Wednesday, July 6, 2011

BBC Where Art Thou? Another (Un)Balanced VOA Story on China in Africa

In a June 28, 2011 article with the thoughtful title: "China Supports Global Pariahs, Gets Resources and Criticism in Return," the United States' official broadcasting system Voice of America continued a series on China's overseas engagement. Here are some of the balanced analysts they're quoting: Greg Autry, co-author with Peter Navarro of the book Death by China and economics professor at University of California Irvine, and Peter Navarro, author of the polemic The Coming China Wars. Here's a sample of the analysis.

"Zimbabwe has everything from diamonds to tobacco and farm land," says Peter Navarro, an economics professor at the University of California, Irvine. "China has gone in there and there are a lot of Chinese farmers there now tilling Zimbabwean soil growing crops that are sent back to China while the people of Zimbabwe starve..."
There is a lot to be critical of in China's engagement with Mugabe, but sending a lot of Chinese farmers to till the soil is not one of them. Yes, China imports a lot of Zimbabwean tobacco. Two Chinese companies operate out-grower schemes buying tobacco from Zimbabwean farmers. Another Chinese project contracts with Zimbabwean cotton growers.

Later on the article repeats another of the myths floating around the internet:
China International Water and Electric Company ... has lease holds on over a quarter of a million acres of land in southern Zimbabwe for the raising of maize, which it exports back to China.
This zombie of a story -- another of the "rural legends" floating around the internet (this one was launched in 2003) -- is hard to kill off. But it is bogus. (I explain what really happened in The Dragon's Gift). It's also been embellished. The original version claimed that CIWEC was producing maize for Zimbabweans. Now the VOA, without checking, "reports" that CIWEC is exporting food back to China while Zimbabweans starve.

Oh BBC, where art thou? A hat tip to Henry Hall for the story.


  1. I heard the VOA is underfunded, I believe that.

    My other question is why the Chinese seem so incapable of defending themselves. All communists (and former communists) understand the importance of propaganda. My Dad's generation listened to Radio Peace and Progress, Moscow - so these skills should be readily available if they so desire. Why don't they?

  2. What's more worrying are stories like this:

    While its hard to confirm how much is true, it also points out that "Beijing" (far from a homogeneous actor itself) does not really direct or control all its actors in Africa or Zimbabwe. Instead, there are a lot of well financed and well connected private actors driving the relationship.

    Secondly, and related to the above comment, Beijing is FAR from helpful to defending its own cause in Zimbabwe (and else where in Africa) due to the secrecy surrounding its engagements and the total absence of transparency. While it can't be blamed for ridiculous stories and myths (that should be the responsibility of journalists), its odd that an academic's blog is the only place on the internet were you could find accurate information to counter these stories - information which I doubt is from China's own official sources.

  3. CKI,

    I won't read too much into that. In Africa, the business community supports the party in power or the party most likely to come to power.

    In West Africa, Lebanese and Indian business men do exactly what Sam Pa is doing in Zimbabwe. In the Nigeria, the Chagoury family does/did that. Does that point to direct interference by New Delhi and Beirut? Not likely.

    Please read this report from the Washington Post. (

    Sam Pa seem to be the type of crooked businessman that crooked African leaders love. These people tend to come from either the Levant,the Indian sub-continent and increasingly from China. Western businessmen tend to do their business more discreetly (fear of persecution).

    We don't have proof that Sam Pa is a Beijing operative. Let's not jump to conclusions until we have water tight evidence.

  4. These are good, thoughtful comments Chike and CKI. My own take on "Sam Pa" and CIF is that they indeed are the kind of crooked broker that Africa has seen plenty of. The comparison that comes to mind for me actually is Western, however: Pierre Falcon. I read the Zimbabwe metro/South African Times article you referenced above. It strikes me as a mix of rumor and perhaps mis-attributed facts. For example, it's known that Zimbabwe bought 100 Deng Feng trucks from China. Is the idea that "Sam Pa" supplied 100 "Nissan trucks" based on that sale? Or is this something else? Likewise, the Chinese government provided a $200 million credit for fertilizer (you can read about this on the Chinese embassy website in Zimbabwe). Are these sources now crediting "Sam Pa" with this?

  5. Actually VOA is much better than its French and German counterparts Radio France International and Deutsch Welle. These two are more biased on Chinese issue, and more frequently referring to unaccounted reports from other media.


  6. "There is a lot to be critical of in China's engagement with Mugabe..."

    There is.

    As someone who clearly has her finger on the pulse of Sino-African relations, I just wish we'd hear a bit more about the downside of China's engagement with Africa on this blog, thereby providing the kind of balance that you feel is lacking in VOA's story.

