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Ali Askouri charts the high cost of China’s rising involvement in Sudan, placing emphasis on the lives lost and communities displaced in the Southern Sudan and Darfur. He explains the rapidly growing Chinese demand for oil and the involvement of Chinese companies in huge infrastructure projects. ‘The sad truth is, both the Chinese and their elite partners in the Sudan government want to conceal some terrible facts about their partnership,’ writes Askouri. ‘They are joining hands to uproot poor people, expropriate their land and appropriate their naturaul resources.’

Before Sudan's independence in 1956, the nation's economic relations with China were insignificant. Despite good diplomatic relations, the level of cooperation between the two countries hardly figured on Sudan's foreign-trade sheet. From independence up to the early 1990s, Sudan exported cotton, sesame, and metal scraps to China. In exchange, Sudan received small arms, fabrics and other textiles. At one point, however, in the early 1970s, the Chinese built what they called the ‘Friendship Hall’ – a grand conference hall on the Blue Nile's western bank, a few hundred metres from the confluence of the White and Blue Niles at Khartoum. Available data showed that Sudan’s total debts to China up to 2001 totalled US$67.3 million, of which China wrote off 63 per cent in 2001.

In 1989, however, there was a military coup in Sudan. Led by Islamic officers and widely supported by the National Islamic Front, the junta declared a holy war on the Southern Sudanese rebels who were fighting the central government at the time. The main objectives of the coup were:

• to crush the rebels

• Islamicise and Arabise the southern part of the country

• forcibly unite the South with the rest of the country

• establish an Islamic state.

To achieve its objectives the junta set out to exploit the country's vast oil reserves, discovered by Chevron in 1978. The country was opened up for Islamist investment and many Islamic groups came to the country with huge amounts of money. However, it soon became apparent that these groups lacked the necessary technical expertise required for such ventures. Consequently, not long after they had settled, the junta expelled them under various political pretexts.

As a result of a trade and financial boycott by the donor community and international financial institutions, Sudan was facing bankruptcy. To overcome these economic difficulties, the junta began feverishly looking for an influential business partner who could extract oil and mobilise other natural resources to lubricate its atrophying economic muscles. Given its recent human rights records, the human and material costs of any investment were never issues that the junta was going to care about. Indeed, the junta had shown exceptional cruelty towards the civil and political rights of citizens, even those who did not antagonise the junta. It was therefore expected that violations of rights would become excessive when civil and political rights collided with the junta’s declared agenda.

Following its experience with the Islamists groups, the junta wanted its business partner to have the strength and ability to withstand political pressure from Western ‘imperialist’ countries; the stamina and determination not to be bothered by the protests of human rights groups; and, above all, to be a heavyweight international player that Western imperialist countries would find hard to force out of the country through political pressure.

China's long-term strategy for Africa

Numerous events in different African countries since the beginning of the 21st century have show that there is a long-term Chinese strategy to control and exploit Africa natural resources, particularly oil. The Chinese strategy is propelled by China's growing internal demand for oil as a result of its rapid economic growth. The key African countries targeted by the strategy include, but are not limited to, Sudan, Ethiopia, Angola, Chad, Algeria, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Ghana. Although the current economic development status of these countries cries out for development targeted at improving the lot of the impoverished masses, this is not the motivation of Chinese economic assistance. Following a top-down economic development approach, Chinese economic assistance to these African countries has encouraged elitism, deepened social and class divisions and widened corruption. Economic assistance seems targeted to reward or bolster whomever is in power, regardless of how they got there. While many African societies struggle to further democratic values and strengthen respect for human rights, there is no doubt that Chinese economic assistance is encouraging dictatorships and tyranny in Sudan, Chad, Zimbabwe and elsewhere.

Chinese leaders keep repeating the misleading statement that China does not interfere in the internal affairs of the countries it deals with. This statement is untrue, provocative and insulting to many Africans who are aspiring to further democratic values. China interferes deeply in the domestic affairs of its partners, but always to the benefit of the ruling group. A recent meeting between the Sudanese president and his Chinese counterpart revealed the extent of China interference in domestic Sudanese affairs in favour of the ruling junta. Addressing his Chinese counterpart, the Sudanese president stated: ‘The relationship with China has been fraternal, brotherly and excellent. Our relation with China is built on mutual benefit. China has always supported the unity of Sudan. When our relations became problematic with the international financial institutions, we turned to China. Relations with China have enabled us to overcome economic difficulties.’ The Chinese president has expressed support for the Sudanese president’s concerns about United Nation troops being sent to the Darfur region: ‘China is sympathetic to Bashir’s objections against peace-keeping forces’.

