Bad Boss, Bad Diplomacy

For all of China’s recent and much touted diplomatic successes in Africa and elsewhere, any friendships forged won’t last long if this kind of thing keeps up:

Deep in the tunnel of the Collum mine, coal dust swirls thickly, and it’s stifling for workers such as Chengo Nguni. He describes his $2-a-day job with a sigh: His supervisor yells incomprehensibly in Chinese. His rubber boots leak. The buttons to control the flow of ore out of the mine often deliver an electric shock.

But the worst thing about life in the Chinese-owned mine in southern Zambia is that there is no such thing as a day off. Ever.

The unhappiness with the Chinese goes far beyond a few disgruntled workers and up to the highest levels of government:

The growing resentment sparked an acrimonious debate in Zambia’s recent presidential elections, with Chinese Ambassador Li Baodong making comments suggesting that Beijing might sever ties and investors might pull out if leading opposition candidate Michael Sata won the Sept. 28 vote.

Sata, who at one point threatened to expel Chinese traders if he became president, lost the election, and he alleged massive vote fraud. In the heat of the campaign, his Patriotic Front claimed that the use of Chinese computers to tally the count could skew results in the government’s favor, an accusation strongly denied by Chinese Embassy officials.

Sata argued that most Chinese investors in Zambia were exploiters who brought the country no benefit. He accused Li of interfering in the election.

“I find the reaction by the Chinese government very childish and dictatorial,” Sata said, accusing China of campaigning for the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy, which has been in power 15 years.

It’s one thing to make deals with other governments without any regard for ideology or character of said governments. It’s quite another to exploit foreign workforces. Nationalism and resentment of outsiders are traits you’ll find in just about every country in the world, perhaps submerged but ready to rise to the surface if conditions are right.

The Discussion: 32 Comments

Exploiting foreign workforces?

Bah! That’s the same way Chinese bosses treat Chinese employees. This isn’t so much exploitation as equal opportunity asshattery!

Besides, even if he earns 2 dollars per day, thats still 50% higher than the per capita income in Zambia. He’s not a slave and no ones forcing him to it. I think its a little presumptious to think that one can find an air conditioned job with OSHA regulations in one of the poorest countries on earth.

October 9, 2006 @ 10:48 am | Comment

Bah! That’s the same way Chinese bosses treat Chinese employees. This isn’t so much exploitation as equal opportunity asshattery!

Now if I had said that, you would have labeled me an “anti-Chinese partisan.”

Your compassion for people who toil under inhumane conditions is touching.

October 9, 2006 @ 10:57 am | Comment

Hahahahahahahahah! If the West cannot stand Chinese and Africans have a strong relationship, then I’m sorry. This kind of “report” can only fool 5-year-old children. I am 100% sure that the working conditions for those African workers under Chinese companies are 1000 times better than under Western companies. What is the working condition for an African during the slave trading? What is the working condition for a Chinese when they built the Pacific Rail Road? Now, you see China and Africa becoming closer, and you dress in the clothes of a “humanitarian” and try to write this kind of “report”? So ironic! Hahahahahaha.

October 9, 2006 @ 11:08 am | Comment

Well, Pacific Railrooad, sure, but that was 150 years ago. You’ll have to do better than that, Pigsun.

I’ve probably said this over a hundred times on this site – I want China to do well. Sometimes you do well by doing good, however, and I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of this article. It’s not going to help China’s relationship with Africa if this kind of treatment is widespread and continuing.

And as I pointed out, in just about any nation of the world (and I’d certainly include the US in this category), local people will resent outsiders if they don’t feel they’re being treated right. Even if the treatment is just the same as how they are treated by their own countrymen, the natural human tendency is to resent the outsiders more.

October 9, 2006 @ 11:29 am | Comment

“He’s not a slave and no ones forcing him to do it.”

Wow. Just, wow.

Now Jing sounds just like a 19th century American Robber-Baron capitalist…

…which of course is what most of the CCP are like today.

