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China in Africa: If You're Over 40 Years Old Then You Probably Don’t Get It

There is a discernable generational divide when it comes to opinions about the Chinese in Africa.  It isn’t subtle and the split lines up according to age.  In almost every instance, those over 40 years old frame the issue in “colonial terms” clearly influenced by their own early education of Western imperial activity on the continent.  For these critics, Beijing’s engagement in Africa is binary — it’s either good or bad.  This explains why so much of the news coverage on the subject is structured in such simple terms with headlines like “Is China Good For Africa,” et al.   For this generation, the memories of decolonization, Live Aid and the countless Hollywood portrayal of a female  aid worker (and they are always women in the movies) gently holding a starving African child have had a profound impact on their worldview.  For the over 40 crowd, their education in the West never clearly condemned colonialism for its brutal failings.  There was always a hint that European, and even American attempts, to “civilize” the “natives” was a benevolent ambition.

A new generation of bloggers and scholars is emerging who approach Sino-African relations with significantly more sophistication than older observers who are burdened by their early education of Western imperial activity on the continent.

Since the launch of  China in Africa” podcast two months ago, I have found there is an entirely different perspective from a new generation of twenty and thirty something bloggers and academics who are unburdened by this conventional thinking.  They seem to approach the topic with a refreshing lack of intellectual baggage that permits a far more nuanced view of the issue that doesn’t frame the subject in that “good vs. bad” framework that is so typical of their older peers.  In universities across Europe and in South Africa (none in the United States that I have found so far), a new crop of students and bloggers is emerging who approach the subject with an unprecedented of level of sophistication.  To these younger observers, China’s activities in Africa are evaluated much more comprehensively, taking into account the histories of both Africans and Chinese.  Furthermore, there is a sense the Chinese should be judged in isolation rather than in the context of Western imperial policies of the past.  And unlike their older peers, this under-40 group generally approaches the subject with significantly less prejudice about China, instead focusing on the tangible impact of Beijing’s policies on the continent.
Judge for yourself:
1. Lu Jinghao: South Africa blogger and China-Africa analyst who writes the “A Chinese in Africa” blog (https://china-africa-jinghao.blogspot.com/) and is also a contributor to the China Africa Project.
2. Lila Buckley: Oxford University graduate student who is focusing on Chinese engagement in African agriculture.  She recently posted a guest blog on Deborah Brautigam’s “China in Africa: The Real Story” about her research in Senegal.
3. Johanna Jesson: Researcher at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and Phd. candidate at the Roskilde University who specializes in transparency issues related to Chinese aid and investment on the continent.  In particular, she has written extensively on Chinese investment patterns in both the DRC and Gabon.
4. Henry Hall: Masters candidate at the London School of Economics who is doing research on Chinese-Zambian relations.  Henry also publishes the weekly email newsletter and website China Africa News.
5. Dr. David Robinson: African historian who lectures at Perth, Australia’s Edith Cowan University.  Dr. Robinson recently published “Hearts, Minds and Wallet: Lessons from China’s Growing Relationship with Africa.
So while age by itself should not be considered the determining factor in judging the competence of any journalist, blogger or scholar, it does seem that younger observers are engaging the Sino-African issue with a very different perspective.  This is a particular issue that is extremely complex with intersecting histories, cultures and peoples who defy the simple stereotypes that are depressingly common in much of the mainstream press’ an academia’s coverage.

