Interview with Ching Kwan Lee

SASE interview with Ching Kwan Lee, winner of the first annual Alice Amsden prize in economic sociology.

Who are your major intellectual influences?

My interests are quite eclectic: E.P. Thompson, Karl Polanyi, Michel Foucault, Raymond Williams, Antonio Gramsci, Perry Anderson, Eric Hobsbawm, Michael Burawoy….

What brought you to spend 6 years working on copper mines and construction sites in Zambia?

In 2007, after studying labor politics in China for two decades, I was intrigued by international media reports about exploitative labor practices by Chinese investors in Africa. In this day and age of globalized neo-liberal capitalism, why was “exploitation” even raised as an issue? And why and how were Chinese companies “more” exploitative than non-Chinese ones? At that time, there were already palpable pressures for China to go global – overcapacity, falling profits, resource bottleneck, and the need for new markets. I thought I should follow the footsteps of Chinese capital and take a global turn in my own research.

Why Zambia?

I chose Zambia because of all the countries on the continent, the copper giant was one of the earliest and most significant destinations for outbound Chinese state investment. Thanks to British colonialism, most local people speak English which, I surmised, meant I could get away with not learning another language. Michael Burawoy’s classic study of the Zambian Copperbelt some forty years ago also beaconed, reinforcing my impulse to compare the past and the present. After several initial trips, realizing that China was just one among many international investors in the two major economic sectors (copper and construction), I reformulated the central research question as: “Is Chinese capital a different kind of capital?”

You dismantle many of the views/stereotypes held by those in the West related to the Chinese in Africa…could you give us some examples?

Public debate on ‘China in Africa’ has tended to be rather hyperbolic in tone, and often fixates on determining the extent to which China is a new colonial power on the continent. In this book, I argue that even though terms such as scramble, empire, and hegemony resonate with many people’s fear and preconceptions, we run into serious definitional, empirical, and historical problems when we deploy them analytically, and not just for their rhetorical and political effects. Just consider some basic facts: there is so far no military occupation by China in Africa, no chartered companies with exclusive or sovereign trading rights, no religious proselytizing and no institutional transplant—all things that had historically constituted colonialism over decades if not centuries. To date, one would be hard pressed to find empirical evidence even of China’s informal “imperial influence” in Africa. Rather, the phenomenon of global China is about China seeking spatial and political fixes to its resource and profit bottleneck, in the context of a national and global overaccumulation crisis, with no preordained or guaranteed outcome. Even if we wanted to describe China’s objectives as “colonial,” we should be mindful to differentiate ambition from achievement.

Then there are other popular myths about Chinese workers in Africa as either convict laborers sent by the Chinese government or as motivated by nationalism. These claims do not stand up to empirical scrutiny. My ethnographic research shows that workers, technicians and managers from China are driven by economic pressures at home to seek employment in Africa. Their behavior are shaped by the objectives of state capital which exploits and dominate them as much as the Africans they manage.

Are the Chinese the biggest investors in Africa?

Notwithstanding the intense media spotlight on China’s presence in Africa, China is NOT the biggest foreign investor there. According to the UNCTAD’s World Investment Report 2019, and based on data through 2017, France is the largest investor in Africa, although its stock of investment has remained largely unchanged since 2013, followed by the Netherlands, the United States, the United Kingdom and China. In previous years, China even trailed behind Malaysia and South Africa in both flow and stock of FDI in Sub-Saharan Africa.

How did you get permission to go down into those mines, and what made you do so?

Conducting fieldwork in underground copper mines was the most physically unforgiving and unforgettable experience ever for me as an ethnographer of work. The years researching workplaces and working class lives in China’s rustbelt and sunbelt did not prepare me for the extreme heat, dust and humidity one kilometer beneath the surface. During the first few trips down the mines, I could feel my lungs collapsing as they struggled to find oxygen, while my legs tried to find balance in the dark, treading on uneven ground filled with water up to my knees. But my willingness to spend time underground convinced miners, mine engineers and the CEOs that I was a serious researcher who wanted to understand their world of work, not one with predetermined and facile views interested in assigning blame or finding faults.

Gaining access to these powerful London-listed and state-owned mines was a long and arduous process that I detailed in the methodological appendix of my book. Studying up (in this case, big capital) is never easy, but it is possible. Luck played a big role but so was persistence which maximized one’s chance of being lucky. Long story short, I was able to gain permission to spend several months in each of the three foreign-owned mines because I befriended an opposition politician when I first arrived in Zambia. We met often over after-hour beers trading frustrations about our respective lines of work. He always comforted me by saying, “wait until we are in power.” Then, lo and behold, after a national election that happened three years into my research, he became the Vice President of Zambia and made good on his promise of calling up the CEOs of the major mining companies which had no choice but to consent to my presence.

Is Chinese capitalism a different kind of capitalism?

The key finding of this study is that Chinese capital in Africa is indeed a different kind of capital from global private capital. Through a sustained comparison between Chinese state and global private investors in Zambia’s copper and construction sectors, I found that they had divergent imperatives of accumulation, driving them to run different regimes of production, which in turn were enabled by different ethos of management. Specifically, Chinese state capital was characterized by a logic of encompassing accumulation (i.e. profit making, extending China’s political and diplomatic influence, and gaining source access to strategic minerals) as opposed to global private capital’s profit maximization. Exactly because Chinese state investment has non-financial imperatives, they are less global mobile and more prone to local political negotiations. The divergence in the logic of accumulation leads to divergence in production politics. Whereas Chinese state capital ran a production-driven regime of labor exploitation, global private capital operated a finance-driven regime of labor exclusion and casualization. Whereas collective asceticism animated the Chinese state managerial ethos, individualistic careerism defined that of its global private counterparts. Counterintuitively, Chinese state capital, rather than being more dominant and influential, had made more compromises to accommodate Zambian state and labor demands than global private capital had. But this had happened in copper mining, in which a political synergy between the Zambian state and society had emerged during a period of rising commodity prices and resource nationalism, but not in construction, a sector marked by a lack of state strategy and labor capacity.

To go a bit further afield, since your study is bottom up, what is your analysis of the road and belt initiative?

One of the studies I am working on maps and explains the various types of counter movements against “global China.” The Belt and Road Initiative illustrates one modality of power (i.e. economic statecraft) in Beijing’s playbook to expand globally. But many BRI projects have stalled due to local pushbacks. Other modalities of power China deploys include united-front patron clientelism, institutional corrosion, and symbolic violence which have recently triggered massive popular protests in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Do you think that the 21st century will be the largely dominated by China in the same manner as the American domination in the 20th century, which is commonly referred to as the American century?

Some people indeed speculate that the 21st Century will be a Chinese Century. My hunch is that China may not become as dominant as many assume and predict, no less because it has yet to resolve many entrenched structural problems in its domestic political economy as well as tackle external challenges to its global expansion.