China’s New Frontiers

China’s New Frontiers

How Africa and China’s own borderlands became the center of Beijing’s new empire.


China’s friendship with Africa was forged in revolutionary solidarity during the early years of the Cold War. This was the era of national liberation struggles, and China, seeing in Africa a reflection of its own humiliation by Imperial Japan and the West, offered military intelligence, weapons and training to revolutionaries across the continent.

This did not last—most African countries severed ties with China when it sided with apartheid South Africa in the Angolan Civil War—but since China’s capitalist transition began, 1 million Chinese have migrated to Africa, and accusations of China’s imperial designs on the continent have trailed closely behind them. Many of these allegations have originated in the West and extend beyond China’s actions in Africa, to include its holdings of US Treasury bills, its territorial disputes in neighboring waters, and its land and resource grabs worldwide. China is now on the defensive: “The Chinese people do not have the gene for invading others or dominating the world in their blood,” President Xi Jinping said earlier this year.

The accusations have also hit closer to home, targeting the Chinese government’s repressive policies in Tibet and Xinjiang, where Han immigration has increased in recent years. This large-scale outward migration has stoked fears about China’s rise, many of them irrational, if not racist. But it is also clear that China’s relationship with Africa and its own borderlands is no longer one of revolutionary solidarity. Rather, it is based on the demands of sovereignty and the need to maintain economic growth.

In China’s Second Continent, Howard French, who was a New York Times bureau chief in both Africa (from 1994 to 1998) and China (from 2003 to 2008), speaks with Chinese shop owners, farmers, industrialists and corporate executives throughout West and Central Africa. Many came to work on Chinese construction projects and stayed. Some are part of China’s “Lost Generation”: those now in their 40s to 60s who grew up in the age of the iron rice bowl and lacked the skills or education to succeed once China’s transition began. Many see Africa as more stable and free than China, as well as less crowded, polluted and corrupt. Nearly all are “rough-and-tumble types,” as French writes, “all grit and no polish, hayseeds driven to quit the poor Chinese countryside and determined to make it by whatever means necessary.” As one Chinese trader tells him about working in Senegal: “This is an open country, a friendly country, a country that respects the rule of law and believes in treating everyone equally.”

Above all, these migrants are a result of China’s “go out” policy, initiated in 1999, which directed state-owned enterprises to seek business opportunities abroad. The estimated 1 million Chinese working in Africa have helped China secure key natural resources for manufacturing, food supplies for its growing population, and new export markets for its goods. Today, petty traders have cornered the import market in Senegal; Chinese companies in Sierra Leone, Congo and Zambia are capitalizing on mining industries that have been privatized in recent decades or that collapsed after civil wars; investors are snapping up farmland in Mali; and in Namibia’s Oshikango Chinatown, restaurants, hotels and bars have sprung up to service the Chinese community. China’s trade with Africa is now growing by as much as 20 percent a year. In 2012, this amount was estimated at $200 billion. Today, it surpasses China’s trade with both Europe and the United States.

“You should never go anywhere where there are no Chinese,” a Chinese administrative worker in Mali jokes to French.

“Is that because such places are too dangerous?” he asks.

“Wrong,” says his interviewee. “It’s because those are places where it is impossible to make money.”

* * *

Not surprisingly, this attitude has bred some resentment toward the Chinese. Their offenses include damaging the environment, destroying local markets by dumping cheap goods, paying kickbacks to corrupt politicians, and vastly underpaying workers while flouting local labor standards. China’s export of its own workers to Africa doesn’t help either: not only are local workers being shut out of the new industries, but skills and knowledge aren’t being transferred either, setting up what will become a culture of dependency. Chinese banks have financed most new highways on the continent; contracts are usually granted to Chinese companies employing Chinese workers, and these vast infrastructure projects have been bartered in exchange for resource-extraction rights. In Guinea, the China International Fund—a $5 billion package deal proposing infrastructure projects in exchange for iron ore, bauxite and oil exploration rights—was offered to Guinea’s leaders within days of the mass rape of demonstrators protesting the country’s military rule.

“Practically every African leader, whatever his ideological orientation, has gotten a palace of some sort from the Chinese,” Guinean academic Amadou Dano Barry tells French. “The problem is, they never taught us how to maintain it. Even now, when the light bulbs are burned out, we have to call the Chinese to change them.”

The situation has become explosive at times. In 2006, when local workers at the Chinese state-owned Chambishi Copper Mine in Zambia demanded better safety, higher wages and back pay, they were met with gunfire. Nevertheless, Chinese companies and workers have been welcomed, if uneasily at times, throughout Africa: “rarely, if ever, had I met anyone who could be fairly described as plainly ‘anti-Chinese,’” writes French. Thanks to China’s “unbeatable triple-play”—cheaper financing from state banks, cheaper materials and cheaper labor—Chinese companies have not only rendered Western companies all but insignificant, but they have become paradigms of productivity. “Americans made beautiful, principled speeches and imposed countless conditions on all manner of things,” writes French. “But in the end, in Africa they seemed to move the ball very slowly. They regarded Africa not as a terrain of opportunity, or even as a morally compelling challenge to humanity, but as a burden, and largely as one to be evaded as much as possible.”

