Category Archives: China

China-Africa Knowledge Project Resource Hub

I just received some exciting news about a new project that will benefit researchers and practitioners working on the China-Africa relationship. The China-Africa Knowledge Project was started in June 2013 and includes the China-Africa Knowledge Project Resource Hub, a website that connects scholars across disciplines and regions working on China-African relations. 

The Social Science Research Council states that  “in this initial phase, the CAKP Hub provides information on research centers and institutions working in the China-Africa space, features key researchers and their work, maintains a rolling list of useful online resources, and collects information on upcoming conferences, calls for papers, and other happenings. As host to the Chinese in Africa/Africans in China Research Network, it also widens the reach of existing cross-regional communities. In due course, the hub will offer a database of China-Africa scholars, a moderated digital forum for timely discussion of China-Africa events and findings, and a virtual research forum for graduate students.”

The CAKP will create programs and activities related to the Working Group on China-Africa, the Chinese in Africa/Africans in China Research Network and China, Africa and the UN. The Working Group members consist of a talented group of leading scholars, whose research have greatly informed my own work. 

The project is funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, with support from the SSRC’s Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum. 


Domestic Issues In China’s Development Model

There were several important points Wenran Jiang made in “Fueling the Dragon: China’s Rise and its Energy and Resources Extraction in Africa.” Jiang examines Sino-African relations through the lens of the Chinese development model, arguing that “China’s ‘miracle’ growth of GDP has come with heavy price tags on wages, workers’ welfare, the eco-system and political reforms” (2009:37). What are these costs?

1) China consumes 31 percent of the world’s coal, 30 percent of iron, 27 percent of steel, 40 percent cement, 20 percent copper, 19 percent aluminum and 10 percent electricity. Hence, the imperative to extract resources from the African continent. It’s worth noting that India, Canada, Switzerland, and other countries are involved in similar endeavors. In Zambia, for example, Mopani Mines is owned by Canada’s First Quantum Minerals, Swiss firm Glencore International and the Zambian government. Zambia’s biggest mining company, Konkola Copper Mine [KCM] is an Indian company based on London and listed on the stock exchange.

Heavy demands for raw materials and resources have contributed to a destruction of the environment both at home and abroad. In China, this is manifested in its pollution rates; 70 percent of rivers and 90 percent of city rivers are polluted. This lack of concern for the environment, though increasingly attended to in recent years, transfers over to their projects in African countries. Failure to enforce environmental regulations, as Jiang argues, is also part and parcel of the weakened African state to put protective structures in place.

2) The modernization program in China relies on the supply of migrant workers. Jiang writes, “Thirty years of reform has transformed China into a cut-throat, competitive capitalist market economy featuring severe exploitation of workers, especially migrant workers with sustained low wages. It is thus difficult to imagine that Chinese entrepreneurs and companies used to such domestic conditions would go to Africa and treat workers there any differently” (39). This point encapsulates the thrust of my research on labor relations.

Jiang’s point is a comment on our bounded conceptions of “Sino-African” relations. He urges researchers to reach deeply into our understanding of China’s domestic policies towards workers and their role in the strengthening of Chinese civil society. On an optimistic note, Jiang writes that Chinese leadership is paying more attention to the negative outcomes of the modernization efforts and have addressed these problems through greater protection of workers’ rights, implementing new procedures of work safety and transparency in civil allegations. What Jiang makes clear is that Sino-African relations is directly tied to what is happening at home. “If China’s cut-throat capitalism continues to externalize its negative aspects to Chinese practices in Africa, only corrupt regimes in some of African countries will benefit instead of ordinary people. And there will certainly be more backlashes of local resentment against Chinese presence” (58).

“Chinese practices” is heterogeneous and may produce unintended effects, in some instances, providing upward mobility to locals, especially in capital-intensive and highly skilled (meaning, less replaceable) sectors. It’s hard to tell at this point. I believe a proliferation of ethnographies can illuminate for us potential benefits and costs to China’s increasing presence on the continent.