    I think it's only right that someone (other than the Chinese themselves) takes a positive view of Beijing's increasing interaction with the developing world, but not to the virtual exclusion of any criticism. Admittedly, my own assessment of China in Africa is not at all rosy, because I see Beijing's mercantilist rationalism as lacking compassion for the human condition. In short, I don't think they give a damn about the peoples of Africa (or anywhere else) if they get what they want.

    Btw, if you're on twitter, you might be interested to follow @hurthefeelings . She provides many excellent Sino-Africa links on an almost daily basis.

  7. Stuart,

    China's wrongdoings are extensively cataloged in Western media. In fact, the whole point of Western coverage on the Chinese involvement in Africa these days seems to be to amplify / exaggerate these wrongdoings. Prof. Brautigam's mission is to provide balance and clarity on Chinese activities in Africa.

    There is something I find unsettling about the tone of your post - the assumption of Western superiority / moral high ground. The first thing you need to internalise is that the West runs a deeply schizophrenic foreign policy in Africa. On the one hand, we have graduate students / NGO operatives / bloggers and on the other we have highly cynical, morally ambiguous businessmen. All Western policy is a careful balance between these two groups and as a result is very inconsistent. I assume you belong to the first group, that group has won the media war and that creates the impression that Western engagement in Africa is altruistic.It is not.

    The political cover given by the Chinese to Sudan and Zimbabwe is one issue, maltreatment of local workers by Chinese employers in Zambia is an entirely different issue and should be treated as such.

    Chinese patronage of al Bashir and Mugabe is not signficantly different from US patronage of Mubarak, Ben Ali and our splendid little dictator in Equitorial Guinea. In fact, the argument centers around "whose SOB is/was better than the other".(I think the US wins here).

    Maltreatment of local workers cuts across all nationalities - Indians and Lebanese are notorious for that sort of thing and the on-going activities of Western Oil Majors in the Niger Delta is very shameful. I will look forward to balanced reports on ALL maltreatment, not just the Chinese. As an African living in Africa, you cannot tell me with a straight face that only the Chinese maltreat their workers or that they are the worst offenders / have been at it the longest.

    You then talked about "mercantilist rationalism as lacking compassion for the human condition". When "compassion" was the only game in town (1980s and 1990s), we had to make do with second hand clothing from Belguim, UK and God knows where. "Mercantilist rationalism" means that we can afford to buy new clothes, $100 petrol-generators and $300 motorcycles.

    Most Africans will never ever come in contact with aid workers, free medicines and most of us will buy our mosquito nets with our own money. There are no alternatives to the Chinese, no one else has right mix of skills, finance and ambition to transfrom Africa through business.

    And I don't agree they don't give a damn about the peoples of Africa. (They are not all evil).

  8. Chike,

    You're using the kind of logical fallacies to defend China one so often sees employed by paid Chinese commenters (so-called '50 centers') throughout cyberspace. That is not to say that you're one of them, but if you're not, then it's good of you to do their bidding for nothing. These are all classic hallmarks:

    1. Playing up perceptions of a biased 'western' media:

    the whole point of Western coverage on the Chinese involvement in Africa these days seems to be to amplify / exaggerate these wrongdoings

    2. Using tu quoque arguments to discredit another's position. By making me the focus, therefore, you are guilty of argumentum ad hominem:

    There is something I find unsettling about the tone of your post - the assumption of Western superiority / moral high ground.

    Really, Chike, I see this type of fallacious accusation so often in the comments on China-related media content. Having employed a feeble ad hominem, you then devote the rest of the paragraph to the equally common deflective criticisms characteristic of logical fallacy. This line of argument continues in the fourth, fifth, and sixth paragraphs.

    3. Attempt to paint the opposing view as racially motivated by pivoting the argument to the Chinese people rather than the policies of their government:

    There are no alternatives to the Chinese ... And I don't agree they don't give a damn about the peoples of Africa

    Perhaps this is all coincidence, and you are not a 50-center at all. Either way, of course, the arguments are still logically fallacious.

    A good post on the Chinese government's directives for 50-centers can be found at The Peking Duck blog: . Or else you can simply browse the comment sections of any article on China that fails to gush with praise for the Motherland.

    By highlighting the negative impacts of China's globetrotting, awareness is heightened and Beijing is kept a little more honest than is usually evidenced by their brand of punitive authoritarianism. Just because the CCP has an aversion to criticism doesn't mean we should stop. It would not serve the long-term interests of African peoples to do so.

