China in Congo

TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 19 Feb 2024

Ann Garrison | Black Agenda Report – TRANSCEND Media Service

Denise Nyakeru Tshisekedi, Congolese President Félix Tshisikedi, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Peng Liyuan

14 Feb 2024 – I spoke to Maurice Carney about the role of China in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s mining industry.

Several weeks ago here I reviewed Siddharth Kara’s book “Cobalt Red, How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives ,” which describes horrific working conditions of “artisanal miners” in the cobalt mining industry in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Black Agenda Report then received a response from American Canadian activist and writer Dee Knight, who thought I had been overly critical of China when I wrote, “Huge Chinese corporations so dominate Congolese cobalt mining, processing and battery manufacture that one has to ask why a communist government, however capitalist in fact, doesn’t at least somehow require more responsible sourcing of minerals processed and then advanced along the supply chain within its borders.”

This week we’re publishing Dee Knight’s response and my conversation with Maurice Carney, Executive Director of Friends of the Congo, about China in Congo.

ANN GARRISON: First I’d just like to review the conditions Siddharth Kara describes in his book.

“Artisanal miners” dig and bang on dirt and rock with shovels and picks or even their bare hands to extract mineral ore, then sell it to depots or to middlemen who sell it to depots, which in turn sell it to industrial mines. The artisanal miners often make as little as $1 a day and, as Kara writes, “Because ASM [artisanal mining] is almost entirely informal, artisanal miners rarely have formal agreements for wages and working conditions. There are usually no avenues to seek assistance for injuries or redress for abuse. Artisanal miners are almost always paid paltry wages on a piece-rate basis and must assume all risks of injury, illness, or death.” Children often work because parents don’t make enough to support a family, and schools are distant anyway.

Kara also writes, “Across 21 years of research into slavery and child labor, I have never seen more extreme predation for profit than I witnessed at the bottom of global cobalt supply chains.”

Although it may be true that, as Dee Knight writes, “80% of mining production is done industrially,” or that China has greatly increased the percentage of ore that is produced industrially, the vast majority of workers in the mining sector are still artisanal miners, and the industrial mines profit greatly by purchasing what they scrape out of the earth for next to nothing.

MAURICE CARNEY:  Yes, it’s truly horrific, but what he describes is systemic. It’s not something that is particular to the Chinese. Chinese companies dominate Congo’s mining industry, but there are also Indian companies, European companies, South African companies, US companies, a range of companies from all over the world in the Congo, and they’re all working within an exploitative system, the old colonial system repackaged. The country was designed for extraction, not development. What he describes is something that hasn’t fundamentally changed for the last 130 years.

So to describe what is actually there on the ground is not anti-Chinese. It’s really just the nature of the capitalist system and its manifestation at the bottom of the global supply chain.

I’ll give you an example. In 2001 to 2002, the United Nations published three studies that looked at the illicit exploitation of Congo’s minerals, at companies that violated Organisation for Economic Cooperation Development (OECD) guidelines. They listed 85 companies in this study, and I think that only one company of these 85 was Chinese.

Fast-forward two decades. We now see that the majority of the companies in the Congo are Chinese, but that just means that Chinese have moved into a system that’s already in place. They didn’t create it. As their economy is growing, they need copper and cobalt and a wide range of minerals. Congo is an outpost for all those minerals, so they go and establish deals with the Congolese government.

And these deals, mind you, are better than what Western corporations have established and are offering because they include the minerals for infrastructure swaps and usually have a larger equity share. However, those deals don’t negate the deep systemic nature of the extractive system for which the Congo itself was created. Congo is probably more emblematic of this extractive system than any other country on the African continent. It is an old colonial relic that hasn’t gone away.

AG: So it’s just passed to local managers, right?

MC: In a lot of respects, yes, to the comprador class, I’d say, agents of neocolonialism who are primarily concerned about their own welfare, filling their own pockets. They’re not really concerned about the welfare of the Congolese people.

