Court awards compensation to would-be Tibetan protesters in Hungary

April 16, 2015

Hungarian state radio just reported that a Hungarian court awarded damages to two Tibetans who were detained by police in 2011 to prevent them from demonstrating against visiting Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao (see my post). The police must post an apology on its website.

But in the meantime, Hungary has adopted a developmental state ideology that, like China’s, sees dissent as disruptive, hostile and serving the interests of the nation’s foreign enemies. Consider three facts. The ministry of foreign affairs has been renamed the ministry of foreign economic relations and foreign affairs and declared that diplomats would henceforth be evaluated based on their ability to attract investment. NGOs receiving foreign funding have been subjected to raids by tax police, and some have had their accounts frozen, causing a conflict with Norway and a spat with the EU. And Jobbik (“The Right One”), a party vocally critical of the government, has risen to second place in opinion polls. Jobbik is a chauvinistic, anti-Semitic and anti-EU party whose attacks on the government are phrased in terms of national defense rather than individual rights, and as such have been buoyed by the government’s own rhetoric along the same lines.

Such developments — a rise of developmentalism combined with popular nationalism and a broadenin crackdown on civil activism, rooted in a successful campaign to convince people that such activism is inimical to the nation — echoes recent trends in Russia, Egypt, Turkey, Thailand, and China itself. In some respects, it can be seen as a slow shift towards what has famously been called the “Beijing consensus,” although I still think the term is inaccurate because it suggests that China’s model can be applied elsewhere. It cannot, but its elements are.


The coming crackdown in China’s social sciences?

November 17, 2014

There have been ominous developments in China’s cultural politics recently. In October, Chairman Xi gave a speech at the Peking Forum on Literature and Art, a high-profile event whose title paralleled one in Yan’an, at which Mao defined his cultural policy, one that mandated art’s subordination not only to class struggle but also, more specifically, to party discipline. Since Mao’s demise, party leaders have generally not taken on the role of arbiters of art, leaving specific acts of promotion and censorship to specialised government bodies. Xi’s speech was notable for naming specific positive examples, among them the nationalist, anti-Western blogger Zhou Xiaoping causing great uproar not only among liberal intellectuals but also by literature buffs who made fun of the quality of his writing. This is almost tantamount to acknowledging that the nationalist and stridently antiliberal tabloid Global Times, where Zhou is an occasional commentator, now counts for China’s official voice. (Foreign Policy, at least, seems convinced that GT really is the voice the silent majority, as it claims.)

A bit earlier, universities and social science research institutes received a circular ordering them to report what research projects they have with foreign funding, and a text circulated online, written by a party official at the China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and warning of the infiltration of Western agents into the social science research system. Then, on 5 November, a much scarier text appeared in the official newspaper of the China Academy of Social Sciences, 中国社会科学报 (Chinese Social Science). Entitled “Absolutely Not Allowed to Break the Communist Party’s Pot” (绝不允许砸共产党的锅), it was a report on a conference held by the Red Culture Studies Society of China (中国红色文化研究会) and the Special Committee on Scientific Development and Political Harmony (科学发展与政治和谐专业委员会) of the Chinese Poilitical Science Association on “seizing the initiative in the ideological struggle” (掌握意识形态斗争主动权).

According to the report, the conference stated that “foreign enemy forces” (境外敌对势力) were relentless in their attempts to subvert China’s political system and that “certain organisations and individuals” in China were spreading lies, stoking fires, and sowing chaos in thinking so as to compete “with us” for people’s hearts and minds. These individuals include “certain opinion leaders, online Big V’s [VIPs] and ‘dissidents’ within the system (体制内‘易见人士’)”. Worse, there were some “leading cadres” who wanted to “please both sides”.  “So-called ‘experts’ and ‘scholars’ with Western backgrounds who have infested/infiltrated (混入) some government organs, some cadres who are in bed with the Party but have different dreams have not only not been criticized but been promoted and given important assignments.”

Participants concluded that it was necessary to “tell people clearly joining whom will bring benefits and prospects and joining whom will bring no benefits and no prospects,” to “leave no room for people flirting with foreign enemy forces” (让和境外敌对势力眉来眼去、沟沟塔塔的人风光 不再). “It is absolutely not allowed to eat the Communist Party’s rice and break the Communist Party’s pot,” and those who do so must have their rice bowls taken away. China should learn from Russia where organisations that receive foreign funding must register as “foreign agents.”

