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Wolf Warrior Two: An African Playground for Manly Battles

 

During my fieldwork in Tanzania in 2015, I once had a Chinese friend who ran into some trouble with some potential business partners who refused to return his money. To persuade them, he threatened that his “American friend” (i.e. me) would go the US Embassy for assistance. At one point, he even had me call the US embassy so that I could hypothetically ask them what assistance they could provide to a US citizen who faced the problem facing my friend. The threat did not work, and the US embassy told me that there was nothing they could do. On multiple occasions, however, Chinese interlocutors would argue that as an American citizen, I possessed a level of immunity they did not have, that local people in Tanzania “feared” to harm those with white skin like myself because of the way the US acted in countries like Iraq. These were sometimes criticisms of US imperialism, but more often criticisms of what they considered a reticence on the part of the Chinese government to protect overseas citizens. This is exemplified by the rumor, not limited to the Chinese in Africa, that the US passport included a sentence which says, “no matter where you are, the United States will always strongly back you” (不论在哪里,美国永远是你的坚强的后盾). The Chinese passport, on the other hand, is believed to instruct citizens to follow the law of foreign countries, respect local customs, and to not embarrass China. Without denying the reality of discrepancies in national privilege in the world, rumors such as these suggest how they have become overdetermined in measuring the extent or lag of China’s “rise” in the world.

The film Wolf Warrior II (戰狼II), which has set records in China, and has inspired much American commentary on its nationalist messages, targets such discontents directly, right down to a direct refutation of the US passport rumor in the final shot of film: an image of the Chinese passport accompanied by text assuring the Chinese audience that a “strong country” is behind them when they are abroad. Earlier in the film, Celina Jade’s character, Rachel Prescott Smith, like my friend, also seeks out the US embassy by phone, believing that the “US Marines” would be able to extract them from the civil war the characters find themselves in the middle of. When she reaches the American Embassy, however, a voicemail message informs her nonchalantly that the Embassy is closed. She angrily slams the phone down. Leng Feng, played by action star Wu Jing, smiling with amusement, questions her faith in the US marines, and tells her that when he saw the foreign ships leaving the shores of this unnamed “African” country, among those were the “stars and stripes.” Moments like these in the film seem almost hand-delivered to panicked liberal internationalists in the US regarding the effect of Trump’s politics in the world.

But moments like these also show how the film, while ostensibly set in “Africa,” is not really about Africa; it’s about China’s standing in the world vis-à-vis the United States. Like mainstream narratives in the West about Africa-China relations more generally, Africa in the film is primarily a playground on which Chinese and American contend (as embodied in the characters of Leng Feng and Big Daddy, (played by Frank Grillo).

The Chinese nationalism presented in the film is primarily defined in terms of masculine strength, embodied in the character of Leng Feng, and this masculinity is repeatedly validated against a series of ethnoracial/gender/class opponents: he single-handedly defeats Somali pirates underwater; kills a corrupt Chinese local male official; outdrinks a succession of African men at a beach bar; kills the American mercenary villain and his band of international sidekicks (including what I assume is supposed to be a Japanese man), and romantically dominates a woman whose name, Rachel Prescott Smith (played by Celina Jade), advertises an unsubtle whiteness.

These masculine conquests unfold against a plot which directly features the Chinese Navy as a character in the story. It is a character which stands in the background as Leng Feng’s action embodies a military identity. When it does enter the story as an “action” actor on its own accord, it is climatic moment, featuring real images of missiles firing from Chinese shapes. The climax of the film is the People Liberation’s Army Navy’s surface-to-surface missile attack on the mercenary-cum-rebel forces surrounding a besieged Chinese factory with Chinese and African workers. The film builds tension by holding the Chinese military back at multiple key points in the film. The Chinese ambassador’s daring walk outside the gates of his embassy at the beginning of the film foreshadows the intervention, but an exchange of fire is held back until the end. The Navy does not fire the missiles until the order from above has been received. The wait for the order is extended over several minutes as naval crewmen and women watch in horror and tears as Chinese and African civilians are gunned down across the factory, apparently helpless and unable to intervene. When the order comes through, the commanding officer shouts the order to fire, and the film shows the missiles firing from their silos. It is a dramatic scene not just in the context of the film’s plot, but also in historic time. While the US Navy has routinely engaged in such remote forms of firepower, the Chinese Navy has never launched such a surface-to-surface attack in Africa, and if it did, it would likely be recognized as a paradigm shift in Chinese foreign policy.

The missile launch sets the stage for the final man-to-man physical battle between Leng Feng and Big Daddy. The symbolic dimensions of the fight (American vs. Chinese), if not already obvious to the viewer, are reinforced by the dialogue. Big Daddy tells Leng Feng that he is impressed by his performance and that the “Chinese military is not as lame as I thought.” The final moment of the fight, when Big Daddy has Leng Feng pinned down, encapsulates the racialist-masculinist undercurrent of the film. Big Daddy tells Leng Feng that “people like you will always be inferior to people like me.” Leng Feng responds that what Big Daddy has said is“damn history” (他妈的以前的事), before stabbing Big Daddy with the bullet he has carried around his neck since the beginning of the film; the bullet which (supposedly) killed his fiancé. The message is direct and unambiguous; China is now strong enough that an emasculated racial inferiority should no longer be part of the Chinese consciousness.  The emasculation of China has come to an end now that China has released its missiles into the heart of Africa, and stabbed an American villain in the face.

A character like Leng Feng is effective because he can embody “the Chinese military” without actually bearing the responsibility of being “Chinese military” within the UN world chain of command asserted in the film. The release of Chinese military power depicted in the film, after all, is carefully circumscribed by the United Nations. During a scene in which the Chinese ambassador is urging a military intervention to save Chinese citizens trapped in the besieged hospital and factory, he is reminded that China lacks “UN authorization” to intervene. The other constraint on Chinese military action in the film is the sovereignty of the generic African state. It is in fact only when the Prime Minister officially requests military assistance from the Chinese government that the gears leading to the film’s climax begin to turn.

The legitimacy of international law or the United Nations to constrain military action is never as directly verbally challenged in the same way as, for example, the film Hotel Rwanda. The United Nations both limits China’s “freedom of action” (to borrow the American lingo) and legitimizes its foreign intervention. When the main characters and their caravan of Chinese and African workers reach the safety of the Chinese base, we see the UN flag flying next to the PRC flag, a contingent of white vans at the front with the eponymous UN marking, and the Chinese soldiers meeting the refugees wearing blue helmets. Only the ambassador and his accompanying officials remain in the formal business attire and PRC collar pins we see from earlier in the film. The base, seemingly deployed in the inland heart of this country, is a “Chinese” base wearing UN colors.

Leng Feng’s clandestine mission behind enemy lines, in the service of China, but officially unaffiliated with the Chinese state (he is told several times in the film that he is “on his own” although everyone is rooting for him) brings the film’s plot close to the American Rambo genre which it is being compared, providing filmgoers a spectacle of sovereign extralegal violence which can nonetheless be disavowed by the fact that all the “official” Chinese state delegates in the film closely conform to international law. This makes the final shot of the film ambiguous. In displaying the Chinese passport and reminding the Chinese audience that there is a strong country behind its citizens, are we supposed to understand this in the context of how the Chinese government behaves in the film, or in the masculine conquests of Leng Feng?

Also of note is the fact Leng’s court martial at the start of the film is on account of him killing a corrupt local official in China attempting to demolish the family home of his former comrade. The scene is noteworthy in portraying local officials as base, and the military as virtuous and even beyond the law. He is court-martialed, and he later takes an unofficial mission, but his military training and comradery continues to inform the story, and when he fights, it is Chinese masculinity and military strength he fights for. This is not unique to the Chinese case (the comparisons to Rambo go beyond the action stylings), but it does express the allure and desire of militarism as the highest expression of national character.

Leng Feng’s romantic conquest in the film is interesting for a variety of reasons; both reinforcing and complicating the masculine-nationalist premise. Over the same period Leng Feng physically overcomes the American male, he also captures the romantic affection of a female doctor named Rachel Prescott Smith, played by Celina Jade. Describing the burgeoning romance a “conquest” makes sense given that the plot requires Rachel’s status as a medical doctor to eventually give way to her status as female-in-distress.

As Dr. Smith reminds Leng Feng during an evacuation for “women and children,” she is a “doctor” and not a “woman”; responsible for looking after the patients still under her care. This protest is summarily put down when Leng Feng physically picks her up against her will and drags her to the helicopter. I thought the film was making an ironic joke when the helicopter intended to save her subsequently gets shot down, but I don’t think it was intentional. The peak action-hero gendering of the film, however, happens when Leng Feng, after having contracted the Ebola analogue in the film, is inexplicably still operating a motor vehicle while Rachel Smith, who remains healthy, is a passenger. Spoiler alert: Leng Feng is too sick to drive and they crash.

Celina Jade is the daughter of white American martial artist Roy Horan and Chinese mother Christina Hui. I do not know the details of the casting decision, but her role in the film; the name, the calling of the US embassy; suggests that it is her “whiteness” and “American” background that are being highlighted.  Leng Feng’s double conquest then, over Big Daddy and Rachel Prescott, is not just an assertion of nationalized masculinity (or masculine nationalism), but ironically, in a film celebrating Chinese self-confidence, and most problematically, being set in Africa, it nonetheless casts a light skinned “mixed” Chinese-American woman as the object of desire.

Having said all this, black masculinity in the film is almost entirely absent; the male character with the greatest development is Tundu, a young boy separated from his mother, while this separation provides a vehicle to the plot, their scenes seem largely designed to provide comic relief.

That being said, “Africa” does play a role in the film, but the messages about China’s relationship with the continent is less direct or obvious as compared to those about Chinese strength vis-à-vis the United States.

The majority of Chinese projects in Africa are private enterprises. The film’s portrayal of these entrepreneurs, however, is less than flattering. The first one we meet operates a convenience store in the port city. When Leng Feng protests the shopkeeper for price gouging a fellow Chinese citizen, the shopkeeper indicates that within a week he will no longer be a Chinese citizen. When the shop comes under rebel attack, however, and a retreat to the protection of the Chinese Embassy is proposed, the shopkeeper proudly asserts that the embassy will help him because he “is Chinese.” The scene suggests that small shopkeepers like him are opportunistic patriots; abandoning Chinese citizenship when it helps advance their business, but expecting protection and rallying around the flag when they are trouble. There are many Chinese migrant entrepreneurs in Africa who have indeed changed their nationality, although the motivations for this has varied. In Tanzania, for example, citizenship allows one to purchase land (something one can only do as a foreigner if part of corporation or with a local partner). As some explain it, the logic for obtaining citizenship in Tanzania is not unlike that of obtaining a different hukou (household registration) in China. The treatment of such individuals as having abandoned China, however, has of course had a long genealogy in China, going back to imperial-era restrictions against expatriation. What is interesting nonetheless is that the film’s negative portrayal of this behavior resonates with critiques among real Chinese expatriates themselves about the behavior of other Chinese. When I encountered this in the field, it was often accompanied by distinctions of social class, but an important implication of these distinctions was that when such people ran into difficulties with local employees or officials, it was considered to partially be their own fault, and not something which required pan-Chinese solidarity. In the film itself, there is a subtle moment is when we see Leng Feng looking on with amusing (and passive) approval of his young friend Tundu shoplifting from the Chinese shopkeeper. This moment manages to both reinforce a racist trope about black youth as thieves, and at the same time, arouse audience sympathy for this act because he is punishing a Chinese person who cheats Chinese and local alike. It is a moment which reinforces the standpoint of the film as occupying a particular class position, displaying condescension (in the broad sense described by Bourdieu rather than mere snobbishness or hostility) towards both small-scale Chinese migrants to Africa as well as Africans.

The owner of the besieged factory is likewise portrayed unfavorably in both a scene in which he attempts to racially segregate who will be saved and who will be abandoned on the factory floor; when he expels the heroes as a disease threat, and finally in the slapstick comedy of him trying to pick up his scattered cash amid a hail of bullets.

