild its devastated economy and pay for government expenditures," but their true motives and apparent lust for power in the region are barely concealed beneath this rhetorical maneuvering.
This mentality can be traced back to the way China treats its own citizens. With its disregard for hazardous pollution in the name of economic progress, lack of free speech, and 1.3 billion citizens willing to work for low wages in unsafe conditions, it is not a surprise the Zimbabweans and other Africans are treated even worse. After the Cultural Revolution in China that eradicated many traditional beliefs and emphasized the raw power and importance of aggressive state development, it is important to consider whether the world superpower has evolved without the conscience of many of its economic peers. We wonder if the pursuit of material possessions has outweighed other motives and whether this has the potential to gut Africa in a way more devastating than ever before. In the past, other colonial powers have committed atrocities, but China's access to technology, sheer manpower, and economic stability may prove to be a destructive force that other world powers lacking in economic might will have trouble regulating before it is too late.