The Chinese burden?
April 1, 2008
The Guardian, UK
As the Beijing Olympics approach, a sweeping left/right consensus has
emerged in the west: that China's interventions in Africa are deeply
problematic. Western officials, commentators and activists accuse
China of "raping" Africa, plundering its resources, creating even
greater inequalities between rich and poor, and cosying up to
On the right, magazines likes the Economist describe the Chinese as
"the new colonialists"; on the left (well, ostensibly the left), human
rights advocates slate China for "funding genocide" in Darfur. Others
claim that by doing business with dodgy African regimes, China is
undermining the west's attempts to "encourage good governance" on the
once dark continent.
This China-bashing dresses itself in radical lingo. Campaigners like
to fantasise that they are taking a stand against "Chinese
colonialism". In truth, there is an imperialistic bent to these
criticisms of China for its record in Africa: the aim is not to
liberate Africans from outside interference, but rather to preserve
Africa as the playground of western do-gooders rather than Chinese
businessmen. Western observers are disturbed by Chinese meddling in
Africa because it undercuts their own self-styled role as the heroic
saviours of the African savage.
Save Darfur activists now campaign almost exclusively around attacking
China for "funding the genocide". Their campaigning comes across as
both nasty and naïve. Sunday's New York Times Magazine carried a
revealing article about a new group, Dream for Darfur, which is
promoting the idea that Beijing 2008 will be the "Genocide Olympics".
One supporter of Dream for Darfur told the NYT: "Darfur is singular.
China is the reason Darfur is happening."
Such a statement is mind-bogglingly simple-minded. Darfur is anything
but "singular". As Jonathan Steele argued on Cif recently, "There are
around a dozen different rebel groups currently fighting the
[Khartoum] government. To put the blame on only one party [China]
makes no moral or political sense." Yet, as the NYT reporter pointed
out, "For those on board with Dream for Darfur, connecting the dots
between the summer games and hundreds of thousands of African corpses
is not much more complicated" than saying "China is the reason Darfur
Dream for Darfur called in Ben Cohen from the ice-cream maker Ben and
Jerry's (the mind boggles) to wage a "jihad" against China's cute,
cartoonish Olympic mascots: Beibei the fish, Jingjing the giant panda,
and other big-haired symbols of modern China. Dream for Darfur told
Cohen to "keep his message short". "The message here isn't hard:
genocide bad; China helping", it advised. So Cohen is devising an
anti-mascot campaign with the message: "Looks cute - supports genocide."
That sums up the cartoonish politics of the wristband-wearing,
latte-drinking, self-serving Save Darfur activists in New York and
elsewhere. It seems clear that bashing China over its relations with
Khartoum is not based on any serious political assessment of what is
happening in Sudan and Darfur; indeed, it overlooks the fact that few
serious international organisations describe the conflict as a
genocide, and that, even though things are still dire in Darfur,
they're not as bad as they were during the intense conflict period of
Instead, this is about humiliating China out of Sudan so that the west
can take its rightful position as the hector-in-chief of the Khartoum
government. Apparently only white, well-educated, celebrity-connected
westerners have a right to determine what should happen in Sudan. As
one commentator puts it: "Sudan's government feels it can ignore
western revulsion at genocide because [thanks to China] it has no need
of western money ... China, along with Sudan's other Arab and Asian
partners, feels free to trample on basic standards of decency." Those
indecent Chinese - how dare they block the righteous path of "western
revulsion" against an African regime?
Human Rights Watch is even more explicit. It recently complained that
"China's growing foreign aid programme creates new options for
[African] dictators who were previously dependent on those who
insisted on human rights progress". In short, Chinese deal-making with
African states has undermined the army of western officials, NGOs and
conflict-resolution experts who believe that only they should have
free rein to tell Africans how to behave.
Attacking China for its support of Khartoum is not a liberationist or
pro-African demand; rather it is underpinned by western protectionism,
a desire to keep Africa as "The White Man's Burden" rather than
allowing it to become "The Yellow Man's Burden". Indeed, some of the
China-bashing over Africa is premised on what we might term "double
racism": first there's the idea that Africans are inherently genocidal
and need "western revulsion" to keep them in line; second there is the
notion that the Chinese, who are not well-versed in western values,
cannot be trusted to deal with Africa.
Likewise, in discussions of aid to Africa, thinkers and activists on
both the left and the right complain about China's "no strings"
trading with Africa. As the BBC recently said: "China offers
'no-strings' aid, a marked contrast to Western donors who impose
conditions on aid and tie trade sweeteners to human rights issues."
In other words, where western activists use aid and trade to try to
force changes in African governance and behaviour - effectively
blackmailing governments to follow western diktat and making fecund
men and women take lessons in condom-use as a condition of charity -
the Chinese simply do business deals, build roads, construct factories
and create jobs without demanding that Africans jump through hoops.
Western do-gooders worry that African states will be drawn to China,
since the Chinese treat them as grown-ups rather than as wayward
children - "half-devil, half-child", as Kipling put it - who need to
be reviled and mollycoddled in equal measure.
There's no doubt that China is pursuing its own interests in Africa.
But make no mistake: so are those who lambast China. They are
jealously guarding their own colonialist influence over the African
masses rather than striking a blow for African independence.
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