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The Invisible Hand

Labouring in Chinafrica

WHILE wonks argue Sachs verus Easterly versus Collier over brie and chianti, and Angelina, Bono, Oprah, and Madonna fall over each other to raise awareness about the importance of raising awareness, the Chinese have set about actually rebuilding (or building for the first time) much of Africa's economic infrastructure.

According to Akwe Amosu, an Africa expert for the Open Society Institute, "over 800 Chinese companies, the vast majority of them state-owned, are operating in 49 African countries." They are drilling for oil, extracting minerals, and building roads, railways, hotels, and factories.

China's willingness to support some of Africa's worst regimes in exchange for special access to African resources raises a number of serious worries, such as those laid out last year by Joshua Kurlantzick in The New Republic. One such worry (or hope, depending on your angle) is that increasing Chinese heft might reduce the power of African labour unions to negotiate stricter labour standards. An oft-overlooked aspect of this story is that Chinese companies working in Africa often insist on bringing their own workers. As Amosu reports:

It is a common complaint that when China contracts to deliver infrastructure projects in return for raw materials, it insists on the use of mostly Chinese labor, even in situations where African labor is abundant and desperate for opportunities to acquire new skills.

This may be a way for Chinese companies to steer clear of costly conflict with native unions. It may also be a way for African leaders to accelerate development while hoarding more of its spoils. If a prudently predatory autocrat has a way of increasing wealth creation in his domain without at the same time enriching potential political opposition, he will probably try it. But the explanation may be far simpler: Chinese companies prefer Chinese labour because it is more productive.

In an article this February in the Guardian, Lui Ping, the general manager for China's largest construction company in Zambia, is quoted as saying:

Chinese people can stand very hard work. This is a cultural difference. Chinese people work until they finish and then rest. Here they are like the British, they work according to a plan. They have tea breaks and a lot of days off. For our construction company that means it costs a lot more.

This may be sheer cultural bias, but it is also consistent with the sure-to-be-controversial thesis of Gregory Clark's forthcoming A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World. Mr Clark argues that differences in modren economic development are rooted in differences of labor quality. That is, rich countries are rich because their workers are better. This is one reason why offshoring may be an overblown worry: it may take so many additional lower-wage, lower-quality workers to produce the same product as a single, more expensive domestic worker that there is ultimately no savings. If Clark's thesis does in part explain African underdevelopment, then importing higher-quality labour, even if it is only slightly higher quality, may be crucial to setting Africa on a path to growth.

Mr Clark is perhaps wisely circumspect in his (non-)explanation of the underlying causes of differences in labour quality. He rather unhelpfully posits that "economies seem, to us, to alternate more or less randomly between relatively energetic phases and periods of somnolence." Whatever it may be, China these days seems to have acquired some of that economic élan vital. Whatever our well-placed worries about Chinese support of African illiberalism, if imported Chinese labour helps jolt Africa from its somnolence, it will have done more than fifty years of Foggy Bottom five year plans.

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