Saturday, November 17, 2018

Out of the dust, a new empire

I recently watched Empire of Dust, the 2011 documentary about Chinese development in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Perhaps you, like me, have trouble keeping straight in your head which is which between Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Congo has Brazzaville, and is merely very bad. The Democratic Republic of Congo has Kinshasa, and stakes a strong claim to being among the worst countries on the planet. An easy mnemonic is that because democracy makes everything in Africa worse, the Democratic Republic of Congo is obviously the bad one. The DRC is a country so screwed up that you can have a war where 5-6 million people die, and you never hear about it because the whole thing is so confusing and depressing that nobody knows what narrative to give, and it's hard to cast as a simple morality play.

I'd seen the trailer linked in a few places, and wanted to watch the whole thing. If you don't have the patience for the remaining 75 minutes, the trailer below is well worth watching for a flavor:

The whole documentary can be found here.

As is appropriate, the trailer contains the most hilarious and quotable lines. No-BS Chinese guy (Lao Yang) delivering some tough realtalk to an African guy (Eddy), saying that the latter's country was left lots of infrastructure and development potential by the colonials when they left, and they (the Congolese) squandered it all through laziness and poor governance. Plus since the Chinese guy is actually working there, he has a lot more scope to claim that he knows whereof he talks. In other words, you can't just accuse him of ignorance - have you been to the DRC? Of course not. So if you don't like his words, you have to find some other angle of attack.

To a western audience, it has the wonderful frission similar to playing cards against humanity - hearing someone utter hilarious taboos, but here with the possibility that they might be true. Eddy gives textbook rationalizations, but with a look as though he doesn't really believe them, and just smiles as he's called on them. Meanwhile, Lao Yang has the easterner's qualified immunity from charges of racism that forces the audience to listen a little longer. Of course, modern progressives would say he is racist (I think - it's hard to keep track of whether minorities can still be racist in The Current Year, or whether the Chinese count as minorities). But in any case, even if one could address him directly, one knows with certainty that if you accused him of racism, neither he, nor his employers, nor his countrymen, would give a flying fig. Take away the power of accusations of witchcraft, and watch how quickly people lose interest in the whole topic of witches.

While the density of both hilarity and insight is lower in the rest of the documentary than in the trailer, it is nonetheless interesting. Because while the trailer mostly gores progressive oxen, the rest of the documentary contains parts that might somewhat surprise a reactionary.

In particular, when the subject of the Chinese in Africa comes up, the standard perspective seems to be that the Chinese are swallowing the choicest parts of the continent in a quest for resource extraction and strategic pieces of infrastructure. They are on track, so the narrative goes, to be the continent's next colonial powers, and probably a lot less charitable than the Europeans they belatedly replace.

If the documentary has one lesson, it is this: rumors of a massive Chinese empire rising rapidly on the African continent are greatly exaggerated. Instead, one gets the impression of Chinese management having to battle with the same problems as everyone else in Africa.

Suppliers are unreliable. Lao Yang drives for a long time to try to find a gravel supplier for his cement project. When he gets there, the workers are standing idle around the machines, because the boss hasn't turned up yet. It's midday. They don't know when he'll be in. They've called him. They can't do anything until he arrives.

Indeed, similar problems arise with the Chinese company's own native workforce. It's a rotating cast who sometimes turn up, and sometimes don't. They need to have basic instructions repeated to them. Don't lose your equipment, or your pay will be docked. Don't slack off, but take your work seriously. Don't steal from the worksite. These are all things that I wouldn't have thought to mention as a manager, since they seem to go without saying. Apparently, not in the DRC. Various Chinese employees recount how they would leave a worksite having given instructions for the Congolese to complete a task, and find out later that the whole Congolese workforce had just wandered off ten minutes later.

