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.

Today’s Free eBook: Crisis and Escalation in Cyberspace

Crisis and Escalation in Cyberspace
Martin C. Libicki

We are starting a new feature of The Peking Review today: our Free eBook of the Day.

While the books featured here will usually have a China hook (and we’ll explain it when it does), the primary purpose of this feature is to simply call your attention to a book we think our readers might find interesting that is available for the effort of a download.

Our first book is Martin Libicki’s examination of what the US Air Force would have to do if it found itself operating in the midst of a cyber-attack. As the most technologically-dependent of the US services, the Air Force makes a superb test-case of the rigors of operating in a hostile electronic environment.

As China is the implicit adversary in a conflict of this nature, it is a compelling read for those of us watching events both immediate and long-term unfold in the western Pacific.

Insights on E-Books in China

A Picture of a eBook Español: Foto de eBook Бе...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most of us English speakers here in China focus on the debate over e-books and the future of publishing as it applies in a global context, but what is interesting is how the matter is unfolding here in China

Reading through an old article from the Beijing Review (not to be confused with this site, and whose website seems to be unresponsive now), I made notes on three insights that caught my eye.

Ebooks are just alright with me

First, that except for the most partisan ebook advocates, most of the folks in the publishing business are taking things rather calmly.

Print publishing’s dominance is set to wane, but is unlikely to perish. Chances are e-books will coexist with paper books in the very long term, and each form will enjoy comparable market shares. But the influence of e-books will grow and they will eventually play a dominant role.

This might have something to do with the rather parlous state of the publishing industry in China (it is something less than an industry but something more than a bunch of government printing houses where nobody is making very much money,) but it is a much more even-handed approach than some of the denial, anger, and resistance we often hear from voices in the western industry (take Jonathan Franzen‘s reactionary luddite screed as one extreme example).

The Bureaucrats will be the tough nuts

If there is one country that cannot afford to kill all of the trees necessary to put books in the hands of its people, it would be China. Yet perhaps the most conservative part of the Chinese government is the biggest gatekeeper to the widespread adoption of ebooks: the Ministry of Education. Tens of millions of students need textbooks each year, and rather than start distributing them on everything from tablets to phones, the government is standing in the way. According to one industry spokesman quoted in the article:

Technically, we will need five to 10 years to address security and stability concerns over e-books, in order to convince the Ministry of Education that e-books are right for students.

I suspect the Ministry will find itself left in the dust as its students adopt e-books with great speed. Eventually, they’ll be playing catch-up. On the other hand, the MOE’s first concern is ideological correctness of the population. Educating the masses remains secondary.

Books are Too Long

The last insight is particularly amusing. Apparently not realizing that its audience is both literate and (while young) getting older by the minute, publishers are operating under the impression that they’re going to have to change formats to get people to read e-books.

Readers of e-books are much younger than those of print publications, particularly in literature. As a result, we have first to address the age differences when working on e-editions, otherwise, the chances for success will be slim. For example, we can cut full-length novels into short stories, which are easier to read.

That’s it! To get more people reading e-books, we simply slice them into small edible bits! Except that a) readers are already taking the full books, b) many will see the slicing and dicing as a way to get more money for the same book, and c) they should be encouraging more short stories rather than slashing the length of novels.

Cutting novels down to fit a format reminds me of that great line in the movie Amadeus when Emperor Joseph II tells Mozart that his work has “too many notes.”

Takeaway: publishers don’t get what makes e-books work any more than the Ministry of Education. They still have much to learn.