October 9, 2006 @ 11:34 am | Comment

Sorta the nationalist equivalent of IOIYAR (“it’s okay if you are Republican”).

October 9, 2006 @ 11:36 am | Comment

Lisa, thanks for this informative piece of reporting. It has obviously touched a nerve, by the look of comments from the pro-CCP camp.

Just a reminder: Pigsun’s deposited some filthy porngraphic material at the Duckpond. The thread’s written in Chinese. Could you please either have those comments deleted or have the thread locked. Email me if you need more information.

October 9, 2006 @ 2:11 pm | Comment

I’m sorry, but these pieces are getting to be really, really repetitive. This one is a bit more informative, but the article fails on these counts:

1) The Chinese mines have the worst record of all the mines in ******. Even if this is true, do you know what the records of those other mines are? In alot of cases they’re also shit, but instead the article only singles out the mines owned by a particular ethnic group.

2) Workers rioted against Chinese mines. Not too long ago, workers protested against U.S. mines in Indonesia and Peru. The Peruvians wanted their land and water rights, and the Indonesians wanted the mine to follow the law. Meanwhile, anybody with a De Beers diamond ring ought to think about the thousands of migrant workers who get HIV from prostitutes (who ended up so because they had their virginity raped away, making them unmarriable) while losing limbs in dangerous machinery. Oh, and De Beers was started by a British thug with his own private army wiping out tribes for the “good of the white man”. So I suggest perhaps a more self-aware narrative.

3) The paragraph on voter fraud makes my blood boil. “Denied by Chinese officials?” How about the results were deemed legitimate by Commonwealth observers? Sata was making a baseless accusation as politicians often do – but the LA Times apparently likes keeping the question more open than it really is.

October 9, 2006 @ 2:19 pm | Comment

Fat Cat, the thread has been edited. Thanks.

Richard, online for a few minutes in Hue, Vietnam.

October 9, 2006 @ 2:21 pm | Comment

He’s not a slave and no ones forcing him to it. I think its a little presumptious to think that one can find an air conditioned job with OSHA regulations in one of the poorest countries on earth.

One reason industrialists preferred to have factories in places like Shanghai in the 1930s was because they could count on a limitless supply of people poor enough to accept work under any conditions. And like you, the industrialists could aways answer their critics by saying that the coolies kept turning up to work, therefore they can’t have been unhappy with the conditions, right?

As it happens the Chinese weren’t too happy that people were taking advantage of conditions in their country to pay people a pittance for doing hard, dangerous work, although whether it was this or the fact that foreigners were doing it to them that outraged them the most, I’m not sure.

October 9, 2006 @ 2:31 pm | Comment

Thanks, Richard & Fat Cat. I haven’t had the time to get much into the Duckpond. Just let me know when this stuff happens and I’ll delete.

Fat Cat, reach me at redandexpert at yahoo dot com when you see stuff that needs to be deleted.

Dave, I think this is just another iteration of the typical colonial narrative. There are plenty of guilty imperialists to go around.

October 9, 2006 @ 2:52 pm | Comment

And I’d add, because I’m not sure if I stated this clearly…I think to some extent it’s a question of perception. As I mentioned above, foreigners are going to be suspect as a matter of course. People will tend to focus their resentment on convenient targets.

I think if you are going to operate businesses in foreign countries, it behooves you to set a good example and treat people well. Otherwise you’re going to be one of the first targets, when there are larger problems.

October 9, 2006 @ 4:28 pm | Comment

Lisa, I have no problem with pointing out these problems. I just think that if the media calls Chinese expansion in Africa (which LAT doesn’t say here but many have) because they have poor working conditions and rioting workers and you use geopolitical leverage in their elections, then alot of other countries ought to be called the same. And if it’s an American newspaper, then there ought to be some way in which you acknowledge that the problem is not limited to the Chinese, but your own country as well.