The other slightly incongruous aspect that you might be pondering from the trailer - how did they find a well-dressed, eloquent, Chinese-speaking Congolese guy to be the interlocutor to the main Chinese boss, in the middle of nowhere DRC? And why is he so willing to just sit there and take Lao Yang's abuse? You quickly learn that Eddy is the translator, so doesn't really have a choice in the matter. He seems quite competent, and indeed a workforce of Eddies would likely do well. But the rest of the workers seem cut from quite a different cloth. And even with Eddy, one senses flashes of resentment and dual loyalty. When talking with a gravel supplier, Lao Yang is trying to find out where the guy is buying it. Eddy tells the Congelese gravel guy that the Chinese will just try to buy the entire operation - in other words, don't tell him, because it will put you out of business. Eddy of course doesn't translate this part of the discussion back into Chinese, but we as the audience get to hear both parts.

All of which might make you wonder - why do the Chinese put up with all this? Why don't they just bring in their own workforce? Towards the end, one gets the answer. They don't have a choice. Far from being a superpower, in the middle of the DRC, they're a very small minority, and their continued viability is dependent on them being able to give jobs to the Congolese, and presumably grease enough palms in the local government that everyone finds them to be beneficial overall.

Indeed, for all the claims about how the Chinese will make nasty neo-colonial dictators, the overwhelming attitude of the Chinese characters to their Congolese workers and circumstances is weariness and low level frustration. There's little evidence of abuse, or terrible work conditions, or even any threat of force whatsoever. It's quite possible that this exists, and the filmmakers just chose to not depict it in order to get access. Yet the picture presented seems credible, and you can see why. The workers in the Chinese company are basically like a foreign embassy. They're a tiny number of foreigners who are not only far from home, but far from any help that home can offer. If the natives turn hostile, you're done. The ability of the Chinese to project force into the middle of the DRC in a targeted, credible way on short notice is pretty damn close to zero. The same would probably be true for westerners, to be honest. If you all get chopped up, what's the Chinese government going to do? Send its one aircraft carrier to bomb random bits of the DRC in revenge? The country barely even has a functioning government. What would it even achieve?

And so you just have to muddle along as best you can. The narrative of the story is primarily about the attempt to find gravel for a cement factory, and the various travails they encounter along the way. It's portrayed as a microcosm of the struggle of the whole Chinese project. And the general sense one gets is that it's far from obvious that they'll actually succeed. The things that would make it hard for you to get a successful commercial operation going in the DRC are pretty much the same problems that the Chinese face. In the battle between Chinese commercial zeal, and Africa's intractably inhospitable commercial environment, it's not clear who to bet on.

There's a related aspect, which reactionaries will admit about China, but then oddly forget when it comes to the Chinese in the African context. To wit: the Chinese approach to development isn't exactly first rate either. It tends to be a bit slap-dash and poorly planned, with strong central demands to just get things done resulting in buildings that have a habit of falling down, collapsing holes in sidewalks, poisoned baby formula etc. And that's in China. In other words, this ain't a Japanese Just-In-Time inventory management system. When Lao Yang finally finds a potential gravel supplier, he can't tell him exactly how much gravel he's going to need, or when he's going to be paid. Lao tells him, essentially, I'll pay as the money comes in. To which I found myself thinking - they haven't committed the damn money yet? Stop just blaming the Congolese if your own lines of credit aren't set up. How is this guy meant to plan ahead to supply you with gravel if you can't give him a clear timetable of what you need and when?

And if you know anything about operations management, you know that the problem of unreliable suppliers has a well known solution - stockpile inventories in advance to take into account the estimated distribution of delays, so you only have a managably low probability of running out. In other words, it's only the first instance of delay that is a good excuse for running short. If you know you're dealing with jokers, you should be able to at least partially plan around them being jokers. Did the need for gravel just suddenly arise yesterday? Was this an unanticipated event in the development of a cement factory? Don't make me laugh.

Instead, for all the view of China as a monolith engaging in development, the individual Chinese managers seemed pretty much on their own, trying to scrounge around as best they could, and not always succeeding.  In other words, watching the documentary I came away with an unexpected feeling of sympathy for the Chinese in the DRC. Maybe they're going to take over the place, but it's going to be a hell of a slog in the mean time for the people on the ground. It's like with neighbourhood development. Sometimes, the gentrifiers beat out the ghetto. Sometimes the ghetto wins. It's not always easy to say in advance which way it will go.

But I can say the following. The Holmes Investment Trust is sure as hell not going to be setting up any cement factories in the Congo anytime soon.

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