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How to Understand Chinese-Related Environmental Problems in Africa

By Huang Hongxiang, Special to The China Global South Project
Rhino horn, ivory, shark fin, lion bone, abalone, pangolin, turtle, timber… You could make a really long list about the Chinese-related environmental problems in Africa. 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-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 of question 1 and 2, those challenges could be small scale or large, and Chinese could be active operators(ivory) or passive receivers (rhino horns). Indeed, Chinese are very risk-sensitive. Based on the nature of Chinese culture, it is easy for them to take advantages of loop-holes in the law, but not easy to become serious life-threatening criminals (which is why my undercover investigation among Chinese communities is not as dangerous as many non-Chinese think). Most of them would tell you: “cha bian qiu (in grey area of law) is ok, 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. However, the demand is far less than in Vietnam and where it is mistakingly 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 the risks of involving in rhino horns are very high — you could be easily put in jail. Therefore, today most Chinese have quitted rhino horn business and left the space for Vietnamese.
But ivory is different. Although the per kg value of ivory is far less than rhino horns, the demand from Chinese side is more about ornaments, souvenirs, art, rather than life-saving medical treatments, which means the market size is huge. Moreover, the risk of smuggling small scale ivory is extremely low: you may have some trouble with African customs and need to pay a bribe, your ivory may be confiscated both in Africa or in China. However, considering the potential value of ivory in China, the relatively low price of ivory in Africa, and the unlikely heavy law punishment, smuggling small scale ivory becomes an extremely profitable business.
Secondly, we need to understand what kind of Chinese people we are talking about. People easily think Chinese in Africa are one group of people, which is a vast oversimplification. Not all Chinese smuggle ivory regardless of the profit to risk ratio.
“If a Chinese 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 a rural town of China. But he lost everything because of gambling. In order to make money and look for new personal development, after hearing stories about easy riches in places like Angola, he went there in what was his first ever trip abroad. He arrived 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 conditions. Nowadays, he sells solar panels in Maputo, while at the same time managing a guesthouse business, crocodile belt business and a few other small enterprises that generate additional income.
This gentleman’s profile is typical of the kind of Chinese migrant that often contributes to environmental problems in Africa: poorly educated, mostly from rural or a third tier city background, barely speaks a foreign language or  understands foreign cultures. Ultimately, this individual solitary focus is about making money, often to send to his family back home. However that happens, it often doesn’t matter to this kind of individual.
When we are talking about Chinese investment in Africa, actually we are talking about two kinds: large scale investment made by Chinese companies (mostly national) and private businesses (usually small scales but sometimes could be large as timber business and real estate). The former one usually concentrates more in energy, mining, construction; the latter one would be more related to seafood, timber, real estate, import & export.
And the Chinese businessman we mentioned above belongs to the latter one. As long as the profit is higher than the risk, this group of people is likely to engaged in illegal business, and issues like the environment is just not a priority. So in the ivory business, these are the kinds of individuals who often operate behind the scenes.
But even the first group, which consists of Chinese expatriate employees, environmental issues can also arise. Since an assignment in Africa is far from the first choice for most of employees of Chinese state owned enterprises operating in Africa, these companies are usually fail to attract the most educated or successful college graduates. Despite the fact that most of the managers of Chinese companies do have university degrees, and they are definitely more educated than those in the second group, they are still far from the most well educated. It would be very difficult to find any graduates of the prestigious Beijing University or US ivy-league universities among the Chinese management ranks operating in Africa.
And… as if often the case… an individual’s economic, academic and cultural background frequently influences his/her worldview, values and behavior.
It is worthy to notice as well, in some cases some highly educated Chinese would come to Africa as the leaders of Chinese national companies, and today more and more highly educated young Chinese start to come to Africa. They are the ones who are going to change the Chinese-in-Africa situation. However, currently they can’t change the group atmosphere of Chinese in Africa.
Thirdly, we need to understand what the Chinese experience in Africa.
Most Chinese in Africa would complain to you that local Africans are greedy, irresponsible and lazy.
Most Chinese in Africa would complain to you that the government is so corrupt and the police always make trouble in order to extract bribes.
Most Chinese in Africa would complain to you that the cities they stay (even capitals) are so underdeveloped and there is nothing to do here and it is too dangerous to go out.
Most Chinese in Africa come to Africa not because they like Africa, but because they want to make money. In such situation, how could 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.
Moreover, from their experience, most Chinese would think it is the local black people who are ruining their countries. Therefore, since the locals are ruining their countries anyway (such as cutting down all the trees to sell to Chinese timber companies), it is not their responsibility to correct such social problems. Instead, 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, those are the levels we need to understand China-related environmental challenges in Africa.
This investigation by the Oxpeckers Centre for Investigative Environmental Journalists was supported by the Forum for African Investigative Reporters and the Wits China-Africa Reporting Project
This post was edited for grammar and style by Eric Olander.

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