Paramilitary: The Other Chinese Invasion

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July 16, 2016: Chinese territorial claims off its coasts (especially the South China Sea) and along the Indian border get the most media attention but there is another kind of Chinese invasion that, while less noticed, is becoming a serious economic and political problem for the countries the Chinese have been allowed to invade. Put simply if a country allows Chinese investment on a large (multi-billion dollar) scale the deal usually involves allowing China to bring its own workforce and permitting those workers to establish their own Chinese settlements and then stay when the project is over. This sort of thing results in the Chinese establishing a permanent economic presence and control over a growing percentage of the local economy.

The most visible example of this is Africa where since 2000 Chinese use of these “invasion” tactics has become a growing problem for China as well as the nations involved. The most troublesome (for all concerned) side effect is the growth of intense anti-Chinese attitudes by resentful and still unemployed locals. The bad relations began when Africans realized that the Chinese bring their own workers and employing fewer locals for construction projects China was paying for. Over time fewer and fewer locals were used. This gave the Chinese greater control over projects, usually related to construction (buildings, roads, and the like) or mining.

The Chinese point out that using their own workforce ensures that the project will get done on time and on budget. But there is a downside to the use of imported workers. It is easier for the Chinese to ignore local advice, which leads to construction practices that work back in China but not in various parts of Africa. Construction practices that work in some parts of China often do less well in various parts of Africa. Also the locals have different attitudes towards use and maintenance of the new facilities. Often after a decade (or even less) the Chinese projects are falling apart. The Chinese workers are kept in separate camps and rarely mix with locals, giving rise to suspicions that they are Chinese convict labor. There’s no evidence of that, and Chinese managers everywhere tend to be very intent on tightly controlling work they are responsible for. Moreover many of these workers stay after the project is completed and go into business locally.

These Chinese construction projects please the local African officials because the Chinese get the job done quickly and with minimal problems from locals. Neither the local politicians nor the Chinese are concerned with long-term problems. While China has been generous with business deals in Africa, and sent over half a million Chinese to work, invest, or settle in China, African tyrants are favored as partners. That's because these thugs are shunned by Western nations and businesses. Because of this, China is increasingly seen as a supporter of evil governments and that has generated a widespread African hostility towards all things Chinese. This has led to anti-Chinese riots in some countries and a general animosity towards the Chinese at the grass roots level. Thus, when these countries go through their next rebellion the Chinese are likely to be a popular target and a major loser if the rebels win.

China has been at this for since 2002. This really kicked into high gear when China declared 2006 was officially "The Year of Africa." China went all out to make a favorable impression on African governments and increase Chinese economic and diplomatic activity in Africa that year. To that end, about a billion dollars-worth of debts, of African nations to the Chinese government, were forgiven. The year before, Chinese commercial and government organizations invested over $13 billion in Africa. This was less than one percent of China's GDP but by African standards, it was a huge investment.

However, there was some blowback. The Chinese were mainly after raw materials, especially oil. A lot of that $13 billion was bribes for local officials. As usual, the average African was getting screwed by these deals. For example, a lot of the investment was for infrastructure (roads, bridges, structures), and a lot of those deals stipulated the use of Chinese labor for most of the work despite public promises of jobs for. There was never any intention of employing many Africans and the people signing these deals knew it. The Chinese pay such low wages that they could afford to fly in Chinese for many jobs.

China is also flooding African markets with inexpensive goods. Both of these tactics are hurting local businesses and causing unrest among African business owners and workers. As a result, it's become common for opposition parties in Africa to accuse China of "neo-colonial exploitation." The accusation fits, and the Chinese will pay for it down the road, as will peacekeepers brought in to help clean up the mess.

Russia and Central Asian nations are seeing the same tactics being used on them and are demanding restrictions on these practices. Thailand recently turned down billions in Chinese investments because the Chinese would not limit the use of Chinese labor doing the work in Thailand. China is now more willing to negotiate because a growing number of nations are willing to do without Chinese investment if the terms include an influx of Chinese workers, many of whom want to stay for good.

The “overseas Chinese” have been a presence in Asia for centuries. But until now the Chinese government was never much concerned with them. China was never, until the late 20th century, a major international trading power. Now China is and it is spending heavily to finance the migration of more Chinese to settle in foreign lands, and never forget where they came from. For those who do, when the motherland calls, the Chinese government will remind the unwilling that they still have kin or other links back in China and how shameful would it be if this lack of cooperation became known.

 


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