CHINESE FORK TIE

(Great song. Really.)

International relations is not my strongest area, but most of you know how much I love me some Cold War era history. And so it is with considerable interest that I've watched China replace the US and USSR in their former roles as patrons of the Third World during that lengthy conflict. For decades the two Cold War superpowers went around the world trying to outdo one another in generosity – primarily with massive packages of free military gear that sketchy leaders of newly independent and unstable nations saw as a means of staying in power – in return for swearing off the competing scourge of (communism/capitalism). Oh the Soviets are offering 100 MiG-17s? Those are obsolete, bro. Call Uncle Sam and he'll send over some F-4s. That's the good stuff.

China isn't providing military aid for the most part. Instead, they offer cheap loans for infrastructure projects and (foreshadowing!) the promise to get to work on them right away. China's view is and always has been, "Screw environmental impact studies. We have too many mouths to feed. You need power? Build a dam." Whereas Western investment often comes with multiple competing goals and interests ranging from social development to economic growth to political stability, China is more narrowly economically focused. If it's good for business, do it. If China's industries need lumber and copper they hand over the cash without asking the pesky questions Western nations tend to ask. China doesn't have environmental groups that matter. And African leaders have a long history of self-inflicted environmental degradation if the price is right.

Despite the Chinese economic slowdown, they announced $60 billion in new loans and investment in Africa as recently as January of this year including a single $13 billion infrastructure project in Kenya alone. This leads us to the $64,000 question: what exactly is it that China wants? The Cold War superpowers didn't lavish gifts on small countries out of the kindness of their hearts; it was quid pro quo aid. Most of the sober analysis agrees that China's motives are economic. That's never a bad guess. A more optimistic view is that Chinese firms recognize the limits of growth within their own borders and are looking elsewhere. Cynically, China sees cheap and abundant natural resources they want to extract and they see these projects as little trinkets that will curry favor with less sophisticated governments.

I'm not sure if this qualifies as a conspiracy theory, but I look at it differently. In the long term I don't think China has its eye on African resources so much as it has its eye on Africa.

For all their recent "Come to Jesus" talk about understanding the importance of sustainability and the environment, there is no nation on the planet that has trashed its own house quite like the Chinese have. Since Mao and his friends took over and put the country on an often calamitous crash course toward industrialization, China has polluted like no other nation on the planet can even hold a candle to – not even the CO2-belching US. The priorities have been feeding a billion people and becoming a modern industrial and economic colossus in record time. The environment wasn't even an afterthought. The growth of China's economy has indeed been impressive and rapid, but there have been costs. About 1/3 of all arable land in the country is heavy-metals poisoned, as is roughly 1/3 of their drinking water. They burn coal like Americans burn gasoline. Their cities are choked in air pollution that is the country's single biggest public health issue. Ever wonder why they were able to take the lead in so many manufacturing sectors, particularly electronics? It's not just cheap labor. Lots of places have cheap labor. It's the fact that in China you can pay someone almost nothing to melt down used motherboards and PC components without protective gear (Because who cares if the worker dies at 37? The government doesn't.) and then dump the results in a river. They simply don't care. Or if they do care now, they waited too long.

So we have a nation with a billion and a half people, and that number is still growing. This nation has exhausted its natural resources for the most part and done staggering damage to its ability to produce food thanks to desertification and toxic soil in industrial areas. Either the nation is going to undertake the single greatest environmental remediation and sustainability turnaround in human history or they're going to need to find someplace else for their population to spread and grow. I don't mean that China will show up, guns in hand, to annex half of Africa. But this steady stream of Chinese emigrating to Africa now is likely to continue growing. While the motivation for that movement ostensibly is economic, I can't help but think there's a strategic long-term demographic strategy at play as well.

The way America pollutes is ultimately of more consequence because our carbon emissions affect the whole planet. China, conversely, has been the primary victim of China's environmental inaction. England went through this on a smaller scale during the Industrial Revolution and Victorian Era, the point at which they had to confront as a nation the possibility that London would be uninhabitable if they didn't stop pumping coal fumes into the air and pouring industrial waste in the Thames. The British certainly looked beyond their own borders as a partial solution to their problems, and China is in the process of doing the same.