China and Angola

Lucy Corkin (2006) has a thorough piece on China’s interest in Angola. She states that the most important form of cooperation and joint venture exists between the Chinese oil company Oil Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (Sinopec) and the Angolan company Sonangol combined to form Sonangol-Sinopece International (SSI). Indira Campos and Alex Vines (2008) confirm the significance of Angola’s extractive industries for China. They report hat Sinopec Group has a 55 percent stake in the joint venture and Sonangol has 45 percent. Between 2005 and 2006, nine cooperation agreements were signed and SSI bought three new Angolan offshore oil blocks with reserves of 3.2 billion barrels. However, negotiations fell through in 2007. Sonangol declared independence and SSI gave up he three newly acquired negotiations.

According to Pambazuka News (2009), “Luanda has made no secret of its efforts to diversify is portfolio of investors, ensuring that no one partner becomes too powerful in the oil industry. Consequently, Chinese efforts to secure oil equity in Angola have proved less successful than Beijing’s original expectations, and the Western oil majors still predominate.”
Angola has a population of 14 million, about half of the population residing in Luanda. Oil production accounts for 52 percent of the country’s $24 billion economy (Corkin 2008). Diamonds and oil account for 95 percent of Angolan exports. China has played a particularly important role in post-conflict reconstruction for a civil war that lasted from 1975 to 2002.
F. Ugboaja Ohaegbulam in U.S. Policy in Postcolonial Africa argues that the conflict began as a postcolonial struggle, which evolved into a civil war.
The roots of the conflict lay deep, first in Portugal’s imperial policy and practice in Africa. Second, they lay in the struggle for control of state power among Angola’s three national liberation movements immediately after Portugal was compelled to conceded independence in the wake of a military overthrow of its civilian government in Lisbon in April 1974. The struggle became complicated by external forces — the dynamic of the Cold War and the security interests of South Africa’s white minority government, which sought to perpetuate its rule in South Africa and Namibia as well as its hegemony in the whole of southern Africa….The perceived threat to the security interest of he white minority government of South Africa expanded the scope and duration of the war. The third root of he conflict was the ideological conflict for world hegemony between the United States and the Soviet Union….
Ohaegbulam (2009) continues, arguing that Portugal was run by authoritarian rulers who used brutal force to weed out critics of the colonial government and justified this on the basis that they were civilizing the people of Africa. Anti colonial struggles lasted for 13 years from 1961 to 1974. By 1975, when all parts of the empire was becoming independent, chaos arose in Angola and Portuguese authorities fled, refusing to take any action to control the chaos. “The factions in the struggle for succession in Angola — the popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) and the National Union for Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) — were initially national liberation movements which sought to remove Portugal’s imperial presence,” but they were unable to unite. Not only were they ideologically and ethnolinguistically divided, but they became divided based on the external support they received in the midst of the Cold War — one faction receiving support from the Soviet Union and the other receiving support from the US. “Thus, to perpetuate a status quo in southern Africa that favored the Western powers, the United States, under Gerald Ford administration, collaborating with President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and the white minority government of the Republic of South Africa, covertly supported an alliance of the FNLA and the UNITA against the Soviet-and Cuban-backed MPLA. The MPLA, which had already proclaimed itself the government of Angola (on 11 November, 1975), won an indecisive victory in February 1976 against its rivals.” As war continued, corrupt acts by the MPLA government persisted. UNITA rebels committed atrocious acts against anyone who was considered disloyal. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) established diplomatic ties with the MPLA since 1983. When Moscow supported MPLA at one point, the PRC turned to UNITA to forge alliances.