But I do think “colonial” is an inappropriate term to apply to the Chinese. It shows no respect for what colonialism was in Africa: imperial and private armies carving new territories and borders. Merchantilism, fine, but colonialism, no. Yet that’s the idea being sold on China in Africa.

Finally, it took De Beers a century to start offering free HIV tests and education to miners. The Chinese guy in the LAT article says he plans to do it soon. China has been giving debt relief and lifting trade barriers on manufactured goods for African countries, though I hardly see any reporting even mention the fact. Perhaps its not enough, but it’s not even discussed.

October 9, 2006 @ 5:38 pm | Comment

I’d like to reiterate another fine point to the debunking Dave has already made. If the 2 dollars per day that miners are making is correct, then it is higher than the standard wages in Zambia. The LA Times article mentions that that the Chinese company only now matches the official government mandated minimum wage. Of course no mention is made of whether or not the actual wages in the country match that amount or if the law is enforced. I will bet you the brooklyn bridge that almost all employers in Zambia are not paying their employees the minimum wage considering that if they were, per capita income in Zambia would be higher than it is now.

October 9, 2006 @ 10:38 pm | Comment

For all it’s worth, this is my take on it:

It is not colonialist in the sense that China does not administer the land and its people. They are very much the “guests” of the government of Zambia.

This said, there is very much a situation of exploitation with the goal of enriching the motherland on the part of the Chinese. In this sense, while the word “colonialist” is not truly appropriate, some of the traits are there.

Why is this important? Certainly we can say that the Americans, the British, the Dutch and many other governments have done the same (with much more brutality in many cases), however with the amount of talk the Chinese government and many average Chinese pay to their own suffering at the hands of “imperialists”, one would ideally expect that they would have a clean record from the start….because surely they would not want to impose the same yoke on others. Once again, this is an ideal, and by far not the reality that I would expect.

So, for me, it pokes a hole in the teary message of suffering endured by the Chinese people. In reality, I would not expect Chinese mines in foreign countries to have a cleaner record than mines owned by other nationalities. However, I would not expect other nationalities to play the “look how we’ve suffered so at the hands of ruthless imperialists, so now it is our turn to shine” card either.

Just my 2c, for all it is worth.

October 9, 2006 @ 10:57 pm | Comment

@Thomas: I agree that there’s some hypocrisy in it. China’s bleating about how others have treated it unfairly don’t square well with being crappy employers. But what about the hypocrite hypocritically criticizing someone else’s identical hypocrisy? Forget that, I’m getting off that merry-go-round. That’s what most of the U.S. coverage of China in Africa is – you don’t see these articles leavened with the riots, protests and accusations of exploitation against Western countries in Africa and South America – which are happening right now! It gives the false impression Africa (as if it were all the same, another fault in alot of these discussions) was just on the up and up until China got in there and screwed the pooch. That’s just dishonest.

My contention is not that the Chinese mining operations aren’t so bad – I expect they’re run like a Chinese operation, and those are among the worst in the world. My problem is that the article talks about politicians grandstanding, without doing the political analysis of whether its just a political tactic or genuine activism. It talks about China’s hunger for raw materials across Africa, as if this were the situation across a continent though gives no evidence for that. Might be true, might not: perhaps in Zimbabwe it doesn’t go down the same way. Are we to assume that a few groups of bad Chinese investors means they all suck? Africans can be racist too, like anybody else. And there’s no mention that China does the same to its workers: check out how many Chinese flags show up on this list, but the article doesn’t ever mention that China is, essentially, treating Zambians the way they treat their own people. Hardly the mark of an imperialist; more like an uncaring bastard. It’s a critical distinction, just like not confusing Osama Bin Laden with Mussolini. Without it, one is talking out of one’s ass.

Jing, I won’t take your bet. I’d rather you find me the facts to prove it. I don’t want your baseless assertions anymore than the LA Times’.

