[Part II of Socialist Action’s 2018 National Convention resolution on China]
[Editors note: Below readers will find Part II of the 2018 Socialist Action National Convention resolution entitled, “China: A New Capitalist Imperialist Power.” Having established the theoretical and factual basis of our view in Part I, (See socialistaction.org, September 3, 2023) Part II focuses on China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its exploitative investments in every continent. The footnotes in this section, from #115 – #274, refer to this part only.]
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as One Belt, One Road or the 21st Century Silk Road, is an enormous infrastructure project being advanced by China. It is comprised of two main elements, the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ across land from China to Europe through central Asia and the Middle East, and the ‘New Maritime Silk Road’ by sea from China through southern Asia to Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. It includes road and rail networks, ports, energy pipelines, power plants, and other such infrastructure elements. The BRI has already included more than $300 billion in projects and an additional $1 trillion of projects are expected to be completed over the next 10 years. What is the purpose and impact of the project?
There are a variety of motivations for China’s introduction of the BRI. One is to reduce the costs of Chinese trade to Europe and intervening countries, and create incentives for countries along the route to open themselves further to Chinese trade and investment. Another is to create new markets for China’s excess production of steel, cement, aluminum, and other construction materials as the Chinese government attempts to deflate and deflect its housing bubble. 70 percent of loans made through BRI have contained requirements for the use of Chinese materials, equipment, or labor. Energy is also a substantial motivator. The New Maritime Silk Road projects offer China potential means to transport natural resources, especially oil, through Pakistan or Myanmar, bypassing the Straits of Malacca. At present, more than 80% of Chinese oil passes through the straits, creating a chokepoint that is extremely vulnerable in case of conflict. The loans that form the cornerstone of BRI are themselves expected to produce significant returns for China, particularly as interest rates climb from initial lows around 2.5% to 5% and higher. There are also potential diplomatic benefits, as states receiving investment under the program might be less willing to criticize China or support anti-Chinese measures.
Such investments, of course, are not free from risk. Many countries are already struggling to repay the loans they have taken out under BRI. One study found that Pakistan, Djibouti, the Maldives, Laos, Mongolia, Montenegro, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan would face serious difficulties in funding the BRI projects they had initiated. China has partially secured its investments by using the produced infrastructure as collateral. Sri Lanka produced one example of this when it was forced to grant a Chinese firm a 99-year lease on the port of Hambantota, which had been significantly expanded under BRI, due to its inability to repay the debt it had incurred. The Maldives also faces a similar prospect due to a heavy BRI-incurred debt load to China. In the case of Pakistan, a lapse in debt repayment could lead to Chinese seizure of roads, coal mines, power plants, and oil pipelines; China has already acquired a 40 year lease on the Pakistani port of Gwadar.
Beginning in the early 2000s, China massively expanded its trade with and investment into Africa. This expansion took a variety of forms, which have changed over time. Initially, the primary interest of Chinese companies in Africa was acquisition of natural resources, most prominently oil but also including iron, copper, tin, gold, cobalt, uranium, and timber, as well as a variety of other resources. As China’s presence in Africa expanded, African countries became important markets for Chinese exports of manufactured goods; by 2013 “China had become by far the largest source of imports to the continent.” African countries have also become important destinations for Chinese capital export, with China becoming the leading source of FDI flows to Africa in 2016. In addition, China has become a major funder of infrastructure projects, particularly in East Africa, with a mixture of projects that enable easier import of African resources and export of Chinese goods, and Belt and Road Initiative projects which seek to use African ports as stepping-stones on the route to and from Europe.
One factor that has remained largely constant throughout modern Chinese involvement in Africa is that African workers have seen little reward from its investments and have borne a heavy toll in workplace injuries and deaths, awful working conditions, wage cuts, and environmental destruction, among other factors. A 2009 report by the African Labor Research Network, a research group formed by African unions, makes these points extremely clear:
Although working conditions at Chinese companies in Africa differ across countries and sectors, there are some common trends such as tense labor relations, hostile attitudes by Chinese employers towards trade unions, violations of workers rights, poor working conditions and unfair labor practices. There is a virtual absence of employment contracts and the Chinese employers unilaterally determine wages and benefits. African workers are often employed as “casual workers”, depriving them of benefits that they are legally entitled to.
Chinese employers tend to be amongst the lowest paying in Africa when compared with other companies in the same sector. In Zambia, for example, the Chinese copper mine paid its workers 30% less than other copper mines in the country. In general, Chinese companies do not grant African workers any meaningful benefits and in some instances ignore even those that are prescribed by law. Wages above the national average were only found at those Chinese companies with a strong trade union presence. Chinese staff members enjoy significantly higher wages and more benefits than their African counterparts.
Collective bargaining hardly takes place in Chinese companies. They resort to union bashing strategies to discourage their workers from joining a trade union. In many instances, Chinese businesses were supported by host governments who defended Chinese investments against the demands of labor. Trade unions see the practices of Chinese companies as a threat to the limited social protection that unions have achieved over the years through collective bargaining. Chinese employers violate several of the core ILO conventions. These include the rights to join trade unions, to bargain collectively, to receive equal remuneration and to be protected against discrimination. Basic rights such as paid leave are often ignored and workers are forced to work overtime – at times without any additional remuneration. They feared that refusal to do so would result in their dismissal. A particularly grave case of workers’ rights violations is the “locking- in” of workers during working hours, which led to deaths during fires in Nigeria and Kenya.