The consequences of war were devastating. Not only did the war deplete the overall labor force, especially in the rural areas, but destroyed peasant households and agricultural production. What was once a self-sufficient sector now depended heavily on imported food aid. Conditions were further exacerbated by the actions of UNITA rebels. They cut off road transport, obliterated bridges and prevented rail traffic and used infrastructure to smuggle diamonds to purchase weapons. The author estimates that $10 million worth of diamonds were smuggled every week through Zaire and $1 billion spent every year to buy weapons from the Soviet Union. Infrastructure that had been destroyed during the war is now being reconstructed and rehabilitated by the Chinese. It is estimated that $211 million loan has been given to build roads destroyed during the civil war. Campos and Vines (2008) maintain that Angola’s developmental needs are tremendous and the involvement of Portugal and Brazil in doubling their credit lines to help Angola rebuild its economy demonstrates that China is not the dominant contributor. The US at one point had been the major importer of Angolan oil, but that has since shifted to China and South Africa. Still, Chinese FDI is small in comparison to Western FDI, with Portugal taking the lead.

The number of Chinese living in Angola has increased, but as of 2005, the Portuguese comprised the main foreign labor force. In 2006, there were an estimated 15,000 Chinese with work visas living in Angola. In 2007, the number increased to 22,000. Most of the Chinese are low-paid migrant workers who will return home after their one to two year contracts end. They live in isolated, closed compounds, “often at the site of actual construction”. The authors also report that “those workers earn a very low salary and therefore lack the financial ability, language skills, and contacts to establish their own businesses in Angola” (Campos and Vines 46). However, given that over half of the population in Angola are jobless, the influx of Chinese workers may fuel resentment and contribute to future controversy. The authors mention that Chinese companies garner 70 percent of the contracts, which means only 30 percent of Angolans get contracts. However, it seems with the focus on rebuilding quickly, the Angolan government has favored Chinese companies over domestic ones by giving them over 70 percent of the contracts. Furthermore, since the Chinese also prefer to hire their own workers and have brought up issues about the standards of local workers and contractors, many locals have no benefited from anticipated levels of employment that the Chinese were expected to provide.

The authors also make the excellent point that there is a need for mutual understanding that is absent in work-related interactions between the Chinese and Angolans. The Catholic University in Luanda opened a research quarter for studies on China-Africa relationship. There is still little historical, cultural and linguistic knowledge between China and Angola. Chinese researchers are beginning to recognize the importance of Angola and other African countries, but the concern is that “China’s intellectual capacity to analyze the country has not increased” and therefore, this “highlights a serious sociocultural deficit for promoting a more realistic understanding of nonelite bilateral relations” (46-47).

China and Sudan

Julia Strauss and Martha Saavedra in the introduction of China and Africa have submitted the argument that there is a need to consider the differences and similarities in China-African relationships within Africa. This can be done through diligent ethnographic research comparing multiple countries or multiple sites within a particular country. This field is still relatively new such that nuanced and complex research is in its formative stage.

Perhaps we can point to the ways in which China’s engagement in Sudan is simplistically depicted. One approach, which Daniel Large (2009) alludes to, is looking at China’s economic interests, tied to competition with the United States in Sudan. A second approach also frames the issue in terms of China encroachment upon Sudan by scrutinizing the historical change in Chinese diplomacy from “passive, blind support for Khartoum” to more active political involvement championing an end to conflict (62). Large seems to take an altogether different approach, one that examines how China fits into the history and politics of Sudan, rather than the other way around. What Large overlooks has been supplemented by the excellent edited volume, Darfur and the Crisis of Governance in Sudan: A Critical Reader.

Large writes, “The Chinese commercial expansion in Sudan did not take place in a vacuum but rather entered a political economy in which other external players had been and would continue to be active. Sudan, however, has become a center of established Chinese economic interests, which have continued to expand in recent years” (65). In 2007, Sudan was China’s sixth largest oil exporter and has continued to play a key role in oil investment. Ricardo Soares de Oliveira has written about oil investments in Africa, stating that since the 1950s, Western international oil companies (IOCs) such as Exxon-Mobile, Chevron, BP, Royal Dutch/Shell and Total dominated the continent (95). Chinese oil companies only recently since the 1990s began to gain a strong foothold in Nigeria, Angola, Equatorial Guinea and the Sudan.

