Book: China’s most polluting manufacturers likely to shift to Africa

China’s extraction of African resources is an inevitable part of the spread of global supply chains, says scholar Tang Xiaoyang, warning that energy-hungry sectors will soon shift to Africa
“To understand contacts between China and Africa you have to look beyond any two countries, at the global trend towards modernisation and industrialisation,” argues Tang Xiaoyang, a scholar at the Tsinghua-Carnegie Center for Global Policy, in his new book. “Contacts between China and Africa can be seen as a new stage of development for the global market economy,” he writes.

According to Justin Lin Yifu, former chief economist and senior vice president of the World Bank, Tang’s book,“China-Africa Economic Diplomacy and its Implications for the Global Value Chain”, examines the historical origins and future trends for trade between China and Africa, “demonstrating the inevitability and forces behind the global expansion of the modern market economy.” Tang is an expert on China’s engagement in Africa and has worked with the World Bank and various international research institutes.

Export driven development

Westerners accuse China of being neo-colonialist by exploiting African resources. But according to Tang, developing nations such as those in Africa can speed up their transition to modern production systems by extracting and exporting resources.


On first entering international markets, he argues, non-industrialised nations have no option but to export resources – just like China exported large quantities of resources to Japan during the early years of reform and opening up, and as Africa is doing today. Africa has undeveloped resources and huge markets, while China is the ‘factory of the world’, with a huge demand for such resources. The two economies are highly complementary, and trade links will be mutually beneficial.

People who accuse China of exploitation betray their misunderstanding of the country, claimsTang. China needs global resources because its manufacturing sector supplies global markets. Less than 10% of the oil China extracts overseas is shipped back to China: the rest is sold on international markets.

Emerging economies need more resources than countries that developed earlier. This is partly due to higher degrees of mechanisation and greater energy demands; and because the development of emerging economies is no longer a domestic matter alone – they must come into line with the global economy. The economies of China, India and South-East Asia all experienced export-led growth.

The true drivers of resource extraction are modern society’s technological development and consumer demands.

Blame global markets not China

Tang believes “major projects such as dams have an irreplaceable role to play in developing nations.” Today’s high levels of consumption and dense patterns of living lead to a massive use of resources and environmental change. If developing nations pursue modern lifestyles, social and environmental changes are bound to result. Even if they avoid large construction projects, many small ones will be necessary to meet social and economic needs.

Green energy sources such as wind and solar are limited by geographical and climate restrictions, as well as the costs and problems with large-scale production. Renewables also bring their own, as yet unclear, environmental impacts, such as light and noise pollution.

“The blame for environmental change and damage lies not with individual companies, but with the entire global market system,” Tang writes.

Extraction of natural resources is certain to change the environment. Part of this is the price of industrialisation and part of this is the damage caused by companies that break the rules. Tang accepts these costs: “If there is no fundamental change in the global market economy, resource extraction will not and should not stop – otherwise harm will be done to particular nations and companies, with no environmental benefits.

Tang’s views seem to justify the creation and export of pollution. And his theories result in a bleak outlook for solving global environmental problems.

Tang does criticise some aspects of modern materialism. Every new iphone release sparks a wave of upgrades and the average iphone uses more power in a year than a medium-sized refrigerator. Meanwhile the mining of the rare earths used in their manufacture have huge environmental impacts.

But with the high level of division of labour in global systems, the trail from resource to product is a long and winding one. Many people, especially the ‘elite’ who live far from front-line production, do not see how much environmental damage is wrought by their apparently ordinary consumption.

Tang says that “Energy-hungry and polluting manufacturers may well be the first to move from China to Africa.”

Last year, officials at the 2014 Central Economic Work Conference publically admitted that “China’s environmental capacity is near its limit.”  This seems to make Tang’s prediction more likely.

But the book fails to explore the environmental, labour or employment implications of this relocation process for Africa.