Compared to these two men, the heroes of the film are military men (Leng Feng and He Jianguo), doctors (Dr. Chen), and the Chinese workers who resist their boss’s attempt at racially segregating who will be saved and who will be abandoned. Even the factory’s security guard has an arc which takes him from being a “spoiled brat” (fuerdai) to becoming a hero. The global Chinese presence celebrated in the film is one authored by the government and embodied by soldiers, doctors, workers, and male youth who eventually come around to living up to it. It is interesting that it is the most significant class of Chinese actors in Africa, the entrepreneurs, who are cast as the morally problematic figures in this global China story. While the factory indexes the real world context of Chinese investment, capitalism does not quite fit into the story the film wants to tell, which is relevant to question because it is in fact capitalism which explains much Chinese activity in Africa much more than military strength. The irony is the fact that the film displays the specter of Chinese military imperialism (to a global audience no less) which Chinese state discourse is otherwise always attempting to refute.

At multiple points in the film, the screenplay also creates dramatic tension through posing a question: Are Africans included? That is, in a story fundamentally about the capacity of the Chinese state to protect its citizens from danger, are Africans also lives that count? The film instructs the viewers that they are, and regularly reprimands its own characters for their hesitation. Tundu asks the shopkeeper early in the film if the Chinese Embassy will look after him, the shopkeeper demurs with a “hard to say.” The moral messaging of the film is to routinely correct their prejudices, although the inclusion of Africans is in each case treated as an exceptional decision driven by a moral hero who overcomes boundaries: the ambassador invites citizens into the embassy, Leng Feng claims paternity of Tundu to get him on the naval ship. In the most dramatic scene, the factory manager informs the workers that the rescue mission coming for them is only for the Chinese workers, not the African workers. He attempts to divide the workers by drawing an imaginary wall through the center of the factory floor and asking the Chinese and African workers to separate along it. A Chinese worker refuses to separate from his wife, who is African. We soon discover that there are a multitude of similar relationships, and not just Chinese men and African women, but also African men and Chinese women. The film’s protagonists watch on uncomfortably at the attempt to separate them before finally intervening with a rousing demand that they are in this together. Scenes like these are interesting because they acknowledge the presence of segregating and exclusionary habits within Chinese society. It is notably the workers, the military men, and the doctors, rather than the entrepreneurs, who challenge this, and it is Leng Feng, the embodiment of China’s “new man” in the film, who lectures the factory (and by extension, the Chinese public). It is not quite a speech, however, in the mold of American films which repetitively “overcome” racism by having white heroes (or Denzel Washington) give a speech. The message remains ambiguous. Tundu is accepted by the naval officer as Leng Feng’s “son,” but Tundu has no interest in going to China. Pasha, the girl with natural immunity to the disease, is also the subject of a “fictive” adoption by the deceased Dr. Chen, but her fate too rests at home. The on-screen portrayal of Chinese-African couples is the most interesting, and indeed probably one of the more laudable inclusions in the film, although in the cases I am familiar with, they never quite reach the scale portrayed in this imaginary factory. Furthermore, the whiteness of the main love story received more screen time.

The film portrays a generic “Africa” in which disparate regional elements and stereotypes are packaged in a single country: poverty, civil war, foreign mercenaries, and an Ebola-like disease. This is only marginally an improvement over American films like Tears of the Sun, which used “Nigeria” as a stage prop (The film does not offend by name the sensibilities of any of China’s African allies), but many of the elements are the same. This is not China’s Africa (in the sense of the actually-existing relationships Chinese have there) but Hollywood’s Africa with Chinese rather than American heroes. A mix of languages appear at different moments in the film, but they are not devoid of context. A Chinese expatriate seeks to stave off being shot by a rebel soldier by telling him that Chinese and Africans are “marafiki” (friends). This Swahili phrase is actually the closest the film gets to historical context because it references the construction of Tanzania-Zambia railway, during which time, the greeting of Chinese as “Rafiki” entered Chinese popular culture and has remained a point of reference. In this film, however, Africa is a country and it is played by South Africa (where the film was shot). The opening scene begins by following an “African” river through green plains until it empties out into the big blue sea. It’s probably unintentional, but it’s irresistible to avoid comparing this opening scene to the famous contrast of river and sea in 1988’s River’s Elegy. That film called on a Chinese public in the early reform period to adopt the “open” globalism symbolized by the ocean. In this film, the Chinese are on the sea and kicking pirate ass. Africa is a backdrop rather than a setting. Africa is presented “out of time” in a different historical space. A significant scene occurs when Rachel Smith and Leng Feng are together in a cemetery, looking over the gravestones of both Europeans and Chinese buried there. Rachel tells Leng that humanity originated from Africa, and that many years later, “civilized people” returned to the continent and made their lives here. She delivers the line uncritically and un-ironically, and while the English subtitle at my showing placed “civilized” in scare quotes, the Chinese subtitles did not place wenming in quotes. This is an interesting discrepancy and I am very curious about the discussion that took place when the screenplay was being translated (it is here perhaps that an unreflective concept of “civilization” meets a Western liberal sensibility that ostensibly denies such language even while reproducing it with other categories like “developed” and “undeveloped”). In returning to one’s ancestral home, and being buried in its soil, the film unambiguously places Chinese among Europeans as the “civilized” descendants who left Africa, made their fortunes, and have returned to invest, heal, and protect. This is very different from the narrative of Afro-Asian solidarity which placed Chinese among Africans as the victims of Western imperialism. Instead, China enters the world through Africa.

What is to be concluded from this? Wolf Warrior II may show us how “Africa” signifies in a middlebrow Chinese imagination, but actually tells us very little about the lives, subjectivities, and experiences of the Chinese and “Africans” (of several dozen countries) who actually live these exchanges. It suggests the extent to which a Hollywood trope of Africa ultimately predominates over the kinds of knowledge generated by Chinese themselves. This is not to say there is a purer story to tell (there are some quotes in the film which seem taken directly from Chinese who have been to Africa), but it does suggest that Chinese audiences will get their “Africa” from Hollywood’s imagination longer than might have been expected.

 

 

 

 

 

Belts, Roads, and Non-Hegemonic Dreams

The international conference held in Beijing last month to promote China’s “Belt and Road Initiative,” or “One Belt, One Road,”  attracted considerable media coverage and commentary. The coverage in Western and other non-Chinese media addressed two predominant themes which often accompany accounts of China’s rise. The first is that the initiative marks the emergence of a new Chinese “world order” (CNN, New York Times, Los Angles Times, The Nation, Deutsche Welle, Manila Times, DAWN etc.). This has been a longstanding imaginary regarding China’s probable futures, and one which appeared in the West long before Chinese leaders themselves began promoting new roles for China in the global economic order. Over the past year, however, the imaginary has appeared, to use a hedging phrase invented by Latour, to “gain in reality.” One obvious reason for this is how the Trump administration has seemingly abandoned the premise that the United States is the “indispensable” underwriter of Pax Americana (although it’s too early to know how that will affect post-Trump politics).  In this context, Xi Jinping’s public comments defending globalization, and criticizing protectionism have been celebrated by global elites as evidence that China might take on the presumed role as underwriter of the global capitalist system.

This assumption remains controversial in China, but discourse about the Belt and Road increasingly embraces world-making themes that attempt to combine three otherwise distinct worlds. A good reference for exploring this is Chinese Ambassador to Tanzania Lu Youqing’s explainer for the initiative.

The first world is a “revitalized” pre-modern Eurasian-African trading network:

“As early as two thousand years ago, China opened up a network of trade routes both on land and at sea. The land route started from Chinese inland cities and reached the Mediterranean countries through Central Asia.”

There is much issue to be taken with the words “China opened up” insofar that these routes were the product of varied agents across the Eurasian landmass and Indian Ocean littoral, including but not limited to China.

The second world is a modified version of neoliberal globalization emphasizing open borders, but balanced with the language of sovereignty and self-authorship.

“On the basis of respecting each other’s sovereignty and security concerns, countries along ‘The Belt and Road’ should improve the connectivity of their infrastructure construction plans and technical standard systems improve investment and trade facilitation, and remove investment and trade barriers for the creation of a sound business environment (italics added).

The resemblance to the status quo is then qualified by delegating interpretation to a scholar.

“Mr Lu Jianing, chairman of the Far East Branch of Russian Academy of Science, said that the Belt and Road Initiative is different from other development programs of the west. It offers a better option for the world than the old globalisation under the control of US.” (italics added).

This leads in turn to echoes of a third world once imagined during the era of Afro-Asian cooperation in the 1960s and 1970s, but re-purposed now in more reformist terms:

“The old international political and economic order was set up by western powers based on their financial, technological and rule advantages. The old order limits the growth of developing countries and widens the gap between the South and North. The participants of the Belt and Road Initiative are mostly developing or least developed countries.

Through this initiative, China will share with them the dividend of its development and reform, as well as its experiences and lessons learned in growth. China will also transfer abroad its competitive production capacity and industries with comparative advantages” (Italics added).

There is a subtle shift which often factors into arguments which equate the mid-20th century search for global economic alternatives to the contemporary rise of South-South relations; a shift from an anti-capitalist critique based in revolutionary politics to a critique of north-south underdevelopment as a correctable bad policy.

The result is less a new world order, than a reformed world order.

“It is at such a difficult moment for the world when western powers are struggling with their own economy, China launched the Belt and Road Initiative, which is like a warm current that brought new hope for global recovery. The Belt and Road Initiative conforms to the trend featuring a multi-polar world, a globalised economy, diversified culture and informationised society.”

The Belt and Road Initiative is a big tent which is intentionally broad in scope, so as to appeal to varied regional elites, publics, and aspirations.

The second theme in critiques of the Initiative is that the Belt and Road Initiative is “really” about China’s national self-interest; whether an effort to find productive outlets for China’s state-owned construction companies facing an over-accumulation crisis of infrastructure in China, or a projection of geopolitical power. In support of the second theme, articles have quoted heavily from Indian and European government sources criticizing the initiative for a lack of “transparency” and a lack of guarantees that the bidding process will be “open.” The support for the initiative depends on the extent to which non-Chinese capital is able to profit; and much of the more supportive non-Chinese editorials to be found focus on “how [insert country here] can benefit.”

The two themes share a symbiotic relationship which reveal one of the longstanding contradictions of discourse about globalization: the imaginary of a flattened global marketplace with open borders on the one side, and the dependence of such of world on political-military hegemony on the other. Rendered another way, it’s the contradiction between globalization as exchange and reciprocity on the one hand, and anxieties about power and inequality on the other.

The argument that the Belt and Road Initiative is “self-interested” is curious because it presumes an alternative reality where states promote investment without “self-interest” and in the interest of the recipients of investments; an ideological premise which says more about the imaginaries of globalization than how the politics of international investment actually unfold. China’s own discourse about the Belt and Road Initiative bears some responsibility for these “unmasking” critiques because it frequently takes an explicit stance that these initiatives are not self-interested.Consider the following from Lu Youqing’s editorial:

“There is no hegemonic agenda or political conditions attached, granting full freedom of development to all participants.It is a public product offered by China to the world. It’s applicable everywhere and will serve anywhere as a strong drive of economic growth. “ (Italics added).

Emerging states have frequently framed their own expansion and development of transnational capital networks in terms of worldmaking and/or international law. (i.e. Hugo Grotius against the Portuguese , the Americans’ “open doors” against the Europeans). These worlds were never simply functional products of rising hegemonies, however, but a confluence of visions; uneasily reconciling emancipatory visions with imperial ones.

The history of the concept of the silk road and the Indian Ocean includes both, but that’s a different discussion.

