Your Letters: CTP Readers Respond

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.

From a reader and podcast listener in the United States:

“My overarching thought is that I would like to start seeing a bit more focus on the actual impacts of China in Africa (CiA), rather than Western perceptions of China in Africa. Reading your coverage of CiA, I get the impression that you are most interested in exposing western hypocrisy and misconceptions about CiA, rather than the actual effects of CiA. To me, this risks falling into what I see as a fairly well established narrative in much of academia and certain media outlets where it is considered correct to bash the former colonial powers while giving present-day African governments (see http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/01/04/AR2008010404300.html for an example), and potentially neo-colonial powers such as China, little attention.

ERIC OLANDER: You are absolutely right that among the central motivations of the China in Africa (CiA) content was to highlight the hypocrisies of the West regarding the Chinese presence in Africa.  However, I cannot agree with you more that if that is done to an extreme, it will absolutely fall in to the stereotypical trap that has ensnared so many other observers of this issue.   The hypocrisies of the West is but one part of this multifaceted story.  Subsequent to receiving your feedback, we have modified the podcast to be far more issue and country specific rather than rely on broader, over-arching issues that are much easier to generalize.

In other words, a focus on Western hypocrisy/misdeeds in Africa is nothing new, and, in my mind, is sometimes so overplayed that people/governments/institutions who should receive more scrutiny do not by virtue of the fact that they are not one of the former colonial powers.

ERIC OLANDER: On the one hand, I think you are correct in saying that blaming the old colonial powers for incompetence and greed is an old story.  However, I will take issue with you on the point of attacking the aid industry.  With few exceptions there is very little critical review of the international aid industry.  Sites like Aid Watch are among only a handful of organizations that provide any kind oversight to this multi-billion dollar industry.  The fact that the Chinese are now operating in the same environments, often to much greater effect, than the traditional aid providers is worthy of examination.

Secondly, you mentioned in your podcast with Charlie Pistorius (which was very interesting and professionally done) that you are not, or do not wish to be perceived as a China apologist, but then the substance of the podcast belied the statement. For instance, I noted that:

• You mentioned the possible negative effects of China in Africa – environmental impacts, corruption – but then didn’t really address these.
• Instead, you spent much of the podcast focusing on European and American hypocrisy regarding China. Even though you mentioned that there is hypocrisy on all sides of this issue, neither of you provided any examples of Chinese or African hypocrisy.

ERIC OLANDER: All fair points indeed.  As a reporter who has aggressively covered China for over 20 years, I do not characterize myself as an apologist.  However, in that particular interview, I do see your point that I did not properly articulate the shortcomings of Chinese or African policies.

Lastly, I found the statement you made about Westerners wanting ‘their Africans to be poor, needy, etc.’ to be particularly galling. This is a gross stereotype that doesn’t add any value to the conversation. I have actually heard this sentiment expressed fairly often—by many educated Westerners and Africans (I like to avoid the increasingly hackneyed term “elites”)—and believe that it falls into the category of thinking that can be roughly described as: “it’s okay to making sweeping, generalizations about these people and what they think because their ancestors and governing structures were historical oppressors.” One, this statement can be easily falsified—I present many of my acquaintances and myself as evidence. Two, would you consider saying something like: “The Chinese like their Africans pliant, corruptible, and ruled by strong men, so they can keep siphoning off their resources and make heaps of cash from them, whilst dumping surplus people who might otherwise cause problems for the communist party”? I believe your grasp of these issues is very nuanced, so I found this statement somewhat surprising.

ERIC OLANDER: The statement that Westerners prefer ‘their Africans to be poor, needy, etc.’ is rooted in the deeply held, popular perceptions of Africans as nothing more than victims in the eyes of the West.  There are very powerful, long-established “embedded narratives” that shape the news coverage and popular media surrounding Africa and Africans.   These narratives subsequently frame the image of the place and its people as nothing more than mere caricatures.  From Bob Geldof to Bono to news coverage of the current story-du-jour in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the perception of Africans generally falls in to one of four buckets: 1) Poor (Time magazine cover of Ethiopian baby); 2) Fighting (kids fighting Liberia, Somalia, et al); 3) Safari (the predominant image of the continent) and 4) singing (from Paul Simon to Shakira).   It is very difficult to challenge these simplistic notions of complex cultures and societies.  I have worked in over a dozen newsrooms around the world and the level of sophistication about Africa among journalists, editors and producers is embarrassing.  Moreover, journalists on the ground in Johannesburg, Kinshasa and elsewhere complain bitterly that they every time they pitch a story that falls outside of the embedded narrative, their editors in New York/London/Paris either show no interest or reject the idea.

Clearly, people such as you, me and others who have a more textured experience with the region and its people are more sophisticated when it comes to separating the reality from the stereotypes.  However, I contend that the culture at large (in much of the rest of the world) still regards Africa and Africans within the confines of their limited worldview — and like it that way.  Challening stereotypes is a very difficult undertaking and thus, as I said, Westerners prefer their image of Africans to be poor, needy and dependent rather than the reality that you and I both know is so very different.

From a reader and podcast listener in Scandinavia:

“I’d be wary of saying that the topic you’re talking about is commonly misunderstood or not understood.   There are many people out there doing good work on China issues and the sweeping statement “they just don’t get it” might become a turn-off eventually.”

ERIC OLANDER: I agree that dismissing an idea with the sweeping statement “they just don’t get it” could potentially alienate more sophisticated listeners and readers.  I will definitely pay more attention to being very specific in the future.  However, it is worth noting (as mentioned above) that in many cases, I am trying to attack particular stereotypes that are widely held in certain societies on a particular issue.  In the United States, for example, where  knowledge about China among the general public is minimal at best, there are a number of times where it is appropriate to challenge the prevailing societal view with “they just don’t get it.”  That said, it should be done sparingly and with precision.

“One of the reasons why I loved your media podcast was because it was so on point while at the same time discussing the new and important media trends in China. The podcast on the Middle East was also really interesting, but it veered a bit off point at times. There’s so much fascinating Sino-Middle East stuff to talk about without having to turn the conversation into a talk about Islamic terrorism, if you know what I mean.”

ERIC OLANDER: I am glad to hear that you found the podcast on China’s new challenges in the Middle East to be useful. Unfortunately, it appears that one of the central messages I was trying to convey was lost somewhere in the discussion.   I do believe that Islamic terrorism is a relevant topic when discussing China’s increasingly complex interests in the region.  China now has active oil interests in several countries that have well-established Islamic terror networks including Iran, Sudan and Algeria among others.  On several occasions, al Qaeda has pronounced China to be an “enemy of Islam” and threaten to attack Beijing’s interests around the world.   Al Qaeda is responding to China’s growing presence in Islamic countries as well as on behalf of Islamic separatists in Western China.  The issue of terrorism, in my opinion, is therefore germane to the broader discussion of China’s Mideast foreign policy.  I regret that this was not successfully communicated.

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One Response to “Your Letters: CTP Readers Respond”

  1. john8348jon says:

    Hi, I am a new fan of your website. I love the topics of your site.

    Now, your response to the readers here is proof that you are considerate of the opinions of what the readers have just said. That is a great step from you. I will say that, as someone who only recently started reading your blog, your “West is hypocritical or harmful, China is doing good stuff” bias is detectable, although not too strong. It certainly was my first impression of where your opinions leaned.

    I think a good goal would be less of trying to atone for the white man’s guilt, and more about explaining or analyzing what is really happening on the ground. The colonialism of the past should really be most relevant when discussing its continued factor on a given topic at hand, rather than repeating it as a recurring theme.

    I do believe that you guys should express opinions, but back up your analysis instincts with as much honesty as possible. It is my take on journalism in general: opinions are great, but don’t demean, be fair, and keep your emotions level-headed.

    Thanks a bunch guys!

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