China in Africa: Not playing fair?

Western mining companies complain to Mommy about China's bad behavior.

By Andrew Leonard
Published January 29, 2007 5:20PM (EST)

Western mining companies met in secret at the Davos World Economic Forum, reports the Times, to complain that China isn't playing by the rules in Africa. It seems China has this nasty habit of convincing African governments to grant Chinese companies mining concessions by throwing in some major deal-sweeteners -- like upgrading a nation's telecommunications infrastructure or building new highways and railroads. (Thanks to the China Digital Times for the tip.)

No question, it's tough to compete with such state-sponsored power, though it doesn't quite match up with the way Western mining companies used to go about their business, which was to ride in on the back of outright imperialist conquest. But times change -- a fact that is nowhere more obvious than in the hope expressed by Western mining company executives that environmental standards will be their savior.

The most ambitious plan ... is to ask the UN to mandate that countries must sign deals that require participants to meet high environmental and safety standards. Chinese miners have a poor reputation in these areas and one chief executive who was at the ... meeting said that Africa was being "raped and pillaged" by China.

This charge has been leveled at Western mining companies for years. However, environmental legislation and lawsuits have forced Western companies to raise their game and now they want China to play by the same rules.

Chinese mining companies in Africa do have a bad reputation. That should not be understated. But the sight of Western mining companies placing their hopes in rigorous enforcement of environmental standards is a picture of irony well worth savoring. One could only wish to hear a similar clamor from such companies in the United States, where for the last six years the mining industry has been relishing the Bush administration's determined effort to weaken environmental standards. A few more years of Bush rule, and who knows, maybe we'll be ready to let China start digging in Nevada.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Africa China Globalization How The World Works Mine Disasters