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How to Understand China-related Environmental Problems in Africa

China and environmental issues by Hongxiang Huang, Wits China-Africa Reporting Project Visiting Environmental Journalism Fellow working with Oxpeckers

Rhino horn, ivory, shark fin, lion bone, abalone, pangolin, turtle, timber: you could write a long list of Africa’s China-related environmental problems. Why? Here’s a primer on how to best understand the Chinese side of this increasingly important environmental problem:

First of all, we should look at the profit-to-risk balance of each specific product in question. Fundamentally, the root of the problem is that the profit far outweighs the risk for almost all of the products derived from African wildlife.

From my investigative experience, in order for an African natural product to become a Chinese-related environmental challenge, the bottom line is that there has to be enough demand from the Chinese side. Since China’s market is so large, these controversial products can be used in any number of different ways ranging from food to medical to various commercial uses. Here’s how it goes for Chinese consumers to determine the value of any of these wildlife-derived products:

  1. Is the demand big enough, which means enough Chinese people are willing to pay above market rates for the product in question?
  2. How dangerous it is to try to supply this demand? Is it a worthwhile risk?

Depending on the answers to questions one and two, those challenges could be small scale or large, and Chinese people could be active operators, as is the case with ivory, or passive receivers, like they are with rhino horns.

The Chinese are very risk-sensitive. It is easy for them to take advantage of loop-holes in the law, but becoming a serious, life-threatening criminal is normally a step too far. (As a result, my undercover investigations among Chinese communities is not as dangerous as many non-Chinese think.) “Cha bian qiu (Operating in grey areas) is ok,” most of them tell you, “but we don’t want to commit a crime.”

Let’s take rhino horn as the first example. There is demand for rhino horns in China, but demand is much lower than in Vietnam, where it is mistakenly believed to be a life-saving treatment for cancer and other terminal illnesses. This fuels the demand for rhino horn among a few rich and desperate patients, which is ultimately a small but highly lucrative market. And because the risks involved in rhino horns are very high — you can easily wind up in jail — most Chinese have quit the rhino horn business and left it to the Vietnamese.

But ivory is different. Although its value per kg is far lower, the demand from China side is for ornaments, souvenirs, and art, instead of life-saving medical treatments, which makes the market huge. The risk of smuggling ivory is also extremely low: you may have some trouble with African customs and need to pay a bribe, and your ivory may be confiscated in Africa or in China, but considering the potential value of ivory in China, the relatively low price of ivory in Africa, and the how unlikely it is that you will be heavily punished, smuggling on a small scale becomes extremely profitable.

We also need to understand what kind of Chinese people we are talking about. People easily think of the Chinese in Africa as a single group, but that is a vast oversimplification. Not all Chinese smuggle ivory, regardless of the profit to risk ratio. “If a Chinese person has other ways to thrive, he would not have come to Africa,” a Chinese businessman in Maputo explained to me. He used to have successful small business in rural China, but he lost everything because of gambling. After hearing stories about easy riches in places like Angola, he went there in what was his first ever trip abroad, without any foreign language skills in either English or Portuguese. Nonetheless, like thousands of other Chinese migrants, he started small and began to build his wealth, one project at a time. First he started as a helper for another Chinese businessman, where he lived in terrible conditions. Still, despite the hardships, he learned from his fellow migrants and pulled himself out of his once desperate condition. He now sells solar panels in Maputo and manages a guesthouse, a crocodile belt business and a few other small enterprises that generate additional income.

This man’s profile is typical of the kind of Chinese migrant that often contributes to environmental problems in Africa: he’s poorly educated and from a rural or third-tier city background; he barely speaks a foreign language and doesn’t understand foreign cultures. Ultimately, this sort of individual’s solitary focus is making money, often to send to his family back home. How he does that doesn’t really make a difference to him.

When we talk about Chinese investment in Africa, we are actually talking about two thing: large scale investments made by Chinese companies and private businesses. The former is normally concentrated on energy, mining, or construction; the latter is more likely to focus on export and import, or sometimes real estate.

The Chinese businessman I mentioned above belongs to the latter group. As long as the profit justifies the risk, he will engage in illegal business, and issues like environmental impact are just not a priority. This is the sort pf person who often involved in the ivory trade, behind the scenes.

But environmental issues can also arise in the first group, which consists mostly of Chinese expatriate employees. Since an assignment in Africa is far from the first choice for most of employees of Chinese state owned enterprises operating in Africa, these positions usually fail to attract the most educated or successful college graduates. Most of the managers of Chinese companies do have university degrees, and they are definitely more educated than those in the second group, but they are still far from well educated. It would be very difficult to find any graduates from a prestigious Beijing university or a US ivy-league university among the ranks of Chinese managers working in Africa. And, as is often the case, an individual’s economic, academic and cultural background frequently influences his or her worldview, values and behaviour.

It’s also important to pay attention to what the Chinese experience in Africa. Most Chinese in Africa call locals greedy, irresponsible and lazy. Most Chinese in Africa call the governments corrupt, and accuse the police of making trouble just to extract a bribe. Most Chinese in Africa tell you that the cities they stay in are terribly underdeveloped, even if they’re capitals, and that there is nothing to do, because it is too dangerous to go out. Most Chinese in Africa don’t come here because they like Africa. They come because they want to make money. How can you expect them to care about sustainable development of African countries? If you can’t make them like Africa, you can’t make them care about Africa.

Most Chinese think local people are ruining their own countries anyway, and can’t see why it is their responsibility to correct social problems. They are just making money out of a dying tree — as everyone else is doing.

The nature of business, the nature of people, the nature of environment: these are what we need to understand to make sense of China-related environmental challenges in Africa.

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