October 9, 2006 @ 11:32 pm | Comment

OtherLisa or Richard, you may want to blog on this:

China chasing dissdents in Washington DC ‘burb, from WapO

“…..Just ask Rebiya Kadeer, who now lives in Fairfax County. In April, Kadeer’s grandson noticed four men videotaping and photographing the family’s ground-floor apartment from a car parked outside. He called to his mother, who wrote down their license plate number. Kadeer passed that on to Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who enlisted the FBI, which determined that three of the four men in the rented car were Chinese agents.

Of course, surveillance and intimidation are the least of what China’s regime has inflicted on Kadeer. She was the victim of a mysterious hit-and-run accident in January; her children back home in China have been beaten and jailed; she herself spent nearly six years in prison.

Which leads to the question: Why would this 60-year-old grandmother with a sparkling smile arouse such fear and hatred in the powerful Communist rulers of Beijing? And what does that tell us about the nature of the regime that will be hosting the Olympics in less than two years?

These questions have come to the fore because Rebiya Kadeer has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, the winner of which will be announced this week. Of course scores of people are nominated every year, but the talk alone has so infuriated Chinese officials that they have taken to threatening Norwegian officials with grave consequences if Kadeer should win.

So who is she? Former laundress, self-made businesswoman, mother of 11, member of the Turkic minority known as Uighurs who live in far western China. In the 1990s, China’s regime elevated her to the national parliament, where she behaved as though China’s virtuous laws on ethnic rights and autonomy were meant to be enforced.”


Just like the KMT…many dissidents in the bad old days reported mysterious close calls or accidents with strange vehicles…


October 10, 2006 @ 12:47 am | Comment

Interesting points all.

I agree my use of the term “colonialism” was careless. But I’m thinking I should have called this post, “meet the new boss.”

Michael. thanks for the tip. Dave touched on the kadeer situation in a post below but the one you’ve mentioned is a good follow-up. I’ll try to put it up later – off to work again.

October 10, 2006 @ 1:17 am | Comment


I’ve got my own reservations about the Uyghur dissident movement, as I touched on in the post Lisa mentions. On the other hand, the lens of paranoid derangement through which the PRC views Uyghur issues is very real, and I can quite easily believe they’d stake out her office. Which is mad creepy.

To comment on Hiatt’s rundown of oppression:

“Forced abortions” – I’ve been told by Uyghurs in Xinjiang’s medical community (whom I trust and have no love for the current situation) this isn’t really true anymore, though there are policies on the number of children (better than Han). I blogged (my server is still down) about a Uyghur dissident press release on a Xinjiang official writing about forced abortion. The original article, which I found, did not say anything about forced abortions, and as I’ve raised before the dissident movement appears to distort issues in fighting PRC propaganda. Which is a shame, because they really don’t have to exaggerate anything.

“children taken away to be raised in what she calls “mainland China”” – The closest thing I’ve heard to this was a recent report that Uyghur high school students were attending schools in Shanghai and Beijing. I’m skeptical of the phrase “taken away”, but the pressures to conform and assimilate are the real problem underlying this. My friends in Hotan a few years ago told me that a child kidnapping/trafficking ring had been busted but that was… a Uyghur ring. Or so the story went. Again, there’s some real big problems in Uyghur society that aren’t the fault of the Han… though there’s TONS of stuff they could do, stop doing or do better. Just sayin’, this is all Washington lobby style talking points. Reality is much grayer.

Oh, and in that link? That photo is totally staged with those girls in their traditional atlas silk dresses. Rebiya forgot to mention the pressure on minorities to perform as stereotypes.

“history falsified” – Check and check! No reservations on that one.

“native language disfavored” – Agreed.

“jobs and natural resources delivered to ethnic Chinese” – Ditto.

October 10, 2006 @ 2:52 am | Comment

The closest thing I’ve heard to this was a recent report that Uyghur high school students were attending schools in Shanghai and Beijing.

There is a big Uyghur contingent at the technical high school in eastern Qingdao. On holidays and special occasions, they’d all put on their colorful dresses and get bussed somewhere.