“Racist” or “not-racist,” the better question is whether racism is being (re)-produced or deconstructed in China

The scandal of the Qiaobi ad has come and already largely  passed. If scandals have replaced collective rituals as moments of social reproduction (as my old professor at Chicago John MacAloon claimed), then the debate over the ad has done its work in bringing back to life the online community of commentators, scholars and practitioners following , studying and practicing relationships between Africa and China. But like other online scandals, the discussion has already begun to move onto other topics. The details of the advertisement have already been widely summarized: a Chinese woman places a Qiaobi detergent capsule in a black man’s mouth (it is implied but ultimately unclear if he is a boyfriend/husband etc.) and stuffs him in a washing machine. At the end of the cycle, a “cleaned” Chinese man emerges.  The ad is a direct copy of an earlier Italian ad which merely reverses the transformation (a frail white Italian man is transformed into a muscular black man). The trope of “washing” black skin to make it white has of course appeared before in Western advertising. And as Dai Na-Mei reminds us, a hospitalized Franz Fanon once described a nightmare he had of having been “put through the washing machine.”

The controversy over the advertisement has centered on either the racism of its content, or racism within Chinese society. This has meant both the use of the ad to demonstrate/confirm that racism exists in China, and the use of contextualization to argue in myriad ways that the ad, or at least Chinese society at large, is “not as racist as you think.” The responses to the ad in either case have grappled with the question, “Are the Chinese racist?” This may not be the best question to ask. The better question would be, “Where and how is race and racism being (re)produced in Chinese society, and where and how is it being deconstructed?” Race and racism are the products of social interactions and inequalities rather than simply a set of prejudiced attitudes. The response to the controversy, however, has focused primarily on the latter, contributing to the conflation of racism with ignorance. This is not surprising. “Racism” is frequently talked about as a set of problematic attitudes or opinions that a person may possess in varying degrees, rather than an assemblage of systematic practices (including discourses) which produce inequalities based on constructed notions of race.

In conflating racism with “ignorance” or “attitudes,” the debate has been less about the quality of relationships between Chinese and Africans/African-descendant people, and more about the identity of Chinese in a global hierarchy of tolerance and civility. A reason for this is that the primary reference point for any discussion about “race” in China is the history of Western imperialism, and the fact that “Whiteness” continues to inform global hierarchies of value. Whatever genealogies to racial thought in Chinese history, it is near impossible to talk about them today except through the lens of the standard set by Western racism. This is true not only for foreign observers who interpret Chinese attitudes based on their experiences in the United States or Europe, but also for Chinese. What this means is that these debates also are about the identity of Europeans and European-descendant peoples, against which Asian racism serves as either the dark attic of their own “forgotten” stereotypes (i.e. the afterlives of Darkie Toothpaste and Sambo in Asia), or the “they-do-it too” validation for  racist ideology.

A routine debate has unfolded on a China-Africa listserv I follow between those arguing the Qiaobi ad is indicative of a problematic discourse of race in China, and those arguing the reaction to the Qiaobi ad is indicative of a problematic Western discourse about racism in China. On close examination, there are actually a number of facts the two sides seem to agree on, but as is often the case with international scandals involving Africa-China, “East-West” tropes of geopolitical competition leads any particular commentary to be suspiciously read by some as either apologia or driven by covert political motivations.

If there is one thing people have (mostly) agreed on is the need for contextualization, to avoid blanket statements like “the Chinese are racist.” How one contextualizes is another matter. Robert Castillo has offered a good overview of the different “readings” and “explanations” usually offered to explain incidents of anti-black racism in China. The first is that what looks like “racism” is better understood as “colorism,” an aesthetic preference for fair skin originating in the association between darker skin and working under the sun, and therefore, “classism.” The second is that it is rooted in historical prejudices towards darker skinned southerners (which were extended towards Africans in the late 19th/early 20th century via Western racial theories). The third explanation is that Chinese anti-black attitudes are informed by Western racism, popularly expressed as the “Hollywood-made-me-racist” argument. Castillo supplies an additional explanation concerning the Qiaobi ad in particular: “policing Chineseness, and the policing of Chinese femininity.” A potential union between a Chinese woman and a black male (it is unclear in the ad whether he is from Africa or not) is “corrected” by producing a Chinese man. The fact he is a Chinese man rather than a “white” European (an imagined alternative to the ad Chinese internet commentators sardonically suggested) suggests that in addition to the invocation of global racial hierarchies, there is the anxiety of Chinese women looking outside the population of Chinese males. This was in fact a major theme of the 1988 (male) anti-black riots in Nanjing, as Castillo points out. His assessment of these explanations is that each is simplistic in isolation, and he is right to identify the problem with “global (colonial and postcolonial) imaginaries of racial superiority” rather than a distinctively Chinese racism. It is never an either/or. Expressions of racial prejudice can emerge from the intersection of multiple forms of discrimination.

The practice of contextualizing racism, however, raises the question of how one chooses to define racism and where one locates it. Castillo defines racism in terms of structural racism, and draws a distinction between that and the surface manifestations of racial prejudice. Based on his experience and research with the African community in Guangzhou, he argues that systemic anti-black racism like that encountered in the United State or Europe does not exist in China. Therefore, expressions of racial prejudice in China are better understood to be the products of “ignorance.” Nicole Bonnah’s response to Castillo raises the point that calls to contextualize before calling something “racist” opens “up a pandoras box of accessing who’s eyes and ears are beholding and defining these ‘contexts’. Evaluations of racism using this practice would undoubtedly be formed based upon positions of privilege or under-privilege.” To provide an example from the American context, it is often the privilege of the dominant group to define what is or is not racist, and to thereby dismiss those on the receiving end of “being sensitive.” Bonnah writes that “racial prejudice in China as a result of colonial and postcolonial ‘imaginaries’ of racial superiority doesn’t just look like racism – it is.” It is a semiotic question because even if the signifiers of racism (in this case, the ad) can be argued to not signify a single referent (a Chinese racism or an imagined ur-racism), a signifier of racism, once out there in the world, is not just a representation of racism, it is racism. It is racist because of the global context, not just the Chinese context.

Qiaobi’s public response to the controversy was a combination of denied intention to harm combined with criticism of international media for “over-sensitivity.” Ironically, it’s a very “American” response. In the United States, controversies over racially offensive discourses usually attract counter-complaints that the offended populations are “sensitive,” or that the racism is in the eye of the beholder. But this is often the point. Those on the receiving end of devaluing, dehumanizing discourses are often better able to recognize their import than those who produce them. The producers of the Qiaobi ad may not have recognized their product as “racist,” nor may they even have harbored any explicit hostility towards black individuals. Nonetheless, the long history of the black=dirty motif in Western advertising, anti-black attitudes within the Chinese public sphere, and the reading of the ad as racist means that the ad is racist, or at the very least, the ad becomes racist. The ad has contributed to the archive of global anti-black racism. It cannot be unproduced.

The debates, however, have largely been about China, and the contests of contextualization have been restricted there. As Michael Herzfeld writes, the use of disclaimers to argue that this or that racist opinion or policy is “not racist” has already become a globalized form of contemporary racism. Contextualization is important, especially as a corrective to self-affirmative American and European interpretations, but in the Chinese context, it can become a conservative position which deflects critical attention to the object itself: racism in China.

But what does “racism in China” actually mean? What kind of object is it? I have noticed two versions of contextualization used when observers respond to blanket claims that “the Chinese” are racist towards black individuals, and in their attempt to contextualize racist situations involving Chinese society. The contextualizations I describe here are “academic” in the sense of being distinct from the popular “readings” and “explanations” Castillo summarizes. This does not mean they are exclusive, as the boundary between the “academic” and “non-academic” is constructed and fuzzy in practice, but there are distinct arguments which can be associated with the scholars who have commented on the issue.

The Genealogical Contextualization

The first type of contextualization might be called the “genealogical” contextualization. It is a historical contextualization that identifies a concrete object, “anti-black racism,” and traces its emergence and evolution over time. The time scale varies. Dikotter and Wyatt trace it back centuries, but the more compelling treatments have linked it to the modernity of Chinese nation-building projects (cf. Cheng 2011).

These treatments have argued the discourse of anti-black racism is closely linked to nationalist anxieties about the place of China and Chinese in the global hierarchy of value. There is a long genealogy to this going back to the encounter between the Chinese empire and Western imperialism in the 19th century. The narrative is well summarized by Dai Na- Mei (戴娜美) in Chinese here. There were prominent Chinese reformers who adopted the racial and Social Darwinist perspectives of such Europeans as Francis Galton to critically analyze the place of the “yellow” in the global racial hierarchy. There was a dark side to the progressivism of famous Chinese reformers like Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao. Dai quotes Kang Youwei in Datong Shi as writing ,“The difference between white people and yellow people is not that great, China can still vigorously catch up, but the blacks are an ethnicity (族性) which is already too inferior.”

The anti-imperialist solidarity of the People’s Republic of China with African liberation movements did create counter-currents, but when Maoism came under critical evaluation in 1980s China, so did China’s alignment with Africa. Based on my own experience listening to Chinese expatriates in East Africa, I think Maoist anti-racism may have even had the unintended effect of reinforcing global hierarchies. A shared history of being the victim of imperialism did not necessarily entail an elevation to equality. Instead, for some Chinese I have met, the interpretation of African society through the lens of Western colonialism reinforces the association of “blacks” with “slaves.” Chinese interlocutors I encountered in my fieldwork would sometimes explain various perceived deficits in the character of local people in terms of “backwards” social development: being a “slave society,” lacking local cultural agency etc. When they would ask me whether “the position of blacks in the United States were very low,” it was not necessarily a critique of structural racism, but a commentary about the “low position” of “blacks” in general as a consequence of an imagined ethnopsychology. Furthermore, the sentiment among some that Chinese expatriates in Africa are not “respected” because they did not achieve the same Hegelian mastery as Europeans is an example of how easily the moral evaluation of the same political assumptions can be flipped.

Following the beginning of Reform and Opening, Chinese reformers turned away from the solidarity of the Maoist period and resurrected earlier projects of Chinese modernity defined under an internalized white gaze (cf Anagnost 1997). As before, “blackness” became an oppositional category against which “yellowness” might aspire towards “whiteness.” As Sautman argued, when Chinese students protested against Africans students in the 1980s, part of their demands could be understood as a rejection of a Maoist internationalism that aligned China with Africans rather than with Anglo-Europeans, a stance which aligned with the liberalism of the subsequent 1989 protests. In the context of the 1980s, Cheng argues, this was linked to resentments that China remained poor. Twenty years later, perspectives about Africans are linked to a more self-confident Chinese-ness. This may be questioned, however, when one considers both internal divisions within China as well as continuing forms of self-criticism. Despite China’s “rise,” there remains a deep ambivalence about both the strength of China as a state and the strength of individual Chinese as migrants.

The problem with this genealogical approach, however, is that it flattens the possibilities of what a Chinese discourse of race might be. The construction of a textual cannon linking the writings of Kang Youwei to the language of 1980s student protestors excludes alternative voices and singularizes the Chinese discourse of race to a master melody against which individual perspectives are either in or out of tune. The work of Dikotter, Wyatt, (early) Sautman, Simon Shen and Cheng Yinhong sometimes reads like an extended series of examples, a kind of “gallery of shocking statements” primarily intended to prove that racism exists in China. In some cases, the volume of quoted statements are so offensive as to almost make it difficult to remember anything else about the articles.

For context, it would be worthwhile to compare online Chinese racism to online American racism. If online American racism is read as the public revelation of secret attitudes behind “covert” systemic racism, than what does “overt” Chinese racism reveal if, as Castillo claims, “covert” racism does not exist in China? Do online attitudes correlate with how Chinese individuals interact with Africans they may actually meet?