The idea that China suffers under a cabal of liberal public intellectuals is staple for Global Times, as is the deliberately crude language, reminiscent of Maoist times. But so far, the formula that Andrew Nathan called “resilient authoritarianism” has meant that the government allowed much greater freedom of expression in the academic sphere than in, say, the press, because this was conducive both to upgrading the international respectability and the actual quality of Chinese academia and because it was deemed to have little influence outside academic institutions. Of course, occasionally academics do lose their jobs and are even jailed for their political views, but both liberal and left-wing critics of government policies have thrived (notably in sociology), and even some actual critics of the system have been allowed to retain their chairs. A similar leniency has prevailed in the arts. And,  overall, it has worked: most critics are loyal to the regime and so are useful both as sounding boards for policy and for bolstering legitimacy abroad.

If this article is a sign of things to come, then this period may be over. Academics will no longer be allowed to sit on the fence, accruing Western kudos while not being disloyal to the party, all in the name of scientific objectivity.

Is it  a sign, then? Participants of the conference named in the report are mostly retired cadres, the highest-ranking of whom is Zhang Quanjing 张全景, a former director of the Party’s Central Organisation Department. They also include the sitting president of the Chinese Historical Association, Zhang Haipeng 张海鹏. But is unlikely that the official organ of CASS would have published this bombshell of an article without approval or indeed instructions from a high place, particularly since it contains threats addressed to officials, not just academics. Moreover, the report was followed, on 14 November, by a front-page article in the provincial paper Liaoning Daily, entitled “Professors, Please Don’t Talk About China Like This” (老师,请不要这样讲中国), complaining that university professors keep talking about China in a negative way, leading to uproar on the Internet and an editorial in Global Times (19 November).

The question is whether the attack comes from a hardline faction of the leadership that is being challenged by other Party elites or a direction already decided upon. If the latter is the case, then we may in fact witness some version of an Anti-Rightist Campaign that will involve public self-criticisms and perhaps purges. (Similar things may be in the offing in the arts. And overall, the post-1978 tenet of “he who is not against us is with us”, 非敌即友, may be changing. For instance, Global Times just published an opinion piece demanding a public apology from Hu Na, a tennis player who sought asylum in the U.S. over 30 years ago and has now returned to China. It used to be the case that such individuals were tacitly welcome as long as they gave up any political opposition, in order to encourage others and forge a united front. But Hu is now being labelled a traitor.) The fact that two of the Party’s main ideological publications, Guangming Daily and Qiushi, jumped to Liaoning Daily‘s defence after an open letter by liberal intellectuals protested against the article, and especially that Qiushi used the same Cultural Revolution-era language as the CASS publication, suggests that a broader campaign may be in the offing. On the other hand, a Global Times editorial took a moderate line, defending the article and asserting the need for a “political and moral bottom line” in the classroom, but appealing for calm and arguing against factional battles (despite the fact that on other occasions GT’s contributors have not hesitated to attack those they saw as breaking the ranks). This suggests either that there is no consensus on the issue among influential Party elites or, more likely, that they have let a radical group play up the issue in the media as a way to warn academics but not as an imminent threat.

This is all slightly off the blog’s topic. Unlike some other social science fields, Chinese scholarship on China’s “development export” has been dominated by self-appointed spokesmen for the government. But in the last years, there have been some salutary developments towards a more reflexive or at least evidence-based, ground-up scholarship, by researchers more interested in international collaborations. It would be a shame if they were nipped in the bud.


The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

October 13, 2014

Saturday’s (11 October) New York Times carried an article on The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. For anyone familiar with China, the name rings familiar: what China’s government is striving to achieve is officially called “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people”, but a better translation of Zhonghua minzu de weida fuxing is in fact “the grand renaissance of the Chinese race/nation”. The article describes forced wage deductions from workers to buy bonds supporting the cost of the dam and says reactions are mixed: some are unhappy while others seem enthused by the hope of development.

The article mentions that the dam will partly be built with a Chinese loan, but by an Italian company, Salini (thanks to Paulette Nonfodji for pointing this out). This is unusual and makes me wonder why the Chinese government agreed to provide the loan without the usual requirement for procurement in China. Perhaps there are Chinese subcontractors or perhaps the Ethiopian government has pushed back. In any case, this is something of a corrective to the excessive focus on the role of China in controversial development projects in Africa, making  it seem as though China deliberately exports predatory development just to pursue its own ends. In fact, an increasing number of Western, Brazilian, Russian, Korean and other companies are rejoining the ranks of global dam builders now that there is financing to be had from the World Bank and elsewhere, and the projects are beginning to look commercially viable.

