Archive for the ‘Rants & Raves’ Category

China’s Military Spending

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

A first scan of estimates across the web (i.e. Global Security; Stockholm IPRI) immediately tells you no one really knows the amount of spending in China except to say it is significant and opaque.  It’s rank is always second, but how much and what percent of GDP is unknown.

The website Visual Economics pulls together data from a couple of sources and at least provides a visual perspective by region which is more helpful than pure number estimates:


Of course, the reality is that China’s military spending is growing, but a lot of data gets thrown around about stealth fighters, aircraft carriers, and cyber warfare that doesn’t speak to an over-arching issue: when China’s economy is the same size of the US (see a good CS Monitor article) they will be able to match our budget despite a still much smaller per capita GDP figure).

Combined with what will be 3 to 5 trillion dollars in reserves, China will have, dare I say, quite a war chest.  So to my mind, the question to ask is not whether China will continue to modernize their military -they will and should.  The question for us to track in the news is insight into their strategic goals, and the key issue for our security is a lack of transparency.

Instead of worrying about China’s investment into its military might, we should worry more about how it plans to use it.

Stealthy Fighter or Stealth Sensationalism

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

A small rant.

In an article in yesterday’s New York Times, potential testing of a new stealth fighter by the Chinese Military was featured over the Defense Secretary Gates’ visit to Beijing.  Later editions of the article changed the lead to highlight the visit first, but the bulk of the article was about the stealth fighter.

The overall story of Beijing’s military modernization program is certainly important, but I think more print should have been spilled on the high level exchanges – without which the risk of conflict increases.   There will always be more modern weapons in Beijing’s arsenal (and don’t forget we inspire this because our own weapons are so frequently on display).  The point is what is Beijing’s intentions, aspirations, strategies; this is what military exchange is all about.

On one point, the article did a good job of highlighting how ham-fisted the PRC continues to be over discussing it’s modernization efforts.  Transparency breeds trust and if Beijing wants us to believe in a peaceful rise, then we could use some more open dialogue.

Your Letters: CTP Readers Respond

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

One of the biggest challenges that confronts any media professional is getting honest feedback on the content s/he produces.  TV journalists at the biggest networks in the world share the same complaint as the lone blogger — constructive criticism of one’s work is extremely hard to come by.  So when we received a pair of thoughtful, well-written feedback emails from a reader in Scandinavia and another in the United States, it was immensely appreciated.  Although the critiques (below) do sting a bit, their suggestions are valued and, in some cases, have already been incorporated into how we produce content on China Talking Points.   We thought it would be great to share their comments as a way to invite other readers to contribute feedback as well.  The comments below have been reprinted with the authors’ permission however both individuals did requested anonymity. (more…)

No Noise About

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

Sure, the NYTimes & WSJ carried headlines; there were the ‘usual’ blog posts; one or two nightly news mentions ocurred.  Protest, though? Outrage? Op-eds?

No wreaths laid or candlelight vigels held.  This was just the Chinese government implementing policy on a company that has agreed that it couldn’t adhere to them.

Google is not leaving China and China surely isn’t leaving Google.  But the US media finally has enough perspective (or learning) to consider it relatively unremarkable.

This is probably the biggest disappointment out of the whole issue.  I’d certainly like to see unfettered internet access in China, but I’d really like to see less knee-jerk reporting by American media professionals.

Sadly, this isn’t an issue that only pertains to news on China.  I fear our news cycle is starting to  illicit rapid and uninformed actions on many fronts.  Something our Chinese friends are probably more aware of than ourselves.

CTP Podcast – A Casual Rant on Media

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

Ok, we just wanted to get a couple of things off our collective chest.

First we talk about a shifting in tone regarding China coverage – is this really the same media that was so negative on China in the first half of the year?  Not that we agreed with all the hullabaloo in the first half, but with currency debate subsiding, re-registered and a trade agreement with Taiwan, US media appears at a loss on how to sensationalize normalcy.

