Misinformation about China-Africa relations in the wake of the Dakar forum

Foreign Affairs

Development economist Anzetse Were and Eric Olander discuss common misperceptions about African relations with China and what really happened at the recent Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Dakar, Senegal.

FOCAC Senegal 2021
Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

Below is a complete transcript of the Sinica Podcast episode with Anzetse Were and Eric Olander.

Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China produced in partnership with SupChina. Subscribe to SupChina’s daily access newsletter to keep on top of all the latest news from China from hundreds of different news sources or check out all the original writing on our site at supchina.com, including reported stories, editorials, and regular columns, as well as a growing library of videos, and of course, podcasts. We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim people in China’s Xinjiang region to the tectonic shifts underway as China rolls out what we’re calling the Red New Deal. It’s a feast of business, political, and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor.

I’m Kaiser Kuo from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and joining me from storied Goldkorn Holler in Nashville, Tennessee, is Jeremy Goldkorn a.k.a. Jin Yumi, the Man with the Golden Corn, editor-in-chief of SupChina and prominent flat earther. Jeremy, you’ve taken your opposition to globalism a little too far, my friend. Out of respect, I will introduce our guests today without reference to their being practically on the other side of the world because that wouldn’t make sense in your worldview. They’re just really far away on this “flat earth.” Anyway, Jeremy, despite your ludicrous beliefs, would you greet the people?

Jeremy Goldkorn: Yeah, hello, people. I’m quite impressed that Eric managed to actually make the sky dark outside his room there to try to fool me.

Eric: That’s right, we’re just across town in Nashville here.

Jeremy: Because we can see video even though you, dear listener, can’t.

Eric: Right.

Jeremy: Anyhow.

Kaiser: Well, let’s jump into this, shall we? The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, FOCAC, the big triannual get-together where we typically see large pledges of loans and development projects and trade deals, concluded recently in Dakar, Senegal.

Jeremy: The first FOCAC was in Beijing in the year 2000 when my favorite Chinese leader, Jiang Zemin, was still China’s top dog. FOCAC really became a thing in 2006 when the Chinese capital hosted leaders from nearly every African nation and used the event as a high-profile test of the city’s security and logistics facilities in advance of the 2008 Summer Olympics. I worked as a media fixer that year for then South African president Thabo Mbeki, and helped him arrange perhaps the most sycophantic interview of his life with China Central TV.

Kaiser: In a lifetime of sycophantic interviews, but…

Jeremy: Yeah, the capital of sycophantic interviews, Beijing. Anyway, that was the year when Beijing’s propaganda authorities put up hundreds and hundreds of billboards of elephants and lions all over the city, and also of Papua New Guinean tribespeople with nose bones. Needless to say, the propaganda from Beijing about FOCAC has gotten a lot more sophisticated since then, and so has the substance of FOCAC itself.

Kaiser: Well, Jeremy, come on, Papua New Guinea, Equatorial Guinea, well, what’s 15,000 kilometers anyway, right? Anyway, wrong continent entirely. Anyway, this time around it took place not long after the launch at the G7 meeting of B3W, Build Back Better World, which is an American led effort to — I’m really not sure there’s any other way to look at this, but we’ll get into that — is an American led effort to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative in the Global South, especially, in Sub-Saharan Africa. There’s also the Global Gateway program that the European Commission actually announced on the very last day of FOCAC.

So this was the first FOCAC to actually happen since the COVID-19 pandemic, and the first since Xi began pushing his own Common Prosperity agenda. With the heightened U.S. competition, China’s own domestic concerns and more pushing and pulling China in — and more things actually — that are pushing and pulling China in potentially different directions. We’ve invited two of the most knowledgeable folks around to discuss.

Jeremy: To discuss a war of acronyms and badly named projects it sounds, doesn’t it? So joining us from Ho Chi Minh City AKA Saigon in Vietnam is Eric Olander, managing editor of the China Africa Project and host of its excellent, The China in Africa Podcast, a show that we are very proud to call one of Sinica’s sister podcasts. Eric and his co-host, Cobus, ran an excellent series of pre-FOCAC shows on their podcast, and we’ll have links to those shows in the notes. Eric, really good to see you again.

Eric: Good morning, Jeremy, Kaiser and Anzetse.

Kaiser: Yeah, Anzetse coming up soon. Welcome back to Sinica.

We are also delighted to welcome back Anzetse Were, a Nairobi based development economist. She was last on our show back in March of 2019. And a few months later, I had the great pleasure of meeting her in person in Nairobi, where we had a wonderful conversation. Great to have you back, Anzetse!

Anzetse Were: Thank you. It’s lovely to be here again. Nice to see you all.

Kaiser: Yeah, so let’s start with you Anzetse. So what were your big takeaways from FOCAC this time? Big question. Were there any major surprises or disappointments based on the expectations that you had beforehand?

Anzetse: No, not at all. I think what happened in FOCAC was very much in line with what I’d been anticipating. Obviously, there’s a lot of diplomatic language there. But I think what I thought was really exciting was this pivot to private sector really being acknowledged very openly and that frontally. I think, frankly, that will be the main drive now. I think the turn around state-to-state relations was a bit more multivariate. I think Beijing is really opening up openly and visibly the different ways it wants to engage with African governments. Obviously, they have a reputation of being very infrastructure-focused, and of course, you’ve seen this in previous FOCACs. But in this one I saw particularly the language around the web, not really web, but the spread that they’re really bringing to the table with Africa.

I think the other thing that I saw was a real shift in the state-to-state relations. I think I’d alluded to this actually in the podcast with Eric and Cobus around a bit of a pullback of state to state relations, and I think we’re going to continue to see that. I don’t think that means a reduction in friendship, but I do think that this is a new phase of engagement that they’re getting into right now between the African states, and obviously, the Chinese. Then obviously the big thing was recovery from COVID. I think obviously China said that we are a friend to Africa and I think that was very clear. Then, finally, was a real push around the green economy and the digital, which I think particularly on the digital side, China’s already a leader in Africa.

Jeremy: Can you talk a little bit more about the pivot to private, what exactly that means?

Anzetse: Well, if you look at the evolution of above-the-radar China-Africa relations has been dominated by state-to-state relations. I think what we’ve been seeing has been a burgeoning ability of the Chinese private sector to engage meaningfully on the African continent. I think now 20 years after the first FOCAC, we’re seeing that I think going to be the predominant channel of engagement.

Jeremy: Okay, Eric, let’s talk about the big number then, which as it inevitably does, drew the attention of international media outlets. That is $40 billion. This immediately caused people to say, “Aha, that is considerably less than the 60 billion pledged in the previous two FOCAC meetings in 2015 and 2018.” But as you argued on the China and Africa podcast, there’s actually more to this than meets the eye. Without going into too much detail, can you lay out for us quickly how its 40 billion actually isn’t that different from 60 billion?

Eric: Yeah, this was a quick bad take that came out of both the FT and Bloomberg immediately after Xi Jinping’s speech last Monday or the Monday speech that he did at FOCAC. And that was the keynote address. What Xi did is he outlined $40 billion worth of initiatives on export credits, $10 billion of special drawing rights from the IMF — that’s 25% of China’s overall allocation. He basically announced a package worth 40 billion, and what ended up happening is a lot of people took that to be the final number. From that they said, “Aha, you see China originally committed 60 billion back in 2015 and 2018. Now it’s 40 billion.” The word that people were using was it’s a retrenchment from China.