Cheng and Shen both emphasize how thoroughly racism “permeates” Chinese society. Shen goes further to make claims about how “the Chinese” think and feel. The problem is that this excludes entire categories of people whose experiences and discourses might trouble what we mean by “the Chinese.” For example, one of the key sites of anti-black racism Shen and Cheng identify are (male) Chinese denunciations of Chinese women who date and/or marry African men (the unfulfilled outcome of the advertisement) . But we do not hear what these women have to say. To privilege male Chinese opinions is to concede the right to who determines what “the Chinese” think. There has recently been attempts to address this (Shanshan Lan and Allen Xiao. Forthcoming; Yu Qiu, Forthcoming). In a recent piece, Min Zhou, Shabnam Shenasi and Tao Xu suggest that although views of Africans online are generally “negative,” those in Guangzhou who have direct interactions with Africans in business may have more positive views than those who do not. In all these cases, contextualization would mean avoiding singularization and focusing more on the positionality of where racial claims are being made.

Statistical Range (or Marketplace of Ideas) Contextualization

The second type of contextualization might be called the “statistical range,” or “marketplace” contextualization because of its affinity with the neoliberal metaphor of a “marketplace of ideas.” In this interpretation, there are no “discursive formations,” or singular “Chinese racisms,” but rather one billion Chinese individuals, and within this set, the entire spectrum of ideas about race may be found.  This is exemplified in the argument of Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong’s  op-ed, “One Bad Advert Doesn’t Make 1.4. Billion Chinese Racist.” The target of the op-ed is of course the singularization that too often occurs when people makes claims about “the Chinese.” All too frequently, what applies to one Chinese individual is rapidly assumed to apply to every possible individual within that category. Sautman and Yan review survey studies to argue that racist attitudes are less prevalent in China than assumed.

Racism in this case is treated as a measurable individual property. There is a difference between the claim that an entire population is racist, or possesses racist views, however, and the claim that a discourse of race is prominent in a society. There is a common slippage in ordinary use between “population” and “society.” Population in this case can be defined quantitatively as a set of individuals counted in the Chinese census. “Society” in this case could refer to a shared frame of reference, a public sphere with common points of linguistic, cultural and experiential reference wherein any individual might recognize “Chinese society” as an object to which they relate in some way or the other, and are able to make varying degrees of generalizations about.

Of course, these are both imprecise definitions, but the point I am trying to make is that the kind of claims one can make about either category are substantively different. A population, however defined, is relatively fixed, it has a number. It can be sampled and surveyed to produce statistical data. Each individual can be assigned a variable (in this case, “racist” or “non-racist,” however the researcher chooses to define those terms, and whatever methods they use to determine  them). The method already assumes there will be variation, but one of the products of the method is to produce data about the proportion of variation. These numbers are then used to make arguments about the norm, which in translation, often come define the entire population in a kind of “winner-takes-all” argument. Mobilized for the geopolitics of comparison, populations are ranked by their comparative racism. Sautman and Yan cite this literature not to “prove” (although they often seem to suggest) that Chinese are “less racist” than Europeans, but to disprove the assumption Chinese are “more racist” than Europeans. In either case, we learn less about racism itself and more about the ongoing politics of comparative hierarchies which continue to define debates about the “rise of China.”

There are many problems with this, one of which is the assumption of methodological individualism that the measure of racism is the measurement of attitudes possessed by individuals. This is not to say such measurements do not have value. It is important, as Sautman and Yan point out in a listserv discussion, that among respondents in Nanjing, there has been a change in how people talk about race between 1994 and the present, to the extent one could argue people are less “racist” now than they were in the early 1990s. The problem is rather the classification of individuals as “racist” or “non-racist.” This is implied when Sautman and Yan are discussing the fact there are “only a few surveys exist that compare Chinese racial/ethnic attitudes to those of Westerners, but so far they show that the former are by no means more racist than the latter.  That is the case moreover even though almost everyone seems to agree that those Chinese who are racist are less apt than Westerners to disguise their views” (Italics mine).

The identification of a sub-category of those “who are racist,” but “disguise their views” to varying degrees, reflects a persistent way of talking about racism as an individual rather than social possession. It is problematic because it helps elide an understanding of racism as a total social phenomena. In an American context, individuals who are white frequently deny they are “racist,” while not only holding opinions which are racist, but also participating in social practices which reproduce racial inequalities. This is not just a matter of disguising attitudes, but also engaging in practices these same individuals themselves may not understand to contribute to “racism.” For example, decisions on where to live and enroll children for schooling need not be explicitly understood to be based on race, but on considerations of “crime,” which can be either coded,, affective-for example, internalized anxieties when driving through certain neighborhoods-or seemingly well-intentioned. The undecidability between the intentions distracts attention from the similarity of effects, but in the United States (and not just in the United States), moral self-definition is premised on intentionality.

The Production of Race and Racism

In the case of China, where these same forms of anti-black discrimination do not exist in the same systemic manner, the issue is more complicated. Castillo himself defines racism in terms of structural racism: “a covert, systematic, and persistent (e.g. that is almost inescapable) form of discrimination embedded in social institutions (like the mighty American police, in case you were looking for an example), that grants privileges to one group while denying them to others.” By this definition, although there “are plenty of racial prejudices and forms of discrimination” which are “overt” rather than “covert,” Castillo argues “’there is no structural racism’” in China.” By decoupling racial prejudice from systemic racism, the explanation for Chinese anti-black attitudes is attributed to being “still very ignorant, naive, or plainly idiotic.” Castillo and others have attempted to separate prejudice from racism, suggesting the former is a universal feature of human life which can be the basis for, but does not necessarily lead to, the latter.

What then, do racial prejudices, discourses or practices in China do? Does their “racism” depend on their intention or their effects? If anti-black prejudices in China do not contribute to systemic racism, then what are their effects? In the context of a global hierarchy of value which often devalues “blackness,” whether or not Chinese prejudice is Chinese racism is not just a Chinese issue. As the debate has revealed, the Qiaobi ad exposes both Chinese and Western practices to question. Attempts to isolate the problem as either “Chinese” or “Western” does not answer questions about racism, it engages the geopolitics of comparison between status quo hegemonic powers and would be challengers. It also overlooks the broader situation of global inequality, including the relation of “Africa” to the world. Differences between how “the West” and “China” interact with the people who live there are ultimately less significant than the forms of inequality, dependency, and cultural hierarchies that continue to produce themselves in interactions between African societies and external actors (notwithstanding the complexities of agency and mutual constitution). The Qiaobi ad should be considered in this context rather than only in comparative domestic contexts.

Furthermore, setting the definition of racism as something possessed by individuals ignores the dialogical properties of discourse; the articulation of individual attitudes do not exist in isolation from each other, people express views on race with reference, implicitly or explicitly, to other views in circulation. Anti-racist views among elite individuals in the majority group, for example, might identify non-elite members of the majority group as embodiment of the racism they wish to disavow in themselves. In the United States, this can be seen in the practices of social distinction white American liberals adopt towards “rednecks.” In my fieldwork in East Africa, I found Chinese expatriates willingly criticize different devalued categories of “low-quality” or “low cultural level” Chinese for their presumed prejudice and impatience with locals. These same individuals would present themselves as being better educated or understanding of cultural difference.

Nonetheless, even if not everyone uses the same racial terminology, there is a set of observations and comments people make about locals which indexes similar observations and comments made by those who do use explicitly racial terminology. In other words, even though there is a diversity of perspectives on “race” and cultural difference among Chinese expatriates, there is nonetheless a convergence on a shared set of cultural generalizations about heiren (black people).

For example, I met individuals who would express seemingly nuanced perspectives on race, and critical attitudes towards the attitudes of other expatriates in one situation, but participate in racialized discussions in other situations. I remember a conversation once with a couple of Chinese friends whose discussion turned to the challenges of living in East Africa. One of the young men began to describe problems with his employees and with police officers in terms of problems with “heiren,” and after a few minutes, he began to speak of them with a derogatory label I do not wish to reproduce here. He had done this before, so I was not surprised. If I had to classify him, I would lean towards the “racist” category. What did surprise me was that another individual, who had expressed anti-racist sentiments on other occasions, one who I would have put  in the “non-racist” category, did not respond to this. Furthermore, she actually contributed to the conversation by sharing her own experiences with the “unreliability” of  heiren. These discursive interactions produce heiren as a conceptual category with an assumed set of ethnopsychological characteristics. This is not uncommon. Shared conversations of complaint about locals, whether face-to-face or online is an opportunity for each individual to share their own experiences. In other words, Chinese expatriates share a set of common complaints, even though the stance and perspectives they take on these may vary. One does not need to be a committed racist, however, to contribute to the production of racist discourse.

Even when expatriates disavow “racial discrimination,” and otherwise argue for a kind of cultural relativism, they nonetheless operate in terms of generalities about “ways of thinking” (siewei) particular to either distinct cultures or to people at a particular stage of social development. This is of course not unique to the Chinese, but what is interesting is that Chinese more readily use heiren (black person) as a descriptor for individuals whereas other expatriates will use a more varied set of terminology which may nevertheless be racially coded. “Racial sensitivity” does not necessarily mean possessing enlightened anti-racist thinking, but can also simply mean a sensitivity to the appropriate use of language.

Castillo sees the Qiaobi ad as an opportunity for “people in China [to] learn about these global sensitivities.” An opportunity will be lost, however, if it just morphs into efforts to police how Chinese talk about race, that is, another exercise in “raising civility.” This has happened before. Following an incident in 1979 where Chinese students attacked African exchange students, the government’s response was to improve the “internationalism” education of Chinese students.

This is an aspect which has been overlooked in the debate about whether the Chinese are “racist.” There is a different dynamic in conversations among white Americans I know. White Americans are just as prone to make the same kinds of generalizations, but will steadily avoid the use of “black,” preferring instead more particularized terms. For example, an American friend of mine in a coastal region of East Africa once described having friendships with “Arabs” and “Indians,” but not “the local fisherman.” In the United States, there is a “call-out” culture which sanctions improper use of racial language. Among the Chinese with whom I am familiar, not so much. Although one well-established businessman once shared with me an anecdote about a Chinese Foreign Service officer threatening to revoke a nearby man’s passport after overhearing him using a derogatory term to describe Africans. But of course, with the rise of a new public sphere online, and especially with the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, it is questionable whether “overt” racist discourse in the United States ever actually left. Comparing the racist things Americans say online with the racist things Chinese say online, for example, may be like comparing apples and oranges.

Ignorant Racism and Experienced Racism

And this brings me to my final point. If American expressions of racist discourse about “blacks” signify American histories of racism, what do Chinese expressions signify? A number of commentators have argued Chinese expressions are signifies of ignorance rather than racism. The leading scholar of African studies in China, Li Anshan has even published an editorial arguing “Chinese ignorance of race should not be confused with racism.” As he writes, “China is still facing serious challenges in its dealings with the outside world. Ignorance is persistent, and some Chinese harbor prejudices toward not just Africans but people from other continents as well.” He links this to a history of Chinese ethnocentrism before arguing that “Ethnocentrism is common among people who are isolated and incapable of achieving mutual understanding.” In these cases, it is “understandable,” but is a different case from “modern colonialism” in which ethnocentrism is converted into racism… to justify the military, political, and economic domination of foreign people.” He then provides a list of individual stories where Chinese overcame ignorance and prejudice towards black-skinned foreigners. [A good response from Gregory Scott and Luyolo Sijake which has just been posted can be here.]

Castillo too has argued that one difference between the Chinese context and other contexts is that in the former, people’s attitudes are much more flexible, they are willing to “learn.” An event like Qiaobi thus affords positive effects. In European societies, however, racism is so “entrenched” that people are resistant to acknowledge it.

Although Castillo does express concern that the geopolitics may lead to an increase, rather than decrease, of Chinese ethno-nationalism, a number of commentators express a kind of “moral optimism” that with greater contact between Chinese and dark-skinned individuals, whether from Africa or elsewhere, racially enlightened attitudes will develop. The implication is that through increased contact and interactions, mutual understanding will increase, stereotypes will be challenged, and that the signs of “racism” which are observed are products of a “closed” past which is rapidly changing.