A member of Congo’s parliament makes about $20,000 a month in the Congo, right? This is in a country where of the 100 million people, 70 million live on less than $2.15 a day. So the interests of that Congolese politician are more in alignment with foreign interests, with foreign capital, which is in alignment with the status quo. If you make $20,000 a month in the Congo, where the per capita income is $500 a year, you know, then you’re fine with that situation. Everybody calls you “Honorable” and “Excellency,” and you and your family members can own mines. You have status that’s far above that of the average Congolese. The real issue is with the elite and the system that produces that kind of corrupt elite that works against the interests of the Congolese working class and the oppressed masses.

We know what it looks like when you have a progressive leader in place that is concerned about the welfare of the people and who uses a country’s resources to benefit the people. You can hardly think of a better example than Venezuela under Hugo Chavez, who leveraged the oil sector of Venezuela for the benefit of Venezuelans and, really, for the benefit of other poor countries in the Caribbean and other parts of Latin America.

The current leaders in the Congo, they’re not really concerned about the welfare of the Congolese people. They’re not concerned about upending the system of exploitation.

Even countries like Indonesia are trying to be more progressive by insisting that value be added locally to develop their country. They’re refusing to ship raw nickel out of Indonesia.

So we really have to put the onus on the Congolese leaders. They are the ones who should be leveraging Congo’s resources for the benefit of the people. The Chinese didn’t create the system; they just became part of it.

It’s up to Congolese leaders to negotiate for a higher percentage of profits. They should also negotiate for transfer of skills, technology, and know-how from Chinese to Congolese, and pursue local processing of minerals in a way that value can be added locally. They should demand that the power plants and industrial infrastructure needed to do the final processing of minerals locally be part of the minerals for infrastructure swaps.

There’s a lot the Congolese government can do that they’re not doing.

AG: Well, I have to say, after reading the absolute horror stories in Kara’s book, I still don’t see how the Chinese can be blameless in this situation, especially since they’re coming from a society that professes different ideals, at least historically. As you said, Hugo Chavez used Venezuela’s oil resources not only to the benefit of the Venezuelan people but to the benefit of Latin America in solidarity.

MC: I am not at all saying that they are blameless. I am merely pushing back against the propaganda that the exploitative system we see in the Congo is a product of the Chinese way of doing business. Now, I think that if you want to attribute blame, you have to say that there’s this capitalist system in place, that the Chinese are participating in it, and that the Congolese people are being devastated by the Chinese participation.

Again, take the Indonesian case. Indonesia said they want to add value locally, and they deal with the Chinese. So the Chinese are going in and working with the Indonesian government to add value locally by establishing industrial parks because that’s what the Indonesian government is demanding. That’s why the onus has got to be put on the leaders of the Congo to negotiate in the best interest of their people.

AG: That’s the argument made in a piece titled “China Plunders Congo, Exploits Miners — ‘Anti-imperialists’ Approve ” published on the “In Defense of Communism, the Marxist Leninist Blog.”

MC: The fundamental issue is still capitalism, not China. I don’t see China trying to upend capitalism as we know it, but if you look at the way China functions globally, China has a non-interventionist policy. They don’t try to overthrow or undermine governments, and they’re not going around trying to tell countries and leaders what they ought to be doing. They work with the system as it is. That’s a hallmark of Chinese foreign policy.

And what they’ve tried to do with the Belt and Road Initiative is to build infrastructure. They’re even offering better loan terms than the private firms in the West offer, but I don’t see them going on a campaign to install, you know, socialism or communism outside of China. In the final analysis, the Congolese government has to prioritize the economic and social well-being of the Congolese people. Unfortunately, I do not see them doing that of their own volition. It is going to take the organized masses of Congolese to force the hands of its leaders to respond to the needs and aspirations of the Congolese people.

_______________________________________________

Maurice Carney is the Executive Director of Washington, DC-based Friends of the Congo.

Ann Garrison is an independent journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She attended Stanford University and is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. In 2014 she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes region. She can be reached at @AnnGarrison, ann@anngarrison.com.

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