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China’s Neo-Colonialism?

by | 24 April 2010 | No Comment | Last modified: 30 Apr 3:53 am

A recent article by Walden Bello posted to the Zhongguo list - “China’s Neo-Colonialism” - touched off a discussion about how to understand China’s rapidly changing relationship with countries that are ‘less developed’ than China. What sparked the discussion was Bello’s charge of neo-colonialism:

…makes one wonder if the relationship with China is not reproducing the old colonial division of labor, whereby low-value-added natural resources and agricultural products were shipped to the center while the Southeast Asian economies absorbed high-value added manufactures from Europe and the United States.

Bello is writing about developments since the China-Asean trade agreement (also known as CAFTA) that went into effect on January 1, 2010.

Turns out the article has been recycled on the web at least twice. Each time the headline becomes more and more sensational:

The China-Asean Free Trade Area: Propaganda and Reality January, 2010
China Lassoes its Neighbors March, 2010
China’s Neo-Colonialism April, 2010

The piece bears resemblance to recent articles about China-Africa relations, provoking this response by Barry Sautman (reposted with permission), who together with Yan Hairong, have written quite a bit on the subject:

Walden Bello’s concerns are not wholly misplaced, yet he makes the common mistake of reducing neo-imperialism (or imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism, etc.) to an “export primary products/import manufactured goods” relationship among countries. Colonialism and imperialism have historically involved much more than that, as Yan Hairong and I elaborately argue in our monograph, East Mountain Tiger, West Mountain Tiger: China, the West and “Colonialism” in Africa (Baltimore: University of Maryland, Contemporary Asian Studies Series no. 186, 2007).

We’ve studied China/Africa links, but many of the same claims raised about China and “the Chinese” in that context have emerged about China/SE Asia, China/Latin America, etc. Each relationship requires specific, detailed investigation. That being said, China’s main imports from Africa are primary products and its main exports are manufactured goods. That is so even as to South Africa, which is industrially on a par with China and invests significantly in that country. The largest part of China’s exports to Africa, however, is machinery, used to build Africa’s infrastructure and manufacturing capacity. Low cost Chinese daily use items have also allowed African workers and peasants to access many kinds of goods that they could previously not afford. The commodities boom, centered on China, has expanded African state revenues, enabling greater spending on infrastructure building.

To be sure, Chinese companies, along with all other foreign investors, are super-exploiters, with regard to both labor and natural resources. The role of China does however differ in key aspects from that of the US, UK, France, etc. mainly in terms of contributing to the predicates of an industrialized Africa, as we’ve shown in a articles in African studies and Asian studies journals. There are, of course, articles about the political economy of the China/SE Asia relationship as well and it would be useful to determine the degree to which the conclusions we’ve reached re China/Africa also apply to China/SE Asia.

A comment is also needed regarding Walden Bello’s characterization of China as a low-wage country with huge reserves of labor and SE Asia as a relatively high-wage region, with presumably lesser labor reserves. That contrast may have been acceptable some years ago, but is increasing outdated. In the Pearl River Delta (PRD) alone, about 2 million jobs are unfilled. It has just been reported (He Huifeng, “Illegal Vietnamese Workers Flood Delta Factories, South China Morning Post, April 23, 2010) that the average manufacturing wage there is now about Y1,800, while the average wage in southern Vietnam is half that. Thousands of Vietnamese and workers from neighboring countries now labor in PRD factories. The phenomenon of Chinese textile and clothing factories moving from the PRD to Cambodia is also well-known. In short, the political economy of China/SE Asia is more complex than it appears in Walden Bello’s piece.

Finally, I should say that while it is surely proper to criticize exploitative relationships when Chinese entities are involved, such criticisms should always be put in comparative perspective. That should especially be the case as to SE Asia, where there has been a long and, in some instances, bloody history of anti-Sinicism.

You’ll have to subscribe to the Zhongguo list to be privy to the full conversation.

(image courtesy Fotopedia)

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