Review of African Ngos and Sino-African Relations book

January 26, 2010

As Chinese news agencies reported earlier this year, The African NGOs and Sino-African Relations 非洲非政府组织与中非关系, edited by Liu Hongwu 刘鸿武 and Shen Beili 沈蓓莉 (Peking: Shijie Zhishi Chubanshe 世界知识出版社, 2009) was launched at a Sino-African conference. The authors  of the book are not named, but one can assume that Shen Beili (who is a deputy secretary-general of the Chinese NGO Network for International Exchanges) is responsible for much of it, as Liu Hongwu is the editor of the entire African Studies publication series of which this book is part (Liu is also director of the Institute for African Studies at Zhejiang Normal University). There is a preface by Zhai Juan 翟隽, an assistant to China’s foreign minister.

The book is “intended for references [sic] and usage of organs and institutions involved in African work” (p. 31) and is indeed written mostly as advice to Chinese policy makers. It is an introduction to NGOs as a glonal phenomenon and a compendium of information on African NGOs (including some specific country chapters) gleaned from Western or African sources. The authors stress the impact of NGOs on international politics, claiming that a number of American NGOs have successfully promoted the U.S. “democratization” agenda in Central Asia and elsewhere (suggesting  in particular that it was these efforts that ultimately resulted in the “colour revolutions” in the Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan). They conclude that NGOs represent a “challenge to national sovereignty, an intervening factor in foreign relations, a factor in shaping a country’s image” (p. 29; confusingly, the pagination restarts from 1 after p. 33). Elsewhere, they describe Western-supported NGOs in Africa as a “fifth column” operating in “so-called non-democratic countries” (p. 70) and suggest that this role becomes increasingly important as intergovernmental organisations struggling with a “democratic deficit” find it increasingly hard to adapt to the diverse pressures of “international society.”

According to the book, it is under U.S. and European pressure that African NGOs have started paying attention to China, “most of which is of course manifested in criticism and blame” (p. 72). On pp. 74-85, the authors examine the influence of African NGOs on China-Africa relations, and find it negative. It may, they write, “damage China’s international standing,” “weaken China’s soft power” and “erode the basis of China-Africa cooperation” (pp. 74-75).

The chapter briefly summarizes the nature of the “criticism and blame,” citing some examples of objections to labour and environmental practices. The authors acknowledge that “there are indeed some Chinese-invested overseas enterprises and individuals that shirk corporate social responsibility overseas and are shortsighted in their investment strategies” and warn that this “will inevitably impact China’s image in Africa” (p. 77). For instance,  they warn against the wholesale importation of Chinese labour norms when they do not accord with local ones (p. 79). At the same time, they accuse “some African NGOs” of biased reporting that unfairly puts all blame in labour conflicts on poor Chinese corporate practices (p. 78). Similarly, concerning environmental issues, they admit that the extractive investments Chinese companies engage in will inevitably have a large environmental impact, but point out that the Chinese government has adopted several sets of environmental guidelines for companies operating overseas, and that “the silhouette of the West can often be discerned behind the NGOs'” criticism (p. 81).

While these practices may be associated with particular companies or individuals, the authors reject all criticism of the Chinese government, particularly accusations of supporting oppressive governments, and attribute it to Western machinations. Citing the example of the protest against the Chinese ship that was to deliver weapons to the Zimbabwean government, they suggest that it was organised by a “mainly white” South African organisation with help from U.S. and British media, some of which misled public opinion by reporting that Chinese soldiers were patrolling the streets of a Zimbabwean town when in fact they were just visiting Chinese instructors  from a military academy on a sightseeing trip. (They do not mention the fact that the delivery of the weapons failed due to a strike by the South African dock workers union, hardly a white-dominated organisation and one with long-standing links to the African Communist Party, traditionally a close friend of China’s.) They conclude that China has to develop a long-term approach to dealing with such “slander” (p. 80).

Despite (or, rather, because) the negative assessment of the NGO’s impact, the authors recommend that the Chinese goverment reach out to them and invite their representatives to China “to iron out misunderstandings.” More importantly, they suggest that NGOs should be invited to carry out some of the environmental impact assessments or feasibility studies for Chinese aid projects (p. 84) and that “appropriate” NGOs should be invited to carry out inspections of Chinese enterprises’ management practices Africa (p. 85).

Somewhat surprisingly, and unlike prominent scholar Qin Hui whose views I quoted in an earlier post, the authors find nothing to learn from African NGOs in terms of a functioning “civil society.” They do point out that China is hampered by a lack of NGOs that are internationally active, but only because this has “significantly reduced China’s ability to develop soft power in Africa” and “weakened the credibility of its overseas propaganda” (p. 84). As an answer to this, they recommend that China “set up … a [government] structure to manage NGOs” and promote their overseas activities. Clearly, the possibility that Chinese NGOs overseas might develop solidarity with African counterparts and attempt to lobby the Chinese government, a strategy that Oxfam is banking on, has no occurred to the authors.