Health and safety issues receive very little attention at Chinese companies as precautionary measures are ignored and no training on health and safety issues is provided. In some countries, Chinese employers terminate the employment of female workers once they fall pregnant. Chinese companies tend to employ African workers for basic tasks at very low pay while importing Chinese managers and supervisors for higher paid positions.
This abhorrent record should be kept firmly in mind throughout this analysis.
In Tanzania, Chinese interest in natural resources is evident, ranging from energy products, particularly natural gas, to a variety of metals and other minerals:
Tanzania is one of the focal points of the Chinese globalization strategy in Africa. In 2011, a large Chinese company invested $3 billion in coal and iron ore mines in the country. The enormous natural gas reserves off the Tanzanian coast — an estimated 40 trillion cubic feet — are of strategic interest. The China National Petroleum Company is currently installing a 532-kilometer (333-mile) pipeline from Mtwara, a port city in southeastern Tanzania, to Dar es Salaam.
When the pipeline is finished, supertankers docking at the new Bagamayo port will load liquefied natural gas, cooled to temperatures of minus 164 degrees Celsius (minus 263 degrees Fahrenheit), and transport it to the Far East. Mineral ores and agricultural products from Tanzania, Zambia and Congo will also be shipped from the port. The Chinese are also reportedly planning to build a naval base to protect their economic interests along the Indian Ocean.
The port of Bagamoyo is itself a major Chinese project, and a good example of Chinese infrastructure investment in Africa. The port, which is being financed and will be operated by China Merchant Holdings, is planned to handle more than 20 million containers a year – which would make it vastly larger than Tanzania’s previous main port at Dar es Salaam and the largest port in East Africa. Chinese companies are also constructing roads, railways, and pipelines to link Bagamoyo to the minerals and natural gas China extracts from Tanzania. These projects are expected to yield significant benefits for Chinese economic activity in Africa, as well as establishing military access to East African ports for the Chinese navy:
Investing in the development of African ports can generate many advantages for China: Large scale and modern high tech ports allow for a great increase in exporting Chinese manufactured goods to Africa, and, in turn, in shipping raw materials and natural resources from Africa to China. Investment in ports is also expected to attract more Chinese foreign investment to other sectors. In fact, the intensified economic ties between China and Africa have been accompanied by huge investment in the construction of transport infrastructure in many African countries, notably roads, airports and railways. This trend was enshrined in the Beijing Action Plan (2013-2015), which sets the framework for future China-Africa cooperation: “The two sides will continue to encourage and support more flights and shipping links to be set up by their airlines and shipping companies, and capable Chinese companies will be encouraged to invest in ports, airports and airlines in Africa.” With regard to Chinese geopolitical interests in the Persian Gulf, ports with Chinese influence on Africa’s east coast, can also be useful for Chinese warships to obtain fuel, supplies or repairs. The military importance given by Beijing to the Persian Gulf is related not only to the role it plays in Chinese internal policy regarding energy, diplomatic and economic issues, but also in the international political scene.
Bagamoyo, which is expected to be the largest port in East Africa, will be Chinese-built and operated and will service Chinese container ships and supertankers, importing Chinese manufactured goods while exporting resources from Chinese-owned mines and gas fields which have been transported to the port across Chinese-built roads, railways, and pipelines, with the whole enterprise financed by Chinese banks.
Zambia is another country where Chinese investors have sought to acquire natural resources – in particular, its copper mines. Historically, copper was one of the most important elements of the Zambian economy through the 1990s, with the nationalized copper mining company, Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines Limited (ZCCM) being so critical that it was frequently stated that “ZCCM is Zambia, Zambia is ZCCM”. Deep levels of debt and an inability to compete against major Western mining firms on world markets as well as a fall in copper prices, however, led to the company facing financial crisis in the 1990s, which the Zambian government, under pressure from the IMF and World Bank, attempted to resolve through an unbundling and piecemeal privatization of ZCCM. China Non-Ferrous Metal Industries purchased a major section of ZCCM in 1998, forming the NFC Africa Mining PLC which controls a major mine in Chambishi, Zambia. Subsequently, major Chinese investment in Chambishi has increased production significantly. Zambian hopes that the privatized copper mines would reinvigorate the economy as a whole and provide significant social benefits have, however, been dashed:
However, FDI in mining is characterized by very few forward and backward linkages. Hence, direct capacity building effects arising from investment in the mining sector are limited. Within this context, therefore, attainment of the goal of the FNDP [Fifth National Development Plan] to foster the integration of the mining sector with the rest of the economy through backward and forward linkage appears remote going by the form and pattern of Chinese FDI in Zambia’s mining sector. It is also argued that the direct benefits arising from the increased copper production and sales are not being translated into improved welfare for the citizenry at large. At least two reasons account for this: (i) the nature of the Development Agreements and (ii) the low tax take from mining investors. As Fraser and Lungu (2007:54) report, “Profits from the mines leave the country without any positive impact on the Zambian economy, rather than being reinvested in building up the national economy, [they are] placed in banks or reinvested in companies outside the country.” In addition, the low tax take from mining investors due to huge tax incentives accorded to them is another factor undermining the positive impact that mining could have had on the national economy. As the World Bank argues, mining contributions to total tax revenues – after privatization of the mines – are extremely low (World Bank, 2004:38 quoted in Fraser and Lungu, 2007:55). On this account, Fraser and Lungu (2005:55) demonstrate that the contribution of around US$75 million made into the national treasury by new mine owners in 2005 was less than one third of the contribution made to the national treasury by ZCCM in 1991.
