Sorting out a dubious report on China in Africa

Well, this doesn’t look good. American University Professor Deborah Brautigam has written a detailed criticism of a think tank commentary about Chinese agricultural investment in Mozambique, and if her conclusions are correct, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and its author have some explaining to do.

First a caveat: I am not a specialist in Chinese–African relations, and I have only a passing familiarity with the issues and personalities involved here. Nonetheless, there are a few things I can say based on Brautigam’s report.

The original commentary speculated (in the headline) that the Zambezi Valley in Mozambique might be “China’s first agricultural colony,” and Brautigam notes that the report became influential in China–Africa discussions. “The problem,” she writes: “very little of what was written in this sensational commentary appears to be real” (emphasis original). Indeed, she argues that many of the most prominent claims in the commentary either conflict with data or seem to be based on rumors. In some cases, interviews in Mozambique even failed to turn up people familiar with the rumors.

The full post is worth a read, but two things jump out at me.

The role of peer review. Brautigam notes that the CSIS piece was not subject to peer review, but what caught my attention was the sense that peer review is not necessarily effective in this situation. Indeed, a reviewer told Brautigam to better account for the “research” by Loro Horta that she finds so lacking. This is a reminder that peer review can sustain misguided ideas as well as quash them.

Now just who are we talking about? The assumptions of agency built in to the Horta piece, as excerpted by Brautigam, could potentially be their own red flag. “China” is framed as an actor, often a unitary one, in discussing the supposed involvement of Chinese interests in Mozambique:

China has been requesting large land leases to establish Chinese-run mega-farms and cattle ranches. … China is committed to transforming Mozambique into one of its main food suppliers …An analysis of China’s activities in the valley in the past two years provides some strong indication of China’s long term intentions.

When commentary lacks precision regarding who’s doing what among the roughly one-fifth of the world that lives in China, and instead frames the country as a unitary actor with “intentions” or “activities,” it’s unclear to me how much actual information can be communicated. At best, the reader is supposed to trust the writer to simplify with understanding and integrity. Explaining the specific mechanics is a far more persuasive way to go, and if the specifics are unclear, the honest move is to explain what is left uncertain.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *