The tensions between the US and China were on full display at their most recent meeting this past week, although the ambiguity as to what the administration’s policy on China is in general remains. Policies toward the Uyghurs specifically are becoming clearer, with the US recently announcing sanctions against two Chinese officials in response to the genocide against Uyghurs and is working with Canada and Europe on the matter.
At the recent US-China meeting, the Biden administration had chosen forceful language when discussing their discontent and concerns with China, including the Uyghurs. China returned the forcefulness in kind, providing their diagnosis of the problems with American way of spreading “democracy.” They said:
“We do not believe in invading through the use of force, or to topple other regimes through various means, or to massacre the people of other countries, because all of those would cause turmoil and instability”
We know that this statement, while speaking truths about the harms of American imperialism, is somewhat laughable considering the source is a country that has no problem causing harm within their own country. In fact, they’ve also had no problem doing so externally in countries like Tibet (invaded in 1950) and Cambodia (where they supported the beyond brutal Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-1979).
These days, China appears to have commenced with a harm different from the havoc they wreaked abroad in the 20th century. Now, havoc is dressed as a businessman, offering economic prosperity, but in some cases providing anything but.
What’s Happening in Gambia: The Belt and Road Project
In Muslim-majority Gambia, there is a Chinese-owned fish factory called Golden Lead in the town of Gunjur, on the coast. It was established in 2017. Fishing is an important part of the Gambian economy (and diet), so this was seen as a good business venture by the Chinese and the Gambian governments. The fish processed would be made into a fine powder and then used as fish food—called fishmeal—on fish farms, a growing industry globally.
To carry out this venture, China eliminated 14 million dollars of Gambian debt and then invested 33 million to build Golden Lead as well as two other factories to process fish. As reported in a New Yorker exposé,
“The residents of Gunjur were told that Golden Lead would bring jobs, a fish market, and a newly paved three-mile road through the heart of town.”
The venture is part of China’s Belt and Road project, one that has received much positive publicity. It’s China’s attempt to bring a modern-day Silk Road. It includes an ambitious transportation route that that spans three continents and also focus on developing trade and industry with 70 countries.
Of course to the US government, the Belt and Road project poses an economic threat. Others, particularly on the far left, view it more positively. Here’s one perspective on some of the benefits of the Belt and Road Project:
“Latin America has now become the second major region for Chinese investment abroad, and the kinds of projects that the Chinese are helping to finance, they are really astounding. There’s the $5 billion that’s being spent to build two hydroelectric dams in the Patagonia section of Argentina over the Santa Cruz River, a transcontinental railroad between Peru and Bolivia, and, of course, a new canal across Central America, across Nicaragua, that would basically compete with the monopoly that the Panama Canal has had over world shipping. Could you talk about the sheer size of these projects? Really, most Americans are not aware of this enormous infrastructure that is resulting from the Belt and Road policy of China.”
The fish used for fishmeal—bonga—is fished locally and is a part of the traditional diet of local people, but now it is more expensive than many Gambians can afford, and traditional fishing practices of fishing by hand with nets is insufficient for bringing in the yield demanded. As a result, illegal fishing in Gambian waters is rampant, with locals often hired to work on these boats, many of whom work and live in squalid conditions on the boats. “They treat us like dogs,” one Gambian worker on a Chinese fishing boat commented while showing the journalist while showing him his sleeping conditions.
Local fishermen typically sell their day’s catch to local women on the beach, who then prepare the fish for sale. They can no longer compete with the Chinese factory, which offers cash advances to fishermen, many of whom later find themselves in debt when they do not bring in as many fish as they had agreed to bring. Further harming the local economy, the stench of the factory is so strong that it has scared away tourists, another key industry for Gambia.
Lastly, one of the roads China has promised to pave is still filled with potholes.
Unfortunately, as we see with governments in countries like Mali and Senegal, the Gambian government is in large part complicit with what is going on. They see the cash benefits of working with these hawkish governments, and so they choose complicity.
This great project of China’s—a country that is applauded for recently lifting a large portion of its population out of poverty—appears to be wreaking quiet havoc and potentially driving up poverty in other countries. Once again, we see colonialism rearing its ugly head in Africa, a continent in which around 44 percent of the population are Muslims.
Moving away from the blatant savagery of the colonialism seen by countries like France and Belgium in the nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth centuries, what’s going on in Gambia is a sneakier kind but not so unfamiliar. It is the type of colonialism seen in the British East India Company, one that purports to be a partnership between nations but is really more of the same—harmful policies that lead to a dependence on foreign governments that want anything but the best for the local population. What’s shameful is local governments’ complicity in such projects.
It’s not uncommon to hear that the British colonial project was, although not all good, in many ways helpful to the locals because of the infrastructure it brought and left behind. Let’s not forget, however, that they syphoned 45 trillion dollars from India from 1765 to 1938.
The British used a portion of the money they collected as taxes from locals to buy the locals’ goods, essentially making it so that the locals bought their own goods. What the British did not consume of those goods was re-exported and sold for much more than for what they [read: the local population] bought them.
Gambia, once a British colony and a country with a rich Islamic history, now appears to be suffering a similar form of colonialism seen in British India. Bonga is being taken from the sea, processed in Chinese plants in Gambia, sold globally but also, it is reported, brought back to China, where it’s fed to tilapia fish, that are then sold in the global market, including, to Gambians. If this is the case, Gambians are paying to eat fish that ate their fish. In a sense, they are paying the Chinese for their own fish.
Why Muslims Should Care
These conditions and the harm done to local industry and life should sound familiar; they are the same types of problems that colonial ventures brought to Africa and other parts of the world before. The colonizer makes the argument that they help the locals by giving them jobs and purpose, but really what they offer is a kind of indentured servitude, in which locals have little choice but to tie themselves by the neck to occupying forces, who have destroyed local businesses and ways of life.
Surely there are positive parts of the Belt and Road project, but we can also be sure that in some cases, they are outweighed by the harm they cause to local communities. Additionally, there’s room to ask, how invested would China be in the good of Muslim-majority Gambia when China treats many of its own Muslims abysmally?
- Transcript of the meeting found here: https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-national-security-advisor-jake-sullivan-chinese-director-of-the-office-of-the-central-commission-for-foreign-affairs-yang-jiechi-and-chinese-state-councilor-wang-yi-at-th/#:~:text=We%20do%20not%20believe%20in,serve%20the%20United%20States%20well. ↑
- Urbina, Ian. “Letter from Gambia: Fish Farming is Feeding the Globe. What’s the Cost for Locals.” The New Yorker. March 1, 2021. P. 25. ↑
- The Chinese have denied illegal dumping of toxic waste from the factory into Gambian waters, but The New Yorker provides evidence from a Gambian microbiologist who studied the local waters and concluded the dumping was from the factory. Ibid., 24. ↑
- Ibid., 24. ↑
- Ibid., 27. ↑
- Ibid., 29. ↑
- Ibid, 25. ↑