These benefits have likewise failed to reach Zambian workers, who instead have faced both low wages (even by Zambian standards – Chinese mines paid 30% less than the average of other mines in Zambia) and extremely dangerous working conditions. One 2015 analysis of China’s economic role in Africa found that:
For instance, at Chinese-run mines in Zambia’s copper belt, employees must work for two years before they get safety helmets. Ventilation below ground is poor, and deadly accidents occur almost on a daily basis.
In addition, African workers at Chinese mines and mining-related industries in Zambia have faced violent repression of protests against these conditions:
In April 2005, fifty-two Zambians were killed in an accident in an explosives factory jointly owned by the Beijing General Institute for Research and Metallurgy (BGRIMM) and the Non-Ferrou China-Africa (NFCA) Mining Company – both state-owned companies – in Chambishi in Zambia’s Copperbelt Province (BBC 2005). One year after the accident at the BGRIMM plant, five Zambians were shot and injured by gunshots fired by their Chinese manager while they were protesting against low wages and lax safety standards at the NFCA Chambishi Mine.
In 2010, Chinese managers at the Collum Coal Mine fired shotguns at an unarmed group of Zambian workers protesting poor labor conditions, wounding 11. Charges against the managers were dropped, and they were allowed to return to China.
The attention drawn by this incident also highlighted the scale of Chinese investment in Zambia: “In 2008, more than 55 percent of all foreign money invested in Zambia came from China, according to the Zambia Development Agency. Out of every overseas dollar that poured into Zambian mining, nearly 73 cents were from China.” This investment was facilitated by the establishment of a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Zambia in which Chinese companies were exempted from taxes, which attracted $2.5 billion in investment by 2012. By 2016, the value of Chinese investment in Zambia surpassed $5.2 billion. The SEZ at Chambishi, with a sub-zone in Lusaka, was the first Chinese SEZ in Africa when it was established in 2006 – although it was quickly followed by similar SEZs in Egypt, Ethiopia, Mauritius, and two in Nigeria as part of a Chinese Ministry of Commerce plan. Subsequently, Uganda, Nigeria, Mozambique and Ethiopia have had additional Chinese SEZs established.
China and the response to Chinese investment in Zambia have become major political issues in the country. In the 2006 elections, the incumbent president Rupiah Banda was heavily associated with Chinese investment – to the point where his campaign was widely believed to have received funding from the Chinese government. His main opponent, Michael Sata, conversely channeled popular anger against Chinese labor practices. The Chinese ambassador to Zambia threatened to cut off diplomatic and economic relations if Sata won the election. Although Banda prevailed in 2006, Sata was able to win the presidential elections in 2011 in part due to the backlash from the 2010 Collum coal mine shootings. He had, however, significantly pulled back his anti-Chinese rhetoric – with allegations arising that he, too, had sought Chinese election funding. These suspicions seemed to be confirmed for many when, shortly after his election, Sata called for closer ties with China and became an advocate of further Chinese investment.
In addition to being a source of natural resources, Zambia is also a major export market for China. Chinese is by a wide margin the leading exporter to Africa in general:
By 2013 China had become by far the largest source of imports to the continent. China’s exports—which consist primarily of manufactured products like textiles, electronics, and machinery—totaled nearly US$45 billion, or about three times the levels of either Germany or the United States.
In Zambia specifically, Chinese imports have mostly consisted of textiles, electronics, and other manufactured goods. A study by the Africa Research Institute found that:
Trade [with China] has not been accompanied by significant skills development, technology transfer or productivity improvements in Africa. The discourse of the “mutual benefit” of economic relations between China and Africa is attracting increased scrutiny. The Beijing government must do more to reconcile official rhetoric with the delivery of more discernible – and widespread – benefits. The frequently mentioned transfer of jobs from China to Africa remains illusory. A more prevalent reality in Africa is the collapse of small and medium enterprises under pressure from cheap imports. According to one recent study, competition from Chinese imports may have cost the South African economy 78,000 industrial jobs in 2001-10.
Zambia has experienced a similar outcome from Chinese imports. Its textile industry (including its largest factory which, ironically, was established with significant Chinese assistance in the 1970s), has been devastated by Chinese imports with many factories closing or implementing mass layoffs.
Zambia – and many other African countries – have also faced widening trade deficits with China since 2015, as a slowing of growth in China and China’s increasing acquisitions of resources from other regions caused a fall in Chinese imports of African natural resources while Chinese exports to Africa continued to grow, as demonstrated in Figure 11. Figure 11
Chinese imports from Africa are predominantly raw materials, while Chinese exports to Africa are predominantly manufactured goods, machinery, and equipment: Figure 12
This trade pattern is highly advantageous to China, as its manufactured goods are significantly more valuable and more profitable than the base resources extracted from Africa. One Congolese lawyer, commenting on this phenomenon of unequal trade, summed it up as such:
The problem is to determine what is Africa’s place in the future of the global economy, and up to now, we have seen very little that is new. China is taking the place of the West: they take our raw materials and they sell finished goods to the world. What Africans are getting in exchange, whether it is roads or schools or finished goods, doesn’t really matter. We remain under the same old schema: our cobalt goes off to China in the form of dusty ore and returns here in the form of expensive batteries.