For some time, various observers of China’s overseas engagements, including myself, have thought that if there was one country that could be said to be emulating the “Chinese model”, that’s Ethiopia: a strong developmental state that suppresses opposition, engages in surveillance and media censorship, and uses extralegal coercion when wanting to advance its goals. Perhaps it also produces the type of nationalist-developmentalist discourse that China does, and perhaps it is just as effective. Of course, there is nothing “Chinese” about this in any cultural sense: other developmental states like South Korea have done this in the past. But then again, perhaps there aren’t that many similar examples either. And it is certainly China’s example, and Chinese investment capital, that help the propagation of this approach now rather than in the 1970s. Yet, as this case shows, attracting Chinese capital may involve displays of friendliness towards China (and of annoyance towards Western human rights concerns) but does not need to result in a weaker hand when it comes to balancing Chinese and other interests.

We shall see to what extent other governments adopt this approach and how far they get with it. There is no want of candidates: Egypt, Turkey, Russia, Hungary, and some South American states come to mind. Interestingly, African states less so.

Chinese-language media worldwide sign statement condemning Hong Kong demonstrations

October 8, 2014

According to a post dated 3 October on the Xinhua News Agency’s mobile platform and circulating on the Chinese Internet, 142 Chinese-language media organisations around the world issued a declaration condemning the demonstrations in Hong Kong and “calling on overseas Chinese around the world to take action to stop extremist violence” (直至极端分子的暴行)by protesters.

The declaration was signed by the Chinese International Media Association (海外华文传媒协会), but interestingly, there is no trace of it on CIMA’s website, which shows no activity since 2010. The site states that CIMA was registered in Canada in 2007 and aims, among others, to create “positive propaganda for the political, economic, and social situation in China on both sides of the [Taiwan] Strait.” Between 2007 and 2010, CIMA has hosted several “world Chinese media summits.” CIMA’s contact address is in Burnaby, the Vancouver suburb heavily populated by recent Chinese immigrants. The language used on the site is typical of media founded by new Chinese migrants worldwide in that it uses the highly formulaic language of PRC officialese. There is no indication of ties to Chinese government organisations, but the aims of the media summits — bringing together overseas and “mainstream” mainland media and creating “unity” — parallels those of the summits hosted by China News Service, the news agency under the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Department. These summits have been hosted under the name World Chinese-Language Media Alliance (世界华文媒体合作联盟), but the duplication of organisations and names is common in both China itself and among the new diaspora’s feverishly proliferating associations.

Although the best-known Chinese-language media have not signed the declaration, mustering 142 signatures from organisations across all continents is an undeniable feat, even if some of the signatories exist in name only. Others, like Cambodia’s Jian Hua Daily, are locally fairly important. In the Netherlands, the declaration has been signed by United Newspublished by a man who used to be a journalist at a municipal paper in mainland China. Such profiles are fairly common in new migrant media.

The declaration is a further demonstration of the efforts made by the Chinese government to propagate its view of China and the world in overseas media, but it is more remarkable for its language. The text is variously (and sometimes confusingly) vindictive, patronising and threatening, alternating between comparing the demonstrators to children testing the limits set by their parents, calling them traitorous agents of “Western anti-Chinese forces” who try to foment a “colour revolution” and then run to the British for protection, and warning them that Hong Kong has enjoyed too many special rights and it belongs to “the entire Chinese nation.” This is not so much the anemic official language of People’s Daily as of Global Times, its popular offshoot that “tells it as it is” and has directly accused the U.S. of instigating unrest in Hong Kong. In this instance, the language is frankly repulsive and borders on the fascistic, in the sense that its main charge against the demonstrators is simply that they have broken the ranks of the Chinese people.

Such language is now being exported overseas with some success. I have long drawn hope regarding the limits of Chinese nationalism from some of my migrant friends from lower class backgrounds, like the former fisherman from Fujian who has lived in Hungary, Morocco and Romania for twenty years and has in the past been rather skeptical about the Chinese authorities, recalling less than positive experiences in his native village, and resisted being drawn into the photo ops with visiting Chinese officials that many other migrants favour. But Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign is to his liking, and he now resends pro-government, antiforeign opinion pieces on his WeChat account.

