China’s Influence in Africa

I took advantage of a fascinating talk today by a visiting scholar, Dr. David Shinn, who was formerly our Ambassador to Ethiopia (among other positions), and who is now a professor at GWU. I went at the last minute based on an email from my Japanese History professor, and I’m quite glad I did. Thanks to my China knowledge (mostly gleaned from majoring in it…Check that out mom & dad—I actually learned something at college!) and my greater-than-average Africa knowledge due to the scenarios we worked with at NYLF/National Security, I learned a even more from the talk.

Since I’m pressed for time, I’m just going to bullet point some of the more interesting tidbits I collected from the talk, for you, my loyal reader (yes, you, sitting over there by yourself) to peruse at your leisure:


  1. Of the 53 African nations currently, only 4 still recognize Taiwan over the PRC, and they’re frankly the insignificant ones (Burkina Faso, The Gambia, Sao Tome & Principe, and Swaziland). Even those will likely change soon. This means that China’s efforts in Africa can potentially garner a large chunk of support votes in the UN—almost a quarter right there.
  2. The US has a significant trade deficit with Africa (although this is of course overshadowed by that with other nations). China is much closer to being neutrally balanced in terms of trade with Africa, which puts it in a stronger position.
  3. By 2010, China will have surpassed the US in trade with Africa. Of that, 85% of China’s trade is with only 5 of the largest African nations. Also, despite all of that, only 3% of China’s trade is with Africa.
  4. Through 2007, China had over $20 billion in investment (mainly in oil and extractive industries) in Africa; $6 billion in Sudan alone. This is a tremendous amount compared to virtually all other nations.
  5. Since 2000, China has been pushing their “Angola Model” in Africa. Basically, Beijing gives large “loans” at very low interest rates (~1.5% only!), payable over long periods. Sounds great, right? Well, in reality these are more like barter agreements, where the recipient nation then pays back the loan in resources (oil from Angola, minerals from DRC, tobacco from Zimbabwe, etc), and on top of that, China agrees to develop the necessary infrastructure to access those resources—but it’s usually stipulated to be done by mostly Chinese companies and labor! Nevertheless, both sides seem pretty happy with this (e.g. Angola is really enjoying the deal since they won the “oil lottery” and are able to pay back their loan quite quickly due to the high prices commanded by oil).
  6. China is not completely profit driven in Africa, as they have cancelled over $1 billion in debts throughout Africa. Not as much as Western nations, but still a significant amount, and mostly for the poorer nations that needed it most.
  7. China does a fantastic job of government-to-government relations: Beijing has staffed embassies in 48 of the 49 African nations that recognize her (Somalia is the only one left out due to security and safety issues). No other nation has that many embassies in Africa. Africa is also always the first place outside of China that the new Chinese foreign minister goes to when taking office.
  8. However, despite that, China is still pretty bad at dealing with non-governmental players, from NGOs to opposition parties, etc. This occasionally leads to great difficulties, since when a government in Africa does change, Beijing has already alienated them by not having had relations previously.
  9. Between 2002 and 2004, high-level Chinese officials made 64 trips to Africa, and African officials and leaders made 69 trips to China in the same period. Can you imagine someone like Condi going to Africa even twice in two years, let alone dozens of times?
  10. Beijing regularly provides training for African diplomats.
  11. Some problems with China in Africa:
    • Beijing undercuts the IMF and World Bank’s reform efforts, which involve loans and grants with stipulations for reform, by giving assistance and funds with no political stipulations at all. China in this sense is like a pressure relief valve for Africa, negating any pressure put on questionable governments by the West.
    • China doesn’t pay much attention to where their arms shipments end up in Africa.
    • China participates and funds egregious environmental practices, from protected timber clearcutting, to blatant ivory trade.
    • Chinese trade is continually driving local African textile and other goods manufacturers out of business.
  12. Some interesting effects of Chinese influence:
    • China’s use of barter with many African nations actually serves to lessen corruption; corrupt leaders are much less likely to “misplace” a thousand computers shipped in from China than they are to lose track of a million dollars sent in by the IMF.
    • Whether good or bad, it is interesting that China will deal equitably with Islamist Khartoum, Autocratic Equatorial Guinea, and Democratic South Africa…all that matters to Beijing is who’s in power.
  13. There are roughly three classes of Chinese in Africa:
    • The Professional Class, who are the ambassadorial, administrative, managerial, and banking etc personnel. These people behave like their Western equivalents, living in communities, speaking the local languages, taking their families, and usually getting along with the locals.
    • The Laborers, who are mostly uneducated, stick to themselves, don’t have their families with them, eat Chinese food, drink, and don’t like the locals. They are simply there to make a higher wage than they would in China, and most end up returning to China after a few years.
    • The Traders and Entrepreneurs, who are the largest group, and mostly urban. They run businesses, usually integrated with extended families back in China (networking much like Jewish traders did a few centuries ago). They are there unofficially, but Beijing doesn’t discourage them. They are the most likely to live in Africa their entire lives, even though they speak of returning home.