China is the only superpower that has invested in Africa as a place of promise and growth, and this is significant because Africa’s population is set to double over the next half-century, with its middle class rapidly expanding and many of its economies among the fastest-growing in the world. “People have welcomed the Chinese because they were an alternative,” Joseph Rahall, head of the indigenous NGO Green Scenery, tells French, “because there are times when you can find yourself with no investors, and the West just wags its finger at you and calls you corrupt.”

China’s own capitalist transformation has placed enormous pressures on society, where a growing middle class has increased demand for resources, consumer goods and export markets. Individual entrepreneurs and companies may have gone to Africa to get rich, but China’s overall expansion into the continent is an attempt to deal with pressures felt internally, much as America’s outward expansion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was meant to buttress its domestic progress and prosperity (as outlined in William Appleman Williams’s The Contours of American History).

The complicated fact is that despite China’s many trespasses, it is providing Africa with much-needed infrastructure and is integrating it into the networks of global capitalism on a scale that Western superpowers never have, including during the Age of Empire. China’s Second Continent doesn’t cover North Africa, but even here, where France has retained a foothold in the postcolonial era, China is beginning to encroach on Western interests, combining hard investments with a rhetoric of mutual gain (or “win-win,” as Chinese officials say).

In Bamako, French’s driver informs him that the Malians don’t like the Chinese, but as they drive by the hospital and the Friendship Bridge, he remarks wistfully: “They built it for us for free.”

“Here was China’s bid for soft power,” French reflects. The bridge “would soon be carrying perhaps a third of the people who crossed the river each day, taking them past the biggest and newest hospital in the country. And if people remembered one thing about it, for now, it would be that it was free.”

* * *

China’s policies in its borderlands are just as complicated, but debates about whether Tibet or Xinjiang is “free” are considerably less nuanced. Certainly, China’s heavy police and military presence creates a vastly different atmosphere: in Africa, Chinese security guards protect only Chinese properties, whereas the borders of Tibet are heavily patrolled, and Tibetan towns are kept under twenty-four-hour CCTV surveillance and periodically placed on total lockdown. To protest this situation, over 100 monks have immolated themselves since 2008, when riots against the Han Chinese spread throughout the Tibetan Autonomous Region, prompting the subsequent crackdown. “If Tibetans saw even a sliver of an opportunity to hold demonstrations, then they would not resort to self-immolation,” wrote Woeser, the dissident Tibetan writer, in The New York Times in March.

The situation is similar in China’s Muslim region of Xinjiang, which also bears a heavy military presence. Convoys continuously patrol the capital, Urumqi, and SWAT teams are stationed on side streets, lying in wait. The fear is of riots like those in 2009, or yet more attacks by Uighur separatists against the Han Chinese, who have migrated to the region in overwhelming numbers and now dominate economic life—including the region’s lucrative oil fields—largely to the exclusion of the Uighurs.

These are the places that The Sunday Telegraph’s Beijing correspondent, David Eimer, visits in The Emperor Far Away, his travelogue of China’s distant frontiers. These regions (Tibet, Xinjiang, Yunnan and Dongbei) account for roughly two-thirds of China’s land mass and include most of the 100 million people in China who are not Han Chinese, many of whom are among the fifty-five ethnic minorities officially recognized by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). These are places where, according to Eimer, “nationality is a nebulous concept” and “the passport a person possesses is less important than their ethnicity.”

Not all of these regions are as heavily policed by the state. Yunnan, which neighbors Burma, Laos and Vietnam, is the most ethnically diverse region of China, yet its borders are porous, unlike those of Tibet and Xinjiang. Drugs and migrants enter in large numbers from the Golden Triangle, where much of the world’s heroin originates, and where drug profits in Myanmar’s Wa and Shan states allow generals—buttressed by private armies numbering in the tens of thousands—to control what are effectively autonomous states. “With the CCP believing [the region’s] ethnic groups to be no challenge to their authority,” writes Eimer, “the combination of those multinational links and a lack of state supervision render the Yunnan borderlands the most lawless in all China.”

The relative absence of Chinese military or security forces is significant. Eimer finds Yunnan’s minorities neither outwardly critical of the regime nor utterly subdued by oppression, but rather “ideal junior comrades, happy to sing and dance in their colorful costumes for Chinese tourists while Han officials get on with running the show.” For Eimer, they are model minorities, similar to the stereotype of Chinese-Americans in the United States. Some groups, Eimer also discovers, are particularly savvy about reserving the most valuable aspects of their identity (language, culture and religion) for private life, with the most “Janus-like” and “Machiavellian” of these being the Dai, who are the Xishuangbanna region’s largest ethnic group and its historical rulers, and who, in times past, displaced what are now the hill tribes from the lowland jungles.