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24 Responses to “CHINESE FORK TIE”

  1. Kmtberry Says:

    Oh, Ed. No one can depress me like you do.

  2. Paul B Says:

    Note to self: Turn off oven

    S. Plath

  3. April Says:

    "The British certainly looked beyond their own borders as a partial solution to their problems, and China is in the process of doing the same."

    Without question. There's a big push here to bring over African students, give them free Chinese uni education, including fluency, and then send them back to work in/supervise? the industry the Chinese are building there. One good result of this is that Chinese racism against non-white people is declining fast. When I first got here, almost nobody would hire a non-white teacher, even from a native-speaking country. In the school I'm going to next year I'll have 3 Kenyan and one American Black teacher, and no one is freaking out about it.

    So….progress on one front anyway.

  4. wetcasements Says:

    Jawbox!

  5. Mo Says:

    Howard W. French.

    China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa

    Wait'll you get to the chapter about the dude and his two sons in Mozambique.

    It's like getting to watch up close in nearly real time shit that went down a century ago for the Brits and other colonialists, only now with a Chinese face.

    I had no idea about the farmland in Mali.

    April, the thought of the colorization of racist-squared China similar to the colorization of Great Britain is indeed something to make one grin, is it not?

  6. Talisker Says:

    Either the nation is going to undertake the single greatest environmental remediation and sustainability turnaround in human history or …

    I don't see this as an either/or situation.

    Maybe there won't be a total cleanup, but I would expect some effort to reduce pollution within China. The elite want to be able to breathe the air in Beijing, just like their counterparts in Victorian London.

    … they're going to need to find someplace else for their population to spread and grow. I don't mean that China will show up, guns in hand, to annex half of Africa. But this steady stream of Chinese emigrating to Africa now is likely to continue growing.

    To make any serious difference to Chinese population pressure, hundreds of millions of people would have to relocate to Africa — comparable to the number of Africans who are already there.

    Could it happen peacefully? Well, maybe. But the Americans are freaking out over a few million immigrants, and the Europeans over a few hundred thousand Syrian refugees. What we are discussing for Africa is more like five times the entire population of Mexico moving to the USA.

    Of course, we are not talking about poor refugees or migrant workers, but incomers who are on the whole richer and more highly educated than the local population. That would create its own kind of tension.

  7. Pat Says:

    Isn't this the country that air-brushed out the black character from the new Star Wars posters? What's going to happen when they find out they're all black people, and not even just all the stormtroopers? (I know, I know: The Dutch Afrikaners already invented the model for them.)

  8. April Says:

    @Mo. Yep.

    So far I have never yet seen a Chinese woman with a Black guy, not even in Shanghai or Beijing where their numbers are relatively high. That's the Chinese Rubicon, but when the Black dudes start being worth some serious money, I have no doubt such pairings will follow. It will be an interesting dynamic to watch, however – the Chinese people don't seem to mind that all of us white people make tons more than they do in their own country; how will they react when that money is being made by people they consider inferior?

    And there is still no shortage of bleaching creams at the make-up counters in the stores…..

  9. Townsend Harris Says:

    Chinese Fork Tie snarls, but the best accompaniment for "some Cold War era history" is the late Warren Zevon. No one wrote better rock music and lyrics about 19th Century European colonialism in Africa and the segue into 20th Century Cold War geopolitics.

  10. Dave Dell Says:

    The most "eye-opening" book I've read lately was Minter's "Junkyard Planet". A well researched account of global recycling and the lack of environmental controls on same.

    My understanding is that the Chinese have a long history of settling the areas with which they trade or where they have an economic interest. Not often an easy relationship with the citizenry where this happens.

  11. seniorscrub Says:

    Remember people; World War Z started in China….

    (btw, how did I do with the semicolon??)

