“The Specter of Global China: Politics, Labor, and Foreign Investment in Africa” by Ching Kwan Lee

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The predominant narrative on Sino-African relations is relatively simple. After more than three decades of sustained economic expansion, China is an economic juggernaut, with trade and investment overflowing its borders and into the global market. One the one hand, China, with its overcapacity, seeks new markets and new places from which to secure natural resources to keep the economic machine going. On the other, Western disengagement from Africa since the end of the Cold War has been filled in part by China, and China-Africa relations need to be understood as the logical outcome of the marginalization of Africa in the age of globalization in which Africa is hungry for development, investment, and capital.

But could today’s story of Sino-African relations instead be understood as the result of the very nature of Chinese state capital and its state-owned enterprises? The reflexive answer for many China-watchers is of course “yes”. That China is an actual investor in Africa today at all, although a trivial one—and at similar amounts compared to other Western powers—is a sea-change from decades ago. Deductively, it is to be expected that the state strictures on Chinese capital would lead to a different result in, say, Zambia when it is invested.

Lee’s inductive study serves as a valuable check on sloppy thinking about China in Africa.

The Specter of Global China: Politics, Labor, and Foreign Investment in Africa, Ching Kwan Lee (University of Chicago Press, January 2018)
The Specter of Global China: Politics, Labor, and Foreign Investment in Africa, Ching Kwan Lee (University of Chicago Press, January 2018)

Ching Kwan Lee, in The Specter of Global China, takes a look at this very issue. Lee, a professor of sociology at the University of California in Los Angeles, deserves praise not for her theory, for it is not necessarily novel or ground-breaking, but for her diligent work in chronicling Chinese capital in Zambia. Lee’s inductive study serves as a valuable check on sloppy thinking about China in Africa. At the heart of the book is seven years of on-the-ground research. She has collected data by interviewing, following, living with, and working with managers, expatriates, engineers, and workers. She visits underground mines, mining townships, constructions sites, and bargaining sessions.

Lee compares two kinds of capital—Chinese state investment and global private investment—in two industries in Zambia—copper and construction. While her conclusion that

 

under certain circumstances Chinese state capital can be made a different kind of capital, bringing unique potential and perils to Zambian development, and presenting government and workers with different kinds of bargains than global private capital

 

may be self-evident, she presents reminders of the various knock-on effects.

For example, in her analysis of three different mines, Chinese state capital’s emphasis on stable production leads to a stable subcontracting relationship, thereby leading to more favorable worker solidarity and effectiveness in pushing employers to offer permanent terms of employment. Such conclusions are not shocking but her diligent chronicling from various points of view—owners, unions, miners, engineers, Chinese capital—make such reminders pungent.

According to Lee, the very nature of Chinese capital—primarily driven by the Chinese state and state-owned enterprises—changes from industry to industry. It means that in the copper mining industry, Chinese state capital, rather than being more dominant, has counterintuitively made more compromises to accommodate Zambian state and labor demands than has global private capital. This is, according to Lee, because Chinese state capital is more interested in diplomatic influence and in gaining source access to strategic minerals, whereas global private capital is only interested in profit maximization. But—and this is where Lee’s comparison of industries comes in—in Zambia’s construction sector Chinese state capital remains predatory. This is because China is not that interested in Zambian construction, and because Chinese “concessional” loans actually charge higher interest rates than the World Bank (2 percent rather than 1.7 percent), have a smaller grant element, have shorter repayment periods, and require noncompetitive single sourcing from China.

 

One issue with the study, however, is that the study itself is place-bound and time-bound. Lee’s analysis is tight and specific, no doubt adding to its clarity on the issue of the Sino-Zambia relationship, but it is difficult to extrapolate to other African nations, problems, and Sino-Africa relationships. In response to this issue Lee contends that while Zambia is not representative of Africa, it is nonetheless a “critical case” for understanding China. There is a long Zambia-China connection, and Zambia is Africa’s top copper producer and Chambishi Mine—where Lee gathers much of her data—was the first overseas mine a Chinese state-owned enterprise acquired.

Lee’s approach to the subject is detailed and rational, which doubtless adds to the work, but the often dense and plodding style detracts from the book’s accessibility. Ever the sociologist, Lee evokes Marx in the title and in the text with tongue in cheek, not to condemn China’s actions in Africa, but perhaps merely to raise awareness. The book is arranged so that we see Chinese state capital in Zambia in many forms: accumulation, laborers, managers, and the community. In each of these areas is a comprehensive analysis and comparison of great detail and value.

The Specter of Global China perhaps serves best as a short yet pungent reminder of the complexity of the frothy mix of relationships among the processes of economic development, growth, politics, and the state. That these relationships are complex certainly should not come as a surprise, but it is important to be reminded of it in such nuance. Above all, Lee has tested assumptions and challenge traditional modes of thought by analyzing processes and relations of power in Sino-Zambian relations.


Evan Ryser is a resident of Washington, DC, and holds a master's degree from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.