Arguing that the National Islamic Front (NIF) regime, which assumed power in 1989, is “responsible for the domestic conflict,” Large attributes the sensitivity of Chinese engagement in Sudan to its relations with the NIF/NCP regime. Undoubtedly, as Large and many other scholars have discussed, the media has a heavy-handed role in this controversy. Atta El-Battahani in “Ideological Expansionist Movements versus Historical Indigenous Rights in the Darfur Region of Sudan” explains that the NIF, though containing members from both Arab and non-Arab groups in Sudan, has always been dominated by leaders “from the riverian areas largely dominated by Arabs and as such is susceptible to the perceived or actual influence of Arab-Muslim culture/centricity.” According to El-Battahani (2009), the ethnicization and racialization of the conflict was heightened by the military coup in 1989 bringing Omar Al Bashir and the ideology of Arabo-centricism into power.

Mahmood Mamdani (2009) in “The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency” echoes similar points, but calls for an deep analysis of Darfur that takes into account its history and context. “The dynamic of civil war in Sudan has fed on multiple sources. First, the independence monopoly of power is enjoyed by a tiny Arabized elite from the riverian north of Khartoum, a monopoly that has bred growing resistance among the majority, marginalized populations in the south, east, and west of the country. Second, the rebel movements have, in their turn, bred ambitious leaders unwilling to enter into power-sharing arrangements as a prelude to peace. Finally, external forces continue to encourage those who are interested in in retaining or obtaining a monopoly of power” (152).

Elaborating upon Mamdani’s analysis of the complexity of the situation, Salah Hassan in “Naming the Conflict” points out the important role that the NIF government played in perpetuating the crisis. Hassan’s explanation is perhaps the clearest account I have read:

The protracted war in the South began in 1955 at the dawn of Sudan’s independence from British colonialism and was a logical outcome of the inequalities and imbalance of power sharing that characterized the colonial period. The war was also a consequence of the failure, typical of postcolonial regimes since 1956, to seriously address these inequalities. By all accounts the scale of horror and loss of human life over the stretch of fifty years of the civil war between the South, represented first by the Anya-Nya (1955-1971) and SPLM/A (1983-2003) on the one hand and the government on the other was equally if not more devastating than the current conflict in Darfur….Similar to the case of the Janjawid in Darfur, the practice of recruiting Arabized nomads to fight the SPLM/A in areas bordering the South can be traced to Numeriri’s regime (1969-1985). The continued mobilization of paramilitary groups konwn as Murahaleen formed by recruits from the Baggara nomads — the Misayriyyah — was carried out well into the democratically elected government of Sadiq al Mahdi. The Misayiryyah wrought painful devastationa nd undertook mass killings in the south among the Dinka communities in Northern Bahr Al Ghazal. In many ways this served as a rehearsal of the Janjawid attacks against the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa, who at present form the social base and ground support for the guerrilla warfare waged by the Darfur resistance movements” (161).

Hassan further explains that the unequal development created by colonial policies and the postcolonial ruling class between the center (Northern and Central Sudan) and the peripheries (south, east and west of Sudan), as well as the political manipulations of race, religion, and sect by the NIF regime were two main factors contributing to the crisis of governance (163). Hassan continues, “it bears repeating that the policy of forming and arming paramilitary tribal militias was initiated by the Numeiri regime and further consolidated by Sadiq Al Mahdi in 1986 under the pretext of defending civilian populations against SPLM/A attacks. This policy…has been taken to its extreme by the NIF government’s incorporation of these militias into a paramilitary fundamentalist army known as the Popular Defense Forces (PDF), established by a government decree. In the case of Darfur this resulted in the creation of the Jajawid” (164).

China’s role in Sudan has markedly shifted from passive, diplomatic engagement to one that is more politically involved. As Large demonstrates, two incidents targeting Chinese workers — in 2008, nine Chinese workers were kidnapped in the southern Abeyi region, and five were killed by rebel groups who at one time used to be aligned with the central government against the SPLA before going against Khartoum — prompted the Chinese government to become more vocal, at least in public discourse, about government responsibility and ethnic unity (70).

