New Internationalist

Breath of the dragon

Issue 423

To fuel its factories China is propping up despots and dictators, reports Rebecca Tinsley.

Photo by Brian Steidle
The burning of the village of Um Zeifa in Darfur after the Janjaweed looted and attacked it. The Chinese Government has supplied much of the munitions used by the Janjaweed to destroy the non-Arab peoples in the south of Sudan. Photo by Brian Steidle

Women from Darfur don’t willingly expose their wounds. Dignity and privacy still have meaning in their traditional society.

Nevertheless, at a women’s group in a tent at a refugee camp on the Chad-Sudan border in Africa, the participants reluctantly pulled up their colourful robes to reveal the puckered and slashed flesh where the bullets and shrapnel penetrated. Sudanese armed forces had attacked their villages with Antonov planes and Chinese-made helicopter gunships, dropping fragmentation bombs made in China.

Attackers followed on the ground. Janjaweed nomads – paid by Sudan’s Government to kill the non-Arab tribes of Darfur – sprayed the fleeing villagers with gunfire from Chinese-made Dushka guns, killing the men and raping any women and girls that they caught. Sudanese soldiers were transported into the killing zone in Chinese Dongfeng trucks, and they used Chinese weapons, rocket launchers and grenades.

One Darfuri woman called Hawa told me what happened to ‘a lady of great age’ (meaning older than 60). ‘The militia came prepared,’ she said. ‘They had knives to cut open her private parts before they raped her to death.’ Another woman exposed the shrapnel wound on her leg, now patched with a skin graft. She was illiterate and couldn’t have found China on a map, but she knew China supplied the regime in Khartoum – Sudan’s capital – with the ordinance that was dropped on her village.

She was also aware of the deals behind the deaths. Sudan supplies around seven per cent of China’s oil needs. In exchange, China supplies the means to kill the people of Darfur.

Bloody business

Evidence of China’s deathly quest for minerals and resources can be found across Africa. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, China signed a deal in 2008 giving it sole access to vast deposits of copper and cobalt. A major Chinese arms maker owns that country’s largest iron mine. Virtually every weapon used by warlords there is a Kalashnikov stamped with the number 56, indicating it was made in China. The death toll from the scramble for the Congo’s resources is 5.4 million since 1998.

In West Africa, China is the most significant operator of mines and oil fields. It is the biggest investor ($2.68 billion) in the new Liberia, having supplied the weapons that tore the old one apart. Paul, a local NGO worker, shares his memories of the highway we take out of the Liberian capital, Monrovia: ‘During the war, this road glittered with shell casings, like broken glass; like the stars in the heavens.’ He pulls up his shirt to reveal three scars. ‘A kid in my village became a child soldier. Before the war I yelled at him when he kicked his football at my windows. When he got the gun he came and shot me. That’s how the war was. They were giving six-year-olds AK47s and bullets.’

China is also the biggest investor in neighbouring Guinea. In June 2006, Guinean troops armed with weapons supplied by China, and led by commanders trained in China, killed 21 children protesting because their school exams had been postponed yet again by a regime that regularly tramples on the rights of its citizens.

‘Business is business,’ observes China’s ambassador to the US, Zhou Wenzhong. ‘We try to separate politics from business.’ It is a questionable claim.

In Sudan, China must know where their guns will end up. For twenty years the regime’s proxies have terrorized Southern Sudan, resulting in an estimated two million dead.

In addition, Sudan’s political protection of Chinese business interests can now be clearly seen. Since 2005 Sudanese armed forces have provided extra security for the Chinese workers building the region’s oil plants and pipelines, using Chinese guns to protect Chinese assets. When rebels kidnapped nine China National Petroleum Corporation staff in October 2008, Khartoum feared the beginning of the instability that plagues the Niger Delta oilfields. The regime reacted with extreme, if incompetent force (resulting in the deaths of several Chinese).

Political exports 

China’s ‘business’ is also evident in international politics. Like everyone in her refugee camp on the Chad-Sudan border, Hawa’s lifeline is the radio. Through it she hears how the Chinese since the start of the conflict have used their veto at the United Nations to neutralize efforts to rein in Khartoum. Most recently, in March 2009, China vetoed a UN attempt to criticize Sudan for expelling humanitarian groups from Darfur as well as a subsequent effort to impose new economic sanctions.

