Turning a mirror – Understanding China’s role as an emerging development actor

By Jessica Toale

China’s role as an emerging development actor has come under much scrutiny in recent years. We have all heard stories of exploitative working practices, unfair natural resources deals, land grabbing and white elephant projects. These all feed a narrative of an aggressive and neo-colonial China out to upset the existing global order. The reality, however, is much more nuanced and requires a better understanding of China’s own development and motivations. It also requires us to turn a mirror on our own practice.

At the beginning of the year I wrote for a Young Fabians pamphlet on China’s emerging development practices and the potential to develop a stronger strategic political relationship between the UK and China through development cooperation. Last week I also led a delegation of Young Fabians to Beijing to explore the UK-China relationship and gained more insight into the social and economic drivers of contemporary China.

China’s development policy is driven by the principles of mutual benefit, non-interference and non-conditionality. Indeed, many of our Chinese hosts last week advocated for the need to find common ground in Sino-British relations and to put our differences to one side. This philosophy of non-interference is deeply ingrained and predicated on a strong policy of establishing national security. In fact, much of China’s foreign policy is aimed at securing power at home.

China, itself a developing country, is not bound by OECD definitions of official development assistance, nor does it see itself as an aid donor in the traditional sense.  Rather, it sees itself as an equal partner to many of the countries in which it invests. Its experience of successfully lifting 600million people out of poverty is a significant achievement. The need to secure economic stability at home, open up and diversify its economy and promote a preferred national image have been major drivers of its development activities overseas.

During our delegation to Beijing we met with young trade unionists at the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, China’s trade union umbrella organisation, one of whom was responsible for overseeing all Chinese workers in Africa.

He explained the Chinese companies investing in Africa are providing the essential infrastructure these countries need to develop and that the incentives for Chinese workers to transfer overseas are very high. The reason for the use of Chinese workers in these locations is that in many cases the labour markets are extremely underdeveloped and lack the skills base needed to construct many of these infrastructure projects. He cited Angola as an example where the civil war had all but decimated the skills base. He and his colleague also described some of the training and development work that these Chinese companies undertake to improve the local workforce.

Interestingly, he also described a recent conference which brought together governments, businesses and civil society from China, Norway and East Africa to discuss who they can improve CSR aspects of their projects in the region.

Much of this conversation sat in line with the 2014 White Paper which China released which places greater emphasis on poverty reduction, improving livelihoods, promoting economic and social development and shifting their spend focus to Least Developed Countries.

Our hosts had a number of questions about UK and OECD country engagement in Africa and what we meant by “development”. It was fascinating to compare the two approaches and the much greater focus that we put on human development and capacity building at government and civil society level.

However it is important to recognise that our own approaches are far from perfect. The reporting and policy conditionalities Western Government’s impose on aid spend which are too onerous for African Governments, interference in the affairs of developing country governments, contradictory policies, exceptionalism, selective adherence to international treaties, failing to provide the type of aid African Governments need and want at speed, and unsustainable 3-year project funding horizons are often cited as criticisms of Western aid donor approaches.

In many cases our foreign policy objective flat out contradict themselves – our desire to be defenders of human rights, yet our tendency to turn a blind eye in regimes who are our allies; our humanitarian support in conflict zones which are also full of weapons provided by the British aerospace industry; our desire to be a global leader on tax transparency but failing to get our own house in order, to name a few. This is something that the UK Government needs to take a serious look at if we are to gain the trust and respect on the international scene that we want.

President Xi’s visit to the UK this week shines a light on various aspects of the UK-China relationships from trade deals and football to the more sensitive aspects of our political relationship like China’s record on human rights.

Turning a mirror on our practice to ensure that our domestic and international priorities are aligned is essential. If we are to develop a robust political relationship with China, yes we must find a way to discuss sensitive issues like human rights which form a core part of our and the international communities core values, but we must also ensure that we are in a position to provide credible leadership on these subjects.


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