China is quite well known for its human rights violations. If one believed the country's treatment of its Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang province was the most disturbing, then reports emerging from Africa are raising fresh concerns.
China is expanding its influence in Africa while exploring and exploiting its vast mineral reserves. Many countries have signed on to President Xi Jinping's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative that promises to build giant infrastructure facilities like ports, rails, roads, pipelines, and power plants.
One sector that China is investing heavily in is mining. Africa has vast unexplored deposits of bauxite, gold, cobalt, diamonds, platinum, iron, copper, and uranium. In the last two decades, Beijing has invested heavily in the continent, mainly through quasi-government firms or private enterprises with government backing. China is estimated to have pumped about $54 billion into Sub-Saharan Africa in 2018-20 alone.
Chinese investments are expected to generate employment and improve the standard of living. But, reports of workers receiving little to no wages, child labor, and abuse in the mines have come to light. According to the Global Voices Civic Media Observatory research on China's Belt and Road Initiative, there are two primary human rights infringements: lack of industrial safety protocols and equipment leading to accidents and forced labor.
There have been numerous reports of Chinese bosses abusing local laborers. Locals are harassed, beaten, shot at, or forced to work in inhuman conditions. In Nigeria, during the peak of COVID19, Hufua Plastics Industry Company Limited completely disregarded the government directives and held over 300 employees hostage to keep the establishment working. The company allegedly threatened to fire staff who resisted the forced labor and required them to live at the factory.
Last year, a Kenyan restaurant worker received $25,000 in compensation for ill-treatment at the hands of the manager that included "whipping, continuous sexual harassment, corporal punishment, verbal abuse, and confinement."
Unfortunately, such reports are becoming more frequent and are just the tip of the iceberg. Beyond the cruelty and ill-treatment of local laborers lies a more sinister angle of racism. People familiar with the conditions in Africa opine that most Chinese operating on the continent consider themselves "superior" to the local population. The extent of the abuse and maltreatment is disturbing and unpardonable.
For instance, the BBC's "Racism for Sale" video shows a group of Malawian children told to say in Chinese, in unison, "I'm a black monster. My IQ is low," on camera. The filmmaker, known as Lu Ke, a Chinese resident of Malawi, insists he did not create the video. However, the video was posted to a Weibo account known as 黑人笑话社, which translates to 'Jokes About Black People Club.'
As it turns out, there is a large market for these sorts of videos, deemed "poverty porn," wherein Africans, usually hailing from small villages, read messages written in Chinese. Such videos are sold on Chinese online shopping platforms, such as Taobao. The messages are used as greetings, birthday wishes, or even to encourage China through the COVID 19 pandemic. There are numerous such examples of Chinese abuse across the continent.
As a result, there is growing resentment among the local populations against the Chinese. If left unaddressed, this could develop into racial clashes. Though China has turned a blind eye to many of these documented human rights violations, there have been some attempts to address the issue. Some embassies have published guidelines for Chinese ex-pats. It urges citizens not to "intimidate or coerce" laborers and to seek the help of local authorities in settling disputes.
It is quite possible that in the hands of the Chinese, African countries will have little to show for the riches exported from their lands, other than environmental degradation and denigrated, oppressed people. To save the continent from such a disastrous fate, the U.S. and the EU will have to step up their presence in Africa and provide alternative economic growth initiatives. Besides ensuring the supply of crucial elements such as lithium, gold, and other ever-increasingly needed minerals for the U.S. and the rest of the world, it would also ensure the elimination of child labor and unsafe practices in the mining industry.
African countries are on the cusp of development. The role and extent of involvement of the U.S., the EU, and organizations like the UN and IMF will determine whether the continent will be exploited or made to prosper.
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