  12. c u n d gulag Says:

    It appears the Chinese learned how to do all of this from us – the USA!

    We went around the world, not only arming dictators and plutocratic regimes, but getting contracts for those countries water, mineral, and other rights.

    It's what the Chinese are doing now.

    I guess the Chinese read this book as a how-to manual:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confessions_of_an_Economic_Hit_Man

    Read it, and weep!

  13. John Danley Says:

    1948. Donora. Nothing else to add here.

  14. MH Says:

    "… without asking the pesky questions Western nations tend to ask."

    "Hey, can we turn you into a client state by funding a military coup to put a near genocidal warlord in power?"

  15. Brian M Says:

    Not sure I buy this. Africa has its own population pressures. And resource issues (expansion of the deep Sahara into the Sahel).

  16. Kaleberg Says:

    It's about resources, not demographics. There are communities of overseas Chinese around the world, but China is not going to solve its demographic problems with colonization. There are already hundreds of millions living in Africa, Africa's resources are limited and the Chinese would have to replace the existing population. Introducing an overseas Chinese community would be one thing. Replacing the indigenous community would be another. Remember there is usually push back like the massacre in Bali, the Chinese Exclusion Act in the US, and nie-blank status in South Africa.

    If you read Bloomberg which reports on world-wide business unlike just about every other news source including the WSJ, you'd recognize the pattern. China is doing what the western powers have been doing for centuries and other empires have done for millennia. They recognize underdeveloped resources such as ores, forests or agricultural land. They bargain with the elite and bring in capital. They set up an ex-pat community that has access to more sophisticated credit and legal recourse. Then they establish a hegemony that makes it hard for other colonial powers to trade there. That means when the local government wants infrastructure, they have preferred go-to suppliers. Look who got the contract for the Suez Canal. It might be old fashioned, but it hasn't gone out of style.

    China is not at all averse to selling weapons. Remember the Tamil rebellion in Sri Lanka? Remember how the western powers refused to sell the government arms? Well, guess who sold them arms to put down the rebellion? China has been reticent about setting up foreign bases, but has increasingly done so. There is, for example, a new base in Djibouti. Granted, everyone has a base there, but this is a focal point for access to the highlands of Ethiopia. The big news in Ethiopia is GERD, a massive new hydro project to provide irrigation and electricity to a future population of over 200,000,000. As I said, it is very old fashioned.

    In the past, the colonial powers had to bring in their own armies and build local armies manned by locals. Nowadays, there are already armies, so it is more a matter of co-opting local leadership. A local military base might be useful, if only to protect the ex-pat population, but the local rulers will be more than glad to provide the muscle.

  17. Chicagojon2016 Says:

    "Either the nation is going to undertake the single greatest environmental remediation and sustainability turnaround in human history…"

    From the nation that just:
    – Industrialized faster than any other nation in human history (leaving India behind)
    – Raised more people up out of poverty faster than any …
    – Became a nuclear power faster than any …
    – Developed a space program faster than any … (well, maybe not faster on this one…but they certainly got up to speed quickly)

    And that's before you start getting into details of development from rail networks, mega cities, dams, harbors, etc. etc.

    So, yeah, I think they will do more and better environmental remediation than any other country. Why wouldn't they?

    It's easy to shoot holes in statistics out of China just as it is to throw out crazy numbers that aren't per capita or otherwise adjusted for apples/apples comparisons, but one thing that I have found consistent is their stated plans often have a way of coming true. So just as I was dumbfounded looking at the urban planning of Shanghai 10+ years ago and thinking 'you're not really going to build those skyscrapers' to them being done today when China puts "Energy saving and environmental protection" in their 5-year plan as a pillar industry I believe them. http://www.c2es.org/international/key-country-policies/china/energy-climate-goals-twelfth-five-year-plan