The problem is, though, is that, number one, is that doesn’t count the value of the billion vaccines that are being sold and donated. 600 million out of the billion are being donated, and what some folks at the China-Africa advisory in Germany pointed out very quick right after that’s saying, “Hold on everybody, if you price those vaccines at about $30 a dose, which is around what they’ve been selling Sinopharm jabs to some African countries, and also to say Hungary, you then get up to 18 billion, and that puts you back up into the 60 billion range. Secondly, in the Dakar Action Plan, and this is something that Cobus has really gone through in quite detail, there are a number of initiatives that will require funding but have not been spec’d out for funding.

What is typical in most FOCACs is that the final number, the real number comes out three, four, five, six weeks, even a couple months later, once dollar above values are attached to some of these commitments. So I think, number one, is proceed with caution on the narrative that the 40 billion represents some kind of retrenchment. Also, I think it’s not productive to measure the China-Africa relationship purely in the context of these numbers. And I think to what Anzetse said, is the breadth of the Dakar Action Plan is such that it is… I mean, this is 40 pages of detailed programs and it really is quite extensive. And so the relationship now is moving beyond just this, “how much are we going to get out of the Chinese?” I think that is something else to look at. These numbers are not always useful for a proper evaluation of the relationship right now.

Kaiser: Yeah, excellent, excellent. Anzetse, there was though even though the overall number in the final analysis may not be substantially lower, there was a decrease in the amount of development loans and other forms of lending that were pledged. Do you see this as due to reluctance on the part of Chinese lenders or simply less appetite for loans from African countries themselves — that they’ve maybe told Beijing that they really can’t shoulder too much more debt? What’s going on here —, or maybe both, right?

Anzetse: Yeah, so this is exactly the new narrative that China’s pulling away from Africa and scaling down. I think, first of all, you have to bear in mind that the reduction in developing finance is happening in China’s portfolio across the world. It’s not just an African story, it’s happening in Latin America, it’s happening in developing Asia. And so I think there is something to just bear in mind there. I think the second thing to bear in mind is that there are internal dynamics going on in China that may be informing this. The structural policies shifts there, the focus on looking at mobilizing resources for domestic purposes. I think the big one that people are missing is that China’s probably more interested in now lending through multilateral bodies rather than through this direct bilateral relationship.

That will actually be a much more effective way of getting a lot of deep Chinese capital without the China flag on it. Because I think Beijing knows everybody looks for the China flag now, right? And so when you’re starting to lend through the multilaterals, which they’ve been building up, but it’s the African infrastructure, the Asia-African infrastructure bank, whether it’s the partnerships through AFDB, they’ve already been doing it. I think that will really be a bit more of a tell, and I think that will serve multiple purposes. One is to deal with the accountability issues that I think they’ve struggled with at some projects. But also to deal with all of the administrative bureaucratic stuff that comes with these massive particularly infrastructure projects. I think the push to that multilateral lending.

But I think people should not conflate a pull back in state to state lending with a pullback of Beijing’s interest in Africa’s economies, particularly, Africa’s private sector. I think that conflation I think is quite inaccurate. Because we will continue to see, I think, an interest in continuing to leverage the significant capabilities of Chinese enterprises in Africa in a way that allows Beijing to still — even though its people are saying these are hard times for China, from an African perspective, they still have excess capital and excess capacity. If you look at the pools and the buckets, particularly, where their excess capacity sits, it aligns quite well with the economic needs that Africa has. This is whether it’s agriculture, manufacturing, the digital economy, all these things that China’s really quite a adept at. I think there’ll be a lot of anchoring in through particularly private sector engagement.

Kaiser: What about the demand side of that? What about the appetite for loans from these African countries themselves?

Anzetse: Well, this is a microeconomic tension that African countries are navigating. On one hand, you have these increased costs that you have to deal with because of COVID, and also because your private sector is really not functioning very optimally. So the government knows that there needs to be a certain role of fiscal spending stepping in to bridge that. At the same time, because of the impact that COVID has had, the revenue generation prospects of African governments supply is dim. They’re very aware that, on one hand, you need more money, at the same time, your economic situation for the medium term will be quite difficult in terms of that servicing.

That’s why when you’re talking about China’s pragmatism, this is a tactical move, particularly, now. Let’s pull back a bit on this massive lending. I think there’s also this need just for 20 years of lending to settle down, right? It’s been 20 years of this, so there’s a need to pull that down. But this is a really good time, from a China perspective, to pull back. Then, interestingly, they may play a role in reenergizing the African private sector to then allow African governments to generate the revenues to pay all these debt obligations. I do not think that there’s a lack of appetite for debt, but there is a pragmatism that there’s a real tension in the servicing of that debt.

Kaiser: Very well said. Eric, you wanted to add something?

Eric: Yeah, so one of the other misguided narratives that’s come out of FOCAC is just because Xi did not mention the word infrastructure in his speech, and it was a big priority in his 2018 speech, and because China’s cut back in its financing of the Mega infrastructure projects like the Standard Gauge Railway in Kenya, you’re not going to see $6 billion railroads anymore. But one of the things that we are seeing in our daily tracking of Chinese engagement is lots of these 10 million, 20 million, $50 million loans that continue to go. And so what we’re seeing is a scaling down. For example, the new data center in Dakar, that was a China Exim Bank funded, Huawei-built project at about 10 to $15 million. Smart city programs in Burkina Faso. We have a new power station for 200 million in Kinshasa. These programs are going through quite a bit, so there is a quite a bit of infrastructure development still going on. But it’s smaller, there’s a path to ROI, the feasibility studies are tighter. The debt burdens on the borrowing country are less, and so we’re seeing that. The other thing that we’re seeing is that don’t conflate the drop in policy bank lending from the China Exim Bank and the China Development Bank as a pullback of all Chinese lending. Those are one set of actors, but the Shanghai city government is engaged. Zhejiang Province. There was just a Shandong Trade Fair in Kenya. There are a lot of actors now in this space. The state owned enterprises themselves are extending credit. There’s a diversification of where money is coming from, and they are much more focused on, again, smaller investments, much more feasible, have a quicker path to profitability.

Kaiser: That’s an excellent point.

Jeremy: You’ve both been quite clear that you are rejecting this idea that China is pulling back from Africa or losing interest in Africa. But, Eric, you have described this FOCAC as an inflection point, a different, very different, FOCAC than what’s come before. You’ve just hinted at some of the reasons why that might be, but could you clarify what’s different now?

Eric: Well, there’s a couple of macro trends that have been in pulling at the China-Africa relationship for 20 years. Go back, let’s roll back to 2008. Back in 2008, China was sourcing 30% of its oil from Africa. China was relying far more on African raw materials. The fact is now that with the BRI in place, China doesn’t need Africa that much for raw materials the way it did in the early phases before the BRI came about. So we see the increase in trade with South America. Remember, the Americas do almost a third more trade with China than Africa does. Africa, in fact, is at the very bottom of the list next to Oceania in terms of China’s global trading partners. It is rather insignificant on the whole. So it’s about 3 to 4% of the total.

China, this year, is going to be around $5 trillion in global trade with Africa. They’re going to be top of about 210, 215 billion, which is very respectable when you put it up against the United States, which is on track to do 32 billion. We’re looking at an order of magnitude of 7X for what the Chinese and the US are doing. But, overall, compared to China’s broader trade balance, it’s not that significant. What I saw out of FOCAC, this time compared to the previous times, is a real evolution of their strategy. That is — and this is something that people have really contrasted with the European and US strategies, which for the most part, have not changed in 20, 30 years. The US is still an aid-led strategy with a security component to it. There’s not much in trade, there’s not much in investment. Right now, Chinese investment, the new Ernst & Young numbers just came out, and E&Y does the most authoritative study on FDI. And what they showed was Chinese investment generates three times the amount of employment in Africa, and it’s three times the size of the U.S. and France. The U.S. and France have more projects, but China’s invested more capital, 3X. The Chinese, again, it’s a complex story here, but I see that the evolution now is they’re being more responsive to African needs. Again, as Anzetse pointed out, in terms of the breadth of issues that they’re addressing in FOCAC, scaling down the debt, they heard the complaints.

