Posts Tagged ‘Namibia’

[AUDIO] The China in Africa podcast: getting to know each other

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

China’s embrace of Africa has produced some stunning statistics.  The numbers look great pretty much across the board. From trade volumes to foreign investment to the growing popularity of Chinese ministerial junkets, the data all looks great.  No, in fact, it’s fantastic.  But those numbers don’t tell the whole story.  While money, goods and services are flowing back and forth at unprecedented levels, a deeper question persists: how well do these two people actually know each other?  For some folks, it may seem rather trivial.  After all, if the checks cash, who cares, right?

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that money alone will determine China’s long-term success in Africa.  In fact, what they’ve accomplished over the past 5 years is really just the easy part.  Throwing piles of cash around the continent is a sure way to buy companionship, but friendship and trust, especially in Africa, require more than just money.

Already, there have been hints of what’s to come if Beijing underestimates the importance of developing an effective soft-power agenda in Africa.   Anti-Chinese policies enacted in Namibia earlier this year and rising hostility to Chinese labor migrants in Angola are now but two points on a graph, but could quickly transform into a trend if left unattended.  Instead, it will be critical for the Beijing to help facilitate Africans and Chinese at EVERY LEVEL of society to get to know one another.

A model of what that kind of engagement looks like can be found in Cape Town, South Africa in the offices Fahamu.  This non-profit pan-African activist and publishing organization recently led a small group of African journalists on a trip to Beijing to learn more about China and the Chinese.  Fahamu’s Emerging Powers Program Research Director, Sanusha Naidu, led the team on their visit to China where they met with students, intellectuals and other journalists among others.  Naidu said although the delegation was overwhelmed with China’s development and how much the country had achieved in such a short time, not all were convinced that China and Africa’s long term interests are aligned.  “There was a cautious optimism,” she said.

China still has time to ease those apprehensions, but it must get to work right away.

China in Africa: the BBC’s Annoying Interview of Liu Guijin

Sunday, April 11th, 2010

BBC iplayer imageIt’s not often that senior Chinese officials make themselves available for interviews with the international media, especially in English.  So when I first heard that the BBC World Service’s “Business Today” radio program was to interview Beijing’s top diplomat on African Affairs Ambassador Liu Guijin I was genuinely excited. Unfortunately, that excitement didn’t last long.  Host Steve Evans, like so many of his colleagues in the Western media, employed what has now come to be a rather standard cynicism whenever talking with Chinese officials.  It’s the same tone that we hear in the coverage over the internet in China where despite an incredible expansion in the Chinese information marketplace, journalists like Evans focus on the singular question of “what if someone wants to look up the Dalai Lama on Google?”  While I don’t dispute that China’s limitations on the freedom of speech is a legitimate issue, I do take exception when it becomes the ONLY issue.  There’s a similar trend occurring with the international media’s coverage of the Chinese in Africa.  Just as with the freedom of speech story, there are a numerous areas where China’s African foreign policy deserves credible scrutiny.  Its arm sales to despotic leaders (Robert Mugabe), support of brutal authoritarian regimes (Sudan) and active involvement in official corruption (The DR Congo) are all worthy of questioning and investigation.  However, the story of the Chinese in Africa is far more textured than just the shortcomings of Beijing’s policies on the continent.  Evans, like so many other journalists, approaches the story with a visible level of cynicism that  ultimately deprives the listener of understanding the nuances of this important story.  China’s engagement with Africa has changed the geopolitical landscape on the continent, for better and worse.  Yet, on this rare occasion to engage the Ambassador in a constructive exchange over the pros and cons of Beijing’s policies, we are led down the path of cliches about how China would respond to an African country inviting the Dalai Lama to visit.  Who cares?  This is such an extreme point with little representation of any larger issue relevant to China’s political involvement in Africa (scroll down for more on this part of the story).

Listen to the full interview here.