China in Africa: The Transparency Paradox

Transparency is a loaded word in the development business.  The idea that aid and investments in places like Africa should be subject to external audits and review is a sacrosanct principle within the industry.  Never mind the irony that organizations like USAID, the United Nations and the World Bank among others devote a majority of their time/effort with their aid programs to sorting through a byzantine bureaucracy that is anything but transparent — nonetheless, these very organizations maintain the “black box” that is China’s aid and investment agenda in Africa is alarming.   However, transparency can cut both ways and ultimately the West may regret its insistence that China pull back the curtain.The issue first came to my attention in Kinshasa at the posh athletic club “Cercle Elais” where I was enjoying an afternoon drink by the pool.  Sitting behind me were a pair of European construction executives who were seemingly drowning their sorrows in pint after pint of lager.  The two echoed a story detailed in the compelling book “China Safari” by complaining loudly over their inability to compete with Chinese construction firms who submitted bids 50-60% lower than everyone else.  ”There’s just no way we can compete,” one declared, “yeah, we’re fucked,” the other slurred.  Now, the interesting part of this story is who these two accused of screwing up their business in the DRC.  It didn’t seem like they blamed the Chinese.  No.  Instead, it was the World Bank and MONUC (the United Nations operation in the DRC)!

Hopefully advocates of greater transparency will apply the same enthusiasm they do for criticizing Chinese aid and investment initiatives in Africa to the bloated, inefficient procurement system that protects an indefensible level of Western corruption.

Under intense pressure to increase “transparency,” construction firms bidding on major infrastructure projects in the region have increasingly been required to submit “open bids.”  Before “open bidding,” governments and international organizations evaluated proposals using various criteria beyond just price (e.g. quality of materials, labor sourcing, etc…).  Yet as the transparency drive forced open the bidding process, price naturally became the dominant issue.  And as we know, when it comes to price, the Chinese are hard to beat. While there is ample evidence in Chinese construction and manufacturing industries to illustrate how Chinese companies employ  substandard labor practices and production methods to keep their costs as low as possible, there is an important alternative perspective that should be considered as well.  The Chinese construction firms in places like the DRC work harder, longer and cheaper than their Western counterparts:

  • Do Chinese construction executives stay in five star accommodations like Kinshasa’s Hotel Memling at a cost to international taxpayers of $500-$600 per night?  No.
  • Do Chinese project managers live in expensive expatriate communities with security details, chauffeur driven cars and consume imported food as their Western counterparts do? No.
  • Do Chinese construction projects operate only five days a week, forcing the project to take longer to build and ultimately cost more? No.

Hopefully advocates of greater transparency will apply the same enthusiasm for criticizing Chinese aid and investment initiatives in Africa to the bloated, inefficient procurement system that protects an indefensible level of Western corruption.  After all, the UN and the World Bank’s funds are all of our tax money, so if Chinese companies can offer a comparable service at half the price, well, that’s capitalism, right?
Footnote: this is by no means a new issue.  The Chinese began under bidding projects in Africa as early as 2005, prompting louder calls for improved transparency in the infrastructure procurement process.

The Chinese Construction Boom in Kenya

It may be hard to believe but half of all construction work underway in Kenya is now being done by Chinese firms, according to the U.S. public radio program “The World” (audio link below).  It appears the Chinese infrastructure building juggernaut in Africa is showing no signs of slowing down.  Kenya’s Business Daily newspaper reports the capital’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport has received a new round of funding for expansion and modernization where much of the work will likely go to Chinese contractors. Already, China National Aero-Technology International Engineering Company (CATIC) is on board to build out the airport’s new terminal four and a larger parking facility.  One would likely expect Chinese construction and engineering firms to compete vigorously for the millions of other dollars that have yet to be assigned.
Public Radio International’s (PRI) daily news program “The World” has done some very good reporting recently on the Chinese in Africa and specifically the Chinese construction boom in Kenya.

 

