China’s Second Continent


Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Howard W. French’s book is, functionally, a travel log of his most recent tour of Africa where he asks the baseline question, “what, exactly, is happening with Chinese investment and emigration to African states?” He takes the reader across the continent and recounts his experiences, today, versus when he was professionally in the region in past decades. It’s this background experience — which enables him to conduct before/after assessments — combined with his experiences in both the populous and more rural areas of China, along with linguistic fluency, that makes the book as compelling as it is.

The actual findings of the book are pretty common across all cases: Chinese efforts to shore up mineral and vegetative resources are, widely, disliked by the public. This dislike follows from Chinese companies predominantly bringing in skilled labourers from China and minimally employing locals, and while also rarely providing sufficient training so that locals can take on more advanced tasks. Moreover, in many of the cases French recounts the Chinese companies are massively either underpaying locals or, in contrast, engaged in bidding practices that result in poor quality infrastructures being developed and which are often obtained in part through bribery or corrupt dealings.

Many of the Chinese persons who are interviewed in the course of the book hold, frankly, colonial values. They regard African employees as lazy, and uneducated, and as unwilling to adequately develop. And, similarly, Chinese companies and government consular staff are engaged in systematic efforts to, on the one hand, establish control of important resources that will enable China to prosper while, on the other, stripping Africa of its resources at a scale that could only be dreamed by Western colonial powers in the decades and centuries past.

The repetition that emerges through the chapters ultimately makes the book a tad boring to read, especially towards the end, notwithstanding French’s efforts to inject local colour and humour throughout the book. However, it is that very repetitiveness that makes the book as striking as it is: Africa has become a space where China’s transactionalist foreign policy means that Chinese companies can thrive while aggressively stripping resources from Africa whilst the country itself avoids projects focused on developing democratic norms, rule of law, or other governance systems. These latter activities, often associated with American and Western aid projects, are set aside by and large by China and, as a result, the supposed ‘progress’ of African states will only come if the states’ governance structures change on their own, and in the face of exceptional bribes and other corrupt business practices. I remain dubious that a Chinese-facilitated model of “development,” which largely entails economic activities and exclusionary approaches to engaging in broader governance activities, will do any more for Africa than the French, British, and Belgians did when they focused their attentions on Africa.

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In western China, thought police instill fear

From the Associated Press:

Southern Xinjiang, where Korla is located, is one of the most heavily policed places on earth.

In Hotan, police depots with flashing lights and foot patrols are set up every 500 meters. Motorcades of more than 40 armored vehicles rumble down city boulevards. Police checkpoints on every other block stop cars to check identification and smartphones for religious content.

Xinjiang’s published budget data shows public security spending this year is on track to increase 50 percent from 2016 to roughly 45 billion yuan ($6.8 billion) after rising 40 percent a year ago. It’s quadrupled since 2009, when a Uighur riot broke out in Urumqi, killing nearly 200 people.

But much of the policing goes unseen.

Shoppers entering the Hotan bazaar must pass through metal detectors and place their national identification cards on a reader while having their faces scanned. AP reporters were stopped outside a hotel by a police officer who said the public security bureau had been remotely tracking the reporters’ movements by watching surveillance camera footage.

The government’s tracking efforts have extended to vehicles, genes and even voices. A biometric data collection program appears to have been formalized last year under “Document No. 44,” a regional public security directive to “comprehensively collect three-dimensional portraits, voiceprints, DNA and fingerprints.” The document’s full text remains secret, but the AP found at least three contracts referring to the 2016 directive in recent purchase orders for equipment such as microphones and voice analyzers.

The extent of the of technical and human surveillance, and punishments that are meted out for failing to adequately monitor family members and friends, is horrifying.1 And while the surveillance undertaken in this area of China is particularly severe, the kinds of monitoring that occur in China is more extensive and ever-present throughout the country than many people who haven’t travelled into China can appreciate. The Chinese surveillance infrastructure is the kind of apparatus that exists to sustain itself, first and foremost, by ensuring that contrary ideologies and philosophies are threatened and — where possible — rendered impotent by way of threats and fear.

  1. While much of the contemporary surveillance is now provided by Chinese-based companies it’s worth remembering that, historically, this equipment was sold by Western companies.
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Alibaba’s Jack Ma Urges China to Use Data to Combat Crime

Bloomberg reporting on Alibaba’s Jack Ma:

In his speech, Ma stuck mainly to the issue of crime prevention. In Alibaba’s hometown of Hangzhou alone, the number of surveillance cameras may already surpass that of New York’s, Ma said. Humans can’t handle the sheer amount of data amassed, which is where artificial intelligence comes in, he added.

“The future legal and security system cannot be separated from the internet and big data,” Ma said.

In North America, we’re trialling automated bail systems, where the amount set and likelihood of receiving bail is predicated on big data algorithms. While it’s important to look abroad and see what foreign countries are doing we mustn’t forget what is being done here in the process.

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And then there’s the sheer randomness of it all. Some services you can’t access for no apparent reason, others are so slow that you can’t figure out if they’re blocked or just snail-paced. And as I experience this, I wish some of our politicians and media people, those who see net neutrality as the enemy, I wish they’d come here and experience what a radical version of non-neutrality is. Again, I have a VPN service to overcome most of this (at the cost of speed) but most people don’t and/or can’t afford one.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that not enshrining net neutrality is the equivalent of doing what the Chinese (or Iranian, or Indian) government does. But I look at the UK’s blocking mechanisms supposed to protect children but really targeting just about any kind of site for arcane reasons that no one can figure out, and I think that what I have here is an extreme version of the same thing.

* Benoit Felton, “Behind the Great Firewall
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NSA Revelations Kill IBM Hardware Sales in China

For several months there have been warnings that the NSA revelations will seriously upset American technology companies’ bottom lines. Though not directly implicated in any of the leaks thus far it appears that IBM’s Chinese growth predictions have just been fed through a wood chipper. From Zerohedge:

In mid-August, an anonymous source told the Shanghai Securities News, a branch of the state-owned Xinhua News Agency, which reports directly to the Propaganda and Public Information Departments of the Communist Party, that IBM, along with Oracle and EMC, have become targets of the Ministry of Public Security and the cabinet-level Development Research Centre due to the Snowden revelations.

“At present, thanks to their technological superiority, many of our core information technology systems are basically dominated by foreign hardware and software firms, but the Prism scandal implies security problems,” the source said, according to Reuters. So the government would launch an investigation into these security problems, the source said.

Absolute stonewalling ensued. IBM told Reuters that it was unable to comment. Oracle and EMC weren’t available for comment. The Ministry of Public Security refused to comment. The Development Research Centre knew nothing of any such investigation. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology “could not confirm anything because of the matter’s sensitivity.”

This is the first quantitative indication of the price Corporate America has to pay for gorging at the big trough of the US Intelligence Community, and particularly the NSA with its endlessly ballooning budget. For once, there is a price to be paid, if only temporarily, for helping build a perfect, seamless, borderless surveillance society. The companies will deny it. At the same time, they’ll be looking for solutions. China, Russia, and Brazil are too important to just get kicked out of – and other countries might follow suit.

Now, IBM et al. aren’t necessarily purely victim to the NSA’s massive surveillance practices: there likely are legitimate domestic market changes that are also affecting the ability of Western companies to sell product in China and other Asian-Pacific countries. But still, that NSA can be used to justify retreats from Western products indicates how even companies not clearly and directly implicated in the scandals stand to lose. One has to wonder whether the economic losses that will be incurred following the NSA revelations are equal to, or exceed, any economic gains linked to the spying.

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