Here is a summary and critique of the issues addressed in the interview:


Evans opens the interview by asking Liu about “China’s motive” in Africa.  There’s nothing actually wrong with the question, there’s just an arrogance to it through the use of the word “motive.”  It’s comparable to how the BBC, CNN and other international news organizations selectively use the word “regime” to define a government.  Somehow,  Beijing is a “regime” and Washington is a “government.”  The word “regime,” as does “motive,” has a distinctly negative connotation that is rarely applied to Western governments.  I have never heard a comparable question of what “America’s motive” is anywhere in the world.   It should go without saying that China’s “motive” in Africa is multifaceted driven by a blend of economic, political, humanitarian and military interests — no different than Washington, London or Paris’ “motives” in the region.

Importantly, Liu does highlight a key difference between the Chinese perspective on Africa and that in the West.  For most government and populations in the U.S. and Europe, Africa is regarded as a basket case of war, disease, famine and decades of failed development policies.  In contrast, Liu highlights, the Chinese see Africa as opportunity.  Beyond the obvious extractive industries, the Chinese are engaging the continent as an export market that the West long ago abandoned.   Furthermore, China’s development policies in Africa are proving to be far more effective than those of bloated, expensive and ineffective Western aid agencies.  Liu rightly points that China’s effectiveness is leading to enhanced political ties in the region at the expense of the former colonial and international powers.


Following the international community’s successful sanctions campaign against South Africa’s former apartheid government in the late 80s and early 90s, a pipe dream still exists within the UN, US and the EU that sanctions are an effective tool at isolating despotic governments.   Yet after two decades of evidence to the contrary where Myanmar, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Zimbabwe and many others have defied international sanctions policies, the presumption that sanctions actually work persists.   It was refreshing then to hear Ambassador Liu challenge this conventional wisdom by clearly stating that China does not support sanctions measures because mass populations suffer disproportionately compared to the elites.  Liu was responding to Evans’ question about China’s unwillingness to join the West to coordinate a sanctions policy against Robert Mugabe and Zimbabwe.   China, as mentioned earlier in this post, should be scrutinized for its military sales to Zimbabwe but not on the issue of supporting yet another failed sanctions policy.


One has to wonder what the Western media would do without the Dalai Lama.  He is such a convenient package for journalists who are either too lazy or too uninformed to know better that a question about the DL offers very little insight on Chinese policy.  Ambassador Liu stuck to the party line with his response that the DL is a separatist political figure who seeks to divide China.    Now, I understand what Evans was trying to achieve with the question by implying that if an African country invited the Dalai Lama to visit it would no doubt complicate relations with Beijing.  The reason why it is such an objectionable question in the context of Chinese foreign policy in Africa there are so many  more pressing and relevant issues that need to be addressed with someone at Ambassador Liu’s level.


1) Describe China’s military presence in Africa specifically the PLA base in the DRC’s Katanga province.  Is the purpose of the base to be part of a multilateral peacekeeping operation or its own deployment to protect Chinese interests in the eastern DRC?  Should we expect to see a larger presence of Chinese military and armed private contractors on the continent?

2) The industrial deforestation tools the Chinese are using for logging in Mozambique, Congo and Zimbabwe among other areas is raising serious concerns that the Chinese are hollowing out Africa’s forests at rate that is unsustainable.  Is China monitoring this trend and what specific protections, if any, are in place to prevent this from occuring?

3) With hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants coming to Africa each year, what is the feedback he is receiving from host governments on the presence of this large, new population?  In places like Namibia and Zambia, there is growing discontent by political leaders over the presence of an increasingly large Chinese population.  How is he responding to these challenges?


The Western media’s blatant double standard for how it treats different governments is the most annoying aspect of this whole affair.  Compare, for example, this CNN feature that goes behind the scenes on how their reporter & camerawoman interact with the U.S. military in Afghanistan.  The CNN crew is embedded with Alpha Company and as such eats, sleeps and seemingly enjoys each other’s company.  ITN and the BBC did comparable puff stories embedded with British troops in both the Iraqi and Afghan theater of operations.  This chuminess with the militaries extends to their political leaders as well when journalists like Steve Evans rarely use that same cynical approach in interviews as they so often do with Chinese leaders.