October 10, 2006 @ 8:03 am | Comment

I see the situation less in terms of westerners exploiting Chinese (US trans-continental RR) or Chinese exploiting Africans (mining).

I see it more in terms of businessmen exploiting workers.

October 10, 2006 @ 12:26 pm | Comment

Hear hear Slim!

October 10, 2006 @ 1:57 pm | Comment

Works for me.

October 10, 2006 @ 1:58 pm | Comment

With due respect, I don’t agree that this incident at Zambia is a simple case of “businessmen exploiting workers”. Here we are not talking about the trading of goods and services. Many exporters of natural resources in the world, including Australia, will regard foreign investment in mining and exploration as a matter of national interest, and not merely business transactions. So it’s not really unreasonable for the people in Zambia to expect foreign investors to act in the interest of their country and her people in exchange for their exclusive right to carry out mining activities in Zambia. Again, take Australia as an example; we’ll expect mining and exploration companies to fulfil their obligation to protect the environment, respect indigenous rights as well to show a commitment to R & D, technological transfers, etc. If they don’t and if they circumnavigate some policy loopholes and get away with not fulfilling their obligations, then it’s morally correct for the Australian public to condemn these investors for exploiting our resources. So how would this be different from what’s happening at Zambia?

October 10, 2006 @ 8:25 pm | Comment

Fat Cat, you ask how is Zambia different from Australia?

Well, one important difference (from the perspective of the extremely racist PRC) is that most Zambians are Black.

October 10, 2006 @ 9:11 pm | Comment

I’m sure that racism plays a part. But what’s more important is that Chinese investors can get away with the exploitation, and that’s why they did it. The Zambian government is too much strapped by poverty and corruption to be able to bargain effectively for a fair deal. Because of that, it’s therefore even more important that the international community is standing up against this kind of exploitation against Zambian people. It just doesn’t sound right if we only condemn the Chinese government for civil right abuses against Chinese nationals, while condone Chinese companies’ act of exploitation in African countries.

October 10, 2006 @ 11:10 pm | Comment

“Just like the KMT…many dissidents in the bad old days reported mysterious close calls or accidents with strange vehicles…”

The difference between the CCP and the GMD is that the CCP still seems to be able to get things done… for now.

“I see it more in terms of businessmen exploiting workers.”

The lower the wages and the worse the working conditions, the more people can be employed. If the conditions are too bad, relativelistically speaking, then given the alternative between farm, slum, or factory, no one will want to work at the factory. In this case, the wages or the working conditions must improve.

How else would you like it to be? I’m sure everyone in the first world must feel a pang of guilt when they see a man working a 84-hour week for a dollar a day, but can you provide us an alternative? You can’t simply say: “abolish the factories”, and expect people to return to subsistence farming and be happy about it. They already made the choice to work in satanic mills over subsistence farming, and now you’re removing their choice.

October 10, 2006 @ 11:20 pm | Comment

Oh no Inst, this is an excuse to turn a blind eye on injustice. This is double standard. Besides: (1) what is that KMT & CCP comparison all about? How is this point relevant to what’s happening at Zambia? (2) as pointed out before, we are talking here about the exploration of natural resources, not about manufacturing. Here the Zambian people are not just selling their own hard labour, they are also selling the wealth of a nation. Why shouldn’t they get a better deal? If the Chinese mining companies are doing the right thing by the Zambian people, why are they complaining?

October 11, 2006 @ 12:31 am | Comment

What are you describing as the injustice here? I am still waiting for someone to articulate a method for the first world to efficiently enrich and develop the third world.

1: Someone made a comparison between the GMD (if you’d like me to use KMT, I’ll gladly oblige) and the CCP. My argument is that the CCP of 2006 (please take notice of 2006) is not the same as the GMD of 1945, because while the GMD was oppressive, it was oppressive without results. While the CCP has no concept of human rights, just like the GMD, it’s also helping to better the lives of its subjects. Of course, it’s probably true that the GMD is, after all, the result of its situation (lack of central control, heavy corruption, Communists and Japanese preventing it from remedying the first two problems).

