In Sudan, China focuses on oil wells, not local needs
China has invested billions in oil facilities and pipelines, but not in much else, say Sudanese locals.
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US-based Chevron was the first oil company to arrive here, setting up operations in the 1980s. "They employed us," says Mr. Thonchol. "We helped with the drilling, drove them around, and worked as cooks. "Skip to next paragraph
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The second group of oilmen to show up was not as benevolent, say many locals. Thonchol's cousin, Peter Nyok, a 6-foot, 6-inch, member of the Dinka tribe with traditional lines carved on his forehead and six missing front teeth, says it took a while for locals to differentiate between Westerners – and the Chinese that came later. "They looked like whites to us. We could not detect any difference, except, maybe, that they were shorter," he says. "But then we found they behaved differently."
Chased out by civil war in the mid 1980s and '90s, and later kept away by pressure from human rights groups, Chevron and other Western companies left the oil fields for others. Canadian Talisman Energy, faced with a divestment campaign, was forced to sell its 25-percent stake in the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company in 2002.
Chinese firms were more than happy to fill the void.
But the Chinese operations were marked "from the beginning," by a "deep complicity in gross human rights violations, scorched-earth clearances of the indigenous population," says Sudan activist Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. Giving expert testimony before the congressionally mandated US-China Economic and Security Review Commission last August, Mr. Reeves claimed the Chinese gave direct assistance to Khartoum's military forces which, in turn, burned villages, chased locals away from their homes, and harmed the environment while prospecting for oil.
Brad Phillips, director of Persecution International, an aid group working in South Sudan, has seen the destruction firsthand. "The Chinese are equal partners with Khartoum when it comes to exploiting resources and locals here," he says. "Their only interest here is their own." He would love to see the Chinese sponsor a school here, he says, or a clinic, or an agricultural program, or "anything for the people." But there is nothing like that in sight. Just miles of desolate land.
"The Chinese simply do not care about us," says Martin Buywomo, Paloich's mayor. "They have no contact. They never even came to my tent to pay respects. They think we are lesser people." A member of the Shilluk tribe who attended British mission schools, Mr. Buywomo puts down the worn copy of George Eliot's 19th-century classic "Silas Marner" he is reading and continues sadly. "We see them in their trucks but they overlook us. If they saw us dying on the road, they would overlook us."
Buywomo rearranges the Chinese-made plastic pink flowers on his desk. "This is colonialism all over again."
THABO MBEKI, for one, might not rush to correct such an impression. Last December, the South African president – whose country is Beijing's largest trading partner on the continent – cautioned against an unequal and "colonial relationship" with China.
Across the border, in neighboring Zimbabwe – a country that can ill afford to offend the few friends it has – Trevor Ncube, a respected newspaper publisher, devoted a recent issue of his Zimbabwe Standard to whether doing business with China was "merely swapping our old colonial master for a new one."
Perhaps most worrying for the Chinese is the grass-roots reaction to their advances in the southern African nation of Zambia.