the important and the not-so-important, horribly conflated.

china ↔ africa

In human behavior on July 23, 2009 at 10:30 pm

evan osnos, the new yorker’s reporter in china, files a story from guangzhou, where there is a large sub-population of african laborers:

the men who live and work there paint a picture of a bitter way of life, a limbo fraught with fragile potential. China had shimmered with just enough opportunity to lure them over, but business proved difficult and unreliable. Moreover, they had trouble getting long-term visas. As a result, many of them have overstayed their visas and spent months or years dodging police (or, even more difficult, trying to get back to Africa without paying Chinese immigration fines, which they cannot afford, for overstaying their visas)… Last week, that tension boiled over. When a rumor spread that a Nigerian had died jumping out a window to elude police, a hundred or so African traders mounted a protest outside the Kongquan police station. It is virtually unheard of for foreigners to protest in China, and this was a small, angry, but peaceful affair.

this struck a disturbing but not discordant tone with a piece i heard on bbc radio last night:

China needs Africa’s mineral resources like oil, copper, zinc, and cobalt to help fuel its industrial expansion. Some African countries need China’s investment to provide financial support for their economies. But critics claim that Chinese companies exploit the African nations they do business with. There have been riots over poor working conditions and rock-bottom wages at Chinese-owned mines and factories. Now the government of Zambia has signed a deal worth $3.6bn with the private Chinese mining group Zhonghui.

I bring these stories up because I think they’re indicative of the larger cyclical, or perhaps spiral, trend of a-chinese-market-becomes-attractive-to-foreign-investors/laborers –> china-feels-pressure-to-protect-native-chinese-workers-and-not-so-gently-pushes-back-at-ethnic-or-national-“others” –> labor/human-rights-protests –> suppression-of-protests –> slap-on-the-wrist-from-western-news-outlets –> china-exploits-other-countries’-burgeoning-markets –> western-media-cries-foul –> china-says-“uhh…isn’t this what you did (still do) to get where you are in the world economy?”

this is not to deny the hardships of groups like the nigerian workers of guangzhou or the uighurs in china’s western province; this is not to excuse the gross neglect of laborers’ human rights in chinese-owned zambian mines. the point is: we lose the moral upper hand every time we pass limp bills like waxman-markley (cap ‘n’ trade), or hold people indefinitely without charges in bagram, or soak nigeria for its oil…or our newspapers conflate “china” and theindividual, independent, often western-funded companies that exploit laborers both inside of and outside the world’s most populous country—instead of reporting, as the b and mr. osnos do, on the human cost of the world economy’s shared growing pains.


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