This view of Chinese infrastructure building is particularly understandable given the means by which it is structured.
One factor often cited by proponents of China’s role in Africa is its construction of infrastructure across the continent. These infrastructure projects, as described in the section on Tanzania above, are of course primarily focused on the advancement of China’s economic interests in Africa. However, it is not just the outcome of these projects that benefits Chinese companies, but also their very construction. The China Export-Import Bank, the main funding body for these projects, sets requirements for use of Chinese goods and services in its lending terms:
Just as other export credit agencies around the world advance their countries’ economic interests, China Exim Bank’s goal is to promote the export of Chinese goods and services and to increase the internationalization of Chinese companies. Its main instruments are export credit and preferential foreign loans. Projects backed by concessional loans must be executed by Chinese contractors, which are often selected through a non-competitive negotiation process. A significant share of the goods and services embodied in a project must come from China.
This preferential system has led to a strangling of the African construction industry, primarily benefiting Chinese construction companies. According to World Bank data, generally civil works contracts are won by companies from the same region as the project, with regional companies winning a share of these contracts ranging from “83% in South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa to 97% in East Asia.” In (Sub-Saharan) Africa, however, regional firms won only 56% of such contracts – and the share won by Chinese companies grew from less than 10% in 1995 to more than 30% in 2013. Consequently, “Chinese firms are crowding out the development of an African construction industry” within the very projects which are purported to be advancing Africa.
Chinese-Ethiopian interactions are a good demonstration of the varying roles Africa plays for Chinese imperialism. Unlike many of the early targets of Chinese investment and diplomatic and economic interest, Ethiopia is relatively resource-scarce. Nonetheless, the country has seen massive recent investment from China – not only as a market for Chinese manufactured goods, but also as a destination for capital export and a source of cheap labor for offshoring. China is constructing a $4 billion rail line connecting Ethiopia to Djibouti, where most overseas trade for landlocked Ethiopia is conducted, with the terminus adjacent to the Chinese military base in Djibouti. It is furthermore establishing extensive infrastructure and manufacturing complexes inside Ethiopia:
Here in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, China is driving an urban renaissance. It has built whole neighborhoods, a $475-million light-railway system and even the African Union headquarters, a $200-million complex that dominates the city’s skyline. In the country’s hinterlands, it has constructed several industrial parks, anticipating a manufacturing boom.
In fact, one report found that China was constructing about 70% of roads in Ethiopia. The Chinese shoemaking company Huajian has especially taken to Ethiopia, employing thousands of workers at one-fifth the cost of employing the same number of Chinese workers. It plans to employ 50,000 workers by 2025. Its Ethiopian workers face 13-hour days at extremely low wages, with their factories plastered with propaganda slogans directing them to “win honor for the country” and “absolutely obey.” When workers at Huajian tried to unionize, the organizers were fired and the remaining workers were intimidated into halting the process – a regular occurrence at Chinese companies in Ethiopia. Huajian’s CEO, Zhang Huarong, echoed a common sentiment when he declared that “Ethiopia is like China was 40 years ago” in terms of its incredibly low wages, large workforce, and consequent attractiveness as a destination for offshoring of labor intensive industries. Increasingly, this is being recognized by American investors as well: prior to 2013, the US saw Ethiopia as mostly relevant for its military role in Somalia, but from 2013-2015 US companies invested more than $4 billion in Ethiopia – sparking a race between the US and China to exploit Ethiopian labor.
As China’s economic interests in Africa have grown, its military presence on the continent has correspondingly expanded. China is the largest single contributor to UN “peacekeeping” forces, with 2,600 soldiers – a figure it has pledged to raise to 8,000. It is seeking to gain control of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, which has been run by French officials for the last 20 years. More than 2,400 Chinese soldiers are present in Africa as part of such missions. According to a press release from Chinese state media, a key task of Chinese “peacekeepers” is to “collaborate with Chinese institutions and organizations in the country of residence to protect the rightful interests of Chinese people and companies.” This is borne out by analysis of its deployments. In 2013, China deployed troops to Mali – a country not only home to significant Chinese investment itself but also adjacent to Algeria, a major oil supplier to China. In 2015, China “beefed up its global contribution by sending peacekeepers to guard Chinese-invested oil installations in South Sudan under the UN peacekeeping command.” In fact, China explicitly pushed through protection of South Sudan’s oil industry as an objective for the deployment of “peacekeepers” to South Sudan.
In 2017, China opened its first permanent overseas military base, in Djibouti, which in addition to supporting Chinese “peacekeeping” operations in Africa will also resupply the Chinese navy as it carries out patrols off the coast of Yemen and Somalia. The anti-pirate patrols around Somalia in which China participates are a response to a problem that was, in large part, started through the impoverishment of Somali fishermen through illegal foreign fishing in Somali waters, of which China – which has a distant water fishing fleet ten times the size of that of the US and is the world’s leading producer of fish – has played a significant role, alongside American, European, and other fishers. Nor is this Djibouti base likely to be alone for long – the Chinese ambassador to Namibia in 2014 discussed establishing a naval base there with the Namibian foreign ministry while Chinese state media has discussed plans for up to 18 additional overseas military bases, including, within Africa, in Namibia, Nigeria, Kenya, Madagascar, Tanzania, and Angola.