Chinese Aid in Africa: No Strings Attached

The Canadian Broadcast Corporation sent their Beijing correspondent to do some rather extensive reporting on the surge of Chinese investment in Africa. In contrast to much of the other recent coverage of the topic, Anthony Germain’s reporting from Zambia was refreshingly balanced.  The highlight of his reporting centers on the question of how China is taking full advantage of the failures of 50 years of Western aid.  Several of his sources pointed out that despite spending hundreds of billions of dollars in Africa, Western aid programs have very little to show.
The Chinese, by contrast, move quickly and efficiently and demonstrate visible results from their engagement.  That said,  Germain rightly points out that Beijing asks for very little in return from its African partners in the form of political accountability and transparency.   While I fully appreciate the importance of this kind of political pressure, it always strikes me as ironic to hear this perspective from Western critics, most notably through the Western media.   Specifically, the West (and by default the Western media) appear to be rather selective with their demands for political accountability.
Although the international aid industry spends billions of dollars each year in the very same countries that China is operating, there is virtually no scrutiny of the effectiveness of that money and the negative impact it often has on political accountability in under-developed countries across Africa.  Moreover, that same level of accountability is not regularly included in coverage of European and American companies operating in Africa.  It is not obvious to me, yet, how the Chinese behavior in Africa is different from that of French, American or German owned resource extraction companies operating in the region.
None of this is meant to exclude the Chinese from scrutiny, instead to highlight the obvious hypocrisy that is regularly employed by outside observers of the Chinese in Africa. Anytime a comparison is done between Chinese and Western aid strategies in Africa, it is worth noting that each brings a distinctive mindset to this endeavor.  The issue over “effectiveness” is one that is loaded with considerably different meaning in the West and in China.  The United States, for example, has a governmental system made populated disproportionately by lawyers.  Results, or effectiveness, is therefore passed through this legalistic (or administrative in the case of many European governments) filter.  China, in contrast, is a government made up of technocrats with an engineering background.  In this case, each problem or project is seen in the context of a start point and end point.  Period.  The engineer will solve any problem that arises in the interim of these two points with the end result in mind.
Consider the following scenario: Say the Chinese have been tasked to build a road in Madagascar.  The construction veers off course by 4 degrees, prompting the road to bend slightly to the left.  For the Chinese project managers, this is a simple problem with an easy answer: continue building the road but just pull it to the right a bit to make the road as a straight as possible but do not waste more time discussing the issue. If the Americans or Europeans were building that same road and encountered the identical problem the solution would look radically different.  Construction would likely stop immediately.  The construction manager would call in the grants officer from the relevant international development agency for guidance who would then demand a written report be provided within 48 hours on why the road veered to the left 4 degrees.  A second report would then be generated by the grants officer to be submitted to superiors at the appropriate embassy, prompting a conference call with headquarters in Washington, New York or Brussels.  Several meetings would then be convened to discuss the environmental and financial impacts of the bend in the road.  Yet another report would be generated by a far away official that would provide the necessary guidance to the grants officer back in Madagascar on how to proceed.  Throughout this whole 6-8 week process (at a minimum), construction would stop indefinitely until the entire administrative process is completed to insure the project remains compliant with the respective country’s development funding guidelines.
While this is a gross oversimplification of the issue, it does highlight the key cultural difference in how the Chinese and the West approach the development process.  While the Chinese process may be viewed by many in the West as “steamrolling,” it does generate results considerably faster than what comparable Western development agencies can produce. The next step for correspondents, such as Germain, is to go beyond the surface comparison between the Chinese and Western approach to aid in Africa and explore the underlying cultural differences that motivate each side.  Germain’s CBC reports did a nice job flirting with this issue, but it is definitely worthy of deeper evaluation. Footnote: In addition to the text article, Germain also produced an insightful 12 minute radio piece and also took some excellent pictures that are displayed in a beautiful photo gallery format.

A Behind the Scenes View of the Chinese in Africa

For most outsiders, the Chinese operations in Africa run largely as an opaque mystery.  Seemingly every Western book or in-depth news article on the subject features the same complaint of not receiving any help from either Chinese officials or businesses there about how the mechanics of their investments in the region function.   Basic questions like how are factories acquired or what kind of support do Chinese embassies offer local businesses in the region largely go unanswered.
For some perspective on these issues, I came across a fascinating bulletin board site (BBS) that offers remarkable insights into the inner-workings of Chinese business on the continent: www.chineseinafrica.com/bbs/ The site is exclusively in Chinese, so for the benefit of CTP’s English-only readers, here are some highlights of recent entries:
https://www.chineseinafrica.com/bbs/viewthread.php?tid=6400&extra=page%3D1
_______________________________________

