China and human Trafficking in Africa

Tupa’s story provides clues to the extent of Chinese involvement in human trafficking across Africa.  In recent years, the Chinese have invested heavily in the continent and their presence is now ubiquitous.  But is Africa’s growing dependency on Chinese aid causing it to turn a blind eye to the problem?


“See that?  That there!  That!” Exclaimed the Assistant Minister of the Ministry of Finance for Kenya, who was vigorously jabbing his finger at the architectural model of the future Kenyatta University Teaching, Research and Referral Hospital in Nairobi.  Obviously, I was not blind to what was itself an impressive and fairly large rendering of the next addition to the university, which spread before me like a mangled Bundt cake. The complex, which was being made possible with a $92 million dollar loan from the Chinese, was yet another example of Chinese assistance to the Kenyan Government that officials could jab a finger at.  The alacrity of this particular minister reminded me of the time when the Governor of Otjozondjupa Region in Namibia stepped out of his SUV to pat the side of a new primary school in Tsumkwe, itself built with Chinese financial assistance.  After mortar dust and even bits of plaster came off on the governor’s hand, he spread his palm before my face with a big smile and said, “China.” It was an indication I presumed of the undeniable tangibility of Chinese development rather than the poor quality of their workmanship.    


Over the past decade, Chinese development aid to Africa has become both massive and conspicuous.  According to the Center for Global Development, from 2000 to 2011 China has committed at least $75 billion to over 1,600 projects spread out across some 50 African countries.  And these are only projects that we know about with some certainty, since China is reluctant to disclose information about its development finance activities.  It is also difficult to track the exact amount of money pouring into Africa from China because it bypasses the whole structure of donor-recipient relations favored by the West, leaving policy analysts scratching their heads as they continually redraw flowcharts to show exactly how it works.  Such ambiguity generally means that most figures of Chinese aid to Africa are probably underestimates.  It is also safe to say that over the past decade Chinese financial assistance and development aid to Africa is at the very least comparable to that from the United States.  According to some sources, China has far surpassed the U.S. and even threatens to undermine the World Bank and IMF’s debt relief strategies for developing countries (which they had a large part in creating in the first place).  


As veiled as the exact figures and pathways of Chinese financial aid are, one thing is for certain: when the money hits the ground, it does so with a loud, flashy bang.  From the Tekeze Dam in Ethiopia (dubbed the “Ethiopian Three Gorges Dam”) and every single stadium in Cameroon, to the reconstruction of the Benguela railway in Angola and the completion of the main highway in Sudan (the same highway that Osama Bin Laden started but never quite finished), the Chinese have poured money into mega-projects of such epic proportions that you would be hard pressed to stand at the heart of any major city in Africa without being able to point to at least three multi-million dollar infrastructure projects.  And therein lies the allure of Chinese financial aid to Africa: it goes towards gigantic, conspicuous projects that you can see and touch in all their obvious reality; the money manifests itself in a plethora of dams, apartment buildings, government offices, hospitals, airports, sewer systems, highways, railroads, bridges, and so on.  Moreover, China is not interested in attaching a slew of preachy conditions to their aid; there are no demands involving human rights, government restructuring, privatization, or democratization.  Beijing is strictly about doing business – they want access to Africa’s vast natural resources and they want to make a profit in the process. You need only name the commodity and chances are the Chinese have a fairly ravenous appetite for it, whether it is timber from Congo, oil from Angola, copper from Zambia, or fish off the coast of Namibia.  In return for such things, the Chinese will build you a shrine to a carnal and distinctly unidealistic form of development.  It seems to be working: over the past decade or so, China has easily become Africa’s largest trading partner.


This is all in stark contrast to aid from the West, which as many African officials will point out is associated with a stringent set of conditions that can seem arrogant, dictatorial, and notably intangible. Western financial aid and development assistance is inseparable from demands for economic and political reform – and general societal restructuring – all of which are infused with neo-liberal ideals and a well-worn theory of modernization based on the belief that only the west can somehow show Africa the light.  Democratization, capacity building, good governance, privatization, free trade, human rights, and – more recently – taking steps to improve security and fight the war on terror,  are just some of the things the west asks for in exchange for their money.  The actual details are worked out over a never-ending negotiation process with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO), which often leads to large chunks of money being parceled out to a standing army of American and European NGO’s who may or may not have their own jargon and agenda entailing a set of objectives and measurement indicators (or lack thereof) that, given the very nature of donor-recipient relations, are based on reporting how wildly successful they are in order to set themselves up for the next funding cycle. But to most African leaders and their constituents, demonstrating things like fiscal responsibility, sustainability, and democratization – one could put legislative reform involving human trafficking in this category as well – is neither as easy nor as satisfying as pointing to a brand new hydroelectric plant, school, or cross-country railroad. And after widespread recognition of the general failure of the IMF and World Bank’s structural adjustment policies and their ability to have any kind of significant positive impact on the average African household, is it any wonder that governments across the continent would openly embrace Chinese financial aid in all of its unassuming materialism?         