At the same time, it’s moving to a more political relationship. We should talk about right after FOCAC, Wang Yi went to Ethiopia before he went home. That was a gangster move and that was really directed at Washington. No one anticipated, this was not on the schedule. And the narrative that popped out of that was Blinken went to Nairobi to talk about Ethiopia with the Kenyan Foreign Minister and Wang Yi went to Addis Ababa to talk about Ethiopia with Ethiopian Foreign Minister. The point here is the politics are becoming far more important in this relationship than the economics.

Kaiser: We’ll get into the politics a little more in just a little bit here. But just staying with lending right now, you’ve both suggested, Anzetse, you and Eric have both suggested that what was on offer from Beijing this time has tended really more to mirror what the African leaders themselves have said that they wanted, what they actually need, which is obviously a good thing. But this is not exactly how it’s been portrayed in the international media, especially, in English language Western media. What’s the disconnect here? What’s going on?

Anzetse: Yeah, this has been a persistent feature of how Africa-China relations is defined and it causes a lot of misperceptions and misinformation. I think, frankly, a lot of that is psychological self-soothing of Global North media to its populous and its leaders. It’s not really rooted in factual analysis and listening to people who actually spend time looking at this stuff. I think that’s really quite dangerous for the Global North to continue in that vein. Because when you’re dealing with this level of misperception, the biggest one, obviously, being the debt trap narrative, which is now taken as gold standard in some parts of the world. But, clearly, there’s just no evidence for it. That disconnect is a political decision. It’s a political economy decision to try think in one way, obviously, to keep the Global North narrative, the Global North quite at ease with itself and at ease with its conscience is always with the good guys and all of this. But I think the real objective of that is to shift to African public opinion on what China is doing because they know Africans do consume media from the Global North more than Chinese media. But I think the disconnect from the Africa side is that you can do whatever you want with a public opinion, but the money is going where the money is going and our consumers want what our consumers want, so that’s that. I think that disconnect I think is really about psychological self-soothing. I don’t know how much longer it’s going to continue.

Kaiser: Fantastic.

Jeremy: Psychological self-soothing, that’s a word I shall remember. Anzetse, on a slightly different topic, you said something interesting on a Carnegie Endowment panel you were on over the summer about the evolving nature of the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI. That its lack of rigid definition and scope has actually been a good thing for Africa in that it has meant BRI projects have been able to actually change organically to meet the fast-changing local needs of African countries. Can you expand on that idea a bit and maybe cite some examples of how that has worked?

Anzetse: So one of the benefits of the BRI being quite amorphous and nebulous is it actually works well for African governments. Because if you look at the complete lack of coordination between African governments in terms of how they develop their infrastructure projects, it’s actually quite important for an infrastructure developer coming in to demonstrate that they’re meeting the needs of the Southern African states that’s going to actually be paying it in terms of the infrastructure development. Rather than coming with a very value-led view of how you should be building infrastructure, the BRI strength was in its nebulousness and its ability to demonstrate that what Tanzania wants or what Nigeria wants, what Benin wants is actually something that it can meet.

Because after, bear in mind, that infrastructure development in Africa is very political even between African governments were often in competition with each other. So you’ve got the Tanzanian ports that Tanzanians want all the traffic to go through their ports. Right next door is Kenya who want all the traffic to go through the Kenyan ports. As an infrastructure developer, the BRI was able to do that and do it in a way that customized the packages to the capabilities on the African continent. I think the other thing that the nebulous nature of the BRI did quite effectively was deal with the substantial political economy drama that comes with massive infrastructure development in Africa. I think this is something that particularly the Global North is underestimating.

In order to deal with that drama where you’re dealing and building projects through different African administrations, you’re not going to be dealing with the same administration at the beginning of the project to when you finally finish some of these very, very large projects as we are seeing with the Standard Gauge Railway. Probably when that’s completed, this administration in Kenya will no longer be in power. Therefore, you must be very flexible and adaptable and able to customize whatever offer you’re bringing to the reality of the political economy dynamics that are running that country.

I think that is something that the Global North is criticizing, “And BRI, what is it? What is it delivering? Or they’re probably swindling the Africans.” But, actually, that is a key strength that has really made African governments continue to go to China even through different administrations.

Kaiser: Speaking about media narratives, about swindling Africa, can you talk a little bit about this whole kerfuffle with the alleged seizure of Entebbe Airport in Uganda? Where did this originate and how did it get amplified in the way that it did? How did that take such deep root?

Eric: This is a story that actually started about three, four months ago, so let me just give a quick 20-second background so that will better set up what we understood in the past couple of weeks and what happened. The Ugandan government and it’s the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority took out a $207 million loan from the China Exim Bank. Now there was a hearing in parliament, in the Ugandan parliament, about six, seven weeks ago where the Finance Minister under pressure and under questioning from MPs acknowledged and even apologized for really some bad terms in the loan, and said it wasn’t well negotiated, and that’s where this all started was this controversy over the loan itself.

And then from there, anxiety started to build up as to whether or not Uganda was going to kind of fall into the so-called debt trap narrative in the debt trap diplomacy. So then two, three weeks ago, Daily Monitor, which is a Uganda newspaper, wrote a story with the headline that basically said China has seized the airport.

That set in motion all of two or three weeks of hysteria. The story itself was a little bit more nuanced and actually said it hasn’t been seized, and what we found out in the story is there’s a couple of key points that emerged and this was exactly the same situation that really dominated the headlines in Nigeria for much of the year. Where there was a concern about the word “sovereign immunity.” There’s a clause in the Chinese contracts in all of the Chinese loan contracts about sovereign immunity. And the sovereign immunity clause means that a country cannot hide behind its sovereignty to say, “We’re not going to repay this loan if it falls into trouble.” It’s really a commercial term, not a political term about a country sovereignty, and it really says, “If there’s a problem with the loan, there is going to be third party arbitration.” One of the problems with this loan around the sovereign immunity clause was that the arbitration was going to be in China, and that’s one of the things that the MPs also didn’t like in question the Finance Minister.

The journalists and the public opinion, when they hear the word sovereign, the sovereign immunity has been waived, they think it’s the territorial sovereignty and that’s what then leads them to the conclusion that the asset itself is going to be repossessed. There was a real big misunderstanding within African journalists and media about these contracts. Number two was in the story, it never spoke to any contractual expert who knows international law, who knows these Chinese experts. It only spoke to Ugandan sources who didn’t comment on the merits of the contract. The third thing is they never got a Chinese input on it. The story was highly imbalanced and it really created, again, a lot of hysteria that people in the U.S., people in Europe and Africa — and it tapped into all of it.

What was so ridiculous about the story is that the loan itself is not even out of the grace period. There’s a seven year grace period on the loan, it expires next year. They haven’t even started servicing the loan, much less losing the airport to the Chinese. So there are some bad terms in these loans, and the Ugandans themselves have said, “Listen, we didn’t do a good job in negotiating this. We should have done better.” That is a far, far cry from “losing the airport.” Museveni then came out with Reuters and said, “Listen, the airport is not going to be seized. The airport has not been seized. We are going to pay for the loan.”