Chinese political scientist endorses positive sides of European colonialism

September 10, 2014

I am reading Wang Yizhou’s book Creative Involvement: The Evolution of China’s Global Rise (as is often the case, the book is in Chinese but also  has an English title). The book came out last year and is the second of what the publisher, Peking University Press, describes as a trilogy. (The first is entitled Creative Involvement: A New Direction in Chinese Diplomacy.)

Wang is a professor of international relations at Peking University. He started his career as an Eastern Europe specialist, publishing books on The Hungarian Way (1987) and The Polish Crisis (1988).

Towards the end of the book, on pp. 174-176, Wang delivers a surprisingly ambivalent assessment of European colonialism. He begins by what appears to be an endorsement of early European explorers’ propagation of modern technologies such as cartography and firearms; the export of European architectural styles, expositions, flush toilets, sewage systems, the Latin alphabet and sports by engineers and missionaries; and the spread of education and legal systems, accounting methods and labour organizations by colonial officials and non-governmental organisations. He distinguishes these positive aspects of European colonialism from Japanese and American imperialism, which he describes as essentially militaristic and violent, and approvingly quotes another scholar, Chen Lemin, who describes colonization as a spread of civilization — exactly as it was justified by the colonial powers. He also notes that the European colonial enterprise was not purely a state affair but involved many non-state agents, an aspect he also sees as positive. Further on (pp. 179-80), Wang makes clear that he sees Europe’s contemporary international role as principally an exporter of norms. Europe, in his view, continues to possess a “normative power” unmatched by the U.S., which leads through military power. He ascribes this to Europeans’ superior knowledge of history and “cultural upbringing” (文化修养).

Wang tempers this assessment by criticizing the “eurocentrism” apparent in the “white man’s burden” and, confusingly, traces a straight line from old-style colonialism to Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech and Sarkozy’s military interventions in Africa. Nonetheless, the description of the European colonial enterprise as largely benevolent is striking. Acknowledging the positive side of colonial modernization is not, in itself, surprising for a Soviet- or Chinese-style Marxist approach to history, as, in a teleological frame of development from feudalism to socialism, it propels society to the next stage of development and produces national elites and proletariats that can then take up the fight against colonialism but also against feudal oppression. But in official PRC readings of history, given the CCP’s strong reliance on anticolonialism as a source of legitimacy, this theme has been downplayed, whereas Wang completely omits the violent and coercive aspects of European colonialism (as well as the modernizing aspects of Japanese colonialism).

In non-academic writing in Chinese, notably about Africa, approving comments on the British colonial legacy of jurisprudence and rights awareness are quite common, but I think in academia this is fairly new, and seems to be intended to create a discursive basis for legitimizing the “civilizing projects” of current Chinese engagements in Africa and elsewhere. Indeed, Wang describes China’s attitudes to global modernity as a “winding” but nonetheless “increasingly clear,” from forced acceptance to forceful resistance to cautious adaptation to “attempting to assert its own values and interests in the enterprise of humankind’s progress” (p. 176). He adds that China has already contributed significantly to the “hardware” of that enterprise, but that its contributions to spreading new societal norms have been out of proportion with its economic weight.

Guest post: Are China’s NGOs entering Africa?

June 30, 2014

In April this year, two groups of Chinese journalists visited East Africa on a reporting trip. This post is translated from an unpublished article written by one of them, Hu Jianlong 胡剑龙, a senior investigative reporter for Southern Weekly. The author is a 2013 alumnus of Wits University’s China-Africa Reporting Project. He is currently cooperating with a Malagasy reporter on an article on illegal logging in Madagascar, and is planning to return to Uganda and Kenya in July. He can be contacted at nfrbhjl AT

In the evening of 18 May, the Africa Philanthropy Forum, held at a congress hall near the Lingshan Buddha — East China’s largest Buddha statue – experienced another small climax. Gu Xiulian, a former deputy chairwoman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, and Ethiopia’s first lady jointly held up a vermilion tablet with “10 million yuan” written on it. The former represented the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (CFPA), which pledged 10 million yuan to the “Smiling Children” pilot project in Ethiopia, to be implemented in the next five years jointly with the First Lady’s Office. When the first lady gave her words of thanks — before the cameras captured the two ladies’ smiles – she became so emotional she could hardly speak.

