UIUC Lectures on China’s Foreign Direct Investments in Continental Africa

In October, two prominent lecturers, Professors Deborah Brautigam and Ching Kwan Lee discussed and elaborated on the dominant narratives about China, Africa’s current largest trading partner and source of loans, grants and investments in infrastructure projects. On Thursday, October 24, 2013 Dr. Brautigam held a MillerComm Lecture entitled China in Africa: Stripping Away the Myths; this highly anticipated talk was hosted by the Center for African Studies and Center for East Asian and Pacific Studies in conjunction with a number of University of Illinois departments. Dr. Brautigam, who has held several professorial appointments at institutions including Columbia University and  the University of Bergen in Norway, is currently a professor of International Development and Comparative Politics at Johns Hopkins University and has served as a consultant to the African Development Bank (AfDB), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Norwegian Investment Fund for Developing Countries (Norfund), among other academic and international departments.

The subject of Dr. Brautigam’s talk was the highly contested trade relationships between approximately forty-eight national governments on the African continent and China that, according to many scholars is based on what former Chinese President Hu Jintao described as “win-win cooperation” during the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2000. Despite President Jintao’s optimism, other academics, economists, and information professionals have pointed out a number of problems including evidence that China’s high demand of raw materials such as minerals, oil, and timber as well as new markets in Africa has caused environmentally destructive extraction practices, strengthened the illicit trade of arms and ivory, and dominated multiple African countries’ manufacturing sectors to the detriment of local industrialists. Dr. Brautigam contests the overwhelmingly negative “stereotypes of conventional wisdom.” She says that in general there is an image of Chinese investors in Africa as rapacious colonizers, propping up dictators, ravaging the environment, and targeting economically weak countries.  Rather, Dr. Brautigam indicated during her lecture that China is fostering industrialization in Africa and that many concerns have been overblown by poorly researched news articles. She also highlighted the benefits of Chinese investment in fiber optic networks, wind turbines, and telecommunications that have been under-reported in news media. You can find out more about Dr. Brautigam’s perspective by reading her book entitled The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa.

Dr. Brautigam’s lecture was preceded by a similar talk on Friday, October 18, 2013. Dr. Ching Kwan Lee, professor of sociology at the University of California, held a lecture on China’s foreign direct investment in Zambia within the Sociology Seminar Series that was organized by the University of Illinois’ Department of Sociology and co-sponsored by the Social Dimensions of Environmental Policy (SDEP) and the African Studies, Asian and Pacific Studies, and Global Studies Area Study Centers. Although the talk was originally titled, The Enigma of Chinese capitalism in Africa: Precarious Labor, Resource Nationalism and the Struggle for South-South Development, it was later changed to Red Dawn: the Power and Peril of Chinese Capitalism in Africa in an effort to find a working title for her forthcoming book.  Dr. Lee’s talk addressed the discourses around China’s investments into Zambian infrastructure such as copper mines and the construction sector, and posited some pertinent research questions such as, what is the peculiarity of Chinese investments in Zambia? And what does [this investment] mean for Zambian development?

China-Zambian mining relationships have been beneficial as well as contentious; for example, China Non-Ferrous Metals Corporation (CNMC) acquired the Zambia’s Chambishi Copper Mine in 1998, rehabilitated it by 2005 and employed more than 1,000 Zambians, but Chinese-owned mining companies have been implicated in denying Zambian miners pay equal to their Chinese counterparts, using excessive force during disputes and wage protests, and for firing large numbers of Zambian workers on strike. Strikes by workers, who “agitate for improved conditions and higher wages” (Bariyo, 2011) are not uncommon.

In response to criticisms and bad press against China’s investments in Africa, both speakers contend that China’s investment model reflects the country’s need to foster long-term, sustainable relationships with African economies and governments. Brautigam maintains that China has the following optimistic outlook on their trade relations with Africa: “Let’s do business and let’s make it mutually beneficial; if it’s not mutually beneficial, it is not sustainable.”

Learn more about China’s trade relations in Africa with resources at the University of Illinois’ Library. The UIUC library has a number of books on this topic, namely:

Alden, Chris. China in Africa. London; New York: Zed Books, 2007.

Ampiah, Kweku and Sanusha Naidu. Crouching tiger, hidden dragon?: Africa and China. Scottsville, South Africa: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2008.

Brautigam, Deborah. The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of Africa in China. UK: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Cheru, Fantu and Cyril Obi, eds. The rise of China and India in Africa: challenges, opportunities and critical interventions. London: Zed Books, 2010.

Dent, Christopher M. ed. China and Africa Development Relations. Abingdon, England: Routledge, 2011.

Works cited:

Bariyo, Nicholas. “Chinese Miner Fires Workers in Zambia.” The Wall Street Journal 21 Oct. 2011. Web. 25 Oct. 2013.

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