After the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in 2005 between the NCP and the SPLM, the Chinese government began relations with the SPLM-led government of Southern Sudan. The CPA created two governing bodies for six-year temporary periods — a Khartoum-based government which enables power-sharing between NCP and SPLM and the semi-autonomous government of Southern Sudan based in the new capital of Juba under the auspices of SPLM. The stipulation is that the south is supposed to receive a share of oil profits. Wedged in between the aftermath of the civil war, the Chinese government has developed profitable relations with both the NIF/NCP and the SPLM governments of Sudan. Especially in war-torn Southern Sudan, Chinese investments have been welcome with open arms (72) and the Chinese government responded through expansions of FDI and aid. Like other foreign investors, Large concludes, the Chinese government will face institutional obstacles ranging from infrastructure to conflicts between different communities in Southern Sudan, divergent interests and resulting clashes with elements of civil society, and potential targeting of Chinese workers by discontented groups seeking to use leverage against the SPLM or Khartoum. How this will affect future politics in Sudan and Chinese international and national politics remain uncertain.

Civil Society, the State, and Sino-African Relations

“Sino-African Relations: Reflections on Civil Society Engagement” by Antony Otieno Ong’ayo in Chinese and African Perspectives on China in Africa (2010)

I agree with Ong’ayo’s point about what the role of academics should be in discussing China and African relations: “Academia’s role would therefore be to underpin the understanding of the socio-political and economic problems facing both Africa and China and combined with civil society’s input would provide a formidable challenge to the hegemony of global capital and the political elites overseeing its operations” (239). Civil society can be a conduit for democracy and leverage against state forces; whoever, as the author demonstrates,there are also ways in which civil society has been linked with a neoliberal agenda.

In One Zambia, Many Histories, Mulenga contends that trade unions have been weakened from 1964 to 1991 due to economic liberalization policies that targeted 280 parastatals for privatization. The impact of structural adjustment programs (SAPs) on the labor market has been “devastating”. Factors that have been attributed to the decline of unions elsewhere (in various Asian countries) include the small size of organized industrial labor force, relatively low education of the labor force and legislation that counters single bargaining agents inside firms. The Zambian Congress of Trade Union (ZCTU) founded in 1965, which was led by former president Fredrick Chiluba, was weakened due to government suppression. When the organization resisted the government, Kaunda’s response was to shift from support to repression; in 1982, Chiluba and 16 other trade union members were imprisoned. After Chiluba came to power, a similar pattern ensued, with the further weakening of unions as a result of government suppression.

As the article points out, the weakening of civil society, particularly trade unions, can be attributed to government’s role in restricting them and also coopting strong labor leaders into the government system. There were 250,000 total union membership in 2001. After SAPs, which caused great harm to civil society, membership dwindled to half. Efforts at union organizing has also been frustrated through the increasing casualization of labor. However, Miles Larmer notes the revival of labor movements and argues that there is great potential for future mass mobilization. Despite varying degrees of strength of civil society elements, they are significant in fostering more equitable and therefore, less neoliberal relations between the Chinese and their African partners.

Ong’ayo maintains that a dialogue on China-African relations must include civil society on both the Chinese and African side. This includes knowledge of working conditions and exploitation in export processing zones (EPZs), human rights violations in work environments and threats to human security on China. Due to this lack of knowledge, the author argues, African civil society organizations and academics might overlook ways in which civil society might intervene as “an autonomous counterbalance to the state” (234). Possible interventions may take on the form of transnational alliances and activist coalitions around the world. Collaboration is imperative to prevent the state from dominating policy processes (239). Scholars should conduct research on the impact of Chinese investments, including “labor and human rights issues, on the impact of Sino-African agreements on African governments’ ability to deliver development and on the broader socio-economic and environmental impacts of Chinese investment in Africa” (240).

Another solution Ong’ayo posits, which I find exciting, is the possibility of building a database of current policy in China and individual African countries to document current and encourage future in-depth analysis. This would require collaboration among scholars around the world working on this topic and joint efforts with their civil society counterparts.