    One final point. Balance does not come about by going as far to the left as someone else has moved to the right: it occurs through pluralism and the finding of common, middle ground. In this respect, I acknowledge (again) that I could sometimes do a better job myself.

  9. Stuart,

    Prof. Brautigam's real contribution to the debate is a more nuanced understanding of the Chinese role in Africa. Your knowledge of this subject and your assumptions are no different from Peter Hitchens of "the Daily Mail" or Michael Gerson at "the Washington Post".

    You haven't said anything new.

    Do the Chinese come up short? Of course they do. I will be last person to deny that Sudan and Zimbabwe leave a lot to be desired. But is it fair to give everyone else a free pass and pile it on the Chinese? The answer is no.

    Then you respond to one "ad hominem" attack with another by implying that I am either a "50-center" or silly.

    One last question, have you ever lived in Africa and if so, for how long?

  10. Chike,

    You have responded in exactly the way I would have predicted that a 50-center would. That is, by resorting to the same logical fallacies and straw man constructions designed to deflect attention from the real issues.

    What I want is a fully transparent and evenly debated inquiry into China's involvement in Africa. This site's owner presents a useful part of that debate. Your role seems to be to shout down any exploration of alternative viewpoints.

    And for that reason, 50-center or not, I'm done with you unless you can respond in a more reasonable, pluralistic-minded manner.

  11. Some time ago, I read the same story about the Chinese agro-technicians in Senegal, where they were replacing the Chinese from Taïwan in managing a number of experimental farms. I don't remember who was the author of the article, but methinks it was Prof. Brautigam. If am wrong, I beg her pardon. The article said that to avoid putting strain on the already tight budget of a number of countries, the Chinese side agreed to carry out their obligations of the contract. In return, it was agreed that all the produce of say, the n (five? ten?...) first crops would be delivered to the Chinese side in payment, in place of cash or money. This is the reason why some reporters claim that the Chinese are plundering all the crops while leaving the African populations to starve.

  12. Above story of African country pay back China's loan with crop is lacking of proof if you cannot give more details. Actually it doesn't make sense to me. Because China is the largest crop producer in the world and have achieved self-reliance for many years. Most of the crop produced in China are bought by Chinese government with very low price already. What's the point to buy more from abroad and hurt domestic farmer? If the product is something that China do not produce, like coco, than I would say it's possible.


  13. To Commentator Wei:
    For sure, as I did, you had the opportunity to read a number of articles dealing with the issue of Chinese workers in Senegal or Zimbabwe or some other African countries, carrying hastily away the newly reaped crops (maize, paddy etc.) from the experimental fields they are keeping for training purposes. If the reasons I quote are irrelevant, please give yours. I didn't say that these crops were sent to China, because they could be sent to some other places or countries where there are supplying problems with these foodstuffs.

  14. Thanks for reply, but you have yet to give a single link to convince. I just say it does not make sense for China to buy crops from African countries, China doesn't need them, and the amount for selling those crops wouldn't cover a bit of the investment that China put in African countries.


  15. In her book, Prof. Brautigam pointed out that, in the 1960s-1980s, the pattern followed by Japan in its exchanges with China often took the form of barter trade since China was short of currencies. This is the pattern followed by the Chinese in their exchanges with a number of African countries and I fully agree with this view. Now, I am quite unable and unwilling to give you a single link, because if you are unable to acknowledge that this kind of trade is the easiest form to handle among developing countries, then it can't be helped. For the remaining, I wasn't hidden in the slipway!

  16. @ Spike

    It suits them well…

    If there is no transparency, no figures available, nor actions defended, this is so because the CCP thinks it is in its best intrest.

    In China, more than 17,000 historians are specializing in the history of the CCP, it takes 16 years before the history of 30 years of CCP-rule can be published, and yet there is no definition in it of which part of Mao’s actions were the wrong 30 % and which 70 % actions were correct.

    Do you know China's position on Libya, Iran, the Jasmine Rebellions, the Hamas PLO rapprochement, Irak, the Israel-Palestine peace proces, Afghanistan, the solidarity flotillas with the Palestinians, the Indian/Pakistan conflict…?

    Similar for Africa; what they once defined as black is now white in their eyes and even today the difference between their theories and their actions become too obvious.
    It is not so easy to respect your old or new principes if you have intrests to defend…
    For instance, what remains of the non intervention policy in the internal affairs of other countries, of the no contacts with non state actors policy , in the light of their contacts with the SPLA / M in Southern Sudan or their contacts and trades with the Transitional National Council in Libya ....?

    Better keep it all out of the limelight so as to cover up the contrast with the past and to have your hands free into the future ...