非洲中国商人眼中的中国使馆

How Chinese Businesses in Africa see the

Chinese Embassy

One entry submitted by a writer with the handle “Old African Trader” posts what appears to be an open letter to the Chinese government appealing on behalf of business leaders for more help from Chinese embassies on the continent.   The posts starts by saying how much pride there is seeing the Chinese flag rise over Africa and the emergence of China as a global power.  However, he goes on to sharply criticize the government for its lack of support of small businesses operating in Africa:

“Although Chinese African exchanges are deepening and broadening and more investors are coming to Africa, and everyone can say that those in Africa live a lonely, solitary life devoted to work and the embassy offers almost no help to these businesses”

随着中非交流的深入和推广,一批批商人来到非洲投资,大家可以说都是在非洲孤独的生活工作着,在生意上似乎很少有得到使馆帮助的。

If this writer is accurate, it offers a fascinating insight into the limitations of the “public-private partnership” that so many outside observers take for granted when evaluating Chinese investments in Africa.  On several occasions in Kinshasa and elsewhere, U.S. diplomats expressed their frustration that Chinese businesses had an unfair business advantage over American companies because of the close diplomatic/corporate relationship that allegedly exists among Chinese enterprises investing in Africa.  Yet this open letter exposes that there are limits to the Chinese government’s support of businesses.  Where Chinese embassies draw the line on what business to support is hard to know, it’s obvious that major State Owned Enterprise (SOE) multinationals operating mining and telecommunications concessions among other deals in places the DRC are very likely getting a lot of support from the embassy whereas medium and small investors, as the writer appears to represent, may not be getting very much assistance.
https://www.chineseinafrica.com/bbs/viewthread.php?tid=17011&sid=Zd9phz
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牙膏厂寻求非洲贸易伙伴

Toothpaste Factory Seeks African Trade Partner

If you are interested in importing “Angola” brand toothpaste to Africa, then this post will be of interest. The author of this post appears to be seeking business partners in Africa to import this toothpaste.  What’s most interesting about this post is the advertised price of the toothpaste at just 1.2 RMB per unit.  This sheds some light on China’s low-cost export strategy that we have been discussing on CTP.  At just 1.2 RMB per unit, this toothpaste is affordable for a wide-spectrum of consumers at the lowest end of the economic spectrum.
https://www.chineseinafrica.com/bbs/viewthread.php?tid=6201&sid=Zd9phz
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多哥SINOCAR汽车销售有限公司修理厂致多哥华人朋友!

Togo Sinocar Auto Sales and Repair [Welcomes/Greets] Togo-based Chinese Friends

If you happen to live in the small West African country of Togo and want to either purchase a Chinese-made vehicle or get your “Great Wall” car repaired, then Togo Sinocar is the place to go.  The author of this post, seemingly the owner or manager of Togo Sinocar, explains how this venture is the first Chinese auto sales and repair company in the country.  Togo Sinocar has 10 employees and two Chinese engineers to serve the community.  What’s most interesting here is the range of services they offer. In the U.S. or Europe, an auto repair or sales dealer does just that, whereas with Togo Sinocar, the list of services is much broader. In addition to emergency tow services they’ll also help you secure either your Togo or international drivers licenses as well.
There are hundreds of other posts on this BBS that are worthy of exploration, some very personal about finding lost relatives who went to Africa and those searching for love in Africa.   We’ll bring you more posts in the coming weeks as this site offers a truly unique view into Chinese life on the continent that is hard to come by even among those living there.

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

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 ...