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Second, we had to return to a conversation about China’s efforts on creating a media outlet that presents an independent and impartial view of the world’s events from a Chinese perspective.  Eric is doing some work with France 24, and sees some lessons to be learned from contrasts in state media ownership – something he’ll blog on later.

The Foxconn Suicides: Why Apple Won’t Get Bruised

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

apple in flamesWhile tragic, the suicides of the young Chinese workers at Foxconn are also inconsequential.  I say this not to be callous, however it should noted that outside of the Chinese and the broader technology blogospheres/Twitterverse, this is a non-story.    The painful truth is that the overwhelming majority of consumers simply do not care how their desired products are made.   They care deeply about price and features among other factors, but rarely, if ever, take labor conditions into account when evaluating their purchases.  This is true for the food picked in California’s fields by illegal Latino labor, or the undershirts we purchase that are assembled in Saipan and, yes, the MacBook Pro I am using right now to write this blog entry.

Outside of liberal elites along America’s coasts and certain slivers of the blogosphere, there is so little concern about this issue that it is hard to overstate.  Yes, there are surveys out there that say xx% of consumers would avoid purchasing a product made by sweat shop labor, however that same person then turns to Wal Mart or Target to buy those very products.   Those surveys should not be trusted to reflect popular opinion, as it is far more effective to study consumers’ actions rather than their intentions. (more…)

Why Unrest in Thailand Could be a Preview for China

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Chinese diplomats in Bangkok are no doubt extremely busy these days sending home reports of the ongoing turmoil roiling the streets of the Thai capital.  With Thai military forces now using live ammunition to disperse the so-called “Red Shirt” protestors, Chinese officials in Bangkok and Beijing must be wondering if what is happening in Thailand could also erupt in China. (more…)

The Stark Differences Between Western and African Views on China

Friday, April 16th, 2010

bloomberg_television_logo_svgThis brief interview on Bloomberg Television highlights the dramatic differences in worldview between Westerners and Africans when it comes to their view of China.  Journalist Maryam Nemazee asks Adam Mahamat of the China-Africa Business Council with seeming incredulity as to how China can succeed where the West has failed.  In what is now becoming a rather typical answer from Africans across the continent, the fact that the Chinese do not have a brutal colonial past hanging over their current activities accounts for a lot.  Furthermore, it cannot be overstated how many African governments regard the American & European political efforts to impose transparency, legal and political reforms to be paternalistic and patronizing.  On a number of occasions, African bureaucrats have publicly complained over Washington’s hypocrisy of imposing political reforms that are not even available in the United States.  So while the American government is demanding that Kenya and other governments not spy on its own citizens’ email and phone calls, the PATRIOT Act remains in force that grants the U.S. authority to do exactly that to its own citizens.  U.S. diplomats in Africa acknowledge contradictions like this but prefer to think of them as exceptions whereas many of their African counterparts find relief in the Chinese who make no such impositions.

When will Western journalists finally wake up to the reality that the European and American adventures in Africa have been a failure — be it as colonizers or in an aid & development context?  This supposition that somehow the Chinese are going to be worse than the West is objectionable on so many levels and clearly highlights the potent paternalism regarding Africa that remains in force among too many in the Western press corps.  The list of past and present Western sins in Africa is far too long, bloody and painful to give Americans and Europeans the benefit of the doubt in this debate.  While Beijing deserves careful scrutiny of its activities in Africa, it is also entitled to fair, impartial questioning from the media.

China in Africa: A Critique of Howard French’s “Empire” Article

Friday, April 16th, 2010

china_africa1China is walking down the same path towards empire in Africa as the once former European powers did a century ago writes former New York Times Shanghai and Africa correspondent Howard French in a new article for the U.S. magazine “The Atlantic.”  While his conclusion is questionable on several fronts, French’s article is far and away the best among a recent series of “China in Africa” articles that have emerged over the past year.  In particular, French does an excellent job of highlighting the failure of the West’s engagement with the continent over the past century, noting that billions of dollars in aid and development programs have done nothing to stem rising poverty levels.   Separately, French also delves into one of the less understood, yet critically important facets of the Sino-African relationship: food production.  With China’s arable land supply falling rapidly to environmental degradation and industrialization, Beijing is recognizing that it will soon have no choice but to go abroad for its food supply.  Africa, with its vast supply of arable land and limited capital, offers an ideal solution.  Yet, French appropriately warns that China must proceed cautiously on this front as foreign land-use in any country, especially in parts of Africa, is an extremely volatile issue.

