“China inside out” on Australia Network Channel

January 8, 2009

Finally I’ve got the time to transcribe an interesting TV documentary showed on the Australian Network channel last December. It was an hour long show on China’s rise and its impact on four different parts of the world: Africa (Angola), South America (Brazil), Southeast Asia (Cambodia) and lastly the United States.

Bob Woodruff, an American reporter (and probably part of the production team), tried to present a more complete picture of the rising China in the show, instead of just conforming to the o-so-typical “China friend or foe” duo (especially in terms of popular journalistic productions). This is refreshing.

(Although Woodruff was still quite persistent in trying to find out if China feels that it should bear the blame/responsibility for some the really bad things in the world, i.e. food price hike; deforestation in the Amazon; support for the Khmer Rouge; (potential) unemployment in the US…well, I guess one can’t really help it, can one?)

There are several interesting questions that Woodruff raised in the show when he was interviewing some of the high ranking diplomats/political analysts. I am copying the questions here:

1.       Is China buying political influence in Angola? (of course, it could be anywhere in the world that has received Chinese loans, aid, investments, etc)

2.       In Cambodia, there is really not much natural resources, not much oil, there’s not much food that China needs. What is China’s growing relationship with Cambodia? (again, this could be Laos, Vietnam, and many less resource-rich countries)

3.       Does that amount of money invested by China in the United States, does that make the United States vulnerable?

So there you go- a train of logic, that is, I assume, very common or natural for people to follow: why is China investing so much in other countries (especially in countries that seem to have absolutely nothing)? (What’s the agenda now?) Is China trying to buy friends, instead? Will this make us vulnerable?

Anthropologists, of course, would not be satisfied to just find answers to these questions. In fact, we always try to challenge the common or the seemingly natural way of thinking and (ideally) go a step further to understand why people think in this particular way in the first place.

In this case, it has become quite interesting and also challenging to understand why people have to figure out where to place China in the world map of power; China has to be accurately mapped, pinned down at a particular point, its working mechanism perfectly analyzed and understood before people can relax and say “Whew! Everything is now under control, finally!”

These questions certainly echo some of the research questions that drive our (mega)project “exporting China to the world” as we eagerly want to find out what China really wants and how people in those countries really feel about China at the ground level, not just elite guesswork based on policy papers/news reports/public speech to perpetuate ideas such as China slaughters the Amazon for soybeans, or China whitewashes the history of the Khmer Rouge for cheap garment, or China booby-traps the US into deeper debt.

The answers to these questions made by Chinese and western respondents in the show are thought-provoking:

1.       Q:  Is China buying political influence?

A: You know, probably that’s the American way of thinking, to buy the influence. I don’t think that’s our intention. But you cannot deny, when you are there, you have an influence there as well.

(You know what, I do think that China does not like “buying” influence because the kind of influence bought would be the least meaningful as “ganqing” would be tainted by money. Authority, or influence, ideally, is gained/ maintained through “qing” rather than “qian”. Money-bought influence could never last, and this certainly sounds like a losing deal for China. That’s why this Chinese respondent was humored by Woodruff’s question, even chuckled while giving his answer.

Anyway I certainly don’t want to reduce it to an either-or situation, that is, either money or sentimental bond (?). What interests me is his point on “to buy the influence” is “the American way of thinking.” I guess now the real question is how do China gain influence apart from buying? How does it work, and so far working pretty well?)

2.       Q: Why does China invest in resource-scarce countries?

A: I think that, first of all, for China and Cambodia, we have that traditional good relationship for many years. I think you have to put the relations within the framework of trying to build up a peaceful neighborly environment for China. So that’s why China…China wishes to achieve its modernization, its economic and social development. You must make sure that your neighbors also develop.

(This answer given by a Chinese diplomat would probably be regarded as one of those typical, dry newspaper account sort of statement. Maybe it’s because this kind of statement has been repeated over and over by the Chinese government for many years to the point that people just do not believe every bit of it anymore (or never did). But could it be that this really is what it is? Or at least there isn’t any big conspiracy behind this “good neighborly peaceful development” cover?

Dare I imitate the “American way of thinking?” If China builds roads in another country, it must want the oil/timber/coal…; if the country has none of these, at least China could “save” them by giving them freedom/democracy/human rights/modern civilization…; but, wait, China does not have these things itself yet!!So what’s the agenda now? Well, I may have gone a bit far. Anyway I think this is possibly going to be an interesting predicament: even if people on the ground confirm that what they want and what China wants are simply peaceful development and neighborly relations, no one will believe that this is what it is…)

3.       Q: Will Chinese money make us (US) vulnerable?

A: Yes. We are vulnerable to China; China’s vulnerable to the United States. Another way of saying, a better way of saying I think is we are both interdependent… For Americans, it should be clear what the benefits are, a globalized economy. Look around, it’s the world you’ve been living in for the last twenty years. You can’t stop China’s rise. All you can do is make sure that the United Stats is positioned to take advantage of that rise. Those are our options: we can either ride this wave, or we can drown in it.

(Still, it’s DOA with China. But “interdependence” seems to be a more interesting notion than “threat or opportunity”…although…they are usually intrinsically interdependent, aren’t they?)

Interested in reading the (almost) complete transcript, click here
(I only managed to record 40min out of this 50min show)

You can also visit http://australianetwork.com/guide/ep_00048527.htm