There really was nothing to the story as of yet, and it really speaks to this underlying anxiety that is not just in Africa, but in a lot of Global South countries about the sense of loss of control. One has to remember that it’s in my lifetime, I’m 51, and it’s in my lifetime that countries were under colonial jurisdiction and were under liberation. It’s fresh in the people’s memories to lose control. These stories really feed into that anxiety, and there’s a deeper historical trauma that it’s playing into. Plus it’s falling into the geopolitical narratives that Anzetse was talking about that are really prominent in the Global North. People really want to believe this story about Chinese asset seizures.

Let’s be very clear here, that researchers from across Europe, the U.S., they’ve looked up and down around the world, not just in Africa. The Chinese do not seize the assets, the Chinese are going after the capital. That’s a really big difference here. That you look in the loan contracts, and this what’s came up in the Standard Gauge Railway with the port of Mombasa. Everybody in Kenya said the port of Mombasa is going to be seized by the Chinese in the event of a default. It’s not true. What it was, was capital and revenue from the port of Mombasa was going to be garnished in the event of a default. That’s the way that they roll. I really recommend everybody spend some time looking at what AidData, at the College of William & Mary. They’ve done some excellent work on these loan contracts, super complicated. They don’t align with the simplistic narratives that are mostly being put through in the media.

Kaiser: Yeah, but at the same time, they may not be seizing any assets or anything like that, but they’re not really grasping the sensitivity and their vulnerability to these sorts of narratives. I think it’s…

Eric: Yeah, and it’s the lack of transparency on that point and it’s their insistence on secrecy. Now, remember that in Cameroon, most of the contracts have been made public. Let’s be very clear here, that the accountability is not only on the Chinese side for the lack of transparency, it is the Attorney General of Kenya right now that is fighting civil society activists to keep the Standard Gauge Railway contract secret. It is President George Weah in Liberia who’s kept all the terms of about CHICO mining deal secret from parliament. There’s a lot of accountability in the African side to keep these loans secret as well.

It serves the governing elites on both so sides on the lack of transparency. But that lack of transparency also fuels the anxiety that people have because there is a huge gap between the governed and the governing in most African countries. The distrust that people have towards their own rulers and their own governments is then extended to the Chinese who they see as being in collusion, behind closed doors, with their governments who they oftentimes don’t hold in high regard.

Kaiser: Yeah, yeah.

Jeremy: So onto another media question, the Wall Street Journal recently reported about Chinese plans to build a military base in Equatorial Guinea. What do you two know about this?

Eric: This is truly, truly the most ridiculous story, and it just won’t go away. It’s just it’s absurd and it’s funny because I’ve had some conversations with folks at the DOD and I was like, “You guys have no idea how toxic this narrative is that you guys are putting forward.” Because Admiral Stephen Townsend, who is the Commander of AFRICOM, he, on a number of occasions, has said the same thing over the past two years. There was an article that came out in May with the Associated Press where he said the same thing, that China wants to build a base in Africa. He didn’t specify Equatorial Guinea, but they said on the Atlantic Coast. Now, the Journal came out with the same story and the same narrative.

BBC, incidentally, by the way, did a story from Camp Lemonnier around FOCAC and they alluded to this story. They get this life of its own on this. Here’s the key thing, not once has any U.S. official provided any evidence to the claim, and this is really undermining its credibility. Number two, and this is really important, it makes no sense for the Chinese to put a base on the West Coast of Africa. We’ve talked to a number of Chinese military scholars in the think tanks and they go, “There is nothing in the public record of…” And not even think tanks, university papers, anything that’s floating these ideas around. There are, by the way, ideas for more bases in the Indian Ocean, in Southeast Asia, in Cambodia that they’re bubbling up ideas in China.

Nothing in the record indicates that they want to build a base in West Africa. Why? Because supplying that base would be very, very difficult. There’s no geopolitical interest in it, and the context, it’s really interesting here, that the Pentagon is saying that it could potentially threaten the United States. Now just this week, John Kirby, who’s the Pentagon spokesman, was asked at the press briefing to provide some clarity and some evidence to the claim and he sidestepped the question. Again, the Wall Street Journal did really crappy reporting here on this story.

Number one, they never challenged the assertion, they took it at face value. Number two, they didn’t bring in anybody who would provide a Chinese context to it to say, “Why would the Chinese want a base on the West Coast of Africa?” It just, again, there’s no strategic interest to them, for them to do this at this point right now. Their core strategic interest for bases is in the South China Sea and in the Indian Ocean to protect the oil lanes.

Jeremy: This is the opposite of psychological self-soothing. This is psychological self-…

Eric: No, no, what this is, at the end of the day, it’s very simple. This is Washington politics. This is let’s go back to about a year and a half ago and they were going to cut AFRICOM, they were going to slash AFRICOM. What is the best way? And Congress stepped in to say, “We’re not going to slash AFRICOM, we still need to have a presence in Africa. It was Congress that saved AFRICOM. What I think they’re doing here is the best way to make sure your program gets budgeted in Washington is to slap China atop your proposal. It used to be they said, “If you want to get funding in Washington, say it’s against ISIS.” Now, if you want to get funding in Washington, you put the word China in the proposal and you’ll get funding.

I think they’re directing these messages to the Beltway and it has nothing to do with Africa. What the problem here is though is the United States is the only country in the world that I can see right now where it lets its generals completely freelance on policy. You would never hear a French General start speaking out behind the Foreign Ministry out of turn. You would never hear a Japanese General at Djibouti with their base saying something that’s not in line with what the Foreign Ministry is saying. You would certainly never hear a Chinese general do that as well.

Jeremy: But you might hear a Chinese retired general. You have some-

Eric: Absolutely, but these are… There’s a big difference between a retired general mouthing off in Global Times with literally the AFRICOM Commander saying these things. The State Department pulls their hair out every time the Pentagon does this because all the hard work that the State Department’s been trying to do to say, “We’re trying to be more engaged with Africa. We’re not militarizing this relationship. We’re all about trade and economic empowerment and youth,” gets completely derailed for a week of new cycles now when the Pentagon does this. It is completely counterproductive for the U.S. policies.

Anzetse: May I just add to what Eric is saying. If you’re talking about psychological warfare, if you’re talking about you underhanded in way that certain parts of, particularly, U.S. government and just to point out it’s illusion that is not a coordinated position. I’ve said this many times, if you look at, particularly, the U.S. stakeholders on the ground, they have a much more sophisticated nuanced understanding of what is required to actually get influence and power in Africa as opposed to sitting in Washington. But if you’re talking about that psychological, it’s just subliminal intent to try and force Africa to choose. I think we all know everywhere that I go, when you’re talking about China, inevitably, the great power rivalry between the U.S. and China comes up.

And I think pretty much every audience that I’ve been in, whether it’s sitting with people in the Middle East or South Asia or wherever it’s like we are not choosing. But the more you create a narrative that’s inaccurate, that’s misleading, that’s almost just fables. There is something to be said about public opinion and then how that matures into, “Or if we’re going to choose.” I think it’s irresponsible and I think there’s a real need for a reckoning, even in U.S. itself, of particularly D.C. to start listening to what its experts on the ground are saying in Africa. As to the actual tools and mechanisms that actually allow the U.S. influence policy and capabilities to deepen and be entrenched in Africa.

Without that, that disconnect that you’re seeing between the rhetoric in D.C. and the rhetoric on the ground will happen. But also that rhetoric is completely disconnected to what the U.S. private sector seems to be interested in. While there’s this whole decoupling story that is happening, politically, I think the U.S. private sector is a slightly different view. I think as this happens, it will be interesting to see whether that’s isolation and that’s siloing in insisting on a narrative that’s inaccurate, how that will play out.

