In Uganda and elsewhere, people and governments want Beijing to respect agreements, including workers’ rights, as well as provide aid for economic development. Sources speak to AsiaNews about the situation. Some voices suggest that renewed cooperation with Western democracies is possible.
Beijing (AsiaNews) – “There is a great deal of resentment among Ugandan workers against the Chinese firm, which won the contract to build the new road, but employed only Chinese workers in violation of the deal. The situation changed later.” China has become an essential partner in the development of African nations, yet Beijing has been accused of economic colonialism. Sources talk to AsiaNews about the daily problems associated with a Chinese company operating in Uganda.
China-Africa trade increased from US$ 10 billion in 2000 to 115 in 2010. Beijing has signed agreements with 45 African countries, especially in infrastructures and services (roads, dams, bridges, railways, as well as pipelines, refineries and phone services) and natural resources (oil and precious metals). The latter constitute 90 per cent of China’s imports from the continent, but the mainland also buys coffee from Uganda, olives from Tunisia and sesame from Ethiopia.
The West has spent around US0 billion in aid to Africa over the past 50 years, insisting on "transparency" and "good governance". China has never had this problem. It has always shown a willingness to work with repressive or corrupt governments, providing aid in exchange for oil (from Sudan and Angola) and raw materials without taking into consideration how its aid is used.
Chinese firms have also shown a capacity to invest in places and operations deemed too dangerous by the West.
Yet, African nations have come to realise that China’s assistance is not always good for development and that it creates a dependency on Chinese trade and investments.
Chinese companies are accused of labour exploitation, paying low wages and allowing terrible working conditions. Equally, Chinese exporters have been accused of flooding African markets, stifling incipient local industries.
In the mining sector, African workers are forced to work without adequate safety protection for inadequate salaries. On several occasions, Chinese companies have had to face open unrest by African workers tired of their condition.
This has led African governments to criticise Chinese corporations, which have been forced to pay more attention to the needs of the local population.
On the border between Uganda and Congo, between the town of Fort Portal and the region of Bundibugyo, a road is under construction. Once completed, it will play a crucial role in local development because at present vehicles must spend three hours driving on an animal track to cover 25 kilometres.
Despite the importance of the work, an anonymous source told AsiaNews that locals complain that the Chinese company that won the contract “did not keep the promises it made to the Ugandan government because it only used Chinese workers. Some people actually believe that the workers are prisoners who are not being paid for the work done.”
Eventually, the Chinese company, “perhaps under pressure from the government, hired some Ugandan workers. Nevertheless, the number of Chinese workers is very high. Now many Chinese are training Ugandan workers. But employees have to work night and day shifts.”
For another source, Ugandans are divided. Some believe that Chinese companies are violently colonising their country, winning contracts by submitting extremely low offers. Others think the country is benefitting because the Chinese, “unlike the Europeans”, work hard, quick and without red tape.
China is in Africa to stay. Every future aid and development plan must take this into consideration.
At the same time, as Paul Letters points out in the South China Morning Post that whilst “China demands a torrent of natural resources,” it “also craves peace and political stability in Africa. To that end, China increasingly finds itself tacitly sharing Western democratic concerns regarding good governance.”