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China in Africa: The Real Story

Guest Post: Human Rights Watch Responds to Critique of China in Zambia Study

Deborah Brautigam

Zambian miners
Below is Human Rights Watch's response to Sautman and Yan's critique, summarized yesterday in China Africa: The Real Story.

My blog post and comments on the debate continue below the Scribd text. (If you can't read the insert, please let me know! This is a novel technology for me, as the coding in these guest posts for some reason made them impossible to simply insert.)


Human Rights Watch Responds

From my point of view, an anonymous comment on my original blog post sums up some of the valid criticism: "This report is a case of truth in facts, not truth in reporting..."

I agree that the report provides pretty convincing evidence of human rights problems, and some improvements, in one Chinese company in Zambia -- unlike Sautman and Yan, I don't have the knowledge or the stamina to examine all of the details of the research. And it's likely that other Chinese companies share some of these problems across Africa. But I am bothered that the draft of the study that I reviewed did not contain a comment that later jumped out at me when I read the published summary. Here it is, in bold:

Over the past decade, China has rapidly increased its investment throughout Africa. But while many commentaries have examined the ambivalent relationship between China and Africa, few have systematically examined what Chinese investment means in human rights terms, particularly for Africans employed by China’s state-owned companies. By investigating the specific practices of particular Chinese employers, the conditions of a given set of workers, and the enforcement of labor laws by a particular African government, it is possible to begin to paint a picture of China’s broader role in Africa (emphasis added).

Why does this bother me? Two reasons:

First, the particular Chinese company in Zambia chosen for the study has had a history of very highly publicized labor conflicts, and one terrible disaster where over 50 Zambians died in an explosion. Imagine if the Nature Conservancy had written: "by investigating British Petroleum (BP)'s Deepwater project in the Gulf of Mexico [remember? the big spill?], it is possible to begin to paint a picture of Britain's broader role in North America." I think most people would say: huh?

Second, I was also surprised by the choice of words, that HRW felt that their study was "the beginning" of painting a picture of China's broader role in Africa. Many serious reseachers have already done detailed studies of a number of aspects of China's role in Africa. These studies are, together, aggregating up into a more detailed picture. The HRW study surely fits into this picture, but it is not the start. And the picture of China in Africa is far more complicated than labor relations in one -- or even all -- Chinese-owned mines.