Rant: China Might Want to Consider Soft Power Too

By any measure China’s awe inspiring embrace of Africa is impressive.  Let’s put aside the staggering financial statistics on how many billions of dollars Beijing is spreading across the continent or even the scale of its natural resource haul.  Honestly, there is no comparison because no other country or countries come close to the breadth and depth of China’sengagement here.  While the Americans and Europeans meet in conferences and write report after report on the dismal political and humanitarian conditions in Africa, the Chinese are building deep roots here as part of a century-long investment.  From Algeria to Angola, tens of thousands of Chinese construction crews are laying the foundation of that investment with the building of countless roads, bridges, hospitals and other desperately needed infrastructure.  For that, there is widespread appreciation across many levels of society for Beijing’s ability to persevere where both national governments and international donors have largely failed.  Not far away, though, from those construction sites, problems are beginning to simmer that if go unchecked could severely compromise Beijing’s long term agenda in Africa.
China is not just bringing piles of cash and construction trucks to Africa, hundreds of thousands of immigrants are also making the long journey to resettle in cities like right here in Kinshasa.  These immigrants, like Mister Chen who we profiled earlier, are coming here in search of opportunity and to build a better life for their families.  They are opening businesses large and small in out of the way neighborhoods that largely go unseen by the casual observer.  In so many ways, the Chinese entrepreneurial enthusiasm is a welcome addition to poor and dysfunctional communities that essentially operate outside of the formal economy.  In short, the Chinese are bringing desperately needed jobs, goods and services.  Human culture being what it is though, there is also tremendous risk with how the Chinese ultimately assimilate with Congolese and other African cultures.  Initially, the arrival of those Chinese business were greeted either with indifference or welcomed as a positive addition to the community.  Now, however, the first rumblings of unease are beginning to emerge as some communities find the Chinese presence to be more problematic than they had initially thought.  This issue was most recently brought to light in Namibia where the growing competition from Chinese hair salon owners prompted the government to place an outright ban on Chinese ownership of these types of beauty parlors.  Separately, I am hearing more and more firsthand reports from Congolese who have friends and relatives working on Chinese construction projects who complain that Chinese foremen are becoming increasingly aggressive with their local employees.  It has been well documented that in countries such as Congo-Brazzaville, Angola and Algeria (source: China Safari, 2009) that many Chinese employers lack cultural sensitivity skills that would endear them to local populations.
To many Chinese, these so-called “soft skills” are meaningless.  The common retort from many Chinese business owners and project managers is that local workers complain because the Chinese work harder and demand more from their employees than do African companies.  The fact that local workers are complaining about working for low wages or not being paid at all just further reinforces that Chinese mindset.   In fact, the emotional standoff between Chinese merchants and their African critics is very similar to the same arguments made about cultural insensitivity by the Chinese in certain minority -populated provinces in China.  Now, let me be very clear here.  I do not have an opinion as to whether or not the popular sentiment held by the majority Han culture in China is correct or the views of minorities who feel their cultures are being paved over.  I will leave those questions to far more learned observers.  My point is that the debate is so similar.  The Han perspective emphasizes economic development as evidence by infrastructure construction.  Sentimentality for culture or religion is rarely a priority when measured against infrastructure development in economically deprived regions.
Considering the tremendous speed the Chinese are moving in Africa, particularly here in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there may good reason to allocate a small percentage of that investment to building cultural ties between the Chinese and their African hosts.  The Congolese, for example, seem overwhelmingly positive about the Chinese arrival.  They regard the Chinese initiatives with optimism and see their enthusiasm for Africa as welcome relief from the failed policies of the West.  That said, the DRC is an extremely volatile country where a spark can light a blaze in seconds.  If the Chinese are not carefully with their cultural investment, it could handicap their broader regional agenda.