This is a problematic assumption. While ignorance is certainly an important contributor to racial ideologies, it should not be assumed that less ignorance would mean greater racial sensitivity. Or rather, there are different forms of ignorance. There are forms of ignorance which are based on inexperience, but there are other forms of ignorance which are themselves the product of experiences interpreted within problematic frameworks. An obvious example of this is the entire field of “scientific racism” in the West. At the same time scientific research has challenged the racial typologies of the past, there are still otherwise educated people in scientific circles who continue to problematically argue for the intelligibility of “race.” This is just to say that the opposite of “ignorance” is not necessarily “enlightenment” about racial issues. The moral optimism that mutual contact will lead to mutual understanding echoes the assumptions of the early literature on Globalization. Missing from that literature of course were considerations of power, inequality and insecurity.

In talking about interactions between Chinese and Africans, for example, it is important to consider the structural features of the encounter. Take for instance the experience of Chinese who go to Africa to do business or to work. Among such individuals, there is an entire genre of everyday conversation and complaint about heiren that I have already mentioned above, which is not simply about colorism, but about an entire package of “cultural” complaints which are full of stereotypes (i.e. punctuality, reliability, trustworthiness etc.). These stereotypes are regularly linked to individual experiences such that any particular difficulty is reflected upon as a product of something essential and internal to heiren. It is of course possible to attribute certain reactions as well to “ignorance” (as many Chinese I know do regarding their impatient compatriots), but these interactions and experiences themselves contribute to new forms of “knowledge” which produce new forms of prejudice and discrimination. In my experience, the most depressing instances are cases of what, borrowing from Michael Herzfeld, might be called a “wounded humanism,” wherein an individual claims to have had positive views of “Africans” before coming to work in Africa, based on either state-sanctioned narratives of historical friendship, or personal beliefs in human equality, but whose individual bad luck in Africa has led them to believe in some version of human inequality. Needless to say, setting up businesses in a foreign country can be a risky endeavor, and it is on such frontiers of capitalism that stories of betrayal and “friction” abound. The creation of “culturally intimate” knowledge between people brought together in such circumstances is not necessarily liberal cosmopolitanism. Compare to the claims, “classic among ethnic groups that share common borders, to the effect that ‘we know what they are like from our own close experience,’ but with the added twist that it could not be directly attributed to racism.” Herzfeld refers here to prejudices among ‘culturally similar’ Europeans, but there is something applicable to the case of any form of emerging cultural intimacy. Add to that situations of market competition, labor regimes, patron-clientage etc. Experience in and of itself does not produce tolerance. The mode of interaction is important. What kind of interactions produce racism, but also, what kind of interactions can deconstruct racism?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Tanzanian Election in the Eyes of the Chinese [TRANSLATION]

The following is my translation of a special feature in a Chinese-language publication in Tanzania on the Tanzanian general elections back in October. I did not write the article, so all credit is due to the newspaper editor. A link to the original article can be found here. Suggestions for improving the translation are always welcome.

 

On the 29th of October, at 4 PM in the afternoon, the results of the Tanzanian national election were announced on television. CCM candidate John Magufuli was elected as the next President of Tanzania, bringing down the curtain on the experience of the election over the past few months. During these months, it was a remarkable time for Chinese who live in Tanzania and are concerned about this country. Chinese Weekly specially invited several of them to share the 2015 Tanzanian elections in their own eyes.

I PARTICIPATE IN THE TANZANIAN ELECTION

Zhu Jin Feng, Tanzanian Citizen and the Head of the Tanzania Branch of the Association for the Promotion of the Peaceful Unification of China.

This year’s election was distinctly different from the last two that I have experienced. The opposition party was strong, and the electoral atmosphere was tense and enthusiastic. Lots of foreigners left Tanzania before and after the election. Lots of Indians, Koreans, Japanese and Chinese also left. If they did not leave, they took vacations. During this time, everyone was nervous about the situation during the election and social stability.

I stayed in Tanzania during the election because I obtained Tanzanian citizenship. I have a responsibility towards my rights. I certainly needed to participate in order to choose a good President for us, and to make one’s personal contribution to the development prospects of Tanzania!

Through participating in this election, a biggest experience is learning that this is an authentically democratic country. On the day of casting ballots, people lined up orderly under the sun, without anybody complaining, just joking and laughing as they advanced in line. Between fathers and sons, and husbands and wives, each insisted upon their own views without any mutual interference. The person you want to vote for is the person you vote for. While waiting in line, respect for the elderly and love for the young was very evident. Elders did not need to line up, young people automatically let them go first. They particularly showed consideration towards new immigrants. There wasn’t the least bit of xenophobia. Everyone peacefully co-existed. This made me feel again the simple sincerity and honesty of the Tanzanian people.

Now, we have chosen a new president. After the new president takes office, ordinary people hope there will be a big change, that the style in which government agencies work will change, that reforms will be vigorously implemented, that there will be economic development, that the lowest classes of citizens will have food to eat, clothes to wear and homes to live in.

TRANQUILITY CONSISTANT WITH FAIRNESS

Zhou Jiang Yue, A Chinese traveling In Tanzania

Over several months of preparation, until the voters have cast their votes, and until the results have been announced, and the elected person has resoundingly entered the stage, the whole of Tanzania has been tranquil. This tranquility has more or less surprised us Chinese. This is a good thing. I believe Tanzanian officials and citizens have, by working together, achieved the twin goals of a successful and peaceful election. Besides the quality (suzhi) of the people, the most important reason is the entire electoral process embodied fairness.

Fairness is completely fundamental to “competition.” For any country’s constitution and the law under its command, the most important goal is to embody, to the greatest limit, the will and aspirations of the people, and to be fair. From the social form reflected by Tanzanian society revolving around the election, and from the attitude displayed by the authorities, I believe the parties and people are very free, and very equal. Concerning the election, each candidate had a remarkable ability, untrammeled passion which did not stick to a single pattern, to independently express and reveal their views, and beliefs to the public, for social inspection.

Gatherings and parades of all sizes, although they affected traffic sometimes, they were not disturbed or blocked. The pledges of the people were fully respected. On the streets were the posters of candidates, the flags of parties, left and right between you and I, around each other, sharing space, with no ‘you’ covering over ‘me’, ‘me’ covering ‘you.’ The media and public opinion bluntly exposed and criticized the corruption of government officials. Candidates for the ruling party also declared punishing corruption to be an important task. The criticism of people towards the government was not suppressed or denied, it enjoyed full freedom of speech. The qualifications for casting a ballot were strictly inspected. Voter forms, photographs and fingerprints were inspected. The casting of ballots underwent a thorough procedure. We observed and studied this election from an early ferment to the climax of the conclusion, experiencing “fairness,” although it’s impossible for it to have been absolute. But the present stability and unity of the situation is evidence as much.

A vigorous competition ending in a peace and tranquility. This is my complete sense of this election in Tanzania. This author applauds the wisdom and broad-mindedness the Tanzanian ruling authorities have bestowed for “fairness” and even more, admires the Tanzanian voters who cherish their rights, equality and the general good.

THE TANZANIAN ELECTION IN MY EYES

Agricultural Aid Expert, Hualin Jushi

I have been in Tanzania for more than six years, and have experienced two elections. I remember the last election was held in October of 2010. On the day of the general election for president, the situation was very nervous. I remember at the time the votes and counting were being concluded, we had just returned from Zanzibar. The people who came to pick us up at the airport said that it looked like the opposition party had won, but CCM would not want to hand over power. It was possible there would be chaos in Dar es Salaam. This scared us. When we left the airport, we discovered that lots of large election posters for Kikwete alongside the road had been torn down. It looked as if the political situation had changed. A period of time passed after the election before the results were announced. In the end, CCM won.

This year’s election made people pay even more attention. This was because it was the most competitive election since Tanzania’s multi-party system began in 1992. CCM and the opposition both had people who favored them. Once, when a tire on our truck went flat, I went to a tire shop to buy and change the tire. Talking with the repairman, it was unavoidable that the topic of the presidential election would come up. They asked me who I supported. I said I don’t know. I would support whoever got elected. One of the black brothers pointed at the two bunny ears on my Playboy T-shirt. He said I supported Lowassa because my shirt had the “V” symbol used by Lowassa for the election.

 

I also saw a little of election rallies. In each city and each village, there were often election meetings. Speakers would stand on stage and expound in loud voices. The crowd below would occasionally shout. The entire scene was noisy and in disarray. On television, I could often see the rallies of the two camps. One scene took place in the city, the opposition candidate Lowassa faced a densely packed crowd, many of them youth. When he gave an impassioned election speech, with each thing he said, the crowd shouted Lowassa’s name in unison. Another scene was a rally in a village. The CCM candidate Magufuli also faced a crowd of very black supporters. He gave an enthusiastic election speech. Each time he paused, the crowd below excitedly cheered. The slogans of the two candidates was almost the same. They both wanted to reform how the country is governed, they both were going to fight corruption, develop the economy, change the investment environment, improve traffic, increase the electricity and natural gas supply, raise the level of education, and reduce poverty. It was just the style of expression and points of emphasis were different. During the rallies, no matter whether or it was Magufuli’s supporters or Lowassa’s supporters, or Zanzibar’s CUF supporters, everyone was engrossed. This is especially true of young people, they were more energetic and jubilant, and expressed a high level of enthusiasm.

Although each party’s rallies approaching the election were bustling with noise and excitement, when the election day of October 25 arrived, there was again tranquility and order. In Dakawa, across from our demonstration center, there was a middle school that served as a polling station. I saw lines of people in front of the building. The local people were orderly in waiting to vote. There was no noise here. The people who voted were all very quiet. It was very similar to the scene of local people waiting in a bank to deposit money. On the second day after the election, I went to Morogoro to have a look. Cars drove in and out of the city, the streets were tranquil. People acted like normal times, bustling with activity, going to work like going to work, shopping like shopping, doing business like doing business. Shops and banks were all open. The farmer’s market was also open. Daladala drivers were picking up passengers like before. The scene was an ordinary bustling marketplace. I did not see any demonstrations or processions.

People often say that in African countries, “elections are always chaotic.” But the achievement of Tanzania’s election demonstrates that this statement is not universal. The entire process of this election was fundamentally peacefully conducted. The kind of turmoil people worried about before did not occur. Tanzanians rationally voted for their own new president. I wish Tanzanians a beautiful tomorrow. I also hope that after the election, we Chinese in Tanzania have an even better investment, work and life environment.

MEETING TANZANIA’S NEW ENVIROMENT

Chief Editor of Chinese Weekly Li Kun

October in Dar es Salaam is the last stage of Tanzania’s general election. The days pass with nervousness, anxiousness, excitement and tranquility. Can a presidential election in an African country follow democratic procedures? Can an African country which is often denounced for “administrative chaos” administer tens of millions of votes? If a large number of youth participate in an election, does that lead to social turmoil? Now that this month has come, I have some answers.

The driver in my office is a CCM supporter. In this election, he firmly cast his vote for Magufuli. But this this month, his mood was up and down, and in turmoil. Every morning when I arrived at the office, from looking at his facial expression, I could guess 70 to 80% whether CCM was sailing smoothly, or encountering challenges. “I heard that when Lowassa went to Mwanza to give a speech, lots of people supported him. CCM is afraid they can’t withstand them” (bitter face). “Although it is said the opposition’s is stronger in Mbeya, when Magufuli went there, there were also lots of supporters!” (happy). “My mother in the village called me, and exhorted me that if my support for CCM cannot change, how could I ever change?” (disapproving)

The participation of the Tanzanian populace in the elections was deep and energetic, leaving a deep impression on me. No matter whether it was the ruling party or the opposition party, their supporters were all very much engrossed in election activities. We reported on volunteers on the streets day and night protecting their party’s flags. They sincerely hoped that their own participation could help this country elect the right leader, and give Tanzania a positive change.