The scene seemed typical of China-Africa relations. A week earlier, on his first visit to Africa, Premier Li Keqiang arrived in one capital after the other waving a cheque in support of our African brothers. And at the negotiating tables, he signed the most generous infrastructure investment agreements to date.

At the Africa Philanthropy Forum on the banks of Lake Tai, CFPA’s executive chairman, He Daofeng, announced this star NGO’s strategy to enter Africa in a stirring speech. Picking up the forum’s theme, “People Helping People,” He explained that China’s traditional foreign aid strategy has relied on government-to-government cooperation — what he termed the “G2G” model. It was time, he said, to infuse the process with new perspectives and forces to be gained from “P2P” (people-to-people) cooperation.

Although He spoke only in CFPA’s name and did not provide a timetable, African attendees eagerly embraced the prospect of NGOs coming from China. “What’s next?” — asked Susan Tiisa Mugwanya, in charge of culture and education at the Ugandan Embassy in Beijing.

CFPA has no clear plan for Uganda. Mugwanya is unlikely to have been satisfied by the Chinese host’s vague answer. Still, the Ugandans have reasons to be pleased. In April 2014, Western NGOs in Kampala were vocal in criticising the Ugandan government’s draft of a law criminalising homosexuality law. According to Reuters, the minister of internal affairs warned them that they had no right to interfere with Uganda’s domestic matters. Officials in many African countries have grown tired of Western NGOs. The arrival of the Chinese promises more choices and generates excitement.

After the first Chinese appeared in Zambia’s Copperbelt and in Congo’s jungles a few years ago, others were quick to jump on the bandwagon. Now, many are joining the effort to build civil society in Africa. Once the door has been opened, some Chinese NGOs are actively pursuing a “going out” strategy; others go along with the Ministry of Commerce’s (MofCom’s) pressure to join in its pilot project to develop a new modality in China’s foreign development assistance. Together, they represent a diverse range of activities.

This spring, a friend visited the official in charge of MofCom’s foreign aid department. The official recited a series of old clichés: “Through all these years, our aid has been quite successful. Just think of the Tazara railway.” Recounting this official’s words with an expression of distaste, my friend pointed out: “After all these years, their favourite success story is still Tazara,” completed in 1976. “How pitiful is that! These people,” he continued, referring to the makers and shapers of China’s foreign aid policy, “still live in Mao’s shadow, but they don’t have Mao’s guts to get something like Tazara done.”

This sort of biting criticism is common in private conversations. But the Foreign Ministry and the Communist Party’s International Department, MofCom’s competitors on the foreign aid front, often criticise the latter for similar reasons. Since 2008, such voices have grown stronger. After Premier Wen Jiabao announced his 4 trillion yuan stimulus plan for the economy, Chinese companies, not used to being mobile, began scrambling for opportunities everywhere. “Going out” became a business fad and a government mantra. At the same time, as personnel moved around and investment was scaled up, friction on labour, legal, and environmental issues became more visible.

Some scholars believe that MofCom’s foreign aid policy is largely driven by economic considerations, and its complementarity with the goals of Chinese diplomacy is limited. The continuing damage to China’s interests and international image in Africa cannot all be attributed to the incompetence of MofCom or Foreign Ministry officials or the failure of foreign aid policy. But as early as in 2009, high-level decision makers were planning to tackle these problems.

In February 2009, then State Council Chairman Hu Jintao, during his visit to four African countries, pledged to “enthusiastically support African countries’ development and improvement of livelihoods.” Since then, “African people’s livelihoods” has become mainstream language in the ideological framing of China-Africa relations by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials. In particular, it surfaced extensively in quotes from official experts in Xinhua News Agency’s feel-good propaganda pieces ahead of Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Africa in May this year.

Li Keqiang inherited this language from the previous government and expanded upon it. In Angola, he discussed “people’s livelihoods” at a roundtable with representatives of Chinese enterprises and other Chinese citizens resident in the country, the first time this issue was made the subject of discussion during a top official’s visit abroad. This signals that China is in the process of revising the way of providing foreign aid it has employed for many years – one for which the Tazara railway stood in Mao’s time, and countless government buildings and megastadiums in the first thirty years of the post-Mao era.