Tanzania-Zambia Railway

“The Tanzania-Zambia Railway: A Case Study in Chinese Economic Aid to Africa” by George T. Yu in Soviet and Chinese Aid to African Nations (1980)

Africa’s Freedom Railway: How a Chinese Development Project Changed Lies and Livelihoods in Tanzania by Jamie Monson (2009)

TAZARA Railway was a symbolic development project that marked “third world” solidarity amid contentious Cold War politics through China’s leading, benevolent role. Proposals for the project were consolidated at the heels of Tanzania and Zambia’s independence in the 1960s with the hopes of stimulating greater agricultural productivity especially in light of neighboring Rhodesia as competition. As Yu (1980) states, “landlocked and surrounded on three sides by hostile forces, Zambia, more than ever, sought a link with the outside world, fearing that Rhodesia and the Portuguese would sever its traffic to the sea entirely”; furthermore, an oil pipeline that went from Dar es Salaam to Ndola, Zambia proved to be an additional incentive to build the railway.

Proposals were submitted to the former Soviet Union, United Nations, Britain and Canada, all of whom rejected the project based on what they would turn out to be an “expensive mistake” (Yu 123). China accepted the agreement in 1967 following President Kaunda’s visit to China, but the agreement was not finalized until 1970 after several rounds of negotiation. By the time it was completed in 1976, the project had cost an estimated $456.3 million and exceeded the initial estimate by $55 million, which China “had agreed to absorb” (130). Although the loan was supposed to be interest-free, governments on all sides agreed on commodity-credit exchanges. Half of costs of building the railway link would be financed through the purchase of $121 million worth of Chinese goods.

The workforce comprised of Chinese, Tanzanians and Zambians. In 1972, the workforce was broken down into 70 percent Tanzanians, 26 percent Chinese and 4 percent Zambians. By 1974, 30 percent Chinese, 36 percent Tanzanians, and 34 percent Zambians made up the workforce. Manpower, according to officials involved in the project, seemed to severely limit the project due to the shortage of trained civil engineers, hydraulic engineers, mechanical and hydraulic engineers as well as geologists and soil scientists. Because China was also confronted with the problem of scarce resources, much of the technology was imported. The Japanese provided hundreds of bulldozers. Other imported machinery included British and Swedish trucks, Finnish rock-crushing machinery and German buses (135). Most of the equipment, such as locomotives, rolling stock and actual materials was manufactured in China.

Actual construction of the railway was done in sections. Mobile construction camps, which moved along the route, were given equipment and resources by the main base camp. Jamie Monson (2009) reports that when the Chinese and Tanzanians worked together, their approach to the project was “labor intensive” and back-breaking. Even against Tanzanian law that required workers in government institutions to put in seven hours a day, Chinese supervisors required that workers put in longer shifts. What is fascinating is that, according to Monson, if workers read Mao Ze Dong’s red book, supervisors allowed them to sit for hours. Otherwise, workers were instilled with ideologies of brotherhood, personal character and hard work. Although broader conceptions of cooperation and collaboration may have framed projects, Monson’s description of the interactions among Chinese and African workers suggest other possibilities. Majority of workers conducted their working and off-duty lives in a segregated manner and although African workers were put in leadership positions, they were few and far between.

By late 1970s, Yu reports, China began to limit aid to African countries. However, he argues, “the rail link, in terms of aid categories and level of resource expenditure, reflected an exception, rather than the rule, in China’s aid practices” (141). TAZARA was a symbol of China’s power, commitment to other “third world” nations, and victory of the West. Unfortunately, when I last visited the railway en route to Dar es Salaam from Kapiri Mposhi, evidence of its deterioration was apparent. According to a 2008 report by the Times of Zambia, “screws and bolts were missing from most sleepers and switch bearers,” thus posing danger for passengers and crew members. It seems the railway will once again make its way into the hands of the Chinese, the government has granted $10.8 million to renovate and rehabilitate the railway and Chinese investors have looked into the prospect of taking advantage of potential privatization of transportation sectors (thanks to recommendations by the World Bank and audit firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers). Sadly, the railway has been underused. Designed to carry 2.5 million tons each way (Yu 137), it now carries 0.5 million tons a year. It seems mounting problems manifested themselves in 1978 when about one-third of the locomotives and 30 percent of the wagons were inoperative. Yu attributes these problems partly to “premature departure by the Chinese” before Zambian personnel could be fully trained. Despite these problems, TAZARA remains a permanent fixture reminiscent of historical Chinese, Zambian and Tanzanian solidarity. It continues to be a potent symbolic force that is consistently invoked in modern times.

