by Erin Carson
China’s rise in political and economic stature is casting an increasingly long shadow across the globe. The steady increase in Chinese capital investment in Africa’s emerging markets over the last two decades has many observers, particularly in the West, sounding the alarm on Chinese-style colonialism in the Global South. Indeed, the exploitation of workers, natural resource depletion, and the enrichment of corrupt regimes are common criticisms of Chinese foreign investment in Africa.
On Thursday, November 16th, the 21st Century China Center hosted Professor Ching Kwan Lee of UCLA, who presented research from her forthcoming book, The Specter of Global China: Politics, Labor, and Foreign Investment in Africa, in which she rejects the term ‘colonialism’ as the basic framework of analysis of Chinese investment in Africa. Professor Lee draws from nearly a decade’s worth of ethnographic field research of Zambia’s Chinese-owned copper mines and construction contractors to refute the notion that Chinese investment in Africa is inherently linked to empire-building aspirations.
The main crux of Lee’s argument is supported by her comparison of Chinese state capital investment and global private capital investment. For Chinese state-owned enterprises, there are different goals, production processes, and management methods than for private, profit driven firms. Although both global private and Chinese state capital investments are driven by profit maximization, the latter is also motivated by the accumulation of political capital, soft power, and direct control over commodity resources for the Chinese domestic market. The 2008 financial crisis allowed these core differences to play out while Lee was embedded in Zambia. While private firms heeded market signals by laying off thousands of Chinese and Zambian employees, cutting wages, and decreasing output, the Chinese state-owned companies did none of this. Lee argues that the concessions that Chinese state capital allows for Zambian state and local interests to pursue long-term strategic interests is evidence that China’s investment in Africa is self-interested, rational behavior, but has yet to approach the kind of colonialism pursued by European powers less than a century ago.
Professor Lee’s closing statement reiterated the importance of Zambia and other developing economies’ role in determining their own development paths for the 21st century. Through her research Lee witnessed the power of Zambia’s organized labor and pluralistic civil society, despite the country’s inferior position in overall capital and level of development compared to China. The specter of global China is far reaching, but not necessarily something to fear.