On the day of the election, I went outside on tenterhooks to observe the situation of polling booths. My mind was full of false images of “chaos and disorder”, and even a little bit of concern about personal safety. However, everything was clear and in and good order at the polling booths. The streets of the city were peaceful and quiet. It shocked me. Just as the above authors mentioned, this kind of discrepancy broke though prejudice and original imaginings, making us once again reflect and learn from our mistake.

Chinese Weekly’s series of election reports during the election season received help and support from ten Chinese friends. Some of them appear in our interview report, and some of them gave us messages or interviews. We would like to thank everyone! Following the election, we are looking forward to Tanzania’s new developments. The Chinese Weekly will continue to strive to provide Chinese even better news.

 

Predictable Patterning versus Historical Consciousness

Few would deny the importance of temporality to social phenomena, but different social scientists see such temporality in very different ways. For some, temporality means history and in turn, the importance of historical context in situating events. For others, temporality means long-term equilibrium, and in turn, the importance of general mechanics in explaining events. I sometimes wonder to what extent time-scale matters in determining which kinds of explanations people find more compelling and/or relevant. There is a quote famously attributed to John Maynard Keynes that “in the long run we are all dead,” which contains a lesson that the concious scale of human affairs may be less than the scale of whatever ultimate mechanics might be claimed to have relevance. This is not to diminish the inherent wonder of the ultimate, but to insist on the inescapability of the proximate. This is what I take from James Ferguson’s comment that the “particular…is always the world that we live in” [1]. Looking at political change over time from this perspective, I’ve always been struck by the technical pragmatism of political scientists. When one takes the stance that political change is (theoretically speaking) predictable, the narrative drama of historical contigency is challenged. What is the relationship between the former and the latter?

The first issue for me is democratization. In the 1960s, Samuel Huntington (in)famously wrote on “political order in changing societies” [2]. Arguing that the rapid social and economic change unfolding in decolonizing societies unleashed “demand overload” on nascent political institutions, he provided a social scientific rationale for American Cold War support of authoritarian governments. The ritualization of ‘order’ in these new nations would provide longer term stability than support for democratic change. Indeed, they might even support the eventual realization of parliamentary liberal democracy. It was an argument that bolstered supporters of authoritarian development states in East Asia (among other places) through the Cold War. It is an argument that has been ironically been inherited by the Chinese state on the other side of the Cold War divide.
It is easy enough to identify the politically interested intersections between theory and power, but more interesting to me at this point are the assumptions about temporality theories like this demand. If one were to accept Huntington’s argument that suppression of political freedoms in the short-term equal a better future in the long-term; the political victims and activists filling the space between the present and the future would be either ‘well-meaning but wrong’ at best, or ‘collatoral damage’ at worst. The space between the present and the long-term, however, is nothing else than the space of history itself, and it is in that space that memory and identity are formed. In the context of states that passed from dictatorship to democracy, asserting the agency of the process risks negating the agency of people who would take themselves to be the producers of that history. Accounts of Taiwan’s democratic transition is one area where divergences in narrative/analytic style along these lines become obvious.

Another issue for me is the treatment of Chinese-African relationships. Setting aside accounts which see the present as the prelude to some imagined “Chinese Empire,” the more sober empiricist accounts themselves have a particular way of treating the passage of time. For example, Deborah
Bräutigam’s The Dragon’s Gift (2009), embraces an attitude of what might be called “policy optimism”; that is, a faith that the actors involved can learn from their mistakes and improve their engagements. This leaves treatment of any more unpleasant features of Chinese investment as just part of ‘the learning curve.’ Her conclusion is that there are problematic ways outside countries have engaged Africa that require collective efforts at improvement. Western countries, rather than singling out China, should show more humility in recognizing their own failures to live up to international standards, as well as being open to the lessons from what China is doing well in Africa.  It is hard to argue with this, but if one were to take the perspective of Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history,” looking back at history as not one of continued improvement, but of wreckage piled upon wreckage, a lot of history, and a lot of adverse social and political effects can occur along a “learning curve.” This is of course the history of “development,” which as James Ferguson argues, always maintains a present-ist stance seemingly oblivious of the historical litany of development projects that precede. The position one takes on temporarility leads to very different forms of historical consciousness.

My main reason for thinking about this today, however, is the results of the 2014 9-in-1 elections in Taiwan. Although the KMT was expected to loose; no one quite expected the KMT to loose on the scale that it did. The DPP victory has been widely described as a “landslide,” and as is usually the case after such victories, various commentaries have emerged speculating on seemingly permanent changes to the political landscape. However, the 2014 election is actually quite “normal” if one considers voting patterns in democracies with 8-year presidential cycles. The 2014 victory of the Republican Party in the United States is as “normal” as the 2006 victory of the Democratic Party. Both occurred six years into the presidency of the opposing party. Seen in comparison, Taiwan’s election cycles might be taken to be un-extraordinary. The DPP suffered in the polls late in Chen administration, lost the presidency in 2008 and now in 2014, with a surge in voter support, looks well-poised to take back the presidency in 2016. What does it mean to take this cycle as “normal.” Is electoral democracy of this kind an institutional regularity whose mechanics are knowable through positivist epistemology, or is electoral democracy an historically contingent phenomena that is not worth generalizing because the conditions of its possibility are themselves historical (Is there even an ontological difference between these two positions, or is it a difference of language and emphasis?). This matters to me because an entire paper I planned to write on the political subjectivities of independence activists in Taiwan hinged on the historical temporality they inhabited in the summer of 2012. Conducting my Masters fieldwork only months after Tsai Ying-Wen lost to Ma Ying-Jeou, in an apparent mandate to further his policies of cross-strait economic liberalization, the activists I met were overwhelmingly pessimistic about the future of Taiwan. The 2012 election was not simply an electoral loss to them, but taken to be a symptom of structural flaws in Taiwan’s politics. The KMT, which maintained political hegemony through authoritarian rule from the late 1940s to the 1990s, was seen to have remained hegemonic at the structural level. The 2000 to 2008 rule of the DPP was dismissed as an aberration. The 2008 victory of the KMT was not to be taken as the institutionalization of “normal” democracy (as defined as two peaceful transitions of political power), but rather the restoration of the underlying system. One man told me that an election of a DPP candidate to the presidency “would never happen again.”

Two years later, following the Sunflower movement (which overturned my older informants’ earlier claims that younger Taiwanese remained ‘brainwashed’) and the 9-in-1 elections; I have to question how stable the political cosmology I found in 2012 ever really was. On the one hand, the transformation might be taken “historically,” in which particular events like the occupation of the Legislative Yuan in March can be placed in narrative sequence. On the other hand, the transformation might be taken as “normal,” in which case the specificity of Taiwan is replaced by generalized statements about the development of democracy in and of itself. The latter stance is complicated because the argument that Taiwan is a “normal” democracy is inseparable from the fact that such a positivist claim is embedded in a politically consequential argument.  Once the institution is “normalized,” it would take something dramatic to suspend that. Unlike “normal” democracies elsewhere, Taiwan’s electoral cycles are distinctive due to the fact they operate under the limits of a vaguely perceived “expiration date.” Of course, if we consider ecological limits, all the smooth Weberian institutions political scientists and sociologists put on the horizon  have expiration dates, but in the case of Taiwan, the assumption that Chinese unification is inevitable (either by slow integration or an eventual military tipping point) casts a shadow over any claim that Taiwan’s democracy is “normal,” and yet normality is what has emerged.
Cross-Strait political claims are generally caught in odd temporalities. Despite the fact a de facto form of political-economic interaction has emerged since 1987, everyone sees themselves within a transitional state towards some inevitable future. The People’s Republic of China’s definition of socialism was based on the claim that it was a transitional state towards future Communism. The transitional period has become increasingly stretched. The “liberation” and “reunification” of Taiwan has become more a process rather than a discernible moment. The constitution which underlies the political system in Taiwan derives from the principal that the Republic of China has been “temporarily” limited in its jurisdiction. The independence movement is based on the idea that a Republic of Taiwan is an inevitable/potential outcome of a de facto independent state. Everyone is moving towards their respective future while living in the same transitional state.
Given the fact that an oscillation pattern seems to have emerged in Taiwan (political trends towards localization followed by cross-strait integration and back again); do these transitional states matter? What does normalization mean in this kind of context?

Empire State of Mind: A Reflection on Howard French’s “China’s Second Continent”

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It was November of last year when I first learned of Howard French’s new book at an SSRC (Social Science Research Council) hosted conference on “Making Sense of the China-Africa Relationship: Theoretical Approaches and the Politics of Knowledge.” He was among a collection of presenters that included both well-known and upcoming African, Chinese, European and American scholars specializing in different aspects of contemporary Sino-African relationships. An interesting theme emerging from the two days of presentations and discussions was that it was untenable to identify a single China-Africa phenomenon and discover a singular story (or theoretical approach) to that phenomenon. Indeed, the more we learned about, for example, Chinese extractive industries, the more we needed to know about how extractive industries have operated in Africa in general. The more we looked at migration, the more migration studies reared its head. The more any particular aspect of these relationships was looked at in the detail, the less useful their Chinese-ness became in explaining them. This was all the more so given that we were discussing a relationship between a single country and an entire diverse continent.

Why were we assembled? Why is “China-Africa” so compelling? Jamie Monson, the historian of the Cold War era Chinese-built TAZARA railway, gave a presentation that identified the “elephant in the room” to be race; the large scale presence of China in Africa disrupting what W.E.B. DuBois called the global “color line,” wherein the presumption of Euro-American political, economic and cultural hegemony in Africa has been so naturalized that the presence of the Chinese invites disproportionate comment. Everyone agreed that increased Chinese-African interactions were large and important, and while the presentations differed on the equitability and effects of Chinese investment or migration, there was a general skepticism and wariness towards invocations of “empire” or “neo-imperialism” because that was precisely the hyperbole scholars wanted to challenge or qualify.

It was in this venue that Howard French presented the thesis of his now published book. From the provocative title alone, China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa, there were fears among some of the assembled attendees, myself included, that the book would have a negative impact on popular understandings; reinforcing narratives of a China threat rather than providing an empirical nuance to the diversity of Chinese and African actors. French is a well-known journalist with a larger audience than those of who have done, or who plan to do, extended ethnographic fieldwork. His own research for the book had involved a kind of leapfrogging year-long trek around the continent (illustrated for the reader in an “adventure” map at the front of the book), and the goal was explicitly generalization. For some of us undertaking research on the topic, the narrative of Chinese imperialism is one of the baseline assumptions that is being challenged or complicated. This is especially true for those of us studying Chinese migration to the African continent.  It is not uncommon to hear in both popular and academic contexts exaggerated numbers and/or claims that the central Chinese government has a deliberate resettlement policy. To study these questions in any depth, one cannot help becoming something of a mythbuster, and to be a mythbuster is to find “China in Africa=Empire” to be a problematic formula. French was insistent, however that Empire is a fair characterization of Sino-African relationships, and even offered the development of the early modern Portuguese empire in Africa as a comparative example. Sure, he said, they started as small traders, but eventually they reached a critical mass that required direct attention from the imperial metropole. The comparison struck more than a few of us as ahistorical (Africa and its institutions in the early 21st century is not Africa at the dawn of the Portuguese). French also defended his claim that migration was encouraged by the Chinese government because in an interview, a Zambian government official told him that a Chinese official told him Zambia should “allow” migrants.