Iranian Pride in our Perfect Constitution

I just had a fascinatingly enlightening conversation with a 30-something Iranian physician on a residency program here in Philly. A disarming and engaging fellow, with a strong Persian accent but impeccable English pronunciation, my friend surprised me again and again with his insight into US society and even moreso with his views on American policy. Here are some quick highlights, since I’m too exhausted to bother coming up with expository verbiage. Also note: all quotations are paraphrases to convey his gist.


“Everyone here in America is so optimistic.”

I’ve heard something like this before, from a Dutch girl when I was in Poland in 2000, while discussing some of the general differences in attitudes between Americans and Europeans…And I am inclined to agree. We are in general more the big-dreaming pie-in-the-sky type than most of the other, more grounded citizens of the world.

In this case, however, my Iranian friend continued by saying that this optimism is due to being too comfortable, and not knowing true suffering, sacrifice, and hard work. He wasn’t accusatory, just stating things as he sees them. I think I agree with him, but I would add that I don’t believe our optimism is at all bad, despite its origins. After all, it has taken us this far. (Note: at a different point in the conversation, my friend observed that many Americans are very hard working, so take this all how you will).

“One Iranian can do the work of a hundred men, but a hundred Iranians can only do the work of one man.”

This anecdote was shared during a discussion about differences in governmental effectiveness. My friend told me of his pleasant shock when, during the State of the Union address, Dubya said something like “the talented people of Iran are being held back by oppression.” My friend readily agreed, and shared that the above saying tells how individually, Iranians are incredibly hard working and capable, but when they get together, they can never agree and therefore stall each other. I personally think this adage can apply to many different peoples and societies around the world, including our own—consensus and fair governance is supremely difficult to achieve.

“I am very embarrassed and ashamed, but Iran’s government is like European governments of the Medieval times—under theocratic rule.”

It was vindicating to get first hand validation of my beliefs, as it’s seemed obvious from my outside perspective that this was the case. I posit that all religions, if they survive infancy and begin to explode in growth, then go through a set series of stages of development. It’s easy for most Christians (especially Catholics), as well as Buddhists, to sit back and ask “why the heck do the Muslims have such a stick up their collective ass?” This is because Buddhism is (on average) in the “easygoing grandparent” stage, and Christianity is in the “experienced adult” stage of life. Islam, however, having only been founded in the 7th century, is still in its late “teenage crisis” and early “idealistic twentysomething” stage(s) of life. We all go through these stages—it’s nothing to be ashamed about. Christianity had its crusades (11th through 13th centuries) and inquisitions (13th through 19th centuries), and before that the Buddhists were part of numerous uprisings, rebellions, crackdowns, massacres, and holy wars throughout Asia for centuries. Basically, this all means that Islam is 500 to 800 years behind Christianity in terms of religious maturity. We can probably expect another few hundred years of asinine, violent, and overtly irrational behavior from some elements of the Islamic world before things begin to settle down.