It’s really too bad as we would all benefit from less fluff coverage of Western governments and more balanced coverage of China.

The Chinese in Africa: What’s on the Web this Week

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

Backlash Against the Chinese? Kenya ConstructionThe International Political Economy Zone blog highlights the growing tension in Namibia between local shop owners and the burgeoning Chinese presence there.  IPE Zone details the dilemma for many African nations about how to manage China’s emerging clout.  On the one hand, the infrastructure deals and cash Beijing brings to the table is welcome.  Yet, there are strings attached — and in the case of the Chinese and Namibia it’s the presence of legions of Chinese entrepreneurs who are posing new competition for indigenous businesses.  I share the author’s conclusion that it is just too early to conclude whether or not China’s presence in Africa is an asset or a liability.  Too many analysts want to marry the old, dated paradigm of “colonialism” to the current Chinese activities in Africa.  It is hard to overstate how egregiously wrong that is as Beijing is approaching the continent with very a different set of objectives and tactics than did Europeans in previous centuries.

Does China Help or Hurt? Over at “The China Beat” blog writer, Angilee Shah posts another in a wave of reviews of Deborah Brautigam’s new book on the Chinese in Africa,  “The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa.” Shah raises a few good points in her post about the important fact that is overlooked by most Western diplomats here in the Congo and elsewhere that China itself is a developing country with specialized expertise in working in under-developed conditions similar to what is available across Africa.  That specialization in low-cost, effective development offers tremendous potential especially when compared to American and European aid efforts that are seemingly obsessed with process and paperwork over results.

Do the Chinese hire locals? Speaking of Professor Brautigam, her excellent blog “China in Africa: The Real Story” links to a You Tube video from one DR Congo’s TV stations that confirms my own observations here in Kinshasa that the Chinese use a blend of Chinese and local labor for their massive construction projects.  From what I have seen here, each construction crew has dozens of Kinois who work under the supervision of a handful of Chinese foremen.  This is among the most sensitive issues both here in the DRC and elsewhere in the region where political leaders are expressing their frustration with the Chinese over the use of too many imported Chinese laborers at the expense of local hires.  Furthermore, several sources have told me that in other Congolese provinces, Chinese employers are regarded to be “overbearing” and are often embroiled in disputes over pay with local employees.  This is definitely an issue to watch as Chinese investment here continues to grow.

The Chinese in Africa: Let the Backlash Begin

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

octopus chinaI may be wrong on this but I don’t think the United States or Europe ever had to contend with restrictions on the ownership of beauty parlors in Africa.  BusinessWeek offers an interesting insight this week on the growing discomfort between the waves of Chinese immigrants and the local population in Namibia.  This is an extremely important trend to watch in Africa as the shine from China’s billions of dollars in investment begins to wear off.  First, it was Zambia, then recently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (source: Africa Asia Confidential) and now, according to BW, Namibians are beginning to mount increasingly vocal opposition to the Chinese presence in their country.

Here’s the key issue to focus on:  unlike emigres from Europe or the United States, this is the first overseas mass migration of foreigners to Africa who hail from the same economic class as indigenous Africans.  Hundreds of thousands of economically disadvantaged Chinese are moving in to neighborhoods and starting businesses in the same communities and under the same challenging circumstances as their African counterparts.  Inevitably, this can cause tensions as the Chinese often employ far more aggressive business tactics than what people are locally accustomed to in this part of the world.  So in Namibia the issue is beauty parlors and transportation, elsewhere it will be something else.  Make no mistake, the backlash against the Chinese is building momentum.

This assessment may appear to contradict my earlier post on how well the Chinese seem to be assimilating in cities like Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The Chinese migration to the DR Congo and other countries is happening at such a rapid pace and on such a massive scale that obvious contradictions like this are going to appear for quite some time.  It is by no means a linear process.