Chinese workers in Libya

May 7, 2011

Acccording to a feature in Nandu Zhoukan, 36 thousand Chinese workers have been evacuated from Libya with an efficiency that, the paper claims, astounded the world. The largest operation belonged to China State Construction Engineering (CSCE, 中国建筑工程总公司), which alone employed 10 thousand Chinese workers. The paper interviewed an engineer working at a smaller operation, China Transport Construction Group (中国交通建设集团), which employed a total of 5,000 workers in Libya. This engineer, from Henan Province, worked on the real estate project near Benghazi that comprised the construction of 5,000 houses.

At the end of February, armed Libyan rebels assembled in front of the work site and commandeered two trucks. The Chinese workers assembled into units armed with crowbars and bricks; they barricaded the entrance with more trucks and threw stones over the wall. The attackers retreated, but the offices atanother, unguarded work site were looted. The article refers to these Libyans as thugs and provides no political context, but the engineer is quoted as saying that Chinese workers have encountered hostility and have even been thrown stones at before. He attributes this to causing a rise in the price of consumer goods such as cigarettes: the price of Rothmans has doubled since Chinese visitors have been buying them up. The article quotes a Chinese researcher, Liu Zhirong, as saying that the Chinese media’s portrayal of African friendliness towards Chinese is skewed. The reality, it suggests, is more mixed, just as Chinese see Africa in a mixed light (they like that cars let pedestrians cross the road).

The engineer featured in the article makes $1,700 a month, or 3-4 times what he made in China, plus a “substantial” living allowance, and has almost no expenses since accommodation, meals, and transportation are provided by the company. In less than a year in Libya, he has saved over 100 thousand yuan, while his total savings before he left China were just 5,000 yuan. An ordinary construction worker makes 4-5 thousand yuan a month, while a skilled carpenter makes around 10 thousand, or over $1,500.

Workers have 2 days off in a month. At these times, the company sometimes organised a barbecue at a nearby restaurant, a shopping trip to Benghazi, or a trip to the sea. They are not allowed to leave the site on their own — to avoid incidents such as a mass fight between Chinese workers and Algerians in Algiers in 2009. (Another article says that at a work site in Mali,  there is also a sign saying “It is not allowed to become too close to local women.”) 

It is not clear if the reporters, Zhou Peng and Wu Guixia, actualy visited  Africa, or if the article is based on interviews. The fact that Lome, the capital of Togo, is described as being on the Mediterranean coast raises suspicions of the latter.

Global Times reports on Boeung Kak lake

January 19, 2011

The Boeung Kak development has been the most often cited negative example of Chinese investment in Cambodia since 2006. All NGO reports and Western news articles talk about how Boeung Kak Lake has been given to a secretive Chinese company to develop, which has started to move residents out but then stalled amidst their opposition. The case is cited as an example of environmental malfeasance (turning a lake into luxury real estate), cultural insensitivity (the area is said to be of symbolic significance to Phnom Penh residents),  rights violations (forcible evictions without proper compensation), greedy tycoons and venal officials in cahoots with China (the developer, Shukaku, is owned by Lau Meng Khin, an ethnic Chinese business strongmen close to the dictatorial prime minister).  A Sino-Khmer businessman assured me that the development was certainly not off the agenda, as Prime Minister Hun Sen personally supported it, and that it stalled simply because of the financial downturn and lack of investors.

Now, unusually, the generally nationalistic Global Times, an offshoot of People’s Daily, published an article that cites a Voice of America report and a Phnom Penh Post article alleging that locals are so angry about the affair that they want to boycott Chinese goods. The Phnom Penh Post reported that Shukaku recently signed a partnership with 鄂尔多斯鸿骏, a company from Inner Mongolia, which agreed to invest $40 million. Hun Sen initialed the agreement, which, according to Chinese media reports cited by the Post, was “part of a US$3 billion package of investment deals that also included a 750-megawatt power station in Sihanoukville,” presumable a coal-fired plant also owned by a Lau Meng Khin company in the Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone, “and a bauxite exploration project in Mondulkiri province.”

The lakeside development… rights groups say will ultimately displace more than 4,000 families … . Protests by Boeung Kak residents have become a weekly occurrence in Phnom Penh … villagers charge that they are being denied market value in compensation for their homes. (…)

“We will starve to death if they do not find a solution for us and
forcibly evict us from our homes,” 32-year-old lakeside resident Naon Sok Nen said yesterday. City Hall claims around 2,000 families from the lack have already accepted compensation packages. Those facing eviction have received varying compensation options, including cash payments of $8500.

According to Global Times, the demonstrators who demanded more compensation were paid by an NGO that “did not want to be named” to join the protest. The article makes the impression that this too is gleaned from the Post, but this is not the case. Global Times ominously, but in this case correctly, writes that the protests have been organised by “some human rights groups inside and outside Cambodia,” leaving no doubt that once again we are dealing with a Western plot to undermine China.

The article generated some discussion: over 6,000 people posted or reacted to around 160 comments to date. The most popular comment recommends the demolition team to go to Japan instead of Cambodia. But interestingly, aside from this anti-Japanese but irrelevant comment, the next most popular ones reflect that Chinese readers are not “buying” the account. They are critical both of the company and what they see as China “exporting” the way it deals with resettling populations, using the affair to criticise the government and thus in fact linking the investment to state behaviour in the same way as Western critics often do.