In government parlance, all these are called “turnkey projects”. The White Paper on Foreign Aid, published in April 2011, lists them in first place among eight types of foreign aid. More precisely, such projects can be described as industrial and civil engineering projects financed by aid grants and interest-free loans from China.

As “people’s livelihood projects” become more mainstream in the future, “turnkey projects” may become more marginal. Facing such pressure, MofCom, too, has come up with “new thinking.” “Grassroots organisations participating in foreign aid” has become part of the reform agenda. So far, this policy has not been made public. It is hard to say when the proposal arrived on the desk of the minister of commerce, but it must have been pushed by open-minded officials within the CCP system.

At a “going out” forum organised by the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade in April this year, a businessman from Fujian made a candid speech. His company is present throughout Africa and has been rather successful. Facing the microphone, he called on Chinese NGOs to go to Africa now. In his view, this was essential for improving the operating environment.

In late 2013, I visited China’s ambassador in Lusaka, Zhou Yuxiao. He has rich foreign service experience in Africa and, unlike traditional Chinese diplomats, often leaves his official compound to talk to Zambians from all walks of life. Ambassador Zhou observed that, in the past years, Western aid for Africa has increasingly been channelled through NGOs. Indeed, as the Zambian scholar Dambisa Moyo noted in Dead Aid and William Easterly in The Tyranny of Experts, the government-to-government aid model led by the World Bank and Western development agencies is long since bankrupt in Africa.

Some of MofCom’s experienced officials, too, have realised that they need players from outside the government apparatus to rescue foreign aid from anomie. Some Chinese NGOs have flagged their willingness to participate in foreign aid to MofCom’s top leadership. The ministry is said to have agreed in principle to allocate some of its foreign aid budget to procuring services from NGOs.

This comes against a background of rapid growth in Chinese philanthropy and civil society. In 2013, the Chinese government spent 15 bn yuan on service-delivery contracts with social organisations domestically. Applying a similar model to foreign aid would not challenge the red lines of government policy.

Still, it is unclear when it will get a green light. According to an NGO delegate at the Africa Philanthropy Forum, talk of pilot projects financed by MofCom started last year, but it was still uncertain whether the pilots could begin in 2014.

Resistance to the initiative may be coming less from the bureaucracy than from public opinion. On the Chinese Internet and social media platforms, foreign aid tends to be discussed with vitriolic sarcasm and creative teasing. Although China’s foreign aid volumes are far smaller than people tend to think, when the news of Premier Li’s African visit was publicised on Sina Weibo – China’s equivalent of Twitter – most reactions questioned why Chinese taxpayers’ hard-earned money had to be squandered in Africa.

The policy is hard for the government to justify. In April this year, the World Bank released a report claiming that, at purchasing power parity, China’s economy has already overtaken the U.S. to become the world’s largest. But according to Western media, China refused to accept the “number one” label and pressured the World Bank for a full year to embargo the report.

The Chinese government has gone to great lengths to protect its precarious hold on developing country status. Historically, foreign aid has flown from developed to developing countries. Developing countries aiding developing countries is a rare occurrence. It is easy for people to question China’s behaviour: if it is a developing country, why assume a responsibility that does not match its economic standing?

The controversy around foreign aid has also to do with the structure of Chinese society. An enormous gap between rich and poor means that a sizeable proportion of citizens experience relative deprivation. They are unlikely to have travelled abroad, and the ideals of world citizenship are largely absent from China’s education system. Thus, they tend to see foreign aid as taking from the family to support an illicit passion outside, and use the topic to vent their frustrations online.

Such storms in cyberspace may be irrational and bear no relation to facts, but they are a source of heavy pressure on the authorities. On 3 August 2011, a Chinese businessman donated 1.5 bn yuan to the China Youth Development Foundation (CYDF) to build one thousand “China-Africa Hope Schools” in Africa. Later, this businessman was mentioned in a number of negative news reports, raising doubts about the project, and by implication about the foundation’s involvement. This set back CYDF’s originally ambitious African plans. “There were no problems with the project itself, only with our partner,” a foundation official told me wistfully. “Now we don’t even dare mention Africa any more.”

Foreign aid has also become a sensitive, even risky, topic for government officials. When this reporter tried to raise it with a deputy head of MofCom’s West Asia and Africa department at the Africa Philanthropy Forum on 18 May, the official waved him away with the words “This issue is too sensitive.”