2: National wealth is the property of the national government. This issue should be dealt at the level of government, not at the level of citizenry. If the average Zambian gets a better deal than the average Chinese, it should be because the government of Zambia provides more socialist services to its citizens than the government of China does to its subjects. Governments should not give away national assets to foreigners (which may be a flaw of the incumbent Zambian government), nor should they merely shut them out (which is definitely a flaw of that challenger to the presidency). Instead, they should sell them to the highest bidder, and use the funds to develop human resources for sustained prosperity.

October 11, 2006 @ 1:15 am | Comment

I tend to circle around various sides of an argument, as I can see validity in different points of view. I agree with Dave and Shanghai that this is typical of an exploitative boss/worker relationship, but I don’t mean by that to undercut my own argument, which is that nationalism certainly comes into play in situations like this. And I agree with Fat Cat that racism certainly needs to be factored in here as well.

As to how to best raise poor nations up? Well, it’s a complicated question. One country’s sweatshop is another country’s opportunity to get out of the fields and improve one’s lot in life.

But I’d say when you have riots, like what we’re seeing here, then there’s a problem with working conditions and the relationship between employer and worker.

October 11, 2006 @ 2:41 am | Comment

Inst asked:
“How else would you like it to be?”

I would like it to be that investors, businessmen and officials were satisified with slightly less profits in exchange for working conditions that meet something higher than riot-inducing standards.

On one hand, I think that’s asking for very little, just for people in opportunistic positions to live and act with a minimum of human decency.

On the other hand, history seems to warn me that this may be asking a lot. X-(

Inst continued (how can we do blockquotes now?):
“You can’t simply say: “abolish the factories”, and expect people to return to subsistence farming and be happy about it. They already made the choice to work in satanic mills over subsistence farming, and now you’re removing their choice.”

I suggest you’ve proposed a false choice: either slave-like working conditions OR abolish the factories. And I think “slave-like” is a fair description for a job with no days off ever. Sure, the workers could quit, but when their realistic alternatives are so grim, it is more a matter of coercion than choice.

I think there are also other choices, like working to promote sytems in which people in positions to exploit are somehow held accountable to minimal standards of human decency. In other words, I think we can have non-riot inducing work conditions AND factories (… and reasonable profits).

October 11, 2006 @ 11:27 am | Comment

Slim, you made some brilliant points. Inst, thanks for your reply. Here’re my thought on some of the issues that you raised:

1. A method for the first world to efficiently enrich and develop the third world – I believe that investors from first world countries, particularly those who’s been granted rights to explore natural resources in third world countries, should be held accountable for assisting community development through reinvesting a portion of their profits in education, training and health care. There should also be a degree of technological transfers to make sure that local engineers are a part of the exploration venture. As Slim has correctly pointed out, equity and profitability are not mutually exclusive concepts.

2. KMT & CCP comparison – I still can’t see the relevance of this to our discussion. Neither I nor anyone else is comparing KMT in 1945 to CCP today. Such a comparison is, from my point of view, is erroneous.

3. Ownership of ational wealth – No, national wealth is NOT the property of the national government. It’s the property and heritage of the people of that nation. The government is only a custodian. Some custodians are doing a good job, some are not. And if the custodian is corrupt and allows foreign investors to get away with exploitation, both the custodian and the investor should be held accountable, not only by the citizenry, but also by the international community. And so I agree with you when you say: “Governments should not give away national assets to foreigners nor should they merely shut them out. Instead, they should sell them to the highest bidder, and use the funds to develop human resources for sustained prosperity.” That’s exactly why I’m having this discussion here with you, as a member of the international community, in order to voice my concern about what is happening (or not happening) in Zambia.

October 11, 2006 @ 12:23 pm | Comment

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