Jeremy: Anzetse, what’s the remedy for this? Because there is a problem that we haven’t really discussed. Both of you have talked about Western media narrative, psychological self-soothing, the nonsense that sometimes gets spewed about China in Africa. On the other hand, one would have to be totally crazy to take Beijing at its word about everything and to totally trust Beijing. What’s the right attitude?

Eric: Yeah, I’m not suggesting we take Beijing at its word, so this is more criticizing the US but not necessarily. That does not imply that Beijing deserves credibility on all things either. So just that disclaimer I need to put out there.

Anzetse: But I think I also need to just say that this just points to the continued way African intelligence is continually undermined and insulted by the Global North. I think there’s a real colonial, old way, imperialistic underpinning to the way a lot of the Global North they assume Africa is about. So when you infantilize African governments, you infantilize African peoples and you say, “Well, actually, this is a continent where this could happen,” because you’re not looking at the actual capabilities of the continent today as you are speaking. Where the second largest mobile money network is in Africa, right, after China. These are realities that are happening in terms of how Africa is developing and evolving. I think that’s what then creates these fantastical stories. It’s a combination I think of obviously intent that has certain objectives, but real ignorance, a very rudimentary understanding of what Africa is about now.

Jeremy: Maybe I could take away from that, that the answer is to, as the kids say these days, center African narratives. To center African voices when talking about this rather than the noise coming out of the U.S. and Europe. Absolutely.

Anzetse: Yeah, but this is a power imbalance thing. This is an old story for Africa. We’ve always had our voice and our view. I mean, AU was there with position papers, African analysts always. I think this is a time, I think we’re really evolving. I think going forward, we’re reaching a stage where if you don’t listen to the people of the land you’re speaking to, you’re going to be leading yourself into the dark. Of course, you’re going to cause a lot of harm in the process. This is not the Cold War that people could be able to go on TV and just say lies about what was happening, we are now in an era where, thanks to Chinese smartphones, Africa can actually tell you this is what’s happening on the ground.

I think there’s a real need for the Global North, interestingly, to sophisticate its understanding of Africa, and more interestingly, to actually sophisticate what it wants to do then, what’s it’s saying. Because it’s very easy to debunk myths. We’re not in an information age where that is incapable or possible.

Eric: Jeremy, just to this point as well. Chinese propaganda and Chinese officialdom does something very similar as well, where they completely trivialize African agency in their narratives on Africa. They will focus so much attention on any problem that emerges in the China-Africa relationship and then accuse the U.S. and Europe of trying to, what they say, drive a wedge between China and Africa. So labor abuse problems, the Entebbe Airport story, all of it is signed up to, attributed to the Americans trying to drive a wedge between the Chinese and Africans. Number one, that takes the Chinese themselves off the hook for any accountability because they say, “It’s not us, it’s the Americans.” Number two, by disempowering Africans in the story and cutting them out entirely, so for example, in the Entebbe story, Global Times’ take was this is Western propaganda attacking the China-Africa relationship and not putting any accountability on the crappy reporting from the Daily Monitor, for example.

Okay, and agency, by the way, swings both ways. Agency is an empowering concept, but it’s also an accountability as well, and the Chinese never hold themselves accountable for any of the problems that they encounter in their relationship in Africa. They always will attribute problems to the West, and that too is a disempowering — just do what Anzetse was saying, the infantilization of the relationship as well. Those traits are also there in Chinese propaganda as well.

Anzetse: May I just say to the agency point, the reason why that happens is because African agency is seated in different places. A government private sector obviously in our civil society, they’re not in coordination and they’re certainly not in co-agreement. Anyone who says that this is what is happening, ask different Africans and they’ll tell you a very different story. I think to the point about the contracts, etc, this is a gnawing reality if you’re dealing with any significant interaction with African governments, the vested interests are real. Yeah? And When people talk about, “Oh, Africa’s being acted upon,” that is the perfect cloud for vested interests in Africa, in the Global North to just go through as conduits as they have been. Because remember that for this infrastructure development or the economic structure, a lot of us that are coming from a colonial setup for that. When you’re dealing with a colonial setup, you’ll find that certain powers have preponderance. I think just having an understanding that there is a multiple sets of variables that then inform what’s happening I think is important.

Kaiser: So just a couple of stray topics that I want to get to before we move on to talk about Global Gateway and B3W and competition in Africa. One question that I’ve actually been wondering quite a bit about, and we’ve brought this up just tangentially. Some of our listeners too have asked me about this, and I’m thinking in particular about Don Robotham, who’s an anthropology professor at CUNY, who, to my great delight, often engages with our program. What I’m wondering, what are the implications for Africa of the fact that China is now seemingly more inwardly focused with a deliberately slowing domestic economy, with this pursuit of Xi Jinping’s Common Prosperity agenda? What is the impact? Is there an upside for Africa with growing domestic demand, for example? Maybe a positive impact on the trade imbalance, for example? What is likely to be the outcome from this, Anzetse? What do you think?

Anzetse: I think, first of all, we need to bear in mind scale is important. What is small for China is not small for Africa. So I think people need to understand that. Even if China is ramping down, this will still be a significant amount of money and just capital and capabilities that are being focused on the continent, so I think that’s important. I think the second thing is that, as I said, if that is a Chinese government position, yeah, and while we do know the Chinese enterprises do listen to Chinese government, which we’re also seeing in this new study that’s come out and also in other studies is that there’s a level of independence on the opportunities that Chinese private sector identify and pursue in Africa.

I think, for me, it’s a very good thing. One, we’re going to be able to deal with the bubbling issues that have been going on in state to state relations between Africa and China. Whether it’s about the terms of the negotiations, etc, all these things that you’re talking about. But the second big thing is I think it would allow the private sector, particularly, the African private sector to be a bit more centered in the engagement between Africa and China relations. I think if you look at the examples of things like [inaudible] and just the massive strides they’ve been able to make in a very short period of time in Africa.

And the ability I think I must say that the Chinese private sector have an ability to customize their goods to African consumers in a way the Global North is still struggling. They have trouble understanding how to do that. I think as the government steps back, as I said, which is also good for Africa in terms of the deposition. I think African governments need to start paying, and if you can’t pay, you need to start explaining what’s happening. That will be a good accountability tool for its own people. As we have all these conversations, the debt issue is so present in a lot of African public’s minds.

I think that stepping back from China is now time to start having those conversations of how we’re actually going to pay. In my view, I think very mind scale is an issue but let the African private sector, Chinese private sector, and frankly, African civil society, I think will really be a bit more of a face of Africa-China relations now.

Jeremy: On a different topic, Anzetse, or maybe Eric, I’m not sure which of you follow this most closely, but let’s talk a little bit about Xi Jinping’s vaccine pledge. Which part is more significant — that China will be supplying those vaccine doses, or that they are going to be building vaccine manufacturing capacity in Africa? And of course, one of the questions that’s come up frequently in media reports is, is China actually donating or selling its vaccines? What’s the proportion and what vaccines? Are they the less effective ones?

Eric: Okay, wow. Let’s just step back a little bit. Up until now, China’s gotten way more credit for its vaccine distributions in Africa than I think it actually deserves. I’m looking at the latest numbers here from Bridge Consulting, which has their vaccine tracker. Up until now, 112 million doses have been distributed. The vast majority of those have been sold. In Africa, 20 million have been donated, the rest have been sold. So about 80% have been sold. Vaccine distributions in Africa from the Chinese have been highly, highly distorted. For most of the year, the bulk were going to about six countries, no one could figure out the rhyme or reason for which countries were getting vaccines and why. But mostly it was North African countries that were 60, 70% of the distributions. Today, that’s a little bit more equal. But, again, 112 million doses for a continent of 1.2 billion people is not very much. So oftentimes we’ll hear that the Chinese are leading in African vaccine distribution. That’s a bogus narrative.