In 2004 the UN passed resolution 1556, banning arms transfers to Darfur. Even though it provides 90 per cent of the regime’s small arms (worth about $55 million), China’s officials deny that Chinese arms end up in Darfur. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang characterizes his country as one that loves peace and upholds justice. Concerning Darfur he says, ‘China has made great efforts for peace and stability’.

China has actively helped create one-party structures in its own image

By stability he means maintaining the status quo, however brutally a regime treats its citizens. To ensure a reliable supply of oil and minerals from Africa, China has consistently offered to prop up its strategic partners. The deal includes cheap, easy-to-use military equipment, often at a discount or in exchange for commodities (including illegal ivory in the case of Zimbabwe in 2000 and 2008). The China Export-Import Bank facilitates loans, and the Chinese armed forces and civil servants provide training and advice on maintaining power. Thus in Zimbabwe as well as in Angola (which supplies 13 per cent of China’s oil exports), China has actively helped create centralized, authoritarian, one-party, human rights-abusing structures in its own image. In Sudan, Nigeria, Egypt and Zimbabwe, China has also built and run arms factories for local production to keep its friends in power.

In exchange, Beijing’s allies ensure that whenever Taiwan applies for UN membership, it fails. China also rallies its friends to defend the principle of state sovereignty, essential if Beijing is to continue denying rights to those people within its boundaries who are seeking independence such as the Uighur and Tibetans.

Spot the hypocrites

China – disingenuously describing itself as a fellow victim of colonialism and a developing nation – duly vetoes or abstains on resolutions criticizing its strategic partners’ less savoury behaviour, as it did in 2008 when it prevented sanctions against Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Using its veto sparingly compared to Russia, China’s greatest influence is felt in the corridors of the UN where it ensures critical resolutions are never tabled.

But before becoming too sanctimonious about China’s record, let’s bear in mind the great arms dealers of Europe. Russia has provided three-quarters of Sudan’s heavy military arsenal, and German and Swiss companies have built power plants for the Khartoum regime. Across Africa, France still leads the arms-sales pack, and the US targets its military aid (of $300 million) to oil-wealthy Nigeria and Angola. British arms sales to Africa quadrupled when Tony Blair was Prime Minister and his successor Gordon Brown has offered military support to Nigeria’s forces in the Niger Delta to keep the oil flowing. Indeed William Patey – Britain’s ambassador to Khartoum when 90 per cent of the killing took place in Darfur during 2003-04 – boasted that 130 British companies were working in Sudan (‘up 25 per cent’). ‘We are and wish to remain true friends to Sudan,’ he said.

There are glimmers that China may take a more humane approach. In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, China played a more positive role, persuading Khartoum to allow the joint United Nations/African Union peacekeepers into Darfur. Chinese diplomats basked in the glow of international approval and have since been actively pushing Khartoum into peace talks with various Darfur rebel factions. Then in April 2008 Beijing recalled the ship An Yue Jiang, with its cargo of ammunition, mortars and mines destined for Zimbabwe’s armed forces. Dock workers in South Africa, Zambia, Mozambique, Angola and Namibia had refused to unload the arms. While critics say this was window dressing to enhance China’s international image prior to the 2008 Games, there may be benefits to China promoting peace in the region.

Events in Africa’s volatile oil producing countries – such as the increasing likelihood of violence targeted at Chinese interests – may force China to reassess its eagerness to promote the status quo at the expense of human rights. China may find that using its enormous influence quietly and pressing its strategic partners for compromise, reform and justice may be of greater long-term benefit to its interests than shipping more weapons to prop up tyrants. This will test whether China can evolve into a true world power, accepting the responsibilities of statecraft and telling its friends what they need to hear.

Rebecca Tinsley is the founder of www.WagingPeace.info. Her novel about Darfur, When the stars fall to earth, will be published in October.

KNOWN ARMS SALES TO SUDAN

Since 2000 
12 x Russian MiG 29 attack aircraft
15 x Russian Mi24P helicopter gunships
60 x Russian armoured personnel carriers

2003
20 x A-5C Chinese Fantan fighter bombers

2005           
200 x Chinese Dongfeng military transport trucks
6 x K-8 Chinese military aircraft
China reportedly negotiating 12 x FC1 fighter aircraft

2003-2006   
$55m Chinese small arms

2009           
Russia reportedly negotiating to sell BTR-80A armoured personnel carriers and armoured equipment at UAE defence show.

Source: NATO Sitcen handbook

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