By Rathindra Kuruwita
Once they realize that I am a bit of a Sinophile, a lot of centrist types, you know the kind of people who take The Economist and The Guardian seriously and call anyone who questions the liberal consensus as Far Right ask me whether I am not concerned with the corruption that accompanies Chinese financed projects.
Usually these people are from my age group, late 20s to early 30s, and my usual response for his ludicrous question is: where did they live before 2009? the year China really started investing in Sri Lanka. Because as far as I remember Sri Lanka was and is a corrupt country.
Chinese had nothing to do with the Mahaweli Project, but everyone knows that a lot of dodgy stuff happened and a lot of people made a lot of money out of it. Most recently there was controversy regarding the development of the Rs 134.9 billion third phase of Central Expressway, funded through a loan from the Mitsubishi Tokyo Bank. Although the Japanese Embassy in Colombo nominated three Japanese companies in 2016 and requested the Road Development Authority (RDA) to select the best bid, it was revealed a few months ago that the Japanese Government intervened in June 2017 forcing the Highways Ministry and Cabinet Appointed Negotiation Committee (CANC) to reconsider their selection. Once again China had nothing to do with this dodgy deal.
The truth is that almost all the countries alleged to be corrupted by China, from Macedonia to Angola, have always been corrupt and that unless these countries do something to sort themselves out they will remain corrupt.
Moreover, what earthly reason is there for a contractor (Chinese or otherwise) to save government money allocated for a particular project? Anyone who knows anything about construction business knows that all contractors try to spend all the money earmarked for a project; that’s how you increase your profit margin. It is up to the Government to establish the necessary monitoring, evaluation and legal framework to ensure that the country enters the best deals possible and to minimize any potential for corruption. Essentially it’s up to Sri Lanka, not China, not US, to come to deals that best suit us.
Corruption: in context
But usually one-liners don’t change people’s minds; but then again nothing usually does if people are set in their ways. I will try to present and analyze some data to prove my point. Let’s think whether there is any real evidence to prove that Chinese projects lead to corruption because ‘unlike the OECD-DAC donors, the Chinese Government does not release detailed, project-level financial information about its foreign aid activities’ (Chinese aid and local corruption, aid Data org). A lot of countries, from Balkans to Angola, have been pointed at as examples for how Chinese aid has increased corruption, however, none of these countries have ever ranked anywhere near the top of world Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, ever. Yes, there is a lot of problems with this Index, but at least it gives us comparable data.
For example, a country like Angola (No. 124 in 2003, 168 in 2010 and 162 in 2016) or Sri Lanka (No. 66 in 2003, 91 in 2010 and 95 in 2016) have always remained at the similar position in the Corruption Perceptions Index since they started keeping count. On the other hand Macedonia, another country allegedly corrupted by the Chinese, have seen their Index ranking increase slightly (106 in 2003 and 90 in 2016) over the years, despite ‘anecdotal evidence’ by think tanks stating it is evident that corruption has not increased or decreased in countries like Sri Lanka due to Chinese funded projects.
This does not mean that corruption is not a major issue in Sri Lanka; it is. My point is that corruption has been endemic to countries like Sri Lanka because there is no political will among our rulers to take the necessary steps to eradicate corruption.
Why should they? They benefit greatly from the corruption and the voters don’t seem to care too much. I mean if our voters cared would they keep on electing the same corrupt bunch over and over again?
What’s really going on?
Ever since China emerged as one of the main development aid providers in Asia and Africa, swiftly replacing the cash starved west, a lot of people have been alleging that corruption has increased due to these Chinese funded projects. A lot of experts that work for Western funded think tanks tell us that unlike the US, EU or Japan, the Chinese don’t push for proper safeguards to ensure transparency, which reduces corruption.
As it’s my opinion that we have no option, but to encourage/depend on Chinese aid and investments in the coming years, in recent weeks I have been reading a number of reports and journal articles on corruption related to Chinese funded projects, especially Chinese financed infrastructure projects, across the world.
One thing that is fascinating about these reports and journal articles is that there are so many institutions and think tanks dedicated to monitoring Chinese aid and to find ’empirical results’ to show that there is ‘more widespread local corruption around active Chinese project sites.’And a lot of these institutions have sprung up as the west faces the reality that most of development finance, both in absolute terms and as a share of global foreign assistance, now comes from non-Western donors. And because aid was always a tool for political loyalty and keep Asian and African counties in line, it is to be expected that the West is completely freaked out about this development, i.e. their increasingly weakening hold on Africa and Asia.
As the West, which hasn’t recovered from the global financial crisis and with their society which is gradually falling apart, probably never will, can’t really out finance China they are trying to raise ‘concerns over China’s donor practices’ using a coterie of think tanks. Sad!