Exploit the workers and pollute the seas

A Chinese state-owned mining company operating in Papua New Guinea is making the West look good

Published February 12, 2007 11:29PM (EST)

"Waste dumping is not carried out by nations: it is carried out by corporations," declares Tang Hao, a Guangzhou-based academic writing in ChinaDialogue.

Tang is referring to the practice in which Western nations export their waste to the developing world, a variety of "trade" that is coming under increasing attack. The easy reaction is to see the waste trade as evidence of a double standard reeking of colonial legacies: The West doesn't want its own garbage but has no qualms about sending it to China. Tang makes a useful distinction in his interesting article, pinning the blame on independent corporations operating in an unregulated global environment, rather than on the historical power relations between developed and developing nations.

But the picture gets murkier when you start looking more closely at China's own behavior.

Last week's trip to Africa by China's President, Hu Jintao, generated blanket coverage -- a favorite media touchpoint was China's mining adventures in Zambia, where China appears to be doing its best to live up to the example set by its colonial forebears. A similar, less publicized story is playing out in Papua New Guinea, where there is a growing political storm over the working conditions at Ramu, a huge nickel mine operated by the Chinese mining conglomerate Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC).

Toilet facilities are so poor that PNG workers are using the nearby forest rather than suffer the indignity of squatting on logs over open latrines, Government officials claimed last week.

After paying the site a surprise visit, PNG's Labour and Industrial Relations Secretary, David Tibu, said local workers were being paid for overtime with tinned fish rather than money and that the canteen provided for employees was "not fit for pigs or dogs".

But the labor conditions aren't the only problem for MCC. The plan is to pump the mine waste -- the "tailings" -- via pipeline into the heart of Astrolabe Bay. Submarine tailings disposal is frowned upon by environmentalists and generally forbidden in the West. Some Papua New Guineans fear that a local tuna fishery will be harmed.

China's demand for nickel is extraordinary. Most of its nickel imports are used for making stainless steel, which in turn feeds China's automotive and petroleum sectors. You could argue, therefore, that China is exporting the waste associated with its own industrial development to the ocean surrounding Papua New Guinea, even if that waste did not actually originate in China. To further complicate matters, MCC is owned by the Chinese government, which means that this is all occuring with the tacit approval of the Chinese state.

Does this invalidate Tang Hao's analysis?:

Globalization benefits both developed and developing nations, but environmental laws and their enforcement are weaker in poorer countries. This gives richer nations a chance to export their waste and pollution. The economic and environmental differences are, in essence, the result of underdeveloped systems.

Globalization increases the interaction between different systems, and exposes the gaps between them. In the same way that less-developed systems attract unregulated and risky investments, they also attract waste.

Not at all. It just requires that the same analysis be applied to China, as it takes advantage of globalization to commit upon others the same sins as have been committed upon itself. Except that given the strong coupling between the state and the corporate sector in China, one is tempted to claim that Chinese culpability in these matters is greater than the West's.

By Andrew Leonard

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

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