Thursday, December 20, 2012

Reading: The Dragon's Gift

UPDATE: I finished finished reading Deborah Brautigam's The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa. I wrote an earlier post describing some of my initial thoughts and I just finished something a little more substantive.

Prof. Deborah Brautigam has written a text that should be on the shelf of anyone interested in Sino-African relations, plain and simple. Professor and Director of the International Development Program at Johns Hopkins University/School of Advanced International Studies, Brautigam has more than three decades of experience studying development, specifically African development, and she is one of the world's foremost experts on Sino-African relations, having been interested in Chinese aid projects to Africa since the 1980s. Looking primarily to debunk some of the more excessive stories being written about China's presence in Africa, she succeeds in that mission. However, she also either ignores or does not deal with evidence that contradicts her thesis, and she does both in a way that made me wary of her overall research. However, even with that said, her research and arguments are compelling enough to make up for those problems.

Brautigam has three major theses: that Chinese aid and investment in Africa is mutually beneficial (for the most part), that it is fundamentally different from aid and investment from the U.S. and Europe, and that people in the U.S. and Europe generally misunderstand the relationship. Divided into 11 chapters, excluding the prologue and conclusion, the text goes through a history of Sino-African relations, how Chinese experience as an aid recipient itself influenced its views on aid to Africa, how Chinese aid actually works, myths about Chinese projects in Africa, etc. She used a wealth of primary and secondary sources, and one cannot help but marvel at just how much time she spent on the ground, talking with people directly involved, from ministers to shopkeepers.

The primary strength of this text is quality of Brautigam's research regarding Chinese aid and investment. Notice the two different terms: they are often portrayed as one and the same, and Brautigam is at her strongest delineating between the two. Chapters four through ten, with titles such as "Eastern Promises: An Aid System with Chinese Characteristics" and "Apples and Lychees: How Much Aid Does China Give?" do an extraordinary job of showing how what Chinese aid is and is not, based on the definition supplied on pages 13-14
"This [Official Developmental Assistance] funding has to meet two criteria. First, the purpose of he funding must be primarily to promote economic development and welfare in the recipient country. Second, it must be given on a concessional basis. Export credits [Which is a major source of Chinese financial flows to Africa] do not generally qualify as ODA, nor do grants and subsidies to support private investment."
The next time a spectacular Sino-Africa aid number is quoted by a newspaper, keep that in mind. While there are a multitude of Chinese investments in Africa, they are not all financed or directed by the Chinese government, and Brautigam points to just how difficult such a policy can be when discussing local African land rights or unprofitable Chinese ventures in chapter ten. Furthermore, the graphs and numbers Brautigam uses really show the depth of her statistical research. As someone who never quite understood how China's Eximbank functioned, her table of the "China Eximbank concessional loan cycle" (143) was a godsend. To any reader, a formerly perplexing aspect of Sino-African relations will be made understandable thanks to Brautigams clear and concise explanations.

In addition, Brautigam does a wonderful job complicating not only China's presence in Africa but also the actions of the U.S. and Europe. Despite claims to the contrary China is not handing out billions in cash to shady African governments, as China almost never gives major cash aid (124). Instead, it is usually working on financing infrastructure through export credits or supporting its brands in their quest for global recognition. She points out that the New York Times announcing of the $9 billion Nigerian railway project as aid was erroneous, but all-to-common when reporting about Sino-Africa (163). She also shows how the United States has a less than stellar record of dealing with the African continent, and some of it's companies are quite willing to work with unsavory leaders, such as ExxonMobil in Equatorial Guinea (285). In other words, China is not as bad as Americans and Europeans read about, nor is the U.S. or Europe as good.

Finally, a real pleasure of Brauitgam's writing is her ability to seamlessly weave anecdotes and data. For example, on page 97 she talks about the importance of China setting up overseas economic zones, similar to China's own Special Economic Zones:
"'Why did we develop so fast?' Li Qiangmin, China's ambassador to Zambia, said to me when I met him in the Zambian capital of Lusaka in 2008. 'We had four special economic zones. This is a shortcut for development.' In 2006, China's ministry of Commerce announced that overseas economic zones would become a key platform in the 'going global' program. China would support its companies to establish fifty overseas economic zones in countries around the world."
I, for one, particularly appreciate Brautigam's ability to not only get great quotes but to use them to buoy her argument, even if I do not always agree with it.

