Do we mean “China” when we say “Asia”?

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frauke.eckl's picture

 

Africa is not a country. It’s a continent. People do tend to forget that or generalize their comments. They also often talk about Africa as a homogenous continent. It’s the continent without hope, the one with Ebola too, a very current topic, or the classic image of poor people and dying children.

So, as there is an emerging interest in Asian activities in Africa, a similar - yet kind of reversed - effect becomes more and more visible. Especially when you deal with development cooperation and, within this sphere, the interactions between Africa and Asia. If you look up books or lectures about Asian actors in Africa, the titles often promise a closer look on Asian approaches in Africa, or a changing development paradigm with regards to Asian influences, something that they more or less fulfill. Also never to forget that South-South Cooperation is a term that was not newly invented and has a long history when it comes to Asian and African countries.1 But in these days more and more say “Asian”, but only mean “China”. If you look closely, some try to shed light on Chinese actions and actors in Africa and their implications especially for the “traditional” donors from the West. This shows that research, interviews, and observations, among all the other things, are never unattached from discourses that are ubiquitous and contemporary. Even if you talk to actors in development cooperation that are “non-Chinese Asian actors”, they do ask you why you’re talking to them and not to the Chinese. Because they’re often convinced this is what you’re really interested in, seeing the other Asian actors as “side-effects”. There is a very prominent discussion about the possible clash of the “Western” way of doing development, labeled as the more “traditional” way, and on the other hand the emerging “Chinese” way of doing “just” trade and being non-interventionist.2 This discussion is especially prominent on the stage of global politics and is transported through newspapers, magazines and television. Not only the discourses on the stage of global politics are evident, but also the examples in everyday life are interesting. May it be the taxi driver in an African country who pretends to “shoot” with his hand two people he sees on the streets and who he perceives as Chinese. According to him, they steal the jobs of his family and friends. Or be it the fact that products of bad quality that break easily, but  which are not necessarily Chinese, are looked at with an annoyed look and just commented on with “Well, that’s Chinese.”

Doing research on Asian and African interactions, the need to deal with China is evident everywhere, even if it’s not your main focus. You have to relate to the fact that many actors, be it from the “West” or from the “non-Chinese Asian actors” relate their own work to China and its projects, maybe even just implicitly. Some do say that China also paved the way for them, so that they can finally do the things that they do today. The simple fact that China is the elephant in the room, with a massive volume of trade and amount of projects, should never be underestimated. But also it’s something that leads to higher prominence and generalization, as well as prejudices. Projects like AFRASO also need to address this. Furthermore, they can help to differentiate.

 

1 see for example http://franke.uchicago.edu/Final_Communique_Bandung_1955.pdf or http://ssc.undp.org/content/ssc/about/what_is_ssc.html.

2 see for example http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2013/apr/02/china-aid-africa-development, http://www.economist.com/node/18586448?story_id=18586448, http://www.chinaafricarealstory.com/2014/12/african-public-opinion-on-china-and-us.html or http://www.chinaafricarealstory.com/2011/05/chinese-in-africa-economist-gets-some.html

 

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