In this edition of the China in Africa podcast, host Eric Olander talks with Washington, D.C.-based writer and journalist Te-Ping Chen. Chen is an editor for change.org where she writes extensively on sustainability and social entrepreneurship in the developing world. In a recent post on What the West Can Learn From China in Africa, Chen addressed the sensitive issue about China’s investment and development initiatives in Africa that diverge from traditional Western aid strategies. Many Westerners reject the Chinese approach over concerns that Beijing’s longheld disdain for transparency breeds corruption. However, Chen contends that the issue is far more textured than just the transparency argument presented by critics. The Chinese, she says, employ an entirely different mindset in their approach to African economic development, one that is often misunderstood by Western journalists and observers. The fact that Chinese investment is not tied to civil and political reform as is often required by Western aid agencies is not because they’re fundamentally corrupt, Chen argues, but rather evidence of Beijing’s agnosticism on non-economic issues. This non-ideological, agnostic approach to development that emphasizes practical, tangible results over process ”falls outside of the traditional aid umbrella,” according to Chen, and will most likely force the West to re-evaluate its own policies that have produced mixed results at considerable expense.
Unfortunately, the phone connection with Washington, D.C. was not clear throughout the entire program, so a transcript of the podcast is available below.
CHINA AFRICA PROJECT: I want to start by asking you about a blog post you wrote on April 19th of last month about what the West can learn from China’s activities in Africa and in your first paragraph you talk about the suspicions that are prevalent in the West about China in general and their African policies in particular. Where do you think those suspicions come from?
CHEN: The skepticism that we see comes across in so many different ways. It starts with language. All this talk of China being this hungry hungry dragon on this great African adventure [is part of the] loaded language that gets used frequently in China’s involvement in Africa which feeds in to the already resident skepticism that folks already have about China. For much of the skepticism that we see a lot of it comes down to ignorance. There is not a lot of knowledge about China’s involvement in Africa which is a function of a number of factors:
- A dearth of information.
- There is a language gap, obviously
- China has not equipped itself with a team of savvy PR experts to effectively tell its side of the story
I think a lot of this stuff comes down to the fact that there is this vacuum of information that gets filled with a lot of irresponsible media coverage. Obviously it’s an attractive story line. There’s this sense of almost gleeful reporting like “look who’s exploiting Africa now, you know, we’re not the only colonizers.” That’s the kind of theme you see in quite a bit of the press, particularly in the British press.
CAP: Is the skepticism that you describe about the Chinese in Africa separate from the larger skepticism that the media has about China as a whole or is part and parcel of the general China meme that’s out there in the media?
CHEN: I think it’s part and parcel of the general China meme with the added benefit that obviously the narrative about a new continent and Africa resonates deeply with Western audiences which is why I think you see a lot of overblown rhetoric coming out of articles that will often cite quote-unquote “critics” of China’s involvement in Africa. Usually those will come back to the same two critics. They’ll quote [former South African President] Thabo Mbeki and [Zambian opposition leader] Michael Sata but they won’t cite, for example, the public opinion reports which actually do find that in a number of African countries surveyed if you ask them to compare U.S. involvement in their country and Chinese involvement that actually margins of between 60-90 percent of the people say Chinese involvement is beneficial. And the fact that you do see that kind of one-sided presentation is quite telling.
If you read China’s official position on development policy there’s more a sense of agnosticism and a recognition that there can be no one overarching model that can be deployed across the entire continent of Africa – Te-Ping Chen
CAP: One of the other implicit themes that’s in that coverage is that the way the Chinese are going about it is somehow sinister or somehow manipulative even, dare I say it, “colonial.” Whereas the Western aid model is considered effective and somehow seen as “without us the deluge.” When you were writing the blog post on what the west can learn from China, what were some of the ideas that you think the folks down the street from you in Washington at USAID (The United States Agency for International Development) and other agencies can learn from what the Chinese are doing in Africa?
CHEN: I think that something that is interesting to raise is the question of what we define as the Chinese model? Typically the way we hear it being presented is in opposition to the supposed “Washington Consensus” which is much more ideologically driven, much more about democratization. Whereas the Chinese model is presented as the Chinese willingness to do business with absolutely anybody and the political “amoralization” of their work in Africa. I think that is obviously an aspect of China’s policy of non-interference but I think, also, there are more relevant ways you can talk about China’s work in Africa and ways that foster a way more productive discussion of aid in Africa. For example, instead of presenting China as this exporter of dictatorship, why not talk about the many ways that China’s aid in Africa is actually more efficient? The preference for pragmatism over paperwork? When we have a situation like what Owen Barder has written on his blog about Senegal’s 82 individual aid coordination forums that Chinese preference for pragmatism over paperwork can be quite refreshing. And I also think as well, the Chinese model that values agnosticism that is, in many ways, better suited to the realities of development in Africa. You know, we’re talking about a continent of over 50 countries and I think there’s a lot that Western donors and developers can learn [from the Chinese].
CAP: OK, so, you say when you have conversations that attempt to contrast the myths with the reality that it often falls on deaf ears. What are some of the conversations that you have, even with your colleagues at change.org or in Washington about the Chinese in Africa? Is there an appreciation for what the Chinese are doing or is it “they’re not democratic, they’re Communist nothing that they do is valid?”
CHEN: It depends, of course, on who you talk to. I think there is an appreciation among certain circles of aid critics for the agnosticism that the Chinese model can promote over traditional western models. I do think though in many activist circles there is a lack of knowledge and, accordingly, skepticism. Though, then again, if you take someone like, say, Bob Geldof as any kind of bellwether, lately you’re hearing more accommodating statements like “the U.S. is pulling out and China at least is still committed to Africa.” And, as well, Duncan Green of Oxfam has pointed out the greater involvement of China in Africa does give African nations more of a bargaining opportunity in its relationship with the West.