The Chinese in Africa: Meet Mister Chen

Scan the headlines about the Chinese in Africa and the predominant theme focuses almost exclusively on the infrastructure-for-natural resource deals.  The Chinese are signing multi-billion dollar oil and mineral deals up and down the continent while spending a comparable fortune building desperately needed infrastructure in many of the least developed countries on earth.  Here in Kinshasa, evidence of China’s foreign and trade policies is everywhere.  New roads, hospitals, parliament buildings are all being built at record speeds by Chinese construction conglomerates.  Yet not far away from the heavy earth moving trucks and the billion dollar mineral deals, a separate, yet equally transformative revolution is underway.  Quietly, tens of thousands, possibly even  hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants are moving in to neighborhoods across Kinshasa and dozens of African cities.  While there is no reliable data available to estimate just how many emigres have come here, there is no doubt the Chinese population is rising quickly.
When I first heard that Kinshasa was now home to thousands of Chinese immigrants, I naturally assumed there would some sort of “Chinatown” with a population cluster just as there is in Paris, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires and even Asian cities like Kuala Lumpur.  It just made sense that the first wave of Chinese arrivals would huddle together as immigrants have done the world over for generations.  ”So where is the Chinese community?” I asked a several of our local staff.  Puzzled, they responded “what do you mean? There is no Chinese community here, they live with us.”  Time and again I received the same answer.  The Chinese immigrants in Kinshasa are skipping an entire phase of assimilation by moving directly to the sprawling neighborhoods and shantytowns that is home to the capital’s 8-10 million residents.  By any standard, this is a remarkable phenomenon as there are few more seemingly divergent cultures than Chinese and Congolese.  Yet despite overwhelming differences in language, race and culture, the Chinese are adapting in ways that Westerners could never begin to imagine.
Mister-Chen1ctpMister Chen is one of those thousands of new arrivals to Kinshasa.  He and his family moved from China’s southern Fuzhou province three years ago to come to Africa.  When he first learned of the opportunity to come to the DRC he admitted that he knew nothing about the country as was made clear by their decision to settle in the eastern Congolese city of Kivu.  Traveling over land from the Rwandan capital of Kigali, they arrived in Kivu unaware that it is the epicenter of Congo’s violent 10-year war.  Hundreds of thousands of people, possibly millions, have died in the region surrounding Kivu and after three weeks he packed up his family to move west across the country to the relative safety of Kinshasa.  Upon arrival here he was introduced to a “Chinese association” that would provide him the logistical and financial support for him to open a small shop in one of Kinshasa’s vast, densely populated neighborhoods.  These associations are critical to understanding the success of the Chinese, both here in Kinshasa and the world over.  Just as Chinese immigrant associations in San Francisco and New York, the Chinese associations in the DRC provide what is essentially a micro-loan to new immigrants and the necessary logistical support to open a small business.  The association handles the legal paperwork, ensures the necessary bribes are paid to relevant neighborhood police and government authorities; connects the shop owner with a distribution network of Chinese importers to supply their business.  Mister Chen said he arrived from China with “only a few dollars” but was able to get his start through the help of the association.  In turn, as his business develops, he re-pays the association back in small increments until the loan is fully paid.  The association also plays another critical role that insulates the shop owner from the volatility of daily life in Kinshasa.  When the police or some other government authority comes to his store for bribes or extortion, he simply calls the association who then quickly respond to handle the situation.  This rapid response and protection from the association is an immensely important aspect of the Chinese entrepreneurial success here as it offers a level of reliability largely unavailable in a society as unstable as Kinshasa.
Mister Chen’s store has the feel of an inner-city American liquor store where all of the products are on display behind a think glass window.  He largely sellsMister-Chen2ctp cheap, low quality Chinese-made knick-knacks that range from one-dollar headphones to shoes to plastic tableware.  Although business in his 1,500 square foot (estimate) shop was brisk during my 45-minute mid-day visit, not once did I see him sell a single product.  Instead, locals would approach the counter, throw down a $20 or $50 US bill and he or one of his local staff members would hurl a wad of Congolese francs and dollars back at the customer.   In addition to selling low-cost Chinese imports, shop owners like Mister Chen have also established themselves as among the most reliable money changers in the city.  ”I trust the Chinese more than I do Congolese,” one customer explained when I asked why he changed his money with Mister Chen and not at one of the countless money changers on the street.  ”They give us a fair price and don’t cheat us.”  By selling low-cost products along with doing a brisk currency trading business, Mister Chen said he is able to squeeze out a small profit.  ”It’s not a lot because the Congolese are very poor but I earn more here than what I was making back in Fuzhou,” he said.
When you consider the hundreds of billions of dollars Western governments and NGOs have spent in Africa to help build civil society programs none seem anywhere near as effective as what Mister Chen is doing.  His small business is simultaneously providing jobs, goods and services that are vital in a region desperate for this kind of economic activity.   Mister Chen does not think of his business as anything other than a means to earn a meager living.  What he may not realize is that what he and his family are doing is part of a larger, more powerful trend that will re-shape Africa in a far more profound way than any of the roads and hospitals Beijing is building here.