The colonialist undertones of Eimer’s interpretation (stereotyping Yunnan’s manifold ethnic groups and their many constituents as eager yet passive, and the echoes of “yellow peril” anxieties about calculating, two-faced Asians swindling the West) belie his larger misreading of the borderlands, which is to overemphasize cultural differences as the root of ethnic tensions, at the expense of economics. Eimer even hints at this fact between his contributions to what French describes as the “age-old expat’s game of armchair diagnostician of whatever ails Africa” (except in this case, China): “The Dai are less malleable than [Xishuangbanna’s] other minorities,” he writes, “because their ownership of valuable land gives them economic power.” But he does not seize on it.

With the local economy being driven by rubber farms owned by the Han, located on land bought or rented from the Dai, and gradually expanding upland into areas the hill tribes now inhabit, the Han farmers and Dai landowners are the only ones profiting. This has bred resentment toward the Dai among the other minorities of the region, much as China’s presence in Africa has bred resentment against the Chinese. “Their lives are generally far easier than those of [Xishuangbanna’s] hill tribes and the minorities elsewhere in Yunnan, as well as most rural residents of inland China,” Eimer writes.

* * *

Few things are more crucial and contested in contemporary China than land: who owns it, inhabits it, profits from it, benefits from it, and bears the ill effects of its development. Throughout the borderlands, local communities have been displaced by industry, whether it’s rubber farming in Yunnan, gold mining in Tibet, or oil and gas extraction in Xinjiang. Much of this displacement also stems from the construction of supporting infrastructure, which besides requiring the transportation of workers to site and resources to market has also led to sizable increases in Han tourism and migration. The Uighurs are now a minority in their own lands; in Urumqi, they currently make up only 10 percent of the population and have been largely confined to one neighborhood of the city. Han vacation homes have driven up real estate prices in Yunnan, while the zang piao, or “Tibet drifters”—young Han who reject the rampant commercialism and conformism of the coastal cities—now constitute something like a bohemian enclave in Lhasa’s old town, spurring an increase in commercial rents and displacing most Tibetans, not unlike the gentrification occurring in San Francisco or New York City.

With China attempting to bring all fallow land and untapped resources into productive use, Han domination in the borderlands is fundamentally linked to rapid industrialization. The resulting ethnic tensions may be expressed as cultural clashes, but in their current manifestation, they are rooted in economic disparities. Meanwhile, Han immigration to the borderlands is far from slowing: the Tibet-to-Qinghai rail, which opened in 2006 to great fanfare within China’s official circles, continues to bring more tourists and Han migrants to Tibet each year. Even within North Korea, Chinese companies have set up joint ventures to develop some of the world’s largest untapped reserves of coal and iron ore and are almost certainly funding the construction of new roads, even though very few North Koreans own cars.

Wang Hui, the leading figure in what is widely considered to be China’s “New Left,” has argued that the country’s economic transition should be seen as an attempt to maintain economic self-sufficiency and find its own solutions to the social crises and imbalances that have developed in this process. Viewed in this way, China’s actions along its borderlands and in Africa can be understood as part of the same strategy: the ultimate goal is to maintain the sovereignty and stability of the Chinese state. With industry and the middle class growing (not to mention thousands of “mass incidents” occurring nationwide each year), this also involves maintaining economic growth. Whether China is succeeding is another question: the inept bureaucracies installed by Beijing in Tibet and Xinjiang are plainly oppressive and meeting with resistance. But the “religion of commerce” that Eimer associates with the Han, and China’s growing presence along its frontiers and in Africa, should be understood as extensions of global capitalism, not of Chinese culture. In fact, China’s transformation has also left many Han Chinese impoverished and without social or legal protections against developers and corporations.

This is not to deny China’s increasingly violent repression of culture and religion in Tibet and Xinjiang, nor to excuse it. It is only to say that the recent polarization of ethnic relations in Tibet and Xinjiang is the result of China’s uneasy transition to a capitalist economy and the Han migration that followed. China’s repression of Tibetan and Uighur culture and religion far precede this transition, while its increasing ruthlessness in recent years is driven by efforts to secure the region’s natural resources for the greater good. This is no “clash of civilizations,” but rather a clash shaped primarily by the new economic forces in a nation-state, already teetering on the brink of instability, that seeks to maintain sovereignty within its own borders.

Over the last decade, Hong Kong academics Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong have written extensively arguing that the labor and environmental abuses of Chinese corporations in Africa are no worse than those of Western companies, and that a great deal of the West’s discourse on the subject perpetuates racist stereotypes about China’s neocolonialist expansion. This should not excuse China’s many offenses, as Yan and Sautman seem to do at times, but their insights do highlight a crucial fact: castigating China while letting the United States off the hook would be an act of moral relativism. If anything, China’s precipitous rise is a reflection of its ability to mobilize resources at a pace and on a scale that is leaving its competitors in the dust in the global game of neoliberalism.

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