    And why not! If China can play Eisenhower with the infrastructure in Africa and be seen as a savior while directly funding critical industries and technologies they'll be more than happy to do it. It worked for solar, right? http://www.businessinsider.com/china-laughed-when-it-saw-how-cheap-solar-could-be-2014-6?pundits_only=0&get_all_comments=1&no_reply_filter=1#comment-539324bceab8eafd617e11ae

  18. cat lady Says:

    Chinese involvement on the African continent isn't all that new, though the current push bears little resemblance to earlier aspects of South-South Cooperation. In the 1960s, SSC was formulated as a 'third-worldist' perspective that explicitly sought to avoid dependence on both the US and USSR. The Non-Aligned Movement was based on principles outlined by Mao, promoting mutual support against the former colonial powers and a refusal to play into the Cold War divide (e.g. China built the Tazara Railway connecting Tanzania and Zambia in the early 70s, so that Zambia could access the port at Dar es Salaam and avoid having to go through apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia).

    What's happening now is a different story, for sure, and the consequences (environmental and other) shouldn't be downplayed. But I think the emphasis on China can sometimes be a handy deflection from the damage that many other firms (and states) are doing (and not only traditional ones, but also newer big players like Brazil).

    In my work, I look at a large infrastructure/natural resource project related to these rehabilitated rail/port corridors in sub-Saharan Africa. Anecdotally, there's not a lot of love for the Chinese that have recently come to work in those parts, and some of the construction projects undertaken by Chinese firms are infamously shoddy due to rushed work and lack of regulations. That said, the general feeling I've heard from people is: "At least they're willing to finance/build things." It's also important to recognize that African governments are complicit in this; it's not some simple story of neocolonialism flowing just one way. Once the financial benefits run out, I doubt African elites will permit the kind of mass in-migration that Ed is suggesting.

    Switching to a different continent…check out the (terrible) proposal for the Inter-Oceanic Canal in Nicaragua. That is one f'ed up infrastructure project.

  19. Eau Says:

    Meh. Is anyone else tired of standing amid the steaming wreck we (White people) made of the… Well, everything…. While pointing in China's general direction and shrieking about what they're doing and what they're planning? Glass houses, beam from own eye, etc…

  20. jon Says:

    China looking beyond its own borders is a new thing. I think it's partly to relieve all sorts of domestic pressure. Political, economic, environmental, a place to send rich kids, and more are all at play.

    What will come of it? Who knows, really. It might change the world for the better and the worse. Probably a bit of each. I imagine it will lead to some revolutions in Africa, and even more of them once the EU, Russia, the US, India, Brazil, and others start to look to Africa and see opportunity rather than post-Colonial whatever. The Neo-Colonialists will have to deal with each other, Islamic fundamentalism, Christian fundamentalism, tribalism of all sorts, and more.

    I'm not as worried about the Chinese and what they're up to so much as worried about the Africans getting colonized again. And again. And a few more times.

  21. Bitter Scribe Says:

    Yeah, but the Chinese are capable of pulling back when warranted. Case in point: Venezuela. The Chinese were going to build a big railway for Chavez to spike settlement in the country's interior, underwritten by Venezuelan oil.

    Then oil prices plunged and took the Venezuelan economy with them. All of a sudden the Chinese railway construction sites became ghost towns.

  22. Procopius Says:

    Trashing their environment isn't something Mao started. Back when he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, FDR was an enthusiastic supporter of the conservationist movement. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., describes a lecturer who was one of Roosevelt's favorites. He had two slides he liked to show. One was a thirteenth century painting of an idyllic valley, verdant forest, beautiful streams teeming with fish, abundant game animals. The second was a nineteenth century photograph of the same valley. Completely deforested, deep erosion gullies making farming impossible, the streams choked with wast from the mines, in short, a devastation. People began realizing what we are doing to ourselves by the beginning of the 20th century.

  23. blackvegetable Says:

    Henning Mankell saw this coming years ago…..

    http://www.amazon.com/Beijing-Vintage-Crime-Black-Lizard/dp/0307472841

  24. newHere Says:

    @seniorscrub Says:

    Probably should've gone instead with an old-fashioned colon.