  17. Secrecy is one of the best weapons used by China to guard against the overwhelming hostile western forces that leave not a stone unturned to scrutinize its slightest actions at home and on the world stage, in order to carry out their plottings against it. Should these western forces had given their support to the Chinese Revolution at its inception, as they are now doing in a number of Islamic countries and Africa, we wouldn't have until now the present division of China in two political entities. So, China is right when it keeps secrecy on its foreign policy and a lot of other matters. When the gangsters are roaming outside of your home, you are compelled to take action not to let yourselves being hurt by them.

  18. To Anonymous,

    Barter trade itself has nothing wrong in it. Essentially infrastructure for resource is a kind of barter trade and it makes the main part of China-Africa trade. I just say China does not need African crops, because they produce them abundantly themselves.


  19. Anyway, African crops or not, the problem is: if China insn't in need for them, then why do the Chinese agro-technicians carry them away?Isn't it an excellent topic that deserves some on-the-spot checkings?

  20. "why do the Chinese agro-technicians carry them away?"

    How much? I didn't see the figure. There are lots of experimental projects, it could be for sampling/testing purpose. Any evidence that they shipped back to China or sale to a third country for profits? Again, we are talking about something lack of factual evidence.


  21. And this is the reason why I am also saying that this is an excellent issue that deserves on-the-spot checkings.

  22. Maybe its time for me to step in here. I think what Anonymous may be referring to in the Senegal case is not my work, but the field research of Lila Buckley (she had a guest post on this blog). Lila is fluent in French and Mandarin. Her excellent paper on Chinese agro-technicians who had replaced Taiwanese technicians in Senegal discusses the sale of produce from the plots: "Chen explained, ‘We sell the produce from our demonstration plots because it would be a waste otherwise. What good would it be to demonstrate a farm only to throw away what you produce? But it is also to help the Senegalese staff. We use the revenue to pay the workers and give the staff extra salary because their government doesn’t give them much. This isn’t really something we have to do, but we think it is the right thing to do.’ The Senegalese counterparts however resented this as they believed the Chinese should give the crops to them directly so that they could sell them. This terrific paper can be found online: try searching at

  23. Thank you very much, Prof. Brautigam, for your excellent reply, because I myself was quite unable to provide any link, as requested by commentator Wei. I also had the opportunity to read that some Senegalese workers on these demonstration farms were infuriated against the Mainland Chinese agro-technicians, because they wanted them to justify that they deserved replacing the former Chinese technicians from Taïwan.


  24. Thanks for clarification, Professor.


  25. To me it seems simple for an African leader who is not a sellout. No foreign entities need to own land in Africa. Commodities that are needed can be grown by Africans and sold at a fair price. Africa has been under assault for centuries OUT FOREIGN OWNERSHIP NOW! Africa for Africans!

  26. @Stuart,

    DB's perspective IS the alternative view.
    To me as an African, it seems that both Western and Chinese media are mainly propaganda machines for their respective governments! The Chinese media propaganda seems directed and driven by the Chinese government.
    However, the motive behind Western media propaganda is more subtle (and sinister?) because it is not driven by obvious identifiable directives, but by the Western public's personal feeling of moral superiority. The Western media is driven by profits and in their battle for the patronage of the Western public, they've come to the age old conclusion: "people tend to want to listen to media that tell them what they want to hear"! So, because Westerners WANT to hear that their adventures in Africa are more altruistic than China's, the media is glad to oblige. The same phenomenon can be viewed in US primetime cable news where talking-heads (from either side of the political spectrum) tell most of the American public what they want to hear to astronomical ratings.
    The reason this is more sinister to me, is because of it's hypocrisy (which I abhor). Additionally, it is harder to identify the origin of this bias because they doesn't seem to be any direct entity enforcing it, unlike China. In other words, it is easier for a biased Western media article to fool a reader than a biased Chinese media article because it is easier to identify the bias in the Chinese media!