As for NGOs, the biggest obstacle in entering Africa may be the limits of their own capacity. Although Chinese NGOs have been expanding rapidly in the last few years, organisations with a truly international presence have yet to appear. Whether their management experience and human resources are up to the task is a consideration that has played into MofCom’s slowness to launch a pilot project. A MofCom official said they were struggling with a number of unsolved questions such as what standards to apply to service contracts and how to select NGO partners.

Even so, the ministry and the NGOs stand at the gates of Africa, ready to risk drowning in the spittle of online vitiation.

Sixty years ago, loud and obnoxious American tourists were the butt of scorn around the world. In 1958, Eugene Burdick and William Lederer published The Ugly American, marking the beginning of a wave of criticism of American foreign policy by the public. The book played a part in the U.S. government’s decision to establish Peace Corps, an organisation charged with delivering part of foreign aid by dispatching volunteers to poor regions of the world. Politicians hoped Peace Corps would help improve Americans’ image abroad while helping young Americans, including many future diplomats, develop a deeper understanding of the world.

Sixty years later, a rising China faces a similar difficulty. In April, the Ethnics Institute of South Africa released the results of a survey of African executives on the impact of Chinese business in Africa. The survey was administered to senior managers with extensive business contacts with China in fifteen African countries. Regarding the overall reputation of Chinese companies, responses were more or less balanced: 43.3% of respondents viewed them negatively, 35.4% positively. But 55.9% held a negative view of goods and services provided by Chinese companies, compared to 22.7% who held a positive view. The worst perception was associated with Chinese companies’ sense of responsibility: only 11.1% believed they cared about environmental protection, while 53.9% said they did not. 21 and 28.3% respectively held a positive view of Chinese companies’ sense of social and economic responsibility. Respondents were similarly negative regarding Chinese companies’ employment practices. (See my earlier report on Chinese companies in Zambia here.)

Damage to China’s international reputation and such generalised antagonism drives up the costs of getting across to and doing business with the world. To some extent, China’s NGOs, despite their weakness, may be able to play the mitigating role of the Peace Corps. Among my interlocutors in China’s brave NGO world, the general sentiment is that the obstacles awaiting them in Africa are not important: what matters is that “the Chinese are coming.” Not the exploitative Chinese managers depicted in the BBC’s eponymous documentary, but a bunch of Chinese wanting to do good.

Another sign of an impending wave of agricultural investments?

June 2, 2014

I have blogged a few times in the past years about agriculture as the next frontier for Chinese investment abroad, but it has been slow to materialise. Over a month ago, the newspaper 经济观察 (Economic Observer) published an article that heralds the publication of a research report on Chinese agricultural investment abroad, commissioned by an interministerial committee. Such reports have been published since at least 2009, but the paper asserts that this time, the report — which has not been made public so far, perhaps because officials have not yet reached consensus about its implications — will serve as the basis of a policy shift towards making more loans available, simplifying the investment approval process, and lowering certification barriers for the import of agricultural produce (especially grain) to China. These are the factors most frequently cited by executives in the report as hindering agricultural investment outside China.

The shift would be in line with a government decree issued last year, called “Guiding opinion on encouraging agricultural investment cooperation abroad” (鼓励开展境外农业投资合作指导意见), which identified the grooming of a few globally competitive central state agribusiness enterprises as a state goal. So far, most Chinese agricultural ventures abroad are small-scale, with an average investment of $100 million as against $600 million for U.S. and Japanese agricultural investments. The article quotes Hu Hengyang 胡恒洋, an analyst with the State Development and Reform Commission, as saying that China State Farm (农垦)’s acquisition of two foreign agribusinesses this year is a sign that the government has now moved to implement this goal.

The signs are that, at the national level, China is more interested in becoming a major player in international agribusiness and breaking the monopoly of large Western traders and seed distributors than in “land grabbing” per se. The article provides an overview of major agricultural investments abroad to date. COFCO (中粮) bought Australia’s Tully Sugar in 2011, and bought a controlling stake in Nidera, a Dutch crop trader, this year. COFCO’s provincial-level equivalent in Chongqing has been a pioneer in overseas investment since 2010, setting up large soybean plantations in Brazil and Argentina and triggering legislation there restricting large-scale foreign land acquisitions, while Heilongjiang State Farm has acquired some 40 million mu (2.7 million ha) of land in Russia and Brazil. In the private sector, Tianjin-based Julong Group (聚龙集团) has over 100,000 hectares of oil palm plantations in Indonesia, accounting for 20% of the country’s annual palm oil output. Zhejiang’s Kasen (卡森) has 270,000 mu of soybean fields in Brazil, while Qingdao-based Ruichang Cotton (瑞昌棉业) and New Hope Group (新希望集团) have pioneered cotton in Africa and livestock farming investment respectively.

