Category Archives: China and Africa relations

On Colonialism

Any reasonable discussion of colonialism on the African continent must be accompanied by an analysis of the differences in political economy. If one examines West Africa, for example, its political economy of colonialism was concentrated in the hands of local producers and large foreign firms, in sharp contrast to South African economy, which was shaped by the British South African Company. In his magnificently fine-grained book The Political Economy of West African Agriculture, Keith Hart delineates multiple factors that contributed to its underdevelopment.

Factors include ecological challenges, the detrimental effects of the slave trade on the social structure and production of the region, and above all, the “growing discrepancy between labor productivity in Europe and West Africa during the period of mercantilist expansion.” It was Europe’s Industrial Revolution and especially Britain’s that changed West African palm production. It’s important to note that West Africa was put in a vulnerable position by relying on palm oil production due to World Bank stipulations. Let’s look at another example provided by Hart — rubber production. In 1926 the Firestone company of tire production bailed out the Liberian government in exchange for leasing a million acres of land for 99 years at low rent. This is an example of colonial corporate/state rule which guaranteed cheap labor and low pay. What’s fascinating about the cocoa industry in West Africa is high level of success by indigenous farmers. Early farmers relied on family labor and at times, they formed companies in order to purchase and distribute land before dividing them into individual enterprises (60). Many people who went into the cocoa business had capital to invest; this capital usually came from profits made on palm oil, rubber and slaves. Hart argues: “one major reason why the productive organization of the cocoa industry has remained so determinedly small scale and noncapitalist is that the state has skimmed off much of the wealth it has produced, through monopsonistic marketing arrangements, thereby reducing incentives to reinvest in farm maintenance and improvement.”

Compared to West Africa, the southern part of the continent was shaped in large part by the discovery of minerals. The British South African Company received a charter from the British government in 1880s which enabled it to profit tremendously from the extraction of resources such as gold and diamonds. Resource extraction had significant implication for labor. In the case of copper mining in Zambia, colonial officials imposed multiple taxes which essentially had the effect of coercing Zambians into the cash economy and the mining industry. Audrey Richards, also a remarkable scholar and anthropologist, mentions in her book Land Labour and Diet that Bemba youths went to mines in groups of five or six for a year or two and this changed the social structure of their communities by placing a group of older men in charge. The lack of young productive labor in the villages led to decline in agricultural output. Over time, those working in the mines lost interest in village life.

In southern Rhodesia, the colonial government began to institute labor boards designed to manage labor pools. Labor boards changed laws to make it possible for people to enter the labor pool and impose new levy taxes and so forth. Sara Berry, who draws from Frederick Cooper, makes the brilliant observation in “Debating the Land Question in Africa” that British colonialism was concerned with development insofar as it involved measures to stabilize the labor pool. Strikes broke out in the Zambian Copperbelt in 1935 and thereafter, demonstrating to colonial officials that African workers were similar to European workers in wanting higher wages, better conditions, family allowances, benefits and compensation, decent housing and healthcare. When faced with the prospect of extending welfare programs beyond the labor market to colonial society as a whole, colonial administrators withdrew. They appropriated and used “tradition” and “progress” whenever it suited their needs. When Africans went on strike they were told they were forgetting their traditions (Berry 16). Yet they instituted policies that privileged the modern, “progressive” African farmer by allocating private property. “In effect, Africans were being asked to act like economic men and tribesmen at the same time: to build a modern, commercial agrarian order on the foundations of tribal solidarity.”

When examining the current state of African countries, one must consider the vestiges of the past. As Berry puts it, “colonial regimes left behind a series of hastily built governing structures, and an improbable vision of Africans as selfless modernizers, drawing on a communitarian past to create new societies that would combine the benefits of European commerce and technology with the virtues of traditional self-help…they ignored the profoundly destabilizing effects of colonial rule….”