  27. @ Anonymous
    For me, as a man, Western and Chinese media are both mainly propaganda machines.
    So far we agree, but why deviate from it, to argue that the Western media convey what the audience wants to hear (because it sells better and therefore, is more lucrative)?
    For a good brief analysis of the propaganda vrs the publicity model of media control in the West, I refer to Jonathan Cook

    And no, Professor Brautigan's perspective is not “THE alternative view”.
    Over the years I learned to see the reality with the eyes of a fly. Flies have compound eyes, and as every aspect of it gets filled up with "something" they form a gradualy more sophisticated image of reality.
    “Whether the elephants are fighting or making love, the grass is always trampled” is an African proverb and makes sense from the point of view of the grass that is trampled. But there are thousands of different perspectives possible about those events(of each of the elephants, their families, all the other animals involved, the people living nearby, the plants nearly trampled, the plants used as elephant feed, from the plants that receive a chance to grow just because the grass is trampled ....
    And in the second line, but not least, the various botanists, biologists, anthropologists… trained to put such behavior in its proper context).
    The total of those thousands and thousands of views is "reality" (which we can never completely contain).
    Beeing acquainted with many aspects refines a black and white vision into a compelling package of various shades of gray.
    What Professor Brautigan brings us is not the "alternative" or "balanced".
    That can not, but I am very grateful to her for dedicating a good deal of her life to the China/Africa relationship. It gives me a series of facts and analysis that I add as passive puzzle pieces to my worldview.
    But also, sometimes I am obliged to move the borders of this puzzle a little bit to the left or to the right, or up or down.
    It is hard to gauge for exactly what public professor Braugian writes, but I suspect its very positive assessment of China's presence in Africa is a kind of dialectical counterweight to the negative views which prevail amongst her readers.
    see second part

  28. I personally do not think much of the Western news coverage, but in any case it is very diverse and even “The Real Story” is part of that as well.
    As far as I remember, I have never seen critism of China in Africa in the Western press that I had not first read in an African source.
    Every day I try to follow the (English language) Chinese media coverage of Africa (who is so poor that I sometimes may not even recognize the mentionned events).
    I know that in the academic world there is a growing range of criticism possible, but everything is being done to prevent it to flow to the general Chinese public.
    Hence I will always remember a quote from a Chinese who could get his hands on a copy of The Wall Street Journal: “When I read a foreign newspaper, I see lots of things I do not know about ...”
    And to finish also a reference to Stuart who, as far as I remember, is living in China.
    On the basis of the daily news it seems to me that China is "the business first country" par excellence.
    Almost by definition, this is also exported to Africa, something that Stuart quotes.
    Recently I read a slogan-style definition of the "Beijing Consensus" in “Asia Times”: globalization, marketization, privatization and an authoritarian regime. At the "Washington Consensus" only the latter is missing ...
    Prof. Brautigan knows both worlds very well and sees a half full glass, where she puts the emphasis on the full section.
    I myself see also a glass half full but I see great danger in the half empty part ...
    The difference may have something to do with the fact that I like to put my ear to listen to the African underdog, who, if he is organized, can make his voice heared through trade unions, NGOs, …
    sometimes in African sources, exceptionally in the Western press, but unfortunately not at all in the Chinese press ...

  29. "I myself see also a glass half full but I see great danger in the half empty part ..."

    Can one see the full and the empty at the same time. Why one has to see the full or the empty? Hasn't it been the source of many problems in the West the last 2000 years? What is a fair and balanced view to all of us, one seeing the full or the one seeing the empty? Can a writer or readers smart enough to write or read a both-side view?

    "sometimes in African sources, exceptionally in the Western press, but unfortunately not at all in the Chinese press ..."

    Why compares to the one that is barely forming, when the system of Western press has been developing existence for hundreds of years. One can't help but wonder if one system is so superior to the other, why the difference is so minute.

  30. Everybody can see that their 'freedom of speech' is actually freedom to lie, in order to spread confusion.


  31. In our 'free' world, i.e. in our Western world, 'freedom of speech', 'freedom of thought', 'freedom of the press', 'freedom of the Internet' are very useful and good things everybody can enjoy and appreciate. Then, there are problems arising from the fact that the players are not all on an equal footing. The Western countries control the whole process, and their financial and technical superiority is overwhelming. When they mobilize their means to single out one country and endeavour to impose their dictatorship on it, what can this country do to resist? Only arch-hypocrites can disagree with the self-protection measures taken by this country. When I read the NY Times or any other newspaper in the western world, I am pleased because they are varied and apparently non-political. In countries such as China, the DPRK, Cuba etc., the media and the press are mobilized to safeguard the country's independence and to resist foreign forces' encroachments and plottings. They are less 'interesting' but what I am looking for is to see if they are going to succeed in resisting foreign pressures and safeguard their national independence.


  32. I thought Africa paid back China through oil and other natural resources like minerals....not necessarily and solely crops...

    Also the West has ulterior motive to falsify claims about trades between China and Africa. They know they're losing out to the geopolitical game play being played (once again) on the African continent. Unlike China, they're bound by their own laws or moral values and their past indiscretion with the continent. Take all of that aside, and they would be playing the same game as China...if not worse.