China one of many in the scramble for African oil

Singling out Chinese companies' conduct in Africa ignores the larger problems endemic to the global extractive industry

Though there are many Chinese investments in Africa which include large-scale aid and infrastructure projects, negative episodes are the ones which tend to stick. Such criticism obscures the fact that in Africa’s extractive industries other global companies are no better at living up to the high standards they espouse on their company websites. To put the blame on China is to overlook far larger problems not only endemic to the extraction industry at large but also the global economy of which China is only one part.

Within Sudan, where China has received intensively negative coverage, it is significant to note that its controversial projects were carried out in partnership with other countries. China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) is part of the Greater Nile Petroleum Corporation consortium which includes Malaysia’s Petronas, Sudan’s Sudapet and India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation.

In Africa, oil is often located in politically unstable regions which are prone to ethnic tensions. Oil production centres are usually heavily guarded by military and private security firms. Several oil sites possess their own airports so that personnel flying in and out don’t even have to enter regional towns. When such hyper-securitised infrastructure is in place, there is little possibility, and more importantly, incentive, to engage with communities displaced and shut out from such spaces. This is part of a much broader problem within the resource extraction industry in developing countries, of which China is now an instrumental part.

The oil PR campaign

In response to the negative press oil companies are often now at pains to stress their corporate social responsibility. The homepages of many of the big oil companies depict thriving forests and contented local communities. But to what degree do such programmes mitigate damages inflicted by oil companies?

Certainly, Chinese oil companies have made progress in the previous decade. Within South Sudan, CNPC has made strides in the implementation of community development schemes. Despite such shifts, South Sudanese, both at government and local level, speak of a persistent lack of direct and sustained contact between Chinese representatives and local communities.

In China, there have been significant policy shifts regarding Chinese companies investing abroad, including the 2006 ‘Corporation Law’ providing a legal foundation for CSR and the ‘Guidelines for CSR compliance for Foreign-Invested Enterprises’ issued in 2008 by the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation.

Ultimately what is required is a culture of collective international responsibility, in which Chinese companies play their part.