A Peaceful Racist Rise: China, Africans, Race, and International Relations

Last summer there were a spate of articles documenting the sometimes latent and often blatant antipathy that many Chinese feel toward people of African descent. In Foreign Policy, Fulbright Scholar Viola Rothschild described her findings while conducting research on African entrepreneurs in China. Ayo Awokoya offered this cogent exposition of anti-African racism on line in China. Promotional posters for Star Wars: The Force Awakens were modified in China to minimize or eliminate non-white actors. And shrill government mouthpiece Global Times published a cartoon showing President Obama in a way that would, in the United States, be beyond the ken for even those publications in most vigorous opposition to the President.

My point is not to suggest that China is alone in its attitudes – indeed, the candidacy of Donald Trump in the current U.S. Presidential campaign has demonstrated that America is far from ridding itself of ethnic hatreds. Rather, it is to highlight several important points around the dialogue of China and its role in the world.

  • First, that China’s status as a nation of “color” (i.e., predominantly non-white in ethnic makeup and dominated by non-whites) does not excuse it or individual Chinese for racist behavior,
  • Second, that words or policies that favor or disfavor one race or another are no less racist in China than they would be elsewhere;
  • Finally, that neither the Chinese nor the peoples around the world with whom they have increasing contact have yet to reckon with that racism, its policy implications, and its potential impact on the world as a whole.

As China emerges as an international power, it faces the danger that latent racism in its relations with other countries will undermine its efforts to win friends beyond its borders. Veteran journalist Howard French, author of China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa, notes that Chinese operating in Africa are racist to the point that they are unconscious of the aspects of their behavior and speech that cause offense.

Provoking local resentment, though, is only the beginning of the dangers implicit in Chinese racism. Racism can fester all too easily into the kind of cultural chauvinism that propelled the worst elements of Japan’s foreign policy between 1868 and 1945. For the sake of both the nation and the world, China cannot be allowed to fall into that trap. The example of Japan – and those of the great European empires – offers a surfeit of reasons to fear a world power convinced of its own ethnic superiority.

One friend suggested to me that authoritarian regimes are naturally less racist. Even if we leave aside the extreme systemic racism of the USSR and the Third Reich, one would be hard pressed to prove that authoritarian regimes are better at eliminating de facto racism (or what I call “social racism”) than their pluralist counterparts. As the articles linked above attest, there is certainly social racism in China. And as for systemic racism in China, one need explore no further than its immigration policy, which makes attaining citizenship in China fairly straightforward for an ethnic Chinese applicant, but practically impossible for a caucasian, an African, or a Latino.

If we are going to call out our own governments and institutions for their racist behavior, we cannot afford to give other governments a pass. This is not imposing our standards or culture on another: it is, rather, compelling China to eschew a behavior that is inimical to its own interests.

And it would do us well to contemplate the implications for the world if a fundamentally racist nation were to win its bid for global leadership. Would such attitudes mellow? Could they? Or would they instead sow a value system where “diversity” became an obscenity?

A thought for the National Day holiday. Enjoy, and see you after the break.

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China and the New African Great Game

A Trilateral Dialogue on the United States, China, and Africa
Conference Papers
May 13, 2013

There is a massive literature on China in Africa, and over the next few weeks I am going to be posting links to some of the better, more interesting resources in that regard. This particular Brookings conference paper, which frames a “trilateral” dialogue between the US, China, and Africa, is thought-provoking piece. Africa’s challenges are certainly large enough that they must be addressed by the locals and the world’s two largest powers, and even then, there is no guarantee that they would be addressed.

Despite points of light like South Africa, the continent seems to have fallen into something of a holding pattern. Progress remains, well, moderately paced. Poverty, AIDS, environmental degradation, and politics that put Byzantium to shame offer China a fertile field for political and commercial engagement, but the problems that hold the continent down remain intractable.

You could start a good fight at a cocktail party in Beijing by suggesting that China is just the latest boot on the collective neck of the people in Africa. Yes, the assertion is hyperbolic, but it raise the question of whether Beijing’s engagement has been any better for the people of Africa than colonial exploitation or the misguided foreign aid regime promulgated by the US since the 1960s. Indeed, a read through this paper offers the unappealing suggestion that just as we in the west are questioning the value of aid, China is doubling down on handouts. China, it seems, has not learned much about what works in Africa since its own ill-fated ventures there in the 1960s. If what China is practicing in Africa is not some variety of mercantilist neocolonialism, I would be pleased to know what to call it.

And the US is no white hat, here. In fact, it is starting to look like we have already passed the high-water mark of engagement with Africa beyond the ongoing terrorist hunt. The Obama-Hegel review of defense spending makes it apparent that the Department of Defense will gut the Africa Command (AFRICOM) in the coming years, and I would bet on the DoD standing down the command before 2020. As it must be: given the resources available the US is arguably best off returning to a hemispheric strategy, allowing Beijing (and possibly Delhi) to fall into the Imperial Overreach trap.

As recent events in Libya and Mali demonstrate, Europe remains better positioned historically and otherwise to engage in Africa than the US. But ongoing economic issues – and Russia’s growing adventurism – means that the focus of European defense will most likely shift east again, even if the economies of Europe and Africa become increasingly interlocked through immigration and trade.

The real story for Africa will be how to balance the growing influence of China with that of India. The Middle East, while the destination of many African exports, is (as Europe) set on its own Via Dolorosa as the politics of the region evolve. India and China, with robust economies and growing competition, look to be the next players in the African Great Game.

The question now is what form that great game will take. Brookings is appropriately concerned that the continent will become increasingly dependent on its emerging market trading partners. The nations of Africa need political stability, economic growth, and a population able to spend money. Those things will not happen if Africa once again finds itself on the wrong end of a mercantile economy, in particular if corrupt elites and bureaucracies can lean on their opportunistic Chinese and Indian patrons for support.

Africa Three-Way

A Trilateral Dialogue on the United States, Africa and China is the proceedings of a private conference organized in Beijing by the Africa Growth Initiative and the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings, with the Institute for Statistical, Social and Economic Research at the University of Ghana and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The question was whether there was room for cooperation between the three sides to address Africa’s challenges. The conference identified common interests. Will that be enough to drive cooperation?

Preparing for the Future of HIV/AIDS in Africa: A Shared Responsibility

An interesting read that calls on the United States and the African Nations to work together to address the problem of AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa.

While the book is ostensibly US-Africa in the way it focuses on solutions, the authors make frequent reference to a need for the US to build a consortium of major emerging nations, in particular given growing challenges to US government budgets. The subtext is clear: while the US has a major role to play in addressing global diseases, it can no longer do so unilaterally.

Food Security Assessment 2010-20

Food security, the question of where and to whom food is available in the world, is becoming one of the touchstone issues in the entire debate about sustainability and population. This USDA report looks at the issue over the next 10 years, and sees regional improvements – and disturbing regional declines.

Anyone interested in Africa – or China’s policy there – would do well to peruse this pdf book, particularly as China starts looking to Africa to potentially provide foodstuffs for Asia.