Is China a comradely benefactor or a predatory exp-loiter of developing countries? This question has carried crucial im-port in world affairs ever since China’s relative heft and weight began expanding.
It has divided peoples and governments across the Global South, with some viewing China as a welcome alternative to neo-colonial Western interventions, and others portraying it as a rapacious, resource-hungry beast that is denuding the natural wealth of poorer countries.
The debate is most advanced in Africa, where the consequences of China’s humungous investments in the infrastructure and extractive sectors are discussed day in and out.
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s thinly veiled accusation that China is operating a “new colonialism” in Africa, marked by a game of “take out natural resources, pay off leaders and leave”, has been rebutted by the Chinese government and its allies on the continent as Western propaganda to sow a rift among brotherly developing nations.
Both sides cite statistical and anecdotal evidence to buttress their positions, which are manifestations of contrasting comfort levels vis-à-vis the larger issue of whether China’s rise to superpower status is a boon or a bane.
Western establishments and media houses commence their narratives with barely disguised cynicism about China’s motives and impact in Africa and Latin America, assuming that Beijing is sinister, selfish and ruthless in its foreign economic policies towards these regions.
Pro-Chinese advocates, on the other hand, carry the banner of Beijing as a benign, peaceful and exceptional superpower that is freeing least developed countries (LDCs) from centuries of Western domination.
Geographical distance may indeed mean that China will act less imperially in Africa and Latin America than in Asia, where China and its neighbours are divided by raw nationalism and sovereignty-based competition.
Physical closeness induces a more political dynamic into China’s relations with Asian countries, unlike the mainly economic dimension that imbues China’s agenda outside Asia. Even economic forms of Chinese conduct in contiguous Asia have political and geo-strategic implications that generate fear and anger.
Take, for instance, the recent mass protests near Burma’s north-western town of Monywa against a copper mine run via a joint venture between China’s state-owned Wanbao Mining and a Burmese military-owned company.
The crackdown ordered by the Burmese government on unarmed monks and villagers, who were demanding closure of the mine because of its environmental hazards, reminded lo-cals of how China had been looting Burma’s resources with the backing of the dreaded Burmese Army.
The slowly democratising Burmese government had no option but to use brutal force against the protesters because closure of the Monywa project would directly hurt the financial interests of the former junta that used to lord over Burma and still enjoys eminence in policymaking.
Moreover, Wanbao Mining is a subsidiary of China’s state-owned weapons manufacturing major, Norinco. Beijing had already suffered a setback in Burma last year when the Mytisone hydropower dam, meant to supply electricity to China, was suspended after a similar mass movement of local Burmese who stood at risk of flooding and displacement.
Letting the Monywa mine to also be shuttered in deference to popular Burmese wishes would be a blow to China’s prestige and that of its allies in Burma’s military.
The Chinese official media has maintained a worried gaze at Monywa, claiming that this mine was “strictly and scientifically in accordance with Burma’s law, international standard and religious procedure”, and that the protesters are misguided.
But the ordinary Burmese peasants and monks mobilised around Monywa see themselves as sacrificial lambs whose future is being destroyed to appease a monstrous China.
At home, the Chinese Communist Party often backtracks when Chinese citizens mobilise against polluting industrial plants. It is even introducing “social risk reviews” before sanctioning new factories.
But in Southeast Asia, where Chinese companies invest heavily in minerals, Beijing does not hesitate to defend them to the hilt even at the cost of the lives of local people.
Contempt for China as a greedy gold digger is also widespread in Burma thanks to the phenomenal amount of illegal logging and deforestation in that country to satiate demand of Chinese state-owned timber-importing companies.
A new report by an international environmental organisation blames Chinese firms for harvesting wood (used for household furniture) to the tune of $4 billion through illegal means from Burma, Indonesia and as far as Mozambique in Africa.
Burma has lost more than one-fifth of its forest cover in the last two decades due to unlawful trucking of felled trees headed into China. Why would the Burmese people not hate such a ravenous China, which is embarking on ambitious reforestation at home but is happy to destroy the green cover of its neighbours?
The responsibility quotient in China’s dealings with the developing world varies as per the level of vigilance and political consciousness to preserve indigenous natural treasures in individual countries.
Where governments or narrow-minded social forces are complicit or complacent, China swoops down like a vulture and preys without compunction. Asia is full of caveats for naive China-adorers about the dragon and its vulnerable quarries.
The writer is a professor and dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs