It’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:
CHINA’S “MOTIVE” IN AFRICA?
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.
THE DALAI LAMA QUESTION
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.
WHAT STEVE EVANS SHOULD HAVE ASKED AMBASSADOR LIU:
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.