These two claims and their logic are what stuck with me the most from his presentation; leading me to expect that there would be much disagreeable about his book. Having finally read the book, I am among those who have discovered that much of our worry was premature.  As a journalist with longer term experience in both Africa and China, he is certainly among the better qualified of western journalists to cover the topic. And despite the title, and despite his own attempt to live up to the title; French has actually written a rich and nuanced book. To be sure, the conclusion and the overall conceptual framework are still problematic, but it is not poorly written or thought out. Setting aside the issue of “empire” for the moment, French’s strongest contribution is to provide colorful portraits of the kinds of individual Chinese who come to Africa as entrepreneurs of varying means. His skills as a writer are much in evidence here.  For anyone who has even a little direct experience with the topic, the people, language, mannerisms he describes and subtle details he skillfully inserts (such as the ‘horn-tapping ritual’ one encounters waiting in cars outside a guarded compound) will ring true. He provides a strong introduction, rightly pointing out that discussions of Sino-African relationships are meaningless without looking at the experiences and perspectives of the thousands (if not the two million he counts) of Chinese migrants coming to Africa and their relationships with people in Africa. The manner in which these relationships will develop are the key determinant of how Sino-African relations will develop. Unfortunately, French’s colorful portraits of Chinese migrants are not evenly balanced with equally in-depth portraits of the individual Africans who work with them. Instead, African perspectives are vocalized primarily through civil society leaders, many of whom seem to already be old friends of French. Their perspectives are concentrated in the second half of the book as if a ‘response’ to the first half of the book.

The first half of the book consists primarily of semi-biographical portraits of individual Chinese entrepreneurs. French appears to have contacted many of them online beforehand. The kind of people we are introduced to are ironically hyper- entrepreneurs, some of whom come to Africa having had no prior international experience, and sometimes knowing no language other than Chinese. Through a combination of what French identifies to be some parts skill and some parts luck, many (but not all) have managed to set themselves up in a range of industries from timber exploitation to manufacturing. These rags-to-riches stories are set within an atmosphere of “eating bitterness,” wherein Chinese migrants strive (not always successfully) by working in environments that they expressly do not like, and do business with people towards whom they frequently express negative sentiments. French notes that many of the people he meets are members of China’s “lost generation,” those whose opportunities for education were disrupted by the Cultural Revolution, and who were unable to compete successfully in the post-reform economy. As French points out, “huge numbers of Chinese had not boarded the up escalator, or at least they did not feel they had,” (240) and Africa presents one alternative option.

The pursuit of these opportunities are fragmented, rather than organized. We meet more than a few migrants who studiously maintain either physical or social distance from Chinese co-nationals. French offers evidence for, but himself does not fully elaborate, on intra-Chinese tensions based on perceptions of social class. He meets relatively established or better-off migrants who complain about newly arrived or less-well-off migrants whose behavior and business practices (ranging from bribery to the sale of shoddy goods) are seen to hurt what they consider to be their own hard earned reputations. In a particularly illustrative example during his time in Liberia, French spends time alone with both a proud self-made entrepreneur named Mr. Li and a Chinese doctor. He soon discovers they are mutually hostile toward each other; insulting the other when alone with French; accusing them of either opportunism and/or lack of proper upbringing.

If this is Chinese “empire,” it is closer to the frontier, or to Aihwa Ong and Donald Nonini’s “ungrounded empire” of Chinese diaspora (1996). It is not what Emma Mawdsley (2008) would call the “Fu Manchu” story of China in Africa. This is worth emphasizing because alarmism about Chinese empire is often alarmism about the assumed geopolitical motives of “Beijing” to seize access to natural resources, rather than appreciating the diversity of Chinese actors, themselves often working at cross-purposes. French does demonstrate, however, that these different Chinese actors do share a particular “imperialist” view of Africa. The people he reports on often speak of African landscapes and markets as open, virgin and underexploited; revealing themselves in turn, as French points out, to be somewhat naive about local histories and social contexts. On the one hand, some Chinese informants tell French they are optimistic about the assumed inevitability of economic development in the African countries they now call home. On the other hand, the same informants will say they are pessimistic about the capacity of Africans themselves to develop. The implication seems to be that only foreigners, and the Chinese in particular, are capable of realizing that development. Given how much celebratory discourse in Africa and China about Sino-African cooperation emphasizes a break from the paternalism of Western actors, French is justified in pointing out that the Chinese are not innocent of paternalistic attitudes in their engagements with Africa.

Closely related to these attitudes is the prevalence of what French calls “casual racism” among Chinese migrants, which, as he rightly notes, undermines discourses of Sino-African friendship. In some ways, French’s book should be a reminder to scholars studying Chinese-African interactions that, in our zeal to challenge misinformed narratives of Chinese neo-imperialism, one should be equally critical of narratives of Chinese non-imperialism. French, however, is writing for a Anglophone readership that might already be predisposed to need less convincing about China being an empire; or that the Chinese engage in offensive “race talk” (as French calls it).  He leaves it untreated here how such attitudes compare with the West. The reader is treated to a disconcerting selection of Chinese commentary on the assumed incapability of Africans.  Although the purpose appears to be to demonstrate a particular mindset among many Chinese migrants, the presentation of Chinese racism shares a problematic feature too often common in treatments of this topic. Chinese people are shown to be “racist” without any further explanation or critical examination; except the unmarked implication of anti-racist civility on the part of Europeans. Except for occasional and subtle interventions, French maintains a stance of journalistic ‘objectivity,’ quoting such sentiments verbatim.  He occasionally counters, such as when exclaiming at one point to the reader that “history matters, international circumstances manner.” He also highlights for attention the ‘rare perspective of Mr. Li in Liberia that ethics of ‘hard work’ are based on incentives rather than intrinsic to the Chinese. Nonetheless, Adams Bodomo, a Ghanaian anthropologist based in China has argued that French’s book, based on conversations between a Western reporter and Chinese informants, practices a “subtle racism” towards Africans. He even suggests that French manages to ventriloquize white racism through the voices of his Chinese informants. Although I strongly doubt French intends that, I do fear this book may have that effect for many readers. He only briefly refers to the positionality of Chinese views and its similarity to other expatriate “armchair” diagnostics. He also suggests that Chinese views of African labor serve to legitimize the exclusivity of management hiring to the Chinese.

In any case, talking about the Chinese in Africa as empire can only be credible as long as one keeps glancing over to the practices and discourses of the West. For example, the head of an agricultural school in Liberia tells French how, through demonstration farms, “little by little, [the Chinese] can change [Africans]” (113) in their attitudes towards work. This presumption was of course common among European colonial governments. To take the example of colonial Tanganyika, as Hyden (1980) described, both the German and British governments routinely attempted to coerce farmers (with their own concerns and obligations) into producing for surplus commercial production; attributing their lack of success to a supposed “unwillingness” of Africans to work.  The post-colonial state continued these efforts, and leaders like Julius Nyerere also complained about the “work ethic” of Africans; although the goal now was the construction of an economically autonomous state rather than a colonial economy.

The Chinese who came to build the TAZARA railway in the late 1960s were already imagined by the Tanzanian government to provide model post-colonial “new men” for Tanzanian laborers to emulate (Monson 2009). TAZARA, of course, was conceived as an “anti-imperial” project to bypass the Southern African settler regimes and to embody third world cooperation; an historical legacy actively recalled by Chinese elites as the foundation for China’s contemporary “win-win” discourse and non-imperialist practice.

French is correct, in other words, to identify imperialist ways of looking at the world, but he makes the leap from imperialist to empire in a way that elides all the other ways that “empire” manifests itself. Befitting his own background and primary audience, French makes multiple comparisons between a contemporary rising China and a rising United States following the Second World War. Indeed, he presents his book as a kind of sequel to Graham Greene’s The Ugly American. The Chinese in Africa, French writes, are the “new ‘ugly Americans,’ basing this comparison on their perceived brashness, rudeness, self-confidence and historical and cultural naivety. The contemporary Americans in Africa, on the other hand, come off in his book as feckless, tragi-comic bumblers. In a particularly amusing episode, a USAID director in Mali ditches and avoids French’s phone calls after French asks to see an American supported agricultural aid project he has learned of. Elsewhere, Chinese ambassador to Zambia, Zhou Yuxiao, talks to French with evident pride about all the roads and infrastructure being built by the Chinese, adding that he feels sorry the Americans don’t have as much to show. Written by an American for a mainstream American audience, however, it should be kept in mind that such comparisons primarily work rhetorically to argue that the US must do “more.” French does not discuss US military presence in Africa; which is odd for a book arguing that it’s China which is building an empire. Although China has been involved in the arms trade, and has contributed troops through the UN to peacekeeping operations in the Congo, there is not [as yet] any Chinese military archipelago in Africa comparable to that of the United States (or Europe). It may be that French is arguing the US should be acting more like the Chinese (building roads rather than military bases), but that doesn’t resolve the balance of who is (and is not) empire.

The lack of Chinese military presence in Africa is often exhibit A for the argument that it is the US, rather than China, which deserves the label of empire, but the problem with both this response (and French’s own omission of the issue) is the ambiguous definition of “empire” being deployed. French’s arguments about a Chinese empire are strongest when Chinese informants themselves convey imperial ways of thinking about Africa. French groups together Chinese narratives of virgin land and opportunities under a section called “manifest destiny.” While this does capture an entrepreneurial, pioneer ethic, “manifest destiny” does not exhaust the possible comparisons. The colonial white settler comparison is not entirely inappropriate, but it does overlook the massive history of non-European migration; which was in fact as significant, or even more significant to the European colonial empires. In East Africa, for example, millions of South Asians (themselves ‘citizens’ of the British Empire, although they had been migrating long before) transformed the socio-economic landscape. The writings of these migrants and their descendants provide evidence of the  hold that Africa had in the imagination as a place of easy wealth. Desai (2013) describes the writings of South Asian migrants who saw themselves as merchant pioneers engaging Africans in a fantasy of open commerce. In Kenya, White settlers, on the other hand, routinely complained about the threat of Indian business and their own paternalist responsibility to protect Africans from non-Christian exploitation. The South Asians, of course, never built a “new empire” (except for short-lived proposals for an East African sub-colony after WWI) of their own, but they were part of an imperial structure without themselves having full rights within it. It is noteworthy, however, that anti-colonial mobilization (in what is now Tanzania, for example) was targeted primarily towards the Indians and their domination of the economy, even more so than against the British. The story of Chinese migrants in Southeast Asia and their travails under post-colonial regimes there parallels that of South Asians in post-colonial East Africa.

Astoundingly, the experience of the global Chinese diaspora is scarcely mentioned in French’s book. In terms of sheer numbers, both historical and contemporary migration from China makes North America or Europe better contenders as “second continents” for the Chinese. This is especially true if one considers life strategies (i.e. where one seeks education). The contemporary Chinese diaspora, unlike in the past, has been accompanied by a geopolitically weighty China, and much more concentrated Chinese capital; but in other respects, there is much that is similar before we can talk about what is different. The Chinese migrants I met during a trip to Uganda and Tanzania, for example, were decidedly not considering themselves part of any new empire. For example, on multiple occasions, I was asked whether it was true that the American passport includes a sentence promising unconditional assistance from the US government for any contingency I managed to get myself into. The implication is that being an American, or even simply being “white,” was a form of status and privilege not extended to the Chinese in the global order. It was also, however, a critique of the Chinese government for not being assertive enough in protecting its citizens abroad. These sentiments can be seen as either continuities of a “middleman” position in the world, or as French argues, the preliminary stages that any rising power goes through. In other words, from French’s perspective, expectations for greater protection could be seen to forecast a future in which the Chinese passport would be as powerful as the American passport.

In either case, when one begins to consider other forms of migration or historical comparison, what French means by the “new empire” becomes increasingly vague. I would argue that the identification of imperial practices and/or ways of looking at the world is a separate argument from arguing that a new “empire” is being created. For example, although French may be right to see elements of “manifest destiny” among Chinese migrants; the fact we can identify similar sentiments within many diaspora contexts makes the American comparison problematic because in the US, it entailed not only visions of virgin land, but explicitly the extension of sovereign power over the American continent. Africa may indeed be Chinese capital’s “second continent” (capital defined here as both resources for investment and people ready to invest themselves), but to define it as “China’s Second Continent” implies an argument about a speculative political future that distracts attention in his book from what would otherwise be a good argument about China’s entry into a post-colonial structure of inequality which leaves Africa on the short end of the stick. Instead, French turns what starts as a detailed and rather nuanced portrait of the new Chinese migrants in Africa into a cautionary tale about how these migrants are “building a new empire.”