Chinese military intervention in Africa benefits China in a variety of ways. Most directly, it protects Chinese investments from attack where Chinese troops are present. It also gives China a credible threat of military force against actors, including Western imperial powers, that would threaten to attack or seize any element of their investments, or otherwise advance their interests contrary to Chinese interests. China received a bitter lesson on this front when the 2011 US, French, and British intervention in Libya toppled the Gaddafi regime and cut China off from $20 billion in investments in Libyan infrastructure and its oil industry. In Mali, particularly, Chinese analysts were concerned that the unilateral French military intervention which preceded the deployment of Chinese UN “peacekeepers” would give a major advantage to French interests in West Africa against those recently developed by China. In addition, Chinese military interventions provide a venue for its forces to gain active combat experience, of particular relevance given recent massive overhauls in the Chinese military in doctrine and technology. The establishment of a Chinese military presence in Africa, especially its naval presence, also gives it the ability to influence the Indian ocean, which is a vital conduit for resource shipments to China, particularly oil.
A full, in-depth analysis of the relations of Chinese imperialism with each country in Africa in which it has significant investments or a major trade relationship is impractical to compile here; it would easily triple the size of this resolution. The analysis of Tanzania, Namibia, and Ethiopia, as well as several integrated pieces of broader, continental-level analysis, attempt to show the broad trends, categories of interest, and serve as representative examples of Chinese imperialism in Africa.
Broadly, it might be said that these primary interests fall into natural resource extraction, exporting of manufactured goods, capital export through infrastructure construction, offshoring of labor-intensive manufacturing, and utilizing Africa’s strategic position both in facilitating trade to and from Europe and in controlling the Indian Ocean.
In all of these areas, China and Chinese monopoly companies exploit and super exploit African labor, enabled by the desperation of African states to try to escape the bounds of Western imperialist exploitation through any means, the political and economic influence China wields on the continent (as evidenced, for example, by its election meddling in Zambia), and increasingly by its expanding military presence on the continent. As China has faced increasing economic, military, and political competition from other imperial powers which had previously been largely resting on their laurels, particularly with regards to the use of Africa as an offshoring destination, the presence of Chinese imperialism in Africa should be expected to increase and the potential for inter-imperialist conflict in Africa will grow. Figure 13
China took full advantage of the European economic crisis to significantly expand its holdings in Europe: “The total value of Chinese investments in the European Union was around 6.1 billion euros in 2010, but had quadrupled to €27 billion by 2012.” This pace has since accelerated:
According to a report by Ernst & Young, 164 Chinese companies bought or took over European enterprises during the first half of 2016, compared to 183 Chinese takeovers in the whole of 2015. During these six months, China invested more than $70 billion in European companies, or as much as in 2013, 2014, and 2015 combined.
The largest Chinese investments have been in the UK and Germany. Since 2012, however, Chinese investment has been increasingly expanding into those countries hit hardest by the Euro crisis:
Chinese company State Grid has invested heavily in the Italian electrical network, purchasing 35% of the shares in the state owned energy company CDP, Silvia Merler explained.
In Greece, an increasingly popular destination for Chinese tourists, investors are concentrating on shipping and tourism. In June, Greece and China signed a ship-building deal worth 2.3 billion dollars, financed by the China Development Bank.
An examination of some specific cases is in order.
In Greece, Chinese companies are seeking to acquire the largest insurance company and two of Greece’s four major banks. The Shenhua Group, a major Chinese mining and energy company, is investing $3.28 billion in upgrading Greek power plants, while China State Grid “agreed last year  to buy a 24 percent stake in power grid operator ADMIE for 320 million euros.” China has also invested in European debt, including Greek debt. It has further offered even more direct support to Greece during key moments of the Euro crisis. With Greece facing brutal austerity demands from the troika (comprised of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund), it has been trivial for China to present itself to Greek government officials as a benevolent alternative source of credit and investment. As a recent New York Times article notes, this strategy has paid significant diplomatic dividends:
Last summer , Greece helped stop the European Union from issuing a unified statement against Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. This June, Athens prevented the bloc from condemning China’s human rights record. Days later it opposed tougher screening of Chinese investments in Europe.
As close examination of one of the largest Chinese ventures in Greece demonstrates, however, this supposed benevolence is illusory.
The Chinese shipping company Cosco has acquired a 67% stake in the port of Piraeus, seen as an important European entry point for China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This has led to significant changes in the port:
Gradually, the port is becoming a truly Chinese operation. Seven Greek members of the port authority’s 11-member board have left, and seven Chinese executives have filled the vacancies. Last October, China Cosco Shipping Chairman Xu Lirong attended an opening ceremony for new passenger ship dock space.
According to Greek media reports, the port authority’s management team will soon announce new investment plans. The pillars are expected to be a new cruise ship terminal — aimed primarily at wealthy Chinese tourists — and a vessel repair center. One Cosco source said investment over the next five years will “exceed 600 million euros.”
Before 2009, Piraeus did not rank among the top 100 world ports by container volume. Following massive expansion after the Cosco investment, it is now 45th. From 2009 to 2013, the port of Piraeus grew in handled volume by 699% – vastly higher than the average growth rate of 123% among top 50 ports by container volume. By passengers, Piraeus was the largest port in Europe by 2013. Workers at Piraeus, of course, have seen no benefit from this growth: the Chinese acquisition was accompanied by large-scale layoffs, equally massive pay cuts, a severe lowering of safety standards, and the employment of low wage, nonunionized temporary employees as a means to break the port unions.