In Sudan, Chinese support for the government has undoubtedly undermined all the efforts of the opposition to effect change in the government, thereby extending its rule despite the clear political indications that the junta would be unable to rule the country without heavy Chinese economic and military support. It is therefore not surprising that Chinese economic aid to the Sudanese junta has come at an extremely high human cost in Southern Sudan and Darfur, where the number of lives lost and communities displaced has become an internationally recognised tragedy.

History of China-Sudan relations

As early as 1992–94, hundreds of Chinese, allegedly employed by Chinese intelligence, started to appear on Khartoum streets selling cheap consumer products directly to the people. Some of these people became involved in house construction while others set up small commercial companies. The tens of thousands of Chinese workers who were later recruited for the construction of the oil pipeline and other mega-infrastructure projects were gradually moved into Sudan this way. In those days the phenomenon of hundreds upon hundreds of young Chinese (mostly men in their 20s) who neither speak Arabic nor English, crowding the dusty streets of Khartoum selling combs and headscarves to people was the talk of the city. Apparently it was hard for the local people to understand how a young chap could fly in from Shanghai to sell combs and deodorants on Khartoum’s streets in order to make a living!

Inside China, the rapidly growing demand for oil pushed China to venture into Africa looking for opportunities. ‘The reality that China faces is that it will need to become a net importer of oil by the year 2000 if it is going to continue with its modernisation plans,’ wrote Cleophas Lado of the University of the Western Cape.

Indeed, endowed with its vast recoverable oil reserves, Sudan was a great opportunity for China. Equally, for the Sudanese junta, China – given its exceptional ability to condone human rights abuses alongside its heavy-weight ability to develop large-scale projects – represented the ideal partner with whom to strike a deal. ‘It is very much a symbiotic relationship between China and Sudan, where China is in desperate need of a secure source of oil over the long term, while Sudan needs the external credit, investment and market for its oil.’

Lado describes a few of China's investments in Sudan: ‘China has invested heavily in the country. China has initiated $20 billion worth of development and infrastructure projects involving dams, hydroelectric power stations, textile mills and agricultural schemes. China has promised to contribute $750 million in the construction of the new Khartoum International Airport, and another $750 million for a new dam on the Nile near in the Northern Province.

Approximately $100 million has been spent by the Chinese on textile plants, and $500 million on a recently constructed oil refinery. China also provided Sudan with over $12 million in soft loans to fund a fishing project in the Red Sea. Other economic ties have involved arms transfers between Beijing and Khartoum. China has supplied the Khartoum government with arms since 1985, with transfers between 1985 and 1989 totalling $50 million. China became one of the GOS's [government of Sudan’s] principal arms suppliers in 1994 and remains so today.

In addition to Lado’s list of Chinese projects in Sudan, China is upgrading the Khartoum oil refinery from 50,000 barrel/day (b/d) to 70,000 b/d at a cost of US$350 million. As part of the Merowe dam project (also being built by the Chinese, see below), the Chinese won a second contract for power towers that will transport electricity from the dam site to Khartoum and Port Sudan. The contract signed by Harpin-Jilin and CCMD is worth about US$460 millions. This is in addition to a bridge project downriver from the dam site costing US$10 million.

While China claims that it does not interfere in internal politics, the distribution of these projects reveals that China is immersed in the internal politics of Sudan up to its neck. However, Chinese immersion in internal politics is meant to appease the ruling elite, with minimal analysis of the economic, social and environmental feasibility of the proposed projects. For China, whoever happens to be in power is a friend of China as long as they will guarantee China access to resources. Indeed, the opportunistic nature of Chinese policy in Africa is very obvious. It has led, as discussed below, to massive internal displacement and is associated with the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives – tantamount to genocide in many parts of Sudan.