This donation I think though, this announcement by Xi, is very interesting because you asked which is more important? Both are important, actually. Right now we have… and this is what Cyril Ramaphosa, the president of South Africa has been really the most just furious about is what he calls the vaccine apartheid.

When a South African President uses the word apartheid, that carries an enormous amount of weight. And African stakeholders up and down the continent are right to be absolutely furious about the fact that you guys in the US are talking about fourth doses now of booster shots. I mean, fourth, not third, but fourth now! We’re talking about 3, 4% of Africa has been vaccinated. Here in Southeast Asia, it’s a similar story. We’re catching up now a little bit, but we’ve been running out of vaccines here in Vietnam from the beginning of this thing. Really just having enough is one thing. Also very important here is you can’t just only talk about vaccines, and this is really, again, a big problem here.

It’s the non-vaccine support as well. The cold chain, the infrastructure, the training, the personnel, all of that needs to happen. What we’ve seen in the frustrations from African stakeholders as well that the Chinese are also leveraged is that the US and Europe were dumping vaccines that were very close to their expiration date in Africa. So what was ending up happening is that they would only have two weeks or three weeks to use the vaccines before they expire. The World Health Organization combined with the African Union and the Africa CDC have said, “Enough, no more of that.” So there’s really this articulation of frustration coming from Africa, and this was something that in the lead up to the negotiations on FOCAC, that was clearly set as the priority from African stakeholders and the African Diplomatic Corps in Beijing, who said, “We need vaccines, and then we need the production capacity.” Right now, the Chinese have established production capacity for vaccines in Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco. There’s talk now of opening up in Senegal, Kenya’s vying for it. Africa has a very capable pharmaceutical manufacturing sector in many, many different countries. And it is absurd that both China and Global North countries have not set up fill-and-finish factories around the continent.

The other thing that the Chinese announced in the speech was the waiver of IP. I’ll believe that when I see it, to be honest with you, but they will wave their IP because their IP isn’t as good as Pfizer’s and Moderna’s, right? So, easy. That being said, this is all part into the geopolitics of it because they know that Pfizer and modern and the Europeans and US have all said that they’re not going to waive their IP. The Chinese get a free one on that one. They don’t even have to, it’s just the optics of it. So of the breakdown, 600 million will be donated, 400 million will be in factories. There was a little caveat that he said in his speech that with Chinese partners. The production would not necessarily go to pure African and 100% African owned factories, it would also go to Chinese joint ventures. We don’t know what the specifics are of that, but I would say, Jeremy, that it comes down to both the production capacity is important and simply the access to it to get Africans up beyond the 3% range of vaccinations.

Jeremy: We could conclude that the messaging is pretty good, but we’ve got to really wait and see how —

Eric: Well, let’s see how they’re going to deliver, and so they have the infrastructure is already set up for them to do it. Cainiao, which is the Alibaba logistics arm, has already built what they’re calling an “air bridge” from Guangzhou to Addis Ababa with Ethiopian Airlines. They have the capacity now to bring in a lot of vaccines if they choose. The key question is how quickly can they be brought in and can African countries process all of this? Is the public health infrastructure robust enough to take 600 million vaccines in the next 12 to 18 months? That’s another key question. But right now that’s a problem I think most African public health experts would like to have. Right now you just don’t have any vaccines at all, and that is that shortage and that dearth is really the big problem.

Oh, one thing just on your point on effectiveness, this is, again, another frustrating narrative. The Chinese vaccines are not as effective compared to Pfizer and Moderna. Pfizer and Moderna is at the 92% on infections. The key metric that public health officials in developing countries are looking at is not infections but death and hospitalization.

If you can keep people out of the public health system and they can just be sick at home, that is the key thing. On that front, the Chinese vaccines do very, very well in the 80, 90% of effectiveness. But when you measured on purely on infections, just getting infected, that is where there’s a big difference of it. The other key question is the durability of these vaccines. We’re seeing the antibody levels fade over time. This is why you guys fortunate enough to live in the rich countries are getting your third and fourth boosters. Where here there’s no talk in Vietnam of getting a third booster. We barely got our second shot.

So I’m concerned that someone who has an AstraZeneca jab, how long will this thing stay effective? And there’s no chance for me to go back to the buffet to get more. That’s another key question, so those people in Zimbabwe who you got a lot of Sinopharm vaccines six months ago, will the effectiveness next year still be there and they won’t have a chance to get more vaccines for their third boosters?

Kaiser: Excellent. Excellent. Let’s shift topics now a little bit and more directly speak to U.S.-China competition in Africa. Anzetse, when we met up in Nairobi a couple of years ago, you made a couple of points that really stuck with me. One was, as we’ve discussed, the infantilization of Africans that’s implicit in this whole debt trap diplomacy narrative. You’ve expounded on that very well. Not just in this podcast, but in a previous one. But another thing that I remember you emphatically saying is that, “what is your counter?” In other words, it’s one thing for the US and developed countries to grumble about Chinese lending, about Chinese investment, about trade in African countries.

But what mattered you is what do you have to offer yourselves? Now, arguably, with B3W from the United States through the G7, there are the makings of an American counter that they hope is going to be joined by other American allies. How so far is this being received? And from what you know of it, what do you make of it personally?

Anzetse: Well, first I have to say it’s unfortunate they decided to counter an area where they have no demonstrated ability to actually deliver for the African continent on the scale and efficiency of China. So let’s just start there. If we’re looking at actual infrastructure development in Africa, the real question that we’re having on B3W is there are certain capabilities you need to have to credibly build long-term infrastructure in Africa and they’re real questions on whether what the U.S. is presenting is actually a counter, or it’s just going to be more of the same of what we see from the world bank and the development finance institutions. Does the U.S. have the technical capacity, the financial capabilities? What will it look like?

Most important one is the political economy capabilities to manage high profile, highly sensationalized infrastructure projects in Africa through administrations. This is where I think they’re really going to have their Achilles’ heel because the U.S. and the Global North don’t have a very patronizing tone of governance or corruption. But how are you going to have those lectures with countries that are trying to negotiate infrastructure deals with, and that you have to stay with for 10 to 15 years to get paid? How is that going to happen? Then the other capability is also the digital infrastructure and then the green.

So I think their counter was in the wrong space. I think the counter should have been in the space where the US has significant strength, which is investment and in actually pushing and building out the African private sector through the way the U.S. is able to deploy financial vehicles through the state, but also through the private sector. I think they’re countering in a place where they’re, frankly, going to lose. The other big thing that I think is going to be a struggle for them is the context in which infrastructure development happens in Africa. Because the U.S. has not done this at the scale that they seem to want to, at this level of time, I do not know if they really understand the political economy of technocracy in Africa in terms of actually building out these things.

So whether you’re talking about the context, the capacity of African governments, they need to coordinate because we have no idea where they’re going to start. Are they going to come with a very imperialistic view of, “This is the infrastructure we think you need to build and this is what we’re going to finance,” or will they be more demand-driven and allow African governments? In which case, what are they going to do with the coordination problem there? Yeah, the big thing is the commitment. One of the things we’ve seen in Africa because these infrastructure projects go through administrations. When a new administration comes in, the commitment shifts.

What are you going to do when you already sunk your capital in there and you’re already starting to build out an entire expressway or an entire railway as the Chinese have seen? Then a new administration comes in and says, “This thing was bad.” That commitment issue is something that they’re going to be dealing with. I think the other big one are the vested interests and the corruption. It’s going to be a real gnarly one for them, and as I said, I think this is not the counter that they should have done, but they’ve made this announcement. So we’re just going to see how this is going to play out.

Jeremy: Would the same comments apply to Global Gateway?

Eric: Yeah, because they’ve used the same language, so Ursula von der Leyen when she made her announcement about Global Gateway, she’s the European Commission president, she said it would be values-driven. It would be transparent. It won’t add to the debt burden. Again, what we don’t understand is how are they going to process €50 billion a year and not add to the debt burden? Again, that’s not a rhetorical question, that’s a legitimate question about how they’re going to finance these projects. And again, they’re positioning things oftentimes in contrast to the Chinese and it’s explicit, it’s not implicit. They are literally saying, “We are the alternative to the Belt and Road.

Again, I think that the Europeans in some ways are better positioned than the Americans, to Anzetse’s point on this, because European contractors actually have quite a bit of experience in building stuff in the Global South. American contractors have far less. Again, the capacity to actually execute on this is another question. One of the things that I hear, and this is what we just did our latest show is on infrastructure financing actually and we asked the expert on this and our guest on this, Johnson Kilangi, and we said, “How is this going to work?” He said, “Listen, I’m not actually paying that much attention to it.” I hear all these promises coming out of Washington and Brussels.”

But, more importantly, what he said to us off air was the fact that these things, when China’s part of the conversation, one has to wonder what the true motivation is? Is this about slapping China, or is it about actually building infrastructure and doing things for the benefit of both the United States and the Global South or Europe in this case? The other key thing that we have to remember… I’m here in Ho Chi Minh City. I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City the first time in 2011, Japan had just broken ground on the two line subway. Okay, we’re talking just an X, a north and south and an east and west. Here we are going into 2022 and they still haven’t finished this thing. It’s been a decade.

And the Japanese are good at building infrastructure in Southeast Asia. The point to, again, just to echo Anzetse’s point here, it’s freaking hard to build infrastructure in the Global South. I feel that in this discussion from the Americans and from the Europeans, is they gloss it over and say, “Yeah, we’re going to do it and we’re going to be just as good and better than the Chinese.” The Chinese have been doing this for 20 years now, even longer, and what that means is you’ve got project managers who’ve worked in Ecuador, in Bolivia, in Kenya, in Cambodia. They’ve got a huge amount of experience in doing this kind of thing. So I think that it’s a big challenge. We don’t know what these words, “values-driven” and “transparency,” what that all means in terms of how this is going to play out.

Last key point here, very important point, African Presidents and Prime Ministers are staring down the barrel of a double-barreled shotgun called demography. The median age in Africa is 19.4 years old, in some countries like Nigeria it’s 17 years old. They need projects that can move fast. To Anzetse’s point here about transcending administrations, these guys want projects that are going to be done in 12, 18 months, 24 months, and in and out. The speed is going to matter. What I hear in the US approach to it on B3W is, “We’re going to take in the community. We’re going to take in the environmental impact. We’re going to do all these assessments. We’re going to make sure everybody’s a part of it,” and I hear delay, delay, delay, delay.

Kaiser: They’re also talking about it, it’s just basically incentivizing private capital rather than direct loans. by providing de-risking tools to make American private capital interest there. it just feels like that…

Eric: It would be great if it works. I’m just not convinced that the private sector’s that motivated right now, or else they would’ve done it. They would’ve found a way to do it.

Anzetse: I was just going to say, how are they going to actually build out this infrastructure? Are they going end up going to Chinese contractors? I mean, really, if you’re looking at them actually starting to get the work done-

Eric: That’s going to happen.

Anzetse: … how is it going to be done? Just to add to what the practicality side of it is something that we’re a bit lost on, on the fact that is it going to end up being a situation where, again, we are teaching you guys how to build infrastructure in Africa? And now we’re training again, you guys, to build infrastructure rather than just going to the Chinese who have been doing it, we’ve understood, and we have an agreement on how these things happen. I think, finally, just to add to Eric’s points about the speed. I have real questions about value for money. They’re coming with almost an ideological imperialistic point of view, “This is our value and this is how we will do this.”

Fine, but what will this mean for the price points for Africans? We are now used to Chinese price points, we’re used to Chinese speed, and we’re used to the Chinese bouquet of other things that they bring with the infrastructure, yeah? You bring the infrastructure, then you help build the technical capacity. There’s an entire bouquet of… People think the bundling is negative and it makes Africa dependent. But if you’re looking at it from an African government point of view, it gets a thing up and running and going. The value for money issue is I think where they’re going to get lost. What will be the cost of these things really? Yeah, and well Africans feel like, “Yeah, this actually makes sense for us given all the debt strain and all the other cost pressures that.”

Eric: I wonder if a Republican Congress, if we’re going to see a switch this next fall, and then potentially a second Trump administration in 2024, will they endorse a Biden-branded program, Build Back Better? I think there’s real legitimate questions about continuity in the U.S. policy side as well because the new habit now is that every time an incoming administration comes in, they wipe out everything the previous administration did. And something branded, Build Back Better, is just a red flag in front of Republicans.

Jeremy: We could understand “higher standards” and “values-centered” as meaning a white guy is holding the purse strings, it sounds to me from what you’re saying. Both of you, what’s your sense of reactions around the African continent? You both seem to have quite similar feelings. Do you think that’s basically the way Africa is looking at the rhetorical war?

Eric: I sense a lot of hope. People want a competition to spend money in Africa, and they want Africa to become a priority. You have this optimism and people, again, public opinion towards the United States still remains very, very positive and strong. There is a hope that the United States will step up and get engaged. So I think there’s a hope but there’s also a skepticism as well that there’s been a lot of talk about this. And remember that the US offer has not changed in Africa in a generation. It is still an aid-led offer. One of the things I really want your listeners to take a listen to, to go to is that about a month ago, and I featured this on my show, there was a France-Africa summit in Montpellier. And Emmanuel Macron invited 11 or 12 young African youth activists on stage. And they just let him have it. He was just precious. We are tired of the paternalism. We are tired of you, of the aid. We are tired of you telling us what to do. We want partnerships, we want business, we want to be treated as equals. They were just — they lit into him. It was a wonderful display. I think that is the tone that a lot of people have towards the U.S. and others as well, and to some extent, towards the Chinese, but the Chinese speak to that language of, “We’re not coming here to give you aid, we’re coming here to do business.” I think that resonates as well. But people hope that the U.S. and Europe will come through, but I think they’re also quite jaded as we’re hearing from Anzetse, and I think…

Jeremy: Justifiably.

Anzetse: Can I just jump in and say there is a bit of a divide. I think a lot of the technocrats and the people who are moving money and moving policy, like this is another story from the Global North. I think just to make the point that when you are dealing with Africa from a very imperialistic colonial, paternalistic point of view, that is premised on a rudimentary understanding of Africa, what that means from an African perspective, it means we are the ones to twist ourselves to try and help you understand what is happening. Rather than you coming to a continent with an openness to be like, “What is actually possible here?” And so when you’re looking at the project level, and I see this all the time, you’re looking at infrastructure, whatever, even in private investment, although it’s getting better there.

Because a lot of, particularly American and European, have this very archaic view of Africa, we assume that we are not capable to do certain things. As a result, the Africans who are trying to get very complex, sophisticated ideas off the ground have to desophisticate what they want to do in order for the Global North to understand what is possible, yeah? We are here desophisticating our strategies and our ideas because we are meeting an audience that has a rudimentary understanding of who we are today in 2021. This is not a very big problem you see with the Global South investors. Global South have a different bouquet of problems, but they do not come with this colonial bigoted view of, “Africans are very simple people and just out of the cave.” Their very, very bigoted understanding.

And so the reason why this is important, when you’re dealing with a complexity of things like infrastructure, you cannot afford to make Africans think we need to desophisticate our infrastructure plan so that you think it’s feasible. What is happening? I think just to the point that Eric is making, that’s why you see this frustration. It’s not just an ideological frustration, it actually shows up and holds back progress in Africa because we are constantly having to pull back our ambitions because people sitting in a cathedral somewhere in the Global North think these Africans are not capable. And so I think if that mind view, and I think that is the biggest handicap and the biggest problem from the Global North, generally, and why they’re being left behind by China and other players — as long as that intellectual worldview persists, we will continue to move at light speed with global self partners that understand what we can do. I think the digital economy is a space where China came in, built a lot of the digital heart there, the infrastructure, the terrestrial cable, and you can see what Africans have been able to do there. I think if that intellectual worldview doesn’t change, it’ll increasingly just be, “These guys have come, let’s just see what we can get from them,” and then we’ll actually get along and find the partners that allow us to run together.

Kaiser: That’s a terrific place to wrap this up. I guess we shouldn’t hold our breath for a competitive race to the top. We probably shouldn’t expect that they’ll be able to play each other off one another. I think it’s especially ironic and rich that the West seems to have been so late to the recognition that what Africa really requires at all is infrastructure investment, which is just very strange why this hasn’t been the focus of lending in other development efforts in the past. But, anyway, Anzetse and Eric, thank you so much for joining us on Sinica. Happy holidays to you both, and we are looking forward to having you both back on the show in the New Year. Let’s move on now to recommendations, but first Jeremy quickly tell the people, who are listening, what they can be doing to help us out on the Sinica Podcast?

Jeremy: Please join Access, which is our subscription membership program. You get a daily newsletter and access to all of the content on our website. It supports us morally and financially and makes sure that this podcast, which we don’t charge you for, can remain free, so yeah.

Kaiser: Yeah, you also get a commercial-free version of this podcast on Monday Eastern time rather than on Thursday. So get early access as well, so check that out. All right, let’s move on to recommendations. I’m really excited to hear what both Anzetse and Eric have. But first to you, Jeremy, whatcha got for us this week?

Jeremy: Okay, I’ve been trying to understand the growing class of tankies and like young people who have become over-the-top apologists for Beijing, or essentially, for any anti-American cause. It seems to have got a lot more intense in the last couple of years, so I’ve been reading a book called Political Pilgrims by Paul Hollander, which looks at why so many prominent and extremely smart Western intellectuals fell hook, line and sinker for many of the lies of Mao-era China, Stalin’s Soviet Union and Castro’s Cuba. I’m about halfway through, and it’s pretty good way of understanding the attraction of, I guess we could call it, contemporary tankieism.

Kaiser: Is that a recent book?

Jeremy: It was published in 1998, so it’s it’s not about current events.

Kaiser: Okay. Political Pilgrims, Paul Hollander. Got it.

Jeremy: That’s right.

Kaiser: Interesting. Anzetse, what do you have for us?

Anzetse: Yeah, so I have two, one is Market Power and Role of the Private Sector by the China-Africa Business Council, looking at Chinese investment in Africa. I think for people who have absolutely no idea what’s going on, that’s a good place to start. I think the other good one that is a bit more centering Africa, I was looking at Africa’s economic transformation and the role of Chinese investment. This was done by Linda Calabrese and Xiaoyang Tang. And it’s a really interesting look at it from an African view. Because we try to transform the continent, what is the role of China and what role has China been playing positively or perhaps not so positively? I think particularly for people who are interested in looking at the future of Africa-China corporation, getting a better handle on the private sector will be useful.

Kaiser: All right. Okay, so Eric, what do you have for us?

Eric: Yeah, so I want to second the private sector report that Anzetse mentioned, we contributed to that report. It is really very, very interesting. It was produced by the China-Africa Business Council. So again, just that is really, really important. Again, it puts a new light on China-Africa relations I think that others haven’t seen before. I want to bring everybody’s attention to a brand new column that came out or an article by Paul Nantulya, who is one of the leading China-Africa thinkers in DC. He’s at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, and he just wrote an article on Guānxì: Power, Networking, and Influence in China-Africa Relations.

This role of guānxì, which is the relationships, can’t be overstated. It’s one that, again, the US and Europeans don’t fully understand the power of just being present. Wang Yi has made three trips to Africa this year. He’ll be back next month. Yang Jiechi has made two trips. He was just there last week. That physical presence is really important, and he has one line in here which I want to bring everybody’s attention to. He said, “The net effect of guānxì is that African elites reap financial rewards and entrench their patronage networks while Chinese firms benefit by increasing their political clout.” So fascinating article on Guānxì in Africa and how the China-Africa relationship is in many ways built on it.

Kaiser: I’ve always been one of those people who’s downplayed the particular, the cultural particularism of Guānxì. I always thought that you could just use the word personal relationships just as well instead of exoticizing it.

Eric: You could but he makes an interesting point rooted in history that I think to challenge that. I think you’d find this very interesting.

Kaiser: Yeah, no, I’m certainly open to reading that argument. Absolutely. I guess it’s me now. I have a novel by the writer, Stefan Zweig, who’s really moving memoir, The World of Yesterday: Memoirs of a European, was recommended on this program by Sebastian Strangio who had written In the Dragon’s Shadow, which I also really, really liked. This book was great, but my recommendation is for Zweig’s novel called Beware of Pity, which is also translated by Anthea Bell, who is apparently just a fantastic German to English translator. In the tradition of novels from the previous century, it’s just really deep psychological exploration. It just really understands just the workings of the human mind and the way that you get in like Middlemarch, George Elliot or from a Jane Austen novel or something.

But it’s fantastic. It’s just great. Zweig himself was really close to Sigman Freud. They were both Viennese Jews who were swept away in the diaspora by the Second World War. By the way, if you read this memoir, definitely get this newer Anthea Bell translation as well. The memoir that I mentioned because that’s the one that I actually got for audiobook, but I got the Kindle copy at the same time so that I could switch back and forth. Turns out it’s a different older translation. It’s not nearly as fluent or as literary. But I’m just obsessed with this guy, Stefan Zweig right now. He’s just a fantastic writer.

Anyway, thank you both so much for the show, and what a great one. I’m really looking forward to re-listening to this as I edit and to publishing it. Once again, Happy New Year to you both. I hope it’s been a good one, and we look forward to having you both on the show soon in the New Year.

Anzetse: Thank you. Thank you both.

Eric: Thank you so much guys. It was fun.

Kaiser: Thank you so much, Anzetse.

Jeremy: Thank you, Anzetse. Thanks, Eric.

Anzetse: Thank you.

Kaiser: Great to see Jeremy.

Jeremy: Likewise.

Kaiser: The Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina and is a proud part of the Sinica Network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We’d be delighted if you drop us an email at sinica@supchina.com, or just as good, give us a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts as this really does help people discover the show. Meanwhile, follow our other fantastic shows in the Sinica Network, especially, the China in Africa Podcast by Eric and Cobus, which is just I can’t tell you how great it is.

So follows also on Twitter or on Facebook @supchinanews. Make sure to check out all the shows in the Sinica Network. Got some really good new ones. Check out the China Sports Insider podcast, for instance, and of course, China S tories. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week. Take care.