Last week I had the privilege of joining a group of Chinese NGOs to attend the African Coalition of Corporate Accountability’s General Assembly in Abidjan, the capital of Cote d’Ivoire. The theme of this year’s General Assembly was “Impacts, Opportunities and Accountability in the Context of Chinese Investment in Africa.”
The Chinese NGO delegation was organized by Jingjing Zhang, founder of the China Accountability Project (CAP) based in Washington, D.C. CAP is a nonprofit organization run by experienced Chinese public interest lawyers and environmental professionals and dedicated to holding Chinese companies accountable for their environmental impacts and rights violations. It has been bridging the knowledge gap between Chinese CSOs and their counterparts in Africa and Latin America.
This gathering was the first time ACCA had Chinese NGOs meeting up with African NGOs. I would go so far to say it was the first time independent Chinese NGOs, as opposed to official Chinese NGOs or GONGOs, had an opportunity to discuss and strategize with African NGOs about best civil society practices for managing negative impacts of Chinese investment.
As NGOs with experience working on labor and environmental protection in China, we wanted to share our experiences about working as NGOs in China on these issues and provide a more realistic picture of the state of civil society and the environmental and labor movements in China. We also wanted to provide some recommendations on how African NGOs, trade unions and communities could respond to the negative social and environmental impacts of Chinese investment in Africa. We hoped through this experience, we could move Africans away from stereotypes about Chinese and add more humanity to a Chinese face.
The first day, sitting in the meeting hall, we were welcomed by a local band of brass and drums that recalled a New Orleans blues band, followed by a group of women with painted faces doing a traditional song and dance. We were welcomed by ACCA organizers and heard a keynote address about China in Africa from a Nigerian academic doing graduate work on China in Africa.
I gave a presentation about the labor movement in China, speaking about my experience at China Labour Bulletin where we worked with Chinese labor activists to organize workers involved in labor disputes and trained them on collective bargaining strategies and techniques. I also spoke about my trip to Zambia looking at labor relations in Chinese workplaces in the manufacturing and mining sector, and how some Chinese companies in Zambia had learned over the years to recognize independent unions – something China does not have - and engage in collective bargaining with them to improve wages and working conditions.
My other colleagues spoke about the environmental movement, and their experience holding companies and government departments accountable for pollution through campaigning and lawsuits. They showed the negative environmental impact that Chinese companies on their home country, but also how Chinese NGOs had been able to hold these companies accountable. The suggestion was that African companies could do the same but it would take time, strategizing and perhaps assistance from Chinese NGOs to figure out how best to mitigate the damages wrought by Chinese companies in Africa.
The Africans in the audience were a very curious crowd and asked a lot of questions. Their questions often reflected a pent-up anger against what they saw as the damage visited upon their communities by Chinese companies. One man asked whether it was true that China was only sending criminals to Africa. Our answer: there’s no evidence of this. Another asked what would happen if African countries simply refused to accept Chinese investment. Our answer: Chinese investors aren’t all that different from other investors; they are largely part and parcel of the global capitalist order. Just look at the pillaging of the Amazon being carried out by mostly white (non-Chinese) farmers, miners and loggers. Countries do not shut their doors to other investors who come to exploit their resources and labor, so why would you do that to Chinese investors? What we should be asking is not how to keep these investors from a particular country out (although there may be a good reason to exclude investors in certain sectors or those involved in informal/illegal activities), but how to better regulate and manage the risks that come with their investment.
The next day was spent looking at corporate accountability mechanisms ranging from grievance mechanisms, to greater transparency and disclosure of information, to lawsuits. The sessions focused on large-scale natural resource extraction projects financed through Chinese state and commercial loans. These are the projects getting the headlines in the paper, and their sheer size and amount of money involved, as well as their impact on local communities and the environment, highlights the pressing need to do something to hold these companies accountable.
In a small separate session on labor conflicts, another dimension of China in Africa came up that gets less attention but may be no less important over the longer run: the wave of Chinese companies and entrepreneurs moving into other sectors of the economy. As David Dollar points out in his 2016 Brookings Institution report, China’s Engagement with Africa: From Natural Resources to Human Resources, Chinese financing in Africa may be concentrated on the large-scale projects in the energy and transportation sectors carried out by state-owned firms, but the majority of Chinese people in Africa are dispersed across a wide range of private firms in services, manufacturing and agriculture. There is no good data on how many Chinese actually live and work in Africa. Many are said to go to work in large projects and end up overstaying their visas and going into business for themselves or working for other Chinese businesses. The mythical number of one million Chinese in Africa is often used as in Howard French’s 2014 book, China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa.
In Zambia, the estimates of Chinese living there ranged anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000. Whatever the numbers, the presence of Chinese migrants not only in the capital of Lusaka but also in the Copperbelt cities of Ndola and Kitwe were ubiquitous. There are many Chinese raising families there. There are Chinese malls and stores carrying mostly merchandise imported from China. There are Chinese restaurants and casinos. There are Chinese medical clinics, and so on.
Dollar suggests that the growth of Chinese in these sectors will become more important, as demand in China for natural resources tapers off over time. This shift is suggested in the title of his report, From Natural Resources to Human Resources. This smaller-scale private sector activity has not received the same amount of attention as the large financing deals in the extractive resource sector. Most importantly, its cumulative impact on the continent is growing quickly and increasingly being critically received by local populations.
This impact was the subject of our small session on labor conflicts which quickly moved to other concerns such as Chinese firms competing and crowding out African firms in manufacturing and services, lack of linkages between Chinese firms and African suppliers, Chinese workers taking jobs that could be given to Africans, and the lack of skills transfer and training for Africans.
Two days to discuss a topic as enormous as Chinese investment in Africa was clearly insufficient but it was a good start. There are many parts to the ecosystem of holding companies accountable. The focus was on large-scale, natural resource extraction projects such as mines and dams, and on the NGOs that work on transparency and information disclosure, and on mechanisms such as campaigns and lawsuits. There could easily have been another two days devoted to organizing communities, trade unions and business associations to address the social and economic impact of Chinese investment, and providing grievance, monitoring and accountability mechanisms not only to hold Chinese companies accountable but also to hold governments in those African countries accountable for enabling the negative impacts of Chinese and other foreign investment. As Charles Kojo Vandyck points out
, CSOs in Africa can also “trigger conversations about the UN Guiding Principles through multisectoral convenings and forums” and in regional institutions such as “the African Union (AU), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC) and the East African Community (EAC).”
One point that was made through the two-day meeting was that the situation in Africa is not all that dissimilar to the situation in China. In both places, laws, regulations and guidelines are being drafted that incorporate international standards. This legal framework creates various entry points for civil society to hold the state and companies accountable. This is a point I came back to in my presentation when I concluded with three hard-earned lessons we should keep in mind:
One was that China and Africa have experience with creating laws that incorporate international standards to varying degrees, but these laws can have shortcomings or are simply not implemented or enforced. Here is where civil society comes in.
Second, these laws are not going to be much use unless NGOs, workers and communities work together to call for improvements in the laws, and hold governments, banks, international financial institutions and companies accountable for complying with those laws.
Third, civil society needs to go beyond just naming and shaming to do the hard work of organizing workers and communities, and engaging, pressuring and negotiating with companies, governments and other stakeholders if we are to achieve true win-win solutions for companies, workers and communities, and realize the still-distant promise of what Vandyck calls sustainable businesses which he defines as:
“….enterprises that generate respect for human rights across their value chains. This type of business does not only use a percentage of its profits to promote a social cause through corporate social responsibility, but it also safeguards human rights within its operations and the communities where its products or services are used.”