The subtle shift is realized through the book’s narrative arc. The first half of the book stays close to the experience of the Chinese. Although written in the first person, French for the most part keeps his voice in the background. These chapters provide rich portraits of the different kinds of Chinese migrants; particularly those with “rags to riches” stories of varying magnitudes. During the second half of the book, French’s voice becomes more prominent as he begins to actively interpret his trip in terms of the “discovery” of the next empire.

The chapter on Mali (“Why Mali?”) is arguably the books’ pivot, where, in the midst of a diversity of Chinese projects (ranging from small enterprises to the mass purchasing of farmland) he announces that “what I was witnessing in Africa is the higgledy-piggledy cobbling together of a new Chinese realm of interest. Here were the beginnings of a new empire, a haphazard empire perhaps, but an empire nonetheless.” (170) Having ‘discovered’ empire, the subsequent chapters engage with that paradigm, supported by the perspectives of African civil society leaders. These leaders, who are made to stand in for “African” perspectives more broadly, don’t shy away from comparing the Chinese to colonizers; but more often identify the culpability for the problem primarily with African governments who lack “vision” and sign agreements that will not be beneficial in the long term. Although French does provide a glimpse of the diversity of “Africas” hosting Chinese migrants, he ultimately collapses them into a broader story about Africa. Over the course of the book, we go from a colorful arrival story in Mozambique, where French spends time with an isolated migrant farmer named Mr. Hao to a final chapter on Namibia, where the higher ratio of Chinese migrants to the local population is intended to provide a glimpse of one kind of possible African future.

In the epilogue, French fully lays out his argument that China is a new empire in Africa. To his credit, French’s “empire” is for the most part not the crude geostrategic fantasy of  an imperial project directed from Beijing (although he does occasionally venture into such insinuation when he argues Chinese diplomats are telling African leaders to open their borders, or even when he says that China is playing a “long term game”). Instead, French makes an argument about the intrinsic dynamics of rising empires; challenging Chinese state discourses which emphatically deny that China is (or could ever be) imperial. These claims rely on the historical fact that China never established territorial colonies in Africa. French acknowledges this, but also points out that “it is worth keeping in mind the nature of empire has changed dramatically over time depending on the circumstances.” This is what is often meant by “neo-colonialism.”  In fact, the argument that there can be “empire without colonies” has been the cornerstone of describing American hegemony during the Cold War.

The stated Chinese policy of “non-interference” can be critically assessed in these terms. What is interesting in this case is not whether China violates the spirit of that policy, but rather what the claim of “non-interference” actually does for the manner in which Chinese businesses (state-owned or not) conduct business in Africa. As French notes, the “state to state” model of aid and investment can be limiting. In Guinea, when a civil society organization tried to speak to Chinese businesses and diplomats about business practices, they were told, French writes, to go “see your minister, or go see your president, he’s the one who approved these arrangements” (125). French adds that he “heard very similar language from disgruntled civil society figures virtually everywhere” he went. As the recent criticism of the exclusion of civil society organizations from the US-Africa Leader’s Forum reminds us, however, China is by no means unique in operating within a state-to-state framework. In fact, that is the way much foreign business has problematically operated in Africa, especially when gaining access to concessions in natural resources, or more recently, land.

French’s argument turns rather odd, however, when instead of considering China’s global influence in these broader post-colonial terms, he instead uses the history of European colonialism as a cautionary tale about how China might develop into something analogous. Again, French’s argument here again is internally logical, but contextually problematic. He writes that there is “little hint of a grand or even deliberate scheme [to colonize Africa], but in the end, that’s not so important…it is outcomes that count” (264).  Migrants and settlers can unleash processes that go beyond their own intentions or immediate actions. Indeed, there are many historical precedents of empires that were preceded by small streams of migrants or settlers whose actions were originally at odds with the political institutions in the metropole. As a settler population develops, however, metropoles have on numerous occasions been drawn further into the affairs of these distant regions. French suggests that China will face similar pressures as settler populations develop and the Chinese government faces increasing demands to take a more active role. Although it would be absurd to compare this process with the experience of early European colonization, one can see, in the combination of both migrant complaints about the “weakness” of China in defending its overseas citizens, and the complaints of Chinese diplomats about the trouble that expatriates cause for them, that these are real pressures. On multiple occasions, China has indeed had to “interfere,” less from design than from the internal dynamics of everyday relations.

French weakens the impact of his argument that China is not immune to such dynamics, however, by pushing too strongly the idea that Chinese migrants today are the analogues of past colonialists. He even includes in the epilogue the example of Japanese emigration to Manchuria, although he assures the reader this is “not intended as provocation” and that China in Africa “obviously shares nothing with Japan’s militarism.” The depth to which analogy affects his thought process is evident in the definition he provides for imperialism.  He says “imperialism, for me, inevitably involves some form of foreign domination, which results in substantially altering the target population or polity, either gradually or suddenly it loses the ability to resist.” He cites the narrative arc of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart as a cautionary tale, and in multiple parts of the book, suggests that African leaders may come to regret the kinds of deals made with the Chinese. The problem with this analogy is that it seems to imagine a recent moment before the entry of China as a “pre-colonial” moment. In this moment, African actors still have the capability to “resist,” a capability which will be taken away in the near future. Where in the post-colonial history of Africa would we locate this moment? Was it independence? The third wave of democracy? Before or after structural adjustment? When did global financial institutions and western NGOs leave African society completely to their own devices? When did the African capacity to “resist” appear long enough for it to be threatened by the Chinese? The narrative of Chinese empire in Africa, in other words, may seem to be historically analogous, but its weight actually depends on ignoring a global context that already affords the label “empire.”

The relationship to the future is also problematic. French’s book is emblematic of much popular writing and thinking about China in the West in the sense that it’s temporality is focused on a possible future whose beginnings are in the present (The “when China rules the world” complex). As noted in the aptly named “Imperial Potentialities” project, there are various activities and projects currently unfolding in African states which are based on the assumption of a future situation which in fact has not yet occurred. As these things by definition cannot be proven, the book may tell us less about the present than how we think about the future; and the future weighs heavily on French. At one point, he tells a group of disaffected Chinese of their significance to the future of Africa. He also points out the fact that Africa’s natural resources will eventually run out, and that population growth is outpacing capacity. This prediction about the future of Africa, interestingly enough, complicates the future history of any putative Chinese empire.

French does have a case that the entrance of Chinese migrants and capital into Africa is not exempt from the label “empire,” if by “empire” we mean a broader set of unequal relationships between Africa and the global North. But that is not what French argues in this book; he wants to make an argument about China as the next empire in Africa. The issue here is less the proper definition of “empire,” and debating whether this or that international relationship fits the definition, but rather that the use of “empire” as an analytic tool is always going to become a political argument in a world where the presumptive norm (regardless of structural global inequality) is a community of nation-states. Proclaiming oneself not to be an empire, and accusing others of being an empire has been part of the discursive arsenal with which political formations of varying ideologies have positioned themselves following the end of territorial colonization. French writes as if the rise of a Chinese “sphere of influence” in Africa is “the new empire” in Africa rather than a more modest (and perhaps more accurate) claim that it is “a new empire” in Africa, or a new participant in empire. This perspective would make the more modest claim that China is not so much replacing whatever came before as much as it is altering an already changing landscape.

This reality is in fact evident throughout French’s account. Various (non-Chinese) foreign actors enter the story, but French does not draw any alternative conclusions. He cannot talk about West Africa without discussing the Lebanese, but implies they are part of an old order that is being rapidly being replaced. In Sierra Leone, he introduces the Romanian investor Frank Timus; whose life story not only echoes those of the Chinese migrants, but who himself is both their competitor and partner. In Mali, French finds a USAID funded project being built by Chinese contractors. In Mali, he also finds the signs of older Saudi and Libyan projects. Discussing rapid deforestation for timber in Mozambique, French notes that “European companies were so far responsible for the major land takeovers, or land grabs” (225). In Tanzania, French responds to Tamimu Salehe of the Tanzanian Union of Industrial and Commercial Workers warning about a threat of Chinese economic takeover by asking him “what about the Indians,” who have a longer and more established history in the country, and who have also long had control of the commanding heights of the economy. French says Salehe “ignored” his question and continued, and yet it appears that French himself also ignores his own question. The entanglement of Chinese capitalism in the global economy at one scale, and its entanglement in local economies on another is a far more complex phenomena than the notion of a Chinese “realm of interest” allows. This is especially evident when French observes the fashion choices of Namibian youth and ponders the existence of “new Chinese colonialism” in the middle of “flourishes of Western culture”. These contradictions only appear contradictory when looks at empire through the lens of historical empires rather than current realities (not to mention not asking how Namibians themselves may appropriate things foreign on Namibian terms without ceasing to be Namibian).

In sum, French convincingly demonstrates the relevance of imperialism to understanding the Chinese entry into Africa, but only in the broad sense of historical and contemporary global inequalities that the Chinese themselves are participating in. He provides glimpses of the subjectivities of individual Chinese, and through the voices of African civil society leaders, we learn of prevalent concerns about how African governments govern foreign capital in the interests of Africans rather than vice versa, especially over the long term. The book lacks, however, in-depth portraits of the individual Africans who work with the Chinese. Nonetheless, readers will certainly learn from this book which personalizes the Chinese in Africa. In the end, French less convincingly makes this a story about the rise of a Chinese empire. One can only hope that readers will look beyond his title and conclusion, or at least take it with a critical grain of measured skepticism.

Next time, I will consider the impact that French’s book is having based on both popular reviews, and French’s own subsequent responses.

Other Works Cited

Desai, Gaurav. 2013. Commerce with the Universe: Africa, India, and the Afrasian Imagination. Columbia University Press.

 

Hyden, Goran.1980. Beyond Ujamaa in Tanzania: underdevelopment and an uncaptured peasantry. University of California Press.

 

Mawdsley, Emma. 2008.  Fu Manchu versus Dr Livingstone in the dark continent? Representing China, Africa and the West in British broadsheet newspapers.Political Geography 27(5): 509-529.

 

Monson, Jamie. 2009. Africa’s freedom railway: How a Chinese development project changed lives and livelihoods in Tanzania. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

 

Ong, Aihwa & Donald Nonini, eds.1996. Ungrounded empires: The cultural politics of modern Chinese transnationalism. Routledge.

Pod-casting in the China-Africa sphere

Winslow Robinson, a self-described “groupie” of research on Sino-African relations, runs a great podcast with the political scientist, Dr. Nkemjika Kalu. They have invited a wide range of people to appear on their podcast, ranging from journalist and Columbia University Professor Howard French to up and coming scholars still in graduate school.  If you study (or do any work) related to African-Chinese relationships, and you meet Winslow, “watch out!”, he will want you to podcast.

He caught me at the African Studies Association meeting last November and I served as a guest in February.  I haven’t listened to it, however. It’s very hard at this early stage pre-field to speak with any confidence about one’s research, and whatever I said should come with a disclaimer called “pending fieldwork…” Judging from the title he and Prof. Kalu gave my appearance, “Deep Thoughts by Derek Sheridan,” I’m afraid I might have come across as too scholastic. Considering my immediate environment at the time (in an Anthropology development finishing grant applications and doing reading for prelim examinations),  I was staying true to my milieu.

But as the famous scholar of African politics, Robert Bates, once said, “fieldwork is the cure for bullshit,” or at least, more charitably, theory.  I’ll be taking that medicine consistently for the next year or more.

In the meantime, what I was thinking about in February.

http://cowriesrice.blogspot.com/2014/02/deep-thoughts-by-derek-sheridan.html

And the Bates quote, for reference, is found in:

Munck, Gerardo L., and Richard Snyder. Passion, craft, and method in comparative politics. JHU Press, 2008.