In the end, French reaches the same, stereotypical conclusion that most Western writers come to with their China in Africastories, that Beijing is merely following the same path of colonial exploitation as Europeans and Americans did duringatlantic_logo_M_1col#6CE497_smtheir imperial adventures.  In fact, French’s last paragraph of the article concludes that the relationship between Africa and China will mirror Africa’s previous ties to other empires through the extraction of raw materials and the re-importation to Africa of finished products.  This is where French is either mis-informed or doesn’t fully understand the scope of China’s engagement in the region.

So while you read the article yourself, I propose the following additional points to consider:

  • The Chinese engagement with Africa cannot simply be defined on an economic level, the arrival of hundreds of thousands (soon to be millions) of poor Chinese immigrants who are moving in to neighborhoods across the continent will have a profound impact.  In less than five years, there are now more Chinese immigrants in Africa than France had at the height of its colonial power on the continent.  These immigrants are not just the workers who labor on the infrastructure and mining projects, but also economic migrants who are establishing small businesses and contributing to an emerging civil society in ways that billions of dollars of wasted Western economic development assistance could never achieve.
  • At one point in the article, French mentions “when the Chinese leave” which is another key difference between the Chinese presence in Africa and former Western colonial powers.  Simply put, the Chinese are NOT leaving.  This is not like the French, Germans or British who left when it was no longer economically viable to sustain their expensive colonies.  Just as there are now a million ethnic Chinese living in Southern California who have no intention of returning to Asia, the Chinese emigres are building a permanent presence in Africa.
  • French, like the overwhelming majority of his journalistic colleagues, concludes skeptically that China will ultimately fail to build any sustainable economic engagement with Africa.  In the end, they contend, it comes down to merely pulling out as much oil, gold, bauxite and other natural resources from the earth.  The reason I challenge French on this point is that he goes to the same guy that every other journalist contacts to get “the other side of the story.”  Zambian opposition leader Michael Sata is the most outspoken critic of the Chinese in Africa, particularly in his own country.  The fact that almost every article on the subject features a quote from Sata is either evidence of journalistic laziness (a real possibility) or the fact that it may be difficult to find articulate critics of the Chinese.  It’s disappointing that French and other writers do not venture off the main roads, past the big construction sites and away from the academic and political elites to get the layman’s perspective on the Chinese in their countries.  When I did this during my time in Kinshasa, I found far more nuanced and textured answers than what was provided to me by so-called “experts.”  French fails to deliver that important perspective strongly enough.
  • French offers a cynical view on the value of low-cost Chinese imports to Africa.  Just as Wal-Mart did in the United States where it recognized there was a viable market among the working poor that most other companies ignored, China is opening new markets for its products at the lowest rung of the economic ladder in developing countries across South Asia, South America and Africa.  Liberal elites in the coastal U.S. cities turn their noses up at Wal Mart with the same dismissive attitude they display for China’s arrival in the Southern Hemisphere.  The fact remains in places like the DRC where people have extremely limited disposal income, the ability to purchase headphones, toys, food products and electronics is nothing short of revolutionary.  These are all products we take for granted in developed societies and things that critics hope developing societies will avoid so as to prevent the corruption their “traditional” cultures.  The overwhelming cultural arrogance of that perspective is a separate issue, while the Chinese offering this critical service deserve praise.  The Chinese are operating in markets with such limited margins where Western and Japanese companies simply cannot compete with their significantly higher cost structures.  Contrary to popular journalistic perception, the Chinese behavior in these markets is nothing like their colonial predecessors and deserve separate analysis.

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.