If we are to understand China and African relations, we must analyze it not as a “new” event marked by a departure from the past, but rather a piece in continuity of Africa’s long and complicated history

Anthropology of Suffering

I’ve been pursuing my research since 2003 when I was volunteering in the Gambia in West Africa. It was the “hot” topic then, quite unfamiliar and intriguing to the average America and to scholars alike. I have been reluctant to publish or publicize my research in the past because I did not think I could fully capture the complexities of people’s lives intertwined with political, historical and economic forces. However, since 2003, particularly in the past few years, scholars and journalists have jumped at the chance to publish a plethora of literature — some thorough and others very superficial.

I have so many qualms about my research, and today’s talk by a journalist who spent 5 weeks traveling through Africa, using the platform of “telling Chinese migrant’s stories” reminds me why I have so often wanted to abandon this research. First, I strongly believe as anthropologists, we are compelled to tell people’s stories. In telling people’s stories, we must not neglect history, politics and economy in which people’s lives are embedded. Thus, for me, the quandary has always been how to balance people’s stories with insightful analysis that accounts for what Paul Farmer calls, “historically given social and economic structures.” Journalists have their forte, but going somewhere for several weeks, collecting data, and telling people’s stories does not provide adequate complexity and depth. Lately, I’ve been experiencing personal qualms about going forth with this research, precisely because it’s been over-sensationalized by journalists. I’ve also been plagued with doubts about the capacity of my research to effect change. As development anthropologists like to assert, there are too many stakeholders, all with their own individual interests that may impinge upon the well-being of the collective. I am also very cautious about playing into the sensationalism that has permeated the media with regards to this topic, but I persist because there are problems of injustice that need to be witnessed, told and rectified.

Alas, the struggles of the anthropologist and weary path of emotional toil…

When I think of models of anthropologists I aspire to be, my favorites are Paul Farmer and Philippe Bourgois. Both tell people’s stories — stories of suffering — while recognizing the economic, historical, and political structures manifested in temporalities that interact with and shape their lives. Farmer writes, “The debacles of contemporary Haiti…are not really ‘Haitian’ problems at all, but international ones.” The US Government played a significant role in the removal of Duvalier and the history of Haiti cannot be understood without an analysis of the historical relations between the US and Haiti. Farmer analyzes and critiques the forms of accusation and blame that “impute to human agency a significant role in the propagation of a dreaded sickness.”

How much to attribute to structure and agency is always something that has to be carefully thought out by the researcher because placing an emphasis on the latter may bear the implication that individuals are to blame for their circumstances. This is most evident with reactions of community members to those afflicted with the sickness. Farmer calls this the blame-the-victim ideology, which locates poverty and suffering at the individual level within the Haitian people. This ideology was quite prevalent among some of my informants, who espoused it as a way to blame those who were less fortunate than they were and to justify their agenda in making endless profits at the expense of others. I believe a consideration of the underpinnings of this ideology is absolutely critical to studying some of the injustices occurring among Chinese and Zambian labor relations. Furthermore, Zambia’s problems amid heightened unemployment, increasing numbers of orphans affected by HIV, lack of funding in public sectors due to neoliberal policies, and feelings of resentment of politicians must be analyzed holistically against its colonial past and position within the global order.

I pause, reflect and conclude with a quote by Paul Farmer: “To live in a village is to witness the struggles of the poor as they confront the deepening economic crisis that currently grips Haiti. Anthropological research conducted there is inevitably mired in a world of want, and ethnographic texts should reflect hunger and fear and sickness that are the lot of most Haitians. But describing suffering, no matter how touchingly, is not a sufficient scholarly response to the explanatory challenges posed by the world pandemic of HIV disease. AIDS in Haiti fits neatly into a political and economic crisis in ways that demand explication — patterns of risk and disease distribution, social response to AIDS and prospectives for near future are all illuminated by a mode of analysis that links the ethnographically observed to historically given social and economic structures. Our ability to confront and prevent HIV infection in a human and effective manner demands a holistic understanding of this new sickness.”