Note: Picture (left or top) is the inside of the Kapiri Mposhi station in Zambia. Picture (right or bottom) is a Chinese map of TAZARA (1977) obtained by George T. Yu (1980: 138).

"China-bound for jobs? The Influences of Social Connections and Ethnic Politics in Taiwan"

Ming-Chang Tsai and Chin-Fen Chang’s main argument in this article is that social connections and ethnicity related to politics are factors to consider in migration patterns among Taiwanese to work in China. As the authors point out, ethnic backgrounds are important in determining political party affiliations, with “native” Taiwanese (mainly composed of the Hokkien ethnic group who are descendants of migrants from Fujien centuries ago and Hakka who are descendants of later waves of migrants from Guangdong province) identifying as DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) supporters and mainlanders (refugees of the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949) identifying as KMT (Kuomintang Party supporters).

The authors used data from the 2005 Taiwan Social Change Survey (TSCS) given to 2,171 participants living in 36 cities and towns across Taiwan, extracted data from a final sample size of 1,282 employed men and women, and used SPSS to do a multivariate analysis. Independent variables included “will work in China within the next five years”, “will work in China if opportunity arises”, “assessment of work experience in China”, “respondents previously worked in China”, “co-worker(s) worked in China”, “immediate family member(s) worked in China”, “distant relative(s) worked in China”, “mainlander background”, “party preference(s)”. Another variable that should have been in the survey, in my opinion, is a salary indicator. Perhaps some Taiwanese would be enticed to go if the salary was high enough. However, the authors’ main points was that economic motivators should not be overestimated. Coefficients of employment and human capital became smaller after adding social network variables (655). They found that ethnicity played an important role. Also, having coworkers or neighbors who worked in China, a variable which the authors counted as “weaker ties” played a more important role than having immediate family members who worked in China. Mainlanders were more willing to work in China perhaps due to stronger Chinese identity and attachment and greater social networks. Along those lines, “a significant percentage of Hokkien residents of Taiwan continue to view China as a potential enemy, which may discourage a decision to relocate under any circumstances.” Thus, as the authors argue, human capital and economic factors certainly influence Taiwanese people’s decisions to relocate to China to work, but ethnicity and political identity are also salient factors.

I wonder with a quantitative study like this one, whether it is possible to examine the complexities and levels of attachment in people’s political and ethnic identities. For example, even among Mainlanders, how attached are they to China and do they plan on living there or simply working there temporarily? How might their decisions be impacted by the levels of salary and other perks? Also, the study does not separate respondents by the types of industry and labor. Perhaps doing so would shed light on other important factors that might weigh in on their decisions. Also, what I’m very curious about and the article does not explore are the types of “accumulated social networks” that affect the respondents’ job prospects in China. To what extent do these social networks influence their decisions and how might this variable weigh against the political and ethnic identity variables? In other words, would a Hokkien who has these accumulated social networks be as likely to be work in China as a mainlander without those social networks? And if so, what factors contribute to stronger versus weaker social networks?

It’s the chicken and egg question — do ethnic identity and political affiliation automatically predetermine to some extent the nature and strength of social networks among Taiwanese working in China or is it the other way around? Perhaps ethnic identity and political affiliation are strongly influenced by the social networks acquired in China. Of course, Taiwanese politics, though a bit more subdued now than when Chen Shui-Bian was in office, seems to strongly determine who migrates outward to China in the first place. And even among those who are China-bound, how long do they stay? Is their attachment to China simply rhetoric or do they maintain strong connections with the Chinese they work with and with family and colleagues there? This is a question that has come up over and over again during conversations I had with my Chinese friends in Zambia. Finally, I think it would be fascinating to look at migration studies bi-directionally. How can this be compared to Chinese working and living in Taiwan? Since there is constant movement both ways, how does this affect the ethnic identity and political affiliations on both ends? It is difficult at this point to call this “constant movement” migration or globalization or transnationalism or any of these broad catch-all terms. People are in constant flux, some own multiple homes in different locations, and if their work is only a few hours away by plane ride, perhaps perceptions of identity, home, politics, and belonging are in flux and straddling multiple spheres.

