China: An “anti-imperialist” Imperialism?

Whether it happens a few years or a few decades from now it is more or less inevitable that China will replace the United States as the world’s largest capitalist economy writes Patrick Scott. Since re-entering the capitalist world the growth of the Chinese economy has fuelled a demand within the country for raw materials, principally oil and minerals far beyond what the domestic economy is able to provide. The upshot of this being massive Chinese investment by both state owned and private companies in oil, mining and other projects throughout the global south.

In the south, China has one big advantage when confronting the western imperialist powers in that unlike them it has no history of imperialist or colonial domination and itself was a victim of such domination in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As such China can present an image of itself as a benevolent foreign power. For example in recent years China has signed a number of commercial agreements with Venezuela. Given the continual threat from US imperialism there is of course no reason why Venezuela should not develop economic links with China in order to give itself greater room for manoeuvre. A major problem though arising from this is the political support that Hugo Chavez has given to the Chinese political leadership as expressed in statements that “China and Venezuela are marching together for towards socialism”, as regards China that is anything but the case. Though China may present itself as benevolent that is often far from true. Earlier this year the government of Ecuador signed an agreement with the Chinese owned mining company Ecuacorriente to invest US$1.4 billion in a copper mining project. This agreement though was denounced by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conai) who opposed the mining on the grounds that it would damage the environment and force entire indigenous communities off their ancestral lands. Conai who had previously supported the Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa had subsequently fallen out with him over his plans for economic development. There is of course nothing new about foreign owned mining projects in the South leading to environmental destruction and the forced expulsion of local and indigenous communities. All the western mining multinationals are guilty of this crime in varying degrees. The point though is that Chinese mining companies have shown themselves to be no less ruthless in their pursuit of profit.

It is the continent of Africa though which has become the main destination for the export of Chinese capital and it is likely to become a battleground between China and the west. Chinese investment in Africa has mushroomed from under US$100 million in 2003 to over US$12 billion in 2011 with now over 2,000 Chinese companies operating in the continent. In 2009 China surpassed the United States to become Africa’s largest trading partner. One reason is because of US and western imperialist domination of the Middle East (and therefore its oil reserves) and China wants access to African oil in order to reduce its dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Accordingly in 2010 Angola replaced Saudi Arabia as China’s largest supplier of crude oil and the continent now provides around a quarter of China’s oil imports. As sweeteners to developing trade agreements and allowing Chinese investment China has paid for many infrastructure projects (airports, roads, schools, hospitals etc) throughout Africa. In the short term much of this has led to real material benefits for the local populations. It is also in contrast to western imposed neoliberal solutions via IMF imposed austerity programmes that have devastated so many African countries. All this aid though comes at a price, throughout Africa China has in turn received preferential treatment for Chinese companies in numerous African countries, often in the form of access to mineral and oil reserves and the creation of special enterprise zones for Chinese companies with minimal or no taxation.

Although China is still seen as a beneficial power in many parts of Africa an example of an African country where increasing Chinese investment has been seen as oppressive is Zambia where there have been long standing labour disputes in Chinese owned mines. This has not just involved issues over low pay, unsafe working conditions and the victimisation of trade union activists but also deaths and violence against native workers. In 2005, an explosion caused by unsafe working conditions at a Chinese copper mine in Chambishi killed 46 workers. More recently in 2010 managers at a Chinese coal mine coal mine in Sinazongwe shot and wounded 11 Zambian miners who were protesting over pay and working conditions. Such was the unpopularity of Chinese influence in the country that when the Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Zambia in 2007 he was met by a hostile crowd made up of thousands of protesting Zambian workers.

In conclusion China’s role in Africa is an increasingly imperialistic one, though it is certainly no worse than the role played by the western imperialist powers both in the region and elsewhere. It is imperialist because primarily what Africa exports to China is surplus value and raw materials mainly oil and metals in order to further fuel Chinese economic growth. What China exports back to Africa is manufactured goods which often undermine local industries as well as armaments including to some of the most dictatorial regimes in the region such as Zimbabwe. Although in Africa and elsewhere China has managed to cover itself with an anti-imperialist veneer with some success events in Zambia have shown that it is now thin and it will inevitably get thinner.

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