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The Chinese Winning Hearts, Minds and Wallets in Africa

In this edition of the “China in Africa” podcast, host Eric Olander speaks with Africa scholar Dr. David Robinson, Phd. of Western Australia’s Edith Cowan University about his recent article “Hearts, Minds and Wallets:  Lessons from China’s Growing Relationship with Africa.”This is a very compelling piece of work that highlights several critical double standards that Western observers often employ when evaluating Chinese activities in Africa.   Right off the top, Dr. Robinson debunks the myth that China’s presence in Africa is a relatively new phenomenon, echoing Dr. Deborah Brautigam and other scholars by pointing out that Chinese activities have been recorded in Africa dating back as early as the 14th century.  With respect to contemporary issues, Dr. Robinson explains how he does not seek to defend Chinese economic and political activity on the continent per say, which he adds deserves intense scrutiny, but rather highlight the gross inconsistencies of many of China’s Western critics in the aid, academic and diplomatic communities.    These critics, he contends, seemingly think the Chinese are employing extra-legal methods to “conquer” Africa when, in fact, Beijing appears to be using the very same economic and political levers used by European and American powers for over a century.

While Africans have been saturated with images of Western society, many have long been denied the benefits of it: culture; material consumption; and personal freedoms. To compete culturally, the West must provide the benefits it has always promised. – Dr. David Robinson, Phd., Edith Cowan University

Dr. Robinson highlights three lessons that the West should carefully consider from China’s experience in Africa:

1. African governments should no longer be looked upon with the traditional colonial condescension, “Western states and corporations must provide attractive deals that can compete with Chinese offers. They must facilitate actual economic development rather than mere subsistence, as tends to be the case (Lyman, 2005), and support local institutions of governance rather than undermine them.”

2. It is a mistake to frame China’s engagement in Africa in purely economic or even political terms as there is a huge social component to their presence as well. “From free Chinese language lessons in Liberia (Paye-Layleh, 2009), to Chinese medicine and table tennis in the Central African Republic (Simpson, 2009), and a slowly growing number of interracial marriages in Africa and China (Richburg, 2009), cultural interactions between these regions have great potential for development.”

3. The West must move beyond the narrow caricatures that define Africa as merely a place filled with war, famine, and poverty. China is embracing Africa as a vast new political, social and economic opportunity whereas for many in London, Brussels, and Washington, mention the word “Africa” and the eyes roll with a big sigh that illustrates the prevalent sense of “donor fatigue.”  Dr. Robinson lays out a bold challenge for the West if they are to eventually compete with the Chinese for influence in Africa, “this will require greater investment within Western societies for the study of African history, society, and language; and a widespread shift of perception that begins to acknowledge Africa’s population as qualitatively equal to that of Europe and North America.”

At the of the discussion, I challenged Dr. Robinson about whether or not he thinks the West is capable of changing their perceptions of Africans from being pathetic colonial subjects who survive on the largesse of Western assistance to being regarded as equals as people, in business and government.  Although he did not include this his piece, ultimately he seemed to share my skepticism that Americans and Europeans are up to the task.

Show Notes:

About Dr. David Robinson

Dr. David Robinson is an early-career academic with a research specialty in modern African history. He completed his Phd in 2006 on the history of the Mozambican civil war and after working in a number of research and lecturing roles over the past few years, he is now a tenure-track lecturer at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia where he teaches courses on global history, human rights and genocide.

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