CAP: Yeah, it strikes me as rather surprising given the scale of China’s participation and engagement with Africa — now the second largest trading partner with Africa, soon to be the first — their investments are more diversified than the Americans which are largely in the oil sector – that there isn’t broader awareness of what’s happening and geopolitically how critically important it is as the United States needs to diversify its oil supplies away from the Middle East to more stable places. Why do you think there is such a blind spot when it comes to this very important trend that is taking place?
CHEN: Again, a lot of it is the fact that there isn’t a lot of information out there and what is being supplied is being supplied through pieces of the narrative that don’t present the full picture. I think the media has sort of seized upon this narrative of ”China in Africa” and “China’s African Safari” and it’s very much focused on one level. You’ll hear about how Chinese goods areshoddy but you don’t hear about the benefits for consumers. You’ll hear again about all these critics but you won’t hear about all the public opinion polls saying that Africans appreciate China’s presence. So I do think that you see that vacuum of information being filled by the same tired kinds of articles and my hope is that we are going to be able to get beyond Howard French’s piece of “meet Africa’s latest colonizer.”
CAP: Yeah, using the terminology “colonizer” and “colony” sets the wrong tone because it’s really not that, and that’s what is so dangerous is that people are thinking it’s like a British or European colonial adventure when in fact it’s something very different. I want to go back to a point that you brought up earlier about this idea of competing ideologies. I have a theory and I’d like to hear your reaction to it: that there is a war of ideas and many Americans think that now the cold war is over and the Soviets had one way of looking at the world and the Americans had another. We won game finished. Now I wonder if there is this new ideological war that is going on that is divided into three categories — the so-called “Washington Consensus” led by the United States and Western Europe that emphasizes civil and political rights alongside economic development. The second one is religious extremism as best exemplified by Al Qaeda in places like North Africa, the Caucuses and the Middle East. Finally, there is the “Beijing Consensus” that is very appealing as it offers countries the chance to modernize without Westernizing. What’s your reaction to this kind of theory and if it’s plausible that it’s being played out in places like Africa?
CHEN: That’s a tough one. I think you’re certainly picking up on one element of what’s happening and there’s no doubt that Beijing does present a different model, if you want to call it that, to the “Washington Consensus.” But I also think that a number of Chinese officials would be a little bit hesitant to embrace that their “model” is in fact a quote-unquote “model.” If you read China’s official position on development policy there’s more a sense of agnosticism and a recognition that there can be no one overarching model that can be deployed across the entire continent of Africa, much less in Asia. So if there is any alternative being promoted, I’d like to think that there is this sense that just as China found its own path out of poverty without the influence of multilaterals and aid agencies, likewise I think it can serve not exactly as a compass, but certainly a demonstration of the fact that it’s possible to build your own independent path towards development however that’s defined in your country.
You’ll hear again about all these critics but you won’t hear about all the public opinion polls saying that Africans appreciate China’s presence – Te-Ping Chen
CAP: You mentioned earlier about some of the shortcomings the Chinese have in termsof their ability to communicate their story and the ability to articulate what they are doing and thus allows a vacuum for critics to fill with sometimes nonsense and misinformation. With that in mind, what are some of the risks the Chinese face as their engagement with Africa increases? What are some of the “potholes” they need to be aware of?
CHEN: It depends on where you are looking, but certainly in Africa some of the bigger points of conflict have been over labor relations and we have seen from some of the bigger Chinese firms that the longer they stay in Africa the more locals they need to hire. Again, this notion that China through its special economic zones [in Africa] will be able to create “Chinese enclaves” has been damaging and will continue to be damaging. I think to an extent that’s offset by something that you’ve documented in your own work Eric, unlike Western workers in Africa, the million plus Chinese immigrants that have come to Africa tend to live side by side with Africans, tend to speak local dialects, purchase food at the local markets and aren’t driving around in massive SUVs. The question of transparency too has continued to dog China, particularly in Africa. I think for Western observers we have to be a little bit careful there when we talk about it though. To me, what matters is results on the ground and to an extent we have seen this issue of transparency has just served as a conversation stopper. Beyond that I think it’s important for China to be able to communicate that it really is around for the long haul and that’s another big misconception about China’s development in Africa that it’s the “Great Chinese Takeout” and that the Chinese are there to grab their oil, grab some trees and get out — and that’s not the case, it’s a more textured exchange one in which many more Chinese are immigrating [to Africa]. China’s shift to Africa is part of the country’s shift away from its focus on production of cheap consumer goods like t-shirts and the like towards more emphasis on higher value goods.
CAP: So, finally, what do you think is the most important aspect of what the Chinese are doing in Africa that people should understand?
CHEN: A lot of coverage in the West misses the fact that the China’s engagement in Africa has extended over decades, likewise they are mis-portraying this notion of the great Chinese take out when, in fact, you look at immigration, when you look at China’s positioning in Africa is really part of the country’s broader hope to transition away from its emphasis on just the production of cheap consumer goods, t-shirts and the like, they’re really hoping to use Africa as an opportunity to move up the value chain and develop factories in Africa as part of that process. So I think that one of the chief misconceptions is this great resource grab, this “Great Chinese Takeout” when in fact the Chinese are not intending to leave.
About Te-Ping Chen:
Te-Ping Chen is an editor at Change.org. Most recently she was a staff reporter for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. In recent years, her writing has appeared in outlets that include the Nation Magazine, the American Prospect, the South China Morning Post magazine, Le Soir and Slate.com. She is a U.S. Truman Scholar whose work has shared awards from the Overseas Press Club and Investigative Reporters and Editors.