A recent article by Der Spiegel found that in the Chinese section of Piraeus wages had fallen by two thirds relative to pre-Cosco levels and training programs had been eliminated. The Chinese CEO of Cosco’s subsidiary in Piraeus, Fu Cheng Qui, discussed the subject of port unions with Spiegel’s reporter:
When asked about the unions, Fu describes them as being “superfluous!” “Every employee is like the member of a family,” he says. “Everybody works with respect for the other. We listen to what our employees say and react to it. The company is like a family. We are all brothers. Everybody is happy.”
That’s nice. But the firings, the labor disputes, the claims that employees don’t even have the time to use the bathroom? “Nonsense,” Fu says, before returning to the issue of principles.
“The union leaders promise their members more money for less work,” he says. “How is that supposed to work? If you want a higher salary you first need to work hard. Not lie on the beach and drink beer. Learn from the Germans! Work hard, never be lazy and always work seriously. Hard work — happy life.”
Fu’s despicable remarks – which read almost as a caricature of Western anti-union rhetoric and austerity-justifying portrayals of Southern European workers as lazy – were directed against the Greek dockyard workers who sought to block the privatization of the remaining Greek state-owned part of Piraeus. The leader of the Union of Dockworkers at Piraeus, Nick Georgiou, rejected Fu’s remarks. Rather than a benevolent or progressive alternative to the troika, Georgiou sees Cosco’s investment as part and parcel of the austerity regime.
Georgiou points out that Cosco’s stewardship of the majority of Piraeus has included “work accidents that have been covered up, a lack of emergency vehicles, [and] neo-Nazi members of the Golden Dawn making themselves at home on the Chinese side of the pier.” The threat to Greek workers from Golden Dawn being sheltered by Cosco at Piraeus is not just theoretical; the adjacent shipyards have actively employed their services in union-busting and attacking the Communist Party of Greece (KKE):
There is a cozy relationship between Golden Dawn and some business people as well, with the party serving as sort of a “Thugs-R-Us” organization. Investigators charge that shortly after two [Golden Dawn] party MPs visited the shipyards at Piraeus, a Golden Dawn gang attacked Communists who were supporting union workers. Golden Dawn also tried to set up a company union that would have resulted in lower pay and fewer benefits for shipyard workers. In return, shipping owners donated 240,000 euros to Golden Dawn. Investigators charge that the party also raises funds through protection rackets, money laundering and blackmail.
In fact, it was in Piraeus where the antifascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas was infamously murdered by Golden Dawn members on September 18, 2013 – shortly after the above attack on shipyard workers. That a major Chinese company, having acquired a large privatized section of a formerly state port in Greece, has turned to fascist forces to patrol its territory and prevent union activity as it crushes wages and safety standards is an incredibly stark demonstration of the nature of Chinese capitalism’s global expansion.
SYRIZA, which leads a coalition government in Greece established after 2015 elections, included preventing the privatization of Piraeus as part of its platform, and indeed initially held up the investment shortly after taking office. This alarmed China, which quickly took steps to reverse this development: the Chinese ambassador met with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Chinese state media criticized the decision, and three Chinese frigates were sent to Piraeus. Tsipras and SYRIZA, simultaneously beset by intense hostility from the troika and seeing China as a potential alternative, quickly capitulated to China’s demands, and allowed the privatization to proceed. One SYRIZA member of parliament made this hoped contrast explicit: “While the Europeans are acting towards Greece like medieval leeches, the Chinese keep bringing money.” In fact, SYRIZA’s leadership is now enthusiastically supporting Chinese investment across Greece, and using the state apparatus to facilitate it:
Fosun International Holdings, a Chinese conglomerate run by Guo Guangchang, often referred to as China’s Warren Buffett, is spending billions of euros with a consortium with Greek and Arab investors to convert an abandoned former airport on the seaside outside Athens into a posh playground three times the size of Monaco for moneyed tourists. The project, Hellenikon, is part of a bigger plan to bring over 1.5 million Chinese tourists to Greece during the next five years.
Mr. Tsipras has swept aside regulatory hurdles, clearing two large refugee camps installed in the former airport, and quashing attempts by members of his own party to delay construction because of concerns the project might pave over ancient archaeological sites.
Capitulation to China did not, of course, in any way prevent SYRIZA from capitulating on an even larger scale to the troika. Figure 14
From Piraeus, China seeks to establish a “Land Sea Express Route” in which goods are transported via rail through Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary into and from the European Union. Hungary is also viewed as a key entry point to the EU by China. Hungary was the first European state to agree to join in the Belt and Road Initiative. 40% of China’s recent investments in Eastern Europe have gone to Hungary. China’s investments in Hungary fall among many fields. In transportation, in addition to the above mentioned rail line, China is also seeking to make Szombathely airport into a major cargo center, while the Hungarian airline Wizz Air purchased 8 new aircraft in 2013 with financing from a subsidiary of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. Wanhua Industrial Group, a Chinese chemical company, acquired the Hungarian chemical company Borsodchem in 2011, and the BBCA Group, another major Chinese chemical manufacturer, established a citric acid factory in Hungary in 2015. The Chinese telecoms giant Huawei has built a major distribution center in Hungary, employing 3,000 workers and exporting more than $1.2 billion in products a year.
In Portugal, the Chinese utilization of the European economic crisis as a means to make significant inroads into investing in Europe is clear:
Portugal accounts for just 1.3 per cent of the EU economy yet has in recent years received more Chinese investment than any member state except the UK, Germany and France.