Displacement and human rights abuses in oil producing areas

Currently most of Sudan's oil is produced in the Upper Nile area. The Dinka and Nuer people are the main tribes living in the area. To ensure the safety of the oil installations, the government adopted a scorched-earth policy carried out by the army and splinter groups from the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement, used by the government as proxies to carry out its depopulation policy of the area. According to Christian Aid: ‘The inter-tribal warfare that has plagued the south for the last decade has been fomented by strategic arms deliveries from government garrisons. By the middle of last year, hundreds of cases of ammunition had already been delivered to one of the southern factions fighting for control of Western Upper Nile and its vast oil reserves. This is warlordism – as the government and the oil companies call it – but warlordism provoked and encouraged by the government with the express intent of depopulating oil-rich areas.’ The policy was carried out with an intensity that leaves no doubt that the inhabitants must leave or face death and extermination.

The report continues, ‘Since construction of the pipeline to the Red Sea began in 1998, hundreds of thousands of villagers have been terrorised into leaving their homes in Upper Nile. Tens of thousands of homes across Western Upper Nile and Eastern Upper Nile have been burnt to the ground. In some areas, the charred remains of the humble mud huts that got in the way of oil are the only evidence there is that there was ever life in the region.’

Displacement in the Merowe dam project

The Merowe dam (also known as the Hamdab dam) is a massive multipurpose dam project on the fourth cataract of the River Nile in Northern Sudan. The dam, which is expected to cost around US$1.8 billion, is being implemented by a Chinese joint venture between China National Water Resources and Hydropower Engineering and China Water Engineering, known as CCMDJV, according to the dam implementation unit website and other Sudanese and European companies. The CCMDJV contract totalled US$ 60 million. Chinese companies have another contract in the project for power tower networks that extend to Dongola, Atabara, Portsuan and Khartoum. The total amount of the Chinese contract is US$460 millions. The project, according to the dam authority, will displace more than 50,000 small farmers living on the riverbanks.

In February–March 2005, two leading experts on dams and resettlement visited the site and reported: Al Multaga site is located in the desert. The Merowe Dam Project Implementation Unit (MDPIU) is providing support in removing the sand that covers many plots and in irrigating the land. However, two years after resettlement, some 20% of the land has still not been cleared of sand; it is thus unavailable for production. And even with irrigation, the quality of the soil is so poor that farmers cannot sell their products on the market.

In Sudan, it has been the established tradition that major public infrastructure projects are normally guarded by the police force or in exceptional cases by small army units. Staff working on such projects normally live among local people without of any type protection. On the assumption that the Chinese are investing their money to help poor Sudanese, it is odd that they believe the dam site should need security protection 24 hours a day. It is even more puzzling given that in that part of Sudan – where villagers are all connected or related to each other – theft or crime of any sort are unheard of. Villagers still leave their doors unlocked. From what, then, do the Chinese need protection?

The sad truth is, both the Chinese and their elite partners in the Sudan government want to conceal some terrible facts about their partnership. They are joining hands to uproot poor people, expropriate their land and appropriate their natural resources.


Commenting on China’s foreign policy, Lado states: From Sudanese experience it looks that the strategy of China’s foreign policy is not built on initiative and entrepreneurship, it rather exploits the opportunities resulting from the contradictions in the international arena. For China Sudan was the best opportunity that China could dream of given its rising domestic demand for fuel and the growing internal trend among Chinese investors for overseas investment.

The opportunistic nature of Chinese foreign investment, particularly in Sudan, was further exposed when pressures mounted on the Sudanese government to accept peacekeeping forces in Sudan. China failed to veto any United Nation Security Council Resolutions on Darfur, including the referral of Darfur criminals to the International Criminal Court. This has led many Sudanese commentators to question the feasibility of maintaining a strong link with China and whether China is a trustworthy and reliable political ally.

One reason China is the single biggest international player in Sudan is the prolonged boycott by Western countries of the Sudan government. Excluding a vast country endowed with huge natural resources from contemporary international affairs may not be the best strategy. As experience has shown, isolating countries makes them conducive to violence, human rights abuses and civil unrest.

China's huge presence in Sudan needs to be challenged on all fronts. China must be made aware that its opportunistic involvement with dictatorship carries a price for trade and investment inside China. Support for pro-democracy groups needs to be strengthened; investment that observes acceptable international standards on the environment needs to be enhanced. And above all, international justice mechanisms must be made more effective so that perpetrators know that eventually they will face justice.

• Ali Askouri is the director of the London based Piankhi Research Group working in the field of development and human rights.

• This is a shortened version of an article by Ali Askouri. The full version, including references, will be available in a forthcoming book to be published in January by Fahamu and called ‘African perspectives on China in Africa’. The full articles will also be made available as .PDF files on the Pambazuka News website.

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