Chinese premier says China will establish environmental institute in Kenya

May 28, 2014

Among the pledges made by Chinese premier Li Keqiang at the African Union meeting in Addis Abeba on 5 May, increasing the credit line to African countries to $30bn by adding another $10bn was probably the one attracting the most headlines. (The full text of Li’s speech has been widely circulated in Chinese media, for example here.) Such promises, however, have been very hard to track. Some of the details of Li’s propositions were more interesting. To begin with, he talked about the “strategic complementarity” (战略对接) of Chinese and African industries in the context of helping localise labour-intensive garment and electronics manufacturing in Africa. This has, of course, long been talked about, but the phrasing is perhaps more explicit than before. Li also mentioned support for setting up a Chinese-African joint venture airline and funding a high-speed railway research centre.

For me, the most interesting proposition was setting up a “Chinese-African joint research centre” (中飞联合研究中心) devoted to biodiversity, desertification control, “demonstration of modern agriculture” and other issues and expected to help promote “clean energy” and “renewable energy.” Although this reads like nothing beyond a list of buzzwords, it has a proposed location (Kenya) and is part of a $10 million pledge for wildlife protection. Running a serious institute would of course easily eat up that budget. If this will indeed be a serious undertaking involving Chinese academics, then I am very curious about the extent to which Chinese environmentalists may be included in the initiative. Some years ago, the Peking-based Global Environmental Institute, closely related to the ministry of the environment, set up a branch in Vientiane, Laos. This has been a low-key operation, but to my knowledge, this was the first time for a Chinese research institute or a non-governmental organisation of any stripe to set up an affiliate abroad, and it has for a while recruited highly qualified young Chinese researchers, some trained in the West.

Li’s announcement of the new institute is an indication of the government’s desire to counteract the negative publicity around the issue of ivory and rhino horn poaching. (One Chinese journalist in Kenya told me that it was the only issue the Chinese ambassador felt embarrassed by.) It also fits into the strategy of “great aid” (大援外) promoted by some foreign ministry officials, meaning that foreign development assistance should involve more actors than just the government, notably the financing or even creation of NGOs (in large part to counterbalance Western dominance of the sector).

Of course, the whole affair may come to nothing, but it  may also conceivably produce more than mere window-dressing. There is a new generation of well-trained Chinese corporate personnel abroad who are not just aware that something must be done about corporate social responsibility (CSR) but are also personally interested in “doing good.” China House, an NGO set up in Nairobi early this year by the journalist Huang Hongxiang, who does PR for a local Chinese company and runs a website devoted to “China-South dialogue,” has already attracted over a dozen young Chinese interested in volunteering or interning as part of such projects. This is a significant development that is certain to become more visible in the coming years. The question is to what extent the government-initiated institute will be interested and successful in harnessing this popular interest, and whether such individuals will be able to influence its agenda.

Urban China issue on Chinese cities in Africa

March 22, 2014

The Shanghai urban design journal Urban China, based at Tongji University, is devoting its upcoming 63rd issue to Chinese urban design in Africa. As is often the case, architects appear to be ahead of social scientists in exploring the scope and implications of Chinese companies exporting not just buildings but entire master plans. A sample of the issue, which is the result of a collaboration with the Netherlands-based Go West Project, is available for download from Douban. It includes a reportage from Lekki Special Economic Zone, an article by the billionaire developer Dai Zhikang, who has vowed to build a new city centre for Johannesburg, and several Chinese architects and urban planners engaged in Africa. The lush illustrations are part of the issue’s draw.

Hungary wants to become regional hub for Chinese railway construction

November 26, 2013

Hungarian radio reported that the government’s spokesman said it was “not a secret” that Hungary wanted to become the regional hub for Chinese railway construction. Negotiations were underway with the Chinese and Serbian governments to upgrade the Budapest-Belgrade railway at a cost of $3 million.