Labor Protests in China

To understand allegations of labor exploitation by Chinese companies and firms in African countries, we must look to literature and cases of workers treatment in mainland China. Sociologist Ching Kwan Lee, whom I met and befriended in Zambia, exposes the “underbelly” of China’s prodigious growth and makes the compelling argument that growing labor unrest in the past 15 years can be attributed to the commodification of labor, which in the Chinese context encompasses strategies of “decentralized accumulation” and “legal authoritarianism.” The inherent tension in these strategies rests in conflicting demands upon local governments to grow local economies while simultaneously carry out labor laws set forth by the central government.

In her fieldwork, Lee discovered differences between rustbelt workers’ protests in the northeast province of Liaoning and sunbelt workers’ protests in Guangdong. Lee argues that these differences are “shaped by the diverse modes of state regulation of labor and systems of social provision outside of waged work.” Their similarity resides in the outrage they experienced in dealing with the commodification process. Their sense of justice and humanity, what Lee calls the “moral and emotive dimensions” is especially salient in provoking them to protest and make demands based on workers’ legal rights.

These same demands were made in the United States decades before the growth of heavy industrial companies in China. Lee astutely observes shared experiences by her informants and those in the American coal and mining industries in Pennsylvania and Appalachia. She cites Eve Weinbaum’s work , which points to the affective consequences of “flexible accumulation of capital” as companies closed down, laid off workers and relocated to other countries in search of cheaper labor. One worker’ comment was particularly striking: “When I got laid off, I got depressed, moody….Then you get bitter. It really was very hard….I had a hard time adjusting. I got so depressed that I couldn’t even clean my house; I didn’t go no place; I didn’t even do anything” (Lee 243). Workers in both studies expressed a sense of betrayal by the rich and powerful who had reneged on their commitment to ordinary workers dedicated to making their countries strong. Workers alluded to the reprehensibility of the government in aiding major corporations commit crimes and engage in corruption while allowing them to shut down plants, factories and leave behind the communities and people in which they were once invested. Similar sentiments of brutality of treatment by employers were shown in studies of workers in Korea, “By the time they left the factory, their youth had long gone, leaving behind prematurely aged bodies with many nagging diseases acquired from factory work. As workers often lamented, ‘when all the oil is squeezed out of our bodies, we are thrown out just like trash” (Hagen Koo, Ching Kwan Lee 254).

Although both American and Chinese workers lack bargaining power and reduced associational power as unions are forced to make concessions that are not in the best interest of workers, one difference Lee maintains is that American workers have greater community associational power. Community resources, church-based organizations, civic groups and labor activists have played a critical role in helping workers deal with the depression of losing a job and facilitate in the creation of new bonds outside the workplace. Lee also points to “successful failures” as a locus for change, indicated in Weinbaum’s study of ex-GE workers’ who campaigned locally and then protested against the WTO in Seattle.Their protests planted the seed of inspiring other movements, training people with the skills conducive to activism, and establishing support systems that pave the way for future counter-hegemonic movements (Lee 249). In China, although alliances have formed between the peasantry, working class and property-owning middle class — one property owner statements after his family home had been demolished is particularly telling, “Ironically, I cannot even protect our own family home. We are so oppressed.” — the central and local governments adopt a highly repressive attitude towards collective rebellions, thus encouraging workers to seek individual economic strategies to escape control. Lee concludes by stating that the likelihood of rustbelt and sunbelt workers to collectively protest will depend on three factors “1) competition among political elites, trade unions 2) skills leverage over integrated production; or 3) community-based associations or social movement allies.”