The West’s Tragic Blindspot in Africa

I have been living in Kinshasa for almost three weeks now and since I landed here I’ve been asked countless times what I find the most interesting/bizarre/unusual about life in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For me, the answer is clear. It’s not the vibrancy of Congolese culture, how incredibly warm most people are, or even the tragedy of the endemic poverty that defines life here for so many. No, the biggest surprise so far comes from the attitudes of the many American aid and development personnel I have met. These are the people who work in both the large multinational relief organizations or in the development sector of the US government itself. Pretty much, anytime you socialize with these folks the conversations almost always centers on who is more dysfunctional: Congolese society or their employers at the major NGO/government agencies. Beer after beer goes down while they detail the overwhelming bureaucratic challenges they confront each day just to do their jobs. They complain passionately how their management rarely cares if anything actually gets done just whether or not reports are written and rules are followed.
So it’s in this context that I raise the issue that I consider to be the proverbial elephant in the room. If you accept that a global battle of ideas is currently underway among three competing ideologies: religious extremism (the Middle East, North Africa, the Persian Gulf and arguably even in the United States itself), the so-called Western democracy agenda promoted by the U.S. and Europe and then what’s referred to as the “Beijing Consensus.” This “Beijing Consensus” at its core is an ideology modeled after China’s own 30-year economic success that emphasizes social/economic issues over civil/political rights. China is exporting that philosophy across the developing world, especially in Africa, where governments are being lured with billions of dollars in low interest loans, debt forgiveness and massive infrastructure projects in exchange for access to natural resources. The Chinese bring to Africa their own development experience from working in comparably disadvantaged environments. Specifically, the Chinese have developed low-water agricultural expertise, enhanced irrigation techniques and an unrivaled efficiency for building infrastructure projects. Yet none of this — and I mean NONE — matters to the Western development staff that I have met so far.
The Chinese, in their minds, are “communist dictators” who don’t value “democracy” and “transparency.” Just like that, the conversation ends. They have no patience to talk about anything the Chinese are doing other than fueling corruption, importing poorly made products and exporting dictatorship. What I find so interesting about these discussions with supposed “professional development specialists” is how remarkably unsophisticated they are about alternative models from non-Western countries. There is a confidence in the American/Western method that borders on evangelical.
The real tragedy here is that none of what I am observing here in the DRC among Western aid officials is new. Experts having been sounding the alarm over this blind spot for years. Prominent Sino-African relations scholar Professor Deborah Brautigam raised the issue in 1998 when she too singled out western aid agencies for their nativism. “Ignorance about China’s development aid program [in Africa] is even more complete among development analysts,” she wrote. Professor Brautigam explains some of the reasons for this ignorance, attributing it to the language barrier, China’s former diplomatic isolation and “the Chinese work style which emphasizes productive labor over report writing” (source: Deborah Brautigam, Chinese Aid and African Development, 1998).
While the Western development agencies bury themselves in reports, spreadsheets and analysis, the Chinese are out there seven days a week building roads, dams, bridges, hospitals and more. Simply put, traditional Chinese pragmatism is getting things done while the Western model dithers and dithers and dithers with endless paperwork. After dozens of conversations with Congolese on this subject, it is abundantly clear that either the Western development officials either don’t see or don’t care that they are in fact losing the ideological battle for hearts and minds. The Congolese can see firsthand the immediate impact of Chinese development. They can feel it, touch it and understand it. The same cannot be said for American and European aid where the complex world of spreadsheets, templates and development models is lost on the very people they are trying to help.
The Chinese live in a practical world, a world the Congolese can identify with. Westerners may have once been as pragmatic and practical, but no more. The mere fact that these aid officials can’t even discuss it illustrates how serious the problem is.

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