On a more practical note, (regarding Iran’s current system of government), Iranians are very politically active, with, according to my friend, over 10,000 people running for parliamentary positions recently, and who anybody can vote for. Unfortunately, there is a committee of 12 ayatollahs who interview and judge all of those candidates, and who can reject out of hand anyone who isn’t faithful enough, or Muslim enough. This reduces the number to about 3,000. So basically, even if the hardline and conservative Muslims are only a minority in Iran, the ayatollahs can virtually guarantee them government positions.

“Democracy can work in Iran, but clearly not Iraq or Afghanistan…”

I had been about to object to this, but my friend had a very valid point for this—that Iraq and Afghanistan are nations of tribes, whereas Iran (formerly Persia; formerly the center of a long series of large and established empires), although having some tribes, is much more intrinsically unified. Tribal societies by their very nature don’t work with other tribes, thereby precluding from the start any sort of cooperative government based on Western legalistic abstractions. This relatively simple explanation goes a long way in explaining the difficulties much of Africa have always had in establishing “democracy” too (especially since African borders were simply drawn in with crayons by European colonizers). Just because it works for us doesn’t mean it’s the best form of government for everyone.

“You must be so proud of your Founding Fathers, since they really did build this nation on the most perfect foundation possible…”

My friend went on to explain that after reading our Constitution 10 times, as well as perusing the Iranian version, the German one, and more, he concluded that ours is not only short and concise, but it broadly and unambiguously grants strong freedoms without religious interference. He then added that our nation is so powerful because it has such a stout foundation that can survive temporary problems and absorb incoming ideologies whole. Iran does indeed have a problem exporting terrorism and extremism, he affirmed, because it lacks such a foundation, which allows other ideologies to infiltrate and insert themselves into Iranian government and society.

I tried to object by saying that many American grow tired of the legalistic oversaturation of our society and that we want less rigidity. My friend caused me to instead be more appreciative of our strongly legalistic culture, since that very backbone is what allows us to take in people from so many different backgrounds and integrate them into a relatively cohesive whole—the US of A—thereby enabling our collective success. In effect, Law is our ideology or Tradition, and that is something to be proud of.

All in all, it was a fascinating exchange of ideas between East and West. I hope there will be more to come!

What Bouncers Tell Us About IDs

So, last night I accompanied some good old friends into Old City Philly for some 21st birthday celebration, which was a most interesting experience…But none of that matters, since the only thing that I feel like writing about today is the ginormous (I mean this guy was a BIG dude) bouncer at Café Spice, where a few of us ended up later on in the evening. Long story short, the guy almost didn’t let me in since he thought my ID was a fake—he only let me in on the word of another member of our party who knew him. I thought the bouncer was giving our party trouble due to the several members of our party who actually were using invalid IDs (chicks, of course), but I was informed later that it was I who was the troublemaker.

This was severely vexing for me, for several reasons. First of all, I was in reality the eldest person in our group, by several years. That in itself was enough to piss me off a bit. But secondly, this situation brought the whole ID and age-limit issue home for me.

I have a brand new Connecticut-issued Driver’s License. They have all the latest security features, holograms, thick plastic and good lamination, newfangled barcodes, etc. And in my particular case, my picture is actually quite accurate (for the time being—I happened to get my license photo taken during a shaved head period, and I’m in a shaved head period now as well). I mean, WTF? This episode is basically an admission that bouncers and security personnel and package-store counterladies everywhere are flying by the seats of their pants. This is absurd.

What needs to happen is…Well, a lot of things need to happen, of course. The drinking age should be lowered nationally back to 18, obviously, as the very first necessary and obvious step. Next, we must implement nationwide ID or license standardization. I’m NOT saying that ID’s should be mandatory or even always carried, but that better and more universal personal identification must be developed and distributed.

This goes far beyond buying alcohol or getting into bars. The whole identification infrastructure of the internet, building access, government service access, and numerous other ID-relevant sectors in our IT-driven world today must be rethought.

I will end this semi-coherent rant by comparing the ID infrastructure problem to the electrical infrastructure here in the States. As with any bureaucratically managed system, it took the 2003 NE US blackout to draw attention to the outdated and overused electrical networks in place. Will it take widespread identity theft (already occurring), security breaches, and other daily absurdities like my encounter last night before real action takes place?