Before 2011, nine countries — Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK — attracted 77 per cent of Chinese investment in the EU. Since then there has been a sea change, according to a recent report by law firm Baker & McKenzie, using data compiled by researchers the Rhodium Group.
“Chinese investors increasingly deployed capital in economies that were severely affected by the financial crisis [and] seized opportunities arising from the privatisation of . . . utilities and transportation infrastructure,” says the report. In Portugal, China Three Gorges paid €2.7bn for 21 per cent of Energias de Portugal (EDP) and State Grid Corporation of China spent €1.4bn on 25 per cent of Redes Energéticas Nacionais (REN). Both buyers are state enterprises, but last year private conglomerate Fosun International bought 80 per cent of state-controlled Caixa Seguros Saúde, Portugal’s largest insurance group, for €1bn — and then used it to buy the hospital business Espírito Santo Saúde for €460.5m.
Elsewhere, Huawei invested €10m in a technology centre and Beijing Enterprises Water Group bought Veolia Água.
The scale of this investment is very large, with China acquiring nearly half of privatized Portuguese state assets:
In Portugal, Chinese investors swept up 45% of the total assets put up for privatisation under the Economic Adjustment Programme driven by the EU and the International Monetary Fund. These investments were initially concentrated on electrical infrastructure, but recently the focus has shifted to the financial services, with the Chinese conglomerate Fosun acquiring 80% of the Portuguese insurer Caixa Seguros in 2014.
This constitutes a major expansion of Chinese assets in Portugal. Furthermore, it is a remarkable occurrence as China was able to exploit the EU and IMF’s austerity drive in Portugal to expand its own holdings – undoubtedly to the chagrin of German, French, and other European capitalists seeking to cheaply acquire such assets for themselves in firesales. Indeed, Germany’s largest utilities company, Eon, attempted to acquire the stake in Energias de Portugal purchased by China Three Gorges with Angela Merkel openly lobbying the Portuguese government to accept its bid. Pushback against this blatant German pressure may, in fact, have played a role in China Three Gorges successfully acquiring the stake.
China’s increasing stake in Europe has not gone unnoticed or uncontested. As will be discussed later, the major imperial powers in Europe have begun to develop and implement countermeasures to increased Chinese investment and influence. Nevertheless, that China has entered into the battle for control of peripheral European states – largely enabled through the open crudity of the EU and IMF austerity campaigns which has offered many southern European states little choice but to seek any port in a storm – is a significant indicator of its growing role as an imperial power. The role of the fascist Golden Dawn as enforcers of Chinese profits at Piraeus is indicative of the ruthlessness of Chinese imperialism – a trait it shares, to be sure, with other imperialisms – and the growing danger it poses to workers across the world.
As might be expected, China exercises a great deal of power across Asia – its “backyard”. China’s main interests in Asia include the establishment of the “New Silk Road” westward to Europe, establishing control over disputed islands in the South China Sea and the attendant oil and gas resources, establishing itself as a regional hegemon against Japan and India, and pushing back against US influence in Korea and elsewhere. Of particular interest are China’s relationships with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Myanmar, North Korea, and disputes in the South China Sea.
In Afghanistan, China has made economic and military forays. In 2007, the Chinese mining companies Metallurgical Group Corp and Jiangxi Copper obtained a $3 billion lease to mine copper at Mes Aynak in Afghanistan. This deal initially met with cautious approval from the United States, which saw it as strengthening the economy of its client state and increasing the possibility that Afghanistan could begin “paying for its own security”. This was due, in part, to the fact that Afghanistan had secured relatively favorable terms in terms of the cost of mining rights and Chinese promises of accompanying infrastructure development. It became increasingly clear, however, that China did not face serious commercial competition in Afghanistan due to the strengthening Taliban insurgency blocking access to Western firms.
By contrast, the Taliban sanctioned Chinese mining, promising not to attack the project at Mes Aynak. Given these developments, the Chinese firms involved pressed for re-negotiation of the terms. The Metallurgical Group Corp halted development of the mine, demanding that royalties be cut by almost half. In addition, it pulled back from promises to construct infrastructure projects including “a railway, power plant, and processing factory”. In conjunction with the role that Afghanistan plays in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, investments like the Mes Aynak mine have helped convince China to begin military deployments into Afghanistan.
China is negotiating the construction of a permanent military base in Afghanistan, with an agreement in principle reportedly reached in December 2017. Afghan villagers have reported, contrary to Chinese and Afghan government denials, spotting Chinese forces involved in cross-border patrols in conjunction with the Afghan army. Over the last three years, China has sent more than $70 million in military aid to the Afghan government – a small amount compared to US aid, but still indicative of China’s growing interest in the region. Afghanistan will only acquire more significance for China if, as has been proposed, it expands the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to include Afghanistan.
Pakistan has served as a major destination for Chinese investment. Announced CPEC investments and loans have reached a total of $62 billion. An additional $50 billion has been committed to build five hydroelectric dams. The port of Gwadar on the Indian Ocean has been a particular focus of CPEC investment, as a key port within the trade networks envisioned in the Belt and Road Initiative. In addition, energy resource extraction and power production have been important investment targets, receiving almost $33 billion in the initial CPEC proposals alone. The combined value of CPEC projects is estimated to equal almost a fifth of Pakistan’s 2015 GDP.