If Beijing does attach any conditions to their loans, they do so by pressuring African governments to slacken restrictions on work and residency permits for Chinese migrants.  Subsequently, Africans can point to another obvious manifestation of Chinese influence: the Chinese themselves.  There are an estimated one million resident Chinese in Africa now, up from just several thousand a decade ago, and the numbers continue to grow.  This is the second part of a two-pronged approach that has come to define a broad shift in Chinese policy towards Africa since the turn of the century.  Here, China’s influence is most dramatically seen in the rise of the ubiquitous “China shop” and the sudden explosion of cheap, imported goods that may or may not have an actual purpose other then to contribute to a consumer culture grounded in a sudden demand for the thing itself.  From Chinese tires that have the lamentable quality of unrolling like duct tape (as I discovered while driving on the Trans-Kalahari Highway one night) to “unofficial” Manchester United soccer jerseys and plastic, lime-green ray gun things with cartoon dolphin stickers on its sides, cheap knock-offs and knick-knacks have become available to the average African household like never before thanks to China.  The Chinese have an amazing ability to set up shop just about anywhere in Africa; you can find them in every city and town, often in places that leave you wondering how they could possibly do any business at all.  Sometimes the “shop” is little more than the actual shipping container sent directly from China itself, packed to the hilt with, among other things, plastic, lime-green ray gun things with cartoon dolphin stickers on its sides. But these operations are more than what they might seem at first, they depend heavily on a vast network of trusted relationships and well-connected contacts from within the tightly knit Chinese migrant community.  Such connections allow individuals to move cheap goods fast within and between countries with minimal interference from government officials.  This is where China’s mega-projects – the first prong of its two-pronged strategy – come in handy, since it has proven extremely effective in providing such contacts as well as a degree of protection for the Chinese migrant community – the second prong – as they fan out across the continent to create a supply-side network.  Over the past decade or so, the two prongs have worked quite well together. 


Against this backdrop, it should not be surprising to discover that the Chinese have become increasingly involved in illicit smuggling activities.  Of course, the most notorious example, and one that grabs the headlines frequently, involves the illegal trade in ivory.   The enormous number of elephant tusks and rhino horns that are smuggled from across Africa and make their way to China exemplify both the sophisticated and underground nature of China’s trade network, not to mention how difficult it is to combat or dismantle despite the international outcry from powerful environmental groups, promises from the Chinese government to do something about it, and even a United Nations-backed agreement condemning it (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).  Yet tusks and horns are only the particularly egregious tip of the iceberg; shops from all over Africa are flooded with cheap, counterfeit items smuggled in from China, many of them specifically made to resemble items historically produced in Africa.  Every conceivable thing is subject to being smuggled.  In Tanzania, for example, it is estimated that 20% of all batteries on the market are smuggled sub-standards produced in China.  Much more frightening for that country, a similar percentage of anti-malaria drugs are thought to be smuggled Chinese knock-offs.  In Nigeria, Chinese merchants have fed corruption among customs officials to such a degree – most notably in the textile industry – that cheap Chinese goods are the norm rather than the exception.  China’s role in timber smuggling has also been highlighted in places as wide-ranging as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Mozambique.  And the growing number of Chinese small arms that pop up in unintended places and hot-spots across the continent has risen dramatically in recent years, thanks to China’s aggressive new strategy to sell weapons to African governments, which saw major arms deliveries jump from just 3% of the total volume between 1996 and 2000 to a whopping 25% from 2006 to 2010.  In South Africa, which has more Chinese immigrants than any other African country, it is estimated that at least 6,000 “China shops” have sprung up across the country in just a 5-year period between 2008-2013.  Almost half of all clothing items that come from China, which end up being sold in these shops, are smuggled past an ineffectual customs force that is both overwhelmed and highly corrupt.  Yet even the tiny, almost symbolic, amount of smuggled goods that officials do seize still amounts to millions of dollars, and includes everything from cigarettes to matches, toys, DVD’s, toothbrushes, wallets, handbags, shoes, cellphones, light bulbs, electronics, and rugby jerseys.  From abalone to zebra hides, one need only think of an item to discover that it is part of an extensive smuggling network linking China with the African continent.


So, what does all of this mean for human trafficking?  At the very least, it means that one should not be surprised to hear that the Chinese are part of the story.  In fact, the number of “snakeheads,” or individuals from China (usually with gang affiliations) who smuggle people to other countries, has exploded in South Africa; they have become as much a part of the public scene as their “coyote” counterparts in North America.  In the smuggling world, human beings are commodities to be moved just like any other; they are the same thing as a toothbrush or a lime-green ray gun with cartoon dolphin stickers on the sides.  Given the extent and nature of Chinese involvement in Africa, it is not difficult to see how they might become involved in human trafficking.   Their networks for moving goods are extensive and everybody who participates in them benefits in some way – either directly or indirectly – from the mega-projects and massive investment of the Chinese government at the higher levels. High-level deals like these create many opportunities to turn a blind eye.  As the Assistant Minister of the Ministry of Finance for Kenya told me while jabbing his finger at the model of the new hospital, “This makes it easier not to know some of the things the Chinese do in our country.”