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China Defends Its Economic Policies in Africa


A high ranking Chinese diplomat in South Africa says Beijing is resolving trade tensions with South African labor activists, and denies that trade with Sudan and other autocratic regimes implies support for their policies. The government of Sudan has been accused of supporting what US President George Bush and others call genocide in the country’s western Darfur province.

Zhou Yuxiao is the Charge d’Affaires at the Embassy of China in Pretoria. He says Beijing is making provisional trade concessions that will temporarily limit Chinese exports to South Africa.

Critics say the influx of inexpensive Chinese goods is driving African manufacturers out of business. For example, the South Africa-based Southern African Regional Poverty Network says that more than 10,000 employees lost their jobs in Lesotho last year when 10 clothing factories closed due to Chinese competition. In addition, the network says increased US trade with China may have accounted for a drop in South Africa’s clothing exports to the US – from 26 million dollars in the first quarter of 2004 to half that just one year later. Last year, Zwelinzima Vavi, head of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), called China’s trading policies toward Africa “colonial” because, he said, they focus on the exploitation of minerals and natural resources – and not on building Africa’s industrial capacity. Vavi said Chinese imports had already cost South Africa 55,000 jobs since 2003; Other African trade unions report similar complaints.

Charge d’Affaires Zhou told Voice of America reporter William Eagle that Beijing and South Africa have reached an agreement that would take care of COSATU’s concerns: “It is normal to see problems and complaints arising from international trade. What is important is the attitude toward trade friction. When [South Africa] complained about the Chinese textiles exports, [Beijing] tried its best to resolve the problem through friendly consultations and negotiations. Now the two sides have reached an agreement: …China will voluntarily restrict its textile exports to South Africa and undertake measures to provide human resource training in the textile industry to enhance its competitiveness. Also, the Chinese government encourages textile manufacturers to invest in South Africa.”

Zhou says China is considering similar bi-lateral agreements with other African nations. However, he says the ultimate goal for African manufacturers is not to limit imports but to gain a competitive footing in the international market. In addition, he says that with wages going up in China’s coastal exporting zone, Chinese goods may not remain inexpensive in Africa.

The Chinese diplomat responded to African critics who complain that many Chinese companies bring Chinese laborers with them, and fail to hire African workers. Zhou says “we do sometimes use Chinese technicians because [they] are not available on the local labor market. Sometimes we use Chinese laborers to make sure our contracts are fulfilled within the [contractual] period because Chinese laborers are hard working and they can do the work according to the plan. If we can be sure the contract will be [completed] in time, then we can use labor from local markets.”

Many in the West also criticize Beijing for it’s close ties to the government of Sudan – which is accused of backing the mainly Arab militias who typically attack mostly black farmers in the country’s western region of Darfur. Human rights activists say the Chinese purchase about half of Sudan’s oil; which in turn helps fund their allies’ attacks on civilians. Likewise, critics believe the weapons factories that China helped establish near Khartoum contribute to this problem as well. So do the weapons factories that China has helped establish near Khartoum, according to critics.

The Charge d’Affaires to China’s South Africa embassy accuses critics of mixing trade with politics. He says China’s purchase of oil from Sudan does not imply Beijing’s support for Khartoum’s policies in Darfur any more than its purchase of treasury notes from the United States indicates support for US policy in Iraq. Zhou says “The US is said to have a better human rights policy (than Sudan, for example). China wants to [do] business with the US and even get involved in its oil industry, but [Beijing] is not allowed. So if [we are] not allowed to do business with countries like the US, [nor] Sudan or Angola, then where do we do it ?”

Some activists say because China does not attach conditions on its aid or trade to Africa, Beijing will also not demand accountability or encourage African governments to end corruption and improve human rights. Other critics say China is more likely to encourage use bribery; Zhou disagrees. He says Beijing is a strong supporter of international anti-corruption conventions and that China’s constitution includes human rights.

Activists note that China and the West define the term differently, with Beijing emphasizing the right to economic development, while the West emphasizes individual rights, and the right to form independent labor unions.

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