As Chinese investment in Pakistan has soared, China has increasingly moved to secure its holdings financially and militarily. After attacks by Balochistan separatists on CPEC projects, the Pakistani army formed a 14,000 man security division specifically assigned to protect CPEC projects and Chinese nationals in Pakistan. A maritime security force has also been created to protect CPEC-related shipping. China is expected to construct its second overseas military base at Jiwani, a port near Gwadar. Pakistan has reached out to China and Russia as potential new military suppliers after the US froze military aid to Pakistan. Economically, China has pushed for two major concessions for its investments. It has demanded tax exemptions on infrastructure loans made by its banks as part of CPEC, estimated to constitute $2 billion in lost revenue for Pakistan. It has also pushed to allow Pakistani energy companies it is purchasing to charge additional fees directly to customers if the Pakistani government is late in making payments. These concessions are particularly relevant given that Pakistan is deeply in debt and facing serious difficulties in covering its projected obligations. In conjunction, these concessions paint a clear picture: China wishes to avoid its investments being taxed heavily to resolve Pakistan’s debt crisis while also insulating itself from potential nonpayment.
In Myanmar, China has been the dominant investor for decades. Since 1988, China has been the single largest source of FDI in Myanmar, accounting for more than $14 billion – about a third of total incoming FDI during that period. China is also Myanmar’s largest trading partner, primarily importing agricultural products and minerals and exporting electronics, machines, and other manufactured goods. This investment has only intensified with the Belt and Road Initiative. A group of Chinese firms led by CITIC Group, a financial conglomerate, acquired a 70% stake in the Myanmar port of Kyauk Pyu (sometimes rendered as Kyaukpyu or Kyaukphyu) in 2017. This has led to Chinese development of the Kyauk Pyu Special Economic Zone, which combined the port, with an estimated value of $7.3 billion, and an industrial park valued at $2.3 billion. About 20,000 villagers, mostly dependent on agriculture and fishing, face relocation due to the development, and there are serious concerns among local environmentalists that the project is being rushed through without regard to environmental regulations. One key goal of the port project is to serve as an entrepôt for Chinese oil imports, particularly from Africa and the Middle East, which can bypass the Straits of Malacca by means of a 480 mile pipeline from Kyauk Pyu to China’s Yunnan province.
China’s relationship to the Myanmar government is complicated. China had been a strong ally of the military government which had ruled the country for decades; the reform process beginning in 2011 and the coming to power of Aung San Suu Kyi in 2015 disrupted this long-running relationship. Since then, however, China has worked to repair relations with Myanmar’s new government. It has been assisted in this regard by the diplomatic strain between Myanmar and many Western governments over the Myanmar military’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority; China has backed the Myanmar government in its attacks on the Rohingya. It has also worked in the UN Security Council to block any action on the issue. China has also consistently been the largest supplier of arms to the Myanmar military – the same arms used to attack the Rohingya.
The Chinese military has also carried out joint trainings and exercises with the Myanmar military. Many of the Chinese investment projects, including the port of Kyauk Pyu, lie within Rakhine state, the epicenter of anti-Rohingya violence. The Myanmar government has announced its intention to take land from burned Rohingya villages for “redevelopment”; the land has greatly increased in value due to Chinese investment. Indeed, large investment projects from China and India have already been carried out on previously seized land. Socialist Action identified the development of the Kyauk Pyu SEZ as an “example of Rohingya displacement for profit” in an October 20, 2017 article by Marty Goodman.
The role of China with regards to North Korea is likewise complicated. China is economically dominant within North Korea. Its investors pervade the Rason Special Economic Zone in northeastern North Korea, and the $6 billion in Chinese trade is equal 50% of North Korea’s GDP. China is also the dominant partner in other North Korean SEZs established after Rason. More than 90% of North Korea’s oil comes from a Chinese pipeline. Despite this, the North Korean government is able to exercise a surprising degree of independence from China. China is opposed to North Korean development of nuclear weapons which, from its perspective, reduces North Korean military dependency on China, heightens the possibility of US military strikes in North Korea, destabilizes the status quo on the Korean peninsula, and provides an easy justification for US and other military escalations in the region. It would prefer a nuclear-armed North Korea, however, to the prospect of a collapsing North Korean state which it could face if it exerted too much pressure on the regime; such a situation could lead to a South Korean-led reunification which brought US troops to the Chinese border and a massive refugee crisis in northern China.
The moves by North and South Korea to finally conclude the Korean War with a peace treaty and push towards denuclearization and possible reunification have prompted serious concern in China that it is losing control of the situation in the Koreas and its leverage over North Korea.
China has been involved in a number of disputes over control of island chains in the South China Sea. China claims essentially the entirety of the South China Sea, enclosing its claims within the ‘nine-dash line’ surrounding the sea on its maps, conflicting with claims by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei. Its disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines over the Paracel and Spratly island chains have been particularly fierce. China has been extensively building up military bases, particularly airfields, radar installations, and missile batteries, on those islands it occupies within the chains. In 2016, an international tribunal requested to arbitrate by the Philippines rejected the ‘nine-dash line’ and found in favor of the Philippines, a ruling which China rejected. In 2017, China threatened to attack Vietnamese bases in the Spratlys, forcing Vietnam to abandon efforts to drill for oil and gas in the region.
Editor’s note: Since this resolution was first drafted in 2018 China has emerged as Latin America’s largest investor.
Part III on China’s Military Power to follow.
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