Tag Archives: China-Africa

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.

NYT Forgets to Look Past Hollywood in China-Sudan Story

Helene Cooper writes in The New York Times:

[I]n the past week, strange things have happened. A senior Chinese official, Zhai Jun, traveled to Sudan to push the Sudanese government to accept a United Nations peacekeeping force. Mr. Zhai even went all the way to Darfur and toured three refugee camps, a rare event for a high-ranking official from China, which has extensive business and oil ties to Sudan and generally avoids telling other countries how to conduct their internal affairs.

So what gives? Credit goes to Hollywood — Mia Farrow and Steven Spielberg in particular.

The article proceeds from there, actually giving the impression that a couple of people from the U.S. movie scene convinced the Chinese government to change its stance. Sure, the two have done some effective advocacy on the issue. Farrow started a campaign to brand the Beijing Olympics as the “Genocide Olympics.” And she pressured Spielberg, who’s advising the Chinese government on something or another related to the games, to pressure Chinese officials by saying he might compare to a Nazi propagandist if he didn’t speak up. (He did—in a letter to President Hu.)

The trouble is that the article doesn’t mention the dozens of campaigns and websites from elsewhere on Earth devoted to the same thing. Besides, the article says Farrow got on board last month. What about the Washington Post editorial from December that suggested that U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson bring up what the headline called the “genocide olympics” issue? Oh, and then there are the French presidential candidates calling for their country to boycott.

China, U.S. In Greater Accord Over Darfur

The U.S. and Chinese governments have not seen eye to eye on the issue of the ongoing genocide in Darfur, Sudan. China, for one thing, gets a lot of oil from Sudan. The Chinese government, too, has strong incentives not to support military intervention when not welcomed by the government of Sudan. Though the Sudanese genocide and human rights issues in Tibet are not comparable, some analysts I’ve spoken to have speculated that China might even veto a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the “responsibility to protect”-based circumvention of the principle of national sovereignty. Inviolable borders, they say, are a big priority for the Chinese government.

Neither the United States nor China is now calling for a full-blown military intervention, but after a recent discussion between Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and China’s new pressure on Sudan to act, the countries seem to be more or less working together.

I wonder if this will temper some groups’ calls for a boycott of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing on human rights grounds.