Speaking of disagreements, there were four major issues that I have with the text. First, I find Brautigam's history of Sino-African relations quite puzzling. She rightly notes that China has been involved in Africa since the 1950s. She even makes mention of the famous Tan-Zam Railway. However, Brautigam only makes brief mention that China had a militant period during the Cultural Revolution, but it was quickly over and China renounced it's mistakes (38). Her endnotes cite the same secondary literature that anyone researching Sino-African relations would come across, and they all point to China being involved in sending arms to and/or trying to overthrow African countries before, during, and after the Cultural Revolution. For example, China sent a cadre of saboteurs trained in Ghana in the early 1960s, which infuriated the Nigerian government as they were a constant object of their attacks. The point is that China has been just as involved in Cold War shenanigans as the Americans or the Soviets, and for Brautigam to not address that fact is a curious oversight, especially considering how capable she is of pointing out American or European hypocrisy towards the African continent. In my initial read-through I noted that she completely ignores China's dealings with all of the main factions during the Angolan Civil War, and their backing of the FNLA until 1980. Then, when I saw that she was going to use Angola as a case study in her penultimate chapter concerning Sino-African myths and realities and I was quite shocked to see that her description of the Angolan Civil War boiled down to:
"Angola's war for independence became an East-West conflict after Portugal abruptly gave up power in 1975. The Soviet Union and Cuba stepped in to support the new socialist government. The United States and apartheid South Africa aided the rebels. With the end of the Cold War, Angola's proxy struggle morphed into a fight for control over blood diamonds, natural gas, and oil." (273)
I am not as well versed in Sino-African relations as Brautigam, but the subtle dig at U.S. policy by tying it to "apartheid South Africa," justified as it was, made no sense if it ignored China's ongoing attempts since 1960 at countering Soviet engagement with Angola by siding with any rebel group that fought against the faction of Soviet backing. China did not send enough arms or military training to make a lasting impact on the war (that we know of), but they were quite always involved. Jonas Savimbi, eventual leader of UNITA, was even trained in China. All this information is fairly well-known (you can even find it on Wikipedia, if you do not feel like reading Ian Taylor's China in Africa: Engagement and Compromise or Ambassador David Shinn and Joshua Eisenman's China and Africa). Since she truly believes that China does not interfere in African countries domestic affairs, I can understand where she is coming from but it was a strange decision on her part to omit such information.

Second, Brautigam seems to go out of her way in portraying the U.S. and Europe as hypocritical and wrong while China is worldly and practical. It eventually became a little much. When I read on page 236 that
"During the Cultural Revolution, radical Maoists sent Chines youths and intellectuals 'up to the mountains, down to the countryside' to serve the people. Today, Chinese leaders want their farmers and companies to go 'down to the African countryside' to serve China's strategic interests."
I was taken aback. There are some really wonderful comparisons Brautigam could deploy in describing the the PRC's dealings with Africa. Invoking the Cultural Revolution is not one of them. Or, on pages 99 and 103, Brautigam uses Bo Xilai as a source. This is significant because Bo was a former Chinese Communist Party official who was ousted due to a highly-publicized scandal. That should at least give the reader pause about who is Brautigam considers as a worthy source. Obviously, Brautigam would have had no idea about Bo's imminent fall from grace since the book was first published in 2009 and Bo fell from power in 2012 but, as much of a China Hand as she is, she is a little too sanguine about the information supplied to her by Chinese government sources. That would not be so bad if not with the apparent glee she takes in finding flaws with U.S. and European development models and staffing, such as describing U.S. and European aid workers as living "like pashas in comfortable homes, often circled by walls topped with shards of glass." (134) Her critiques of such policies are legitimate but the Chinese are hardly paragon of virtue, and I would dare say a few of her Chinese government sources have serious skeletons in their closet. Instead, the impression one gets from the text is that the Chinese development model (if it has one, I do not believe that it does) was singularly brilliant and the stewardship of the CCP was practical and farsighted, while the U.S. and Europe have nothing to offer but failure.

Third, Brautigam lumps all Chinese communities together, except when China and Taiwan duel over the One China Policy. Outside of that, Hong Kongers who fled the 1997 handover and set up businesses, Chinese laborers imported by the British, Taiwanese entrepreneurs, and Chinese contractors who stay in Africa to run a business after their project as done all count as "Chinese" for her purposes. The Chinese government's dealings with African peoples and governments is complex and multifaceted, and that is not even taking into account Chinese firms (whether state-owned or otherwise) and Chinese small-business owners. There is not one China in Africa, in other words. For Brautigam to imply that there is, and that someone who left Hong Kong in order not to be part of the People's Republic of China is part of "China's" engagement with Africa is arguable, to put it mildly.

Finally, and this is related to the other themes, she does not engage with evidence counter to her thesis with the same rigor as evidence that supports her research. Here is an illustrative passage:
The young Chinese man who had worked at the Friendship factory in Tanzania gave me a spontaneous example of local labor productivity compared with China: "Here, the weaving machines are old style, but on the same machine in China one woman can operate 32 machines at once This is easy, it's common. But here, a man operates eight machines at the same tie, and this is the maximum, excellent, he will get his picture on the wall!" Likewise, ethnic Chinese factory owners in Lesotho had similar complaints: "Workers aren't motivated.... workers aren't skilled enough... there are a lot of things that workers can't do - the learning curve is very slow." (Local workers blamed poor training and supervision, difficulties in communication, and a hostile work climate for their lack of effort.) (228)
Look at the space and words she dedicated to the voices that agreed with her argument. Full quotes, longer identification and she footnoted the second quote (I am still trying to figure out a blogger footnote system, bear with me, gentle reader), which is from this article by Mike Morris and Leanne Sedowski. The voices that do not agree with her argument warrant a sentence in parenthesis with no excerpts from the actual workers. Considering just how easy it is to get find quotes from Lesotho (When I googled "Lesotho worker Chinese" three of the first four hits contained quotes), I was rather disappointed. It is not that Brautigam was silencing African voices that disagreed with her (an unfortunately common practice for U.S. academics that I do not believe her guilty of) but rather she implies that such concerns are misplaced and not really as meaningful as China's beneficial relationship with the peoples of Africa. As a failed labor historian, I could not disagree more.

While I have major issues with Brautigam's research, that should not dissuade anyone interested in Sino-African relations from obtaining this book. It is that good. The breadth of analysis, the explanation of Chinese aid and investment, the commitment to complicating what China is doing in Africa, all of them add up to a truly genuinely informative and excellent read. I generally agree with Brautigam more than I disagree, and I want to close with a quote that is instructive for the tensions of next decade of Sino-African relations: the role of African governments.
"I asked Conteh, the union leader [of the Magbass sugar plantation in Sierra Leone]. 'No one else will come,' he said flatly. 'Magbass is the only industry there. It is the duty of the government to set things right.'" (264)


  1. It seems to me that Brautigam has a rather naïve view of Sino-African relations. Undoubtably she is a utopian/idealist. From reading this review it seems to me that scholars on the economic side of the relationship (Dambisa Moyo) would argue quite strongly against her arguments. In her most recent book "Winner Take All" Moyo gives a harsh survey of the role China is playing in many African countries, most of the time not necessarily playing by the norms that have been established by other aid donors and investment figures. So from what this review has provided the audience is that the author has a very strong set of research skills but takes a different angle at looking at the relationship that China shares with many African countries.

    Now what I will praise her for is her somewhat hidden approval of the China Model or Beijing Consensus that many IPE scholars are exploring. The Beijing Consensus, which Joshua Cooper Ramo posited, is the alternative to the Washington Consensus that some scholars view as the most appropriate development model for developing countries in Africa and Latin America. So if we look at the way that China has seen its amazing economic transformation since Deng Xiaoping opened up China to the special economic zones (SEZs), and the way that Beijing has experimented with state-capitalism, China's unique development model may be a model for other countries to try in the future. This is was Brautigam mentioned in her book when she was talking with the China's Ambassador to Zambia when he mentioned that he would support numerous SEZs around the world. Dr. Matt Ferchen and Dr. Barry Naughton both ask in different articles whether or not this Beijing Consensus is realistic, whether it's possible to implement this type of model in different countries or if it is specific and unique to China.

    For someone (me) who has not read the book I can retrodict that this book certainly has its shortcomings and that the author is rather Daniel Bell-esque and seems to be a little more apologetic towards China's involvement with African nations than many other scholars.

    I wonder what Beijing University's Dr. Li Anshan would think about this?

    All-in-all nice review!


  2. Dr. Brautigam is definitely an optimist about Sino-African relations but I would not consider naive about Chinese foreign policy, considering her experience with the country. I think she simply sees things through rose-colored glasses.

    It is funny that you bring up Moyo because I feel in her book Dead Aid she sides heavily with Brautigam's overall point that aid is not what African countries need as much as investment. Brautigam definitely sees that there is such a thing as a Beijing Consensus, so not only is Chinese investment a boon to African countries but the Chinese development model is, in her view, completely superior to anything from the United States. Personally, I am very skeptical of the idea of the existence of a Beijing Consensus (I agree almost completely with Dr. Ferchen's research on the matter), but the fact that such an idea is gaining traction is significant.

    I hope to ask Dr. Li to take a look at my blog at some point in the future, hopefully after I review his overseas Chinese book.

    Thank you so much for your comment, I found it quite insightful!