New Movies "When China Met Africa" and "The Colony"

So I went to the film screening for “When China Met Africa” and “The Colony” sponsored by the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University and was glad to witness such thought-provoking documentaries related to my research topic. The first film had more of an argument to make, not quite as cynical as Darwin’s Nightmare, but it had a slant which I quite well embrace. The second film was more of a narrated, journalistic account of Chinese lives in Senegal. I was partial to the first film, primarily because it tried to illuminate some of the controversial and taboo topics in China and Zambian relations through powerful yet subtle images and dialogue. Some of the topics that the film addressed — topics that I’m grappling with in my own research — are the following:

1) Potential Exploitation of Workers and Unequal Power Dynamics — Many of the scenes made me feel uncomfortable, as they showed the Chinese in the negative light, in particular, yelling at the workers, talking about “bashing in the head” of a local who might have stolen chickens from the owners, and giving them low wages in harsh working conditions. My research in Zambia also confirms this troubling aspect, although as the film only briefly alludes to, but I try to discuss a bit more thoroughly in my work, the language barrier poses a huge problem. Many of my Chinese friends spoke of their insecurities in speaking and understanding fluent English, and this created distance between them and locals. Their reliance on mannerisms and gruff tones tended to be easily misconstrued as blatant rudeness or even exploitative styles of management. I think that some of my Chinese respondents, in order to overcompensate for their insecurities, exhibited rougher styles of management because of their insecurities of trying to make it in a foreign country and also about their English abilities. Nonetheless, I do think there are issues of race and also global world order perceptions that the film elided. Some of the Chinese in the film made negative comments about dark-skinned, Black people. In preliminary fieldwork, nearly all of my respondents espoused some form of racial prejudice. I will tentatively put forth that this has to do with how Africa is positioned in the imagination of Westerners and the Chinese (many of whom are influenced by the West as well). That is, their perceptions of race also has to do their perceptions of China as a rising global power and Africa as far behind, economically and also in terms of development. Thus, most of my Chinese friends wanted to make enough money either to go back home or to go to countries they considered to be in the “first world.” Anywhere but Africa, they said. Still, race, in terms of preferences for lighter skin in the Chinese context and brought over as social practice in African countries, cannot be completely ignored either. These are issues that the film touches on and I hope to address in further research.

2) Food Chain — I became quite cynical and even depressed at some of the conditions I witnessed while in Zambia during the past three summers. The film did a great job in provoking the audience to be critical about the benefits that locals accrue from Chinese foreign investments. I found the juxtaposition of images of dignarities and elites on Chinese and Zambian sides meeting with elaborate fanfare against images of locals struggling to make ends meet and working in tough conditions to make a living especially effective. One got the sense that what is happening among state and international actors was not benefiting people on the ground, the Chinese and Zambians who were learning to work with each other and working in the hot sun to complete projects signed and sealed by the elites. I always think of the food chain analysis when I think about my research (I’m quite pessimistic, I know, and it’s been hard not to be). Some of the Chinese I met, as in the film, were in Zambia to take advantage of opportunities that they were excluded from in China. Too much pressure in China. Some felt left behind. What happens then? They go to Zambia, where so many are also left behind. At least where I stayed in Lusaka, unemployment reaches over 70 percent. Individual Chinese traders must struggle at first to make some profit, but they do come with the advantage of more capital garnered from back home. What does this do to local Zambians? Some are driven out of business. Others work for the Chinese for very low wages because they don’t have many other options. One man complained to me that the government was not preventing the Chinese from entering nshima-making niches at the market and was adamant that this should be a local-targeted niche. Even there, he said, the Chinese were taking over. The movie pointed out that there are these structures in place that put both groups at a disadvantage and it became a matter of one group crawling over the other to get ahead within structures that are inherently unequal. It reminds me of the food chain. It’s not right for the toad to eat the fly, but the toad eats the fly to survive — survive until, at least, when the animal above the toad eats the toad. What the movie didn’t address was the level of corruption among the elites and political/international actors. I wondered, for example, how much the Zambian minister was getting from the Chinese to give the companies bids on construction and other development projects. I am sure there was an exchange of money, but how much and when?

What the movie did make clear is that even as the individuals try to learn to understand each other and their own lives, there are challenges that extend beyond their day-to-day situations. These challenges are global and economic and attest to the notion that China and African relations is less a clear-cut domain, but seemingly more and more about structural inequalities in the global world order.