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Eric Olander (欧瑞克)
Blogger, podcaster, Twitterer and journalist with a focus on China's engagement in Africa
Blogger, podcaster, Twitterer and journalist with a focus on China's engagement in Africa

Eric's posts

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Every year malaria kills 400,000 Africans, mostly toddlers under 5 years old, and costs the continent an estimated 12 billion dollars annually in lost productivity. Unlike HIV, malaria does not require sophisticated drugs or other costly treatments. In fact, the cost of treating the disease is relatively inexpensive, according to data from the WHO, and preventing through the use of medicated bed nets is even more affordable.

Both the United States and China are each spending hundreds of millions of dollars to fight the disease in Africa. A pair of experts at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia contend that if the US and PRC stopped working in parallel with one another and actually collaborated together they would be much more effective to combat the spread of the deadly disease.

"Despite the challenges associated with collaboration, many on all sides are beginning to see the benefits of working in greater coordination," contend Dr. Liu Yawei, Director of the China program at the Carter Center, and graduate assistant William Pierce, in an upcoming academic paper that will be published in South Africa. "While working independently may allow entities to move quicker, working together will allow them to go farther," they add.

While on paper it may make a lot of sense for the U.S. and China to work together in Africa, particularly on humanitarian issues like fighting communicable diseases. The reality, though, is a lot more complicated as officials on both sides really just don't seem to trust each other very much. Moreover, African governments have also expressed reluctance about U.S. and China collaboration out of concern that a combined foreign presence could potentially become quite powerful and force local governments to make unwanted compromises.

For now, African leaders do not have much to worry about as neither Chinese nor U.S. leaders seem all that inclined to cooperate with one another on health, diplomacy, or well, pretty much any issue on the continent. Nonetheless, both Dr. Liu and Pierce remain optimistic that the fight against the spread of malaria is different. The two scholars join Eric & Cobus to explain why Africa offers a unique opportunity for the U.S. and China to work constructively with one another.

Join the discussion? Given the tensions that current roil Sino-U.S. relations, do you think it's possible for these two countries to put their suspicions aside? We want to hear from you.

Twitter: @stadenesque | @eolander | @CarterCenter

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Western news coverage of China's engagement in Africa is often confined to the business section, generally focusing on loans, resource deals or other financial dealings. Moreover, ambitious international feature reporting, particularly from Africa, has becoming increasingly rare in today's era of declining revenues at major international news outlets. So it was notable when the New York Times published an expansive front page story in the May 2, 2015 edition of the Sunday Magazine.

Shanghai-based journalist, and regular contributor to the NYT Sunday Magazine, Brook Larmer reported the story, Is China the World’s New Colonial Power?. Rather than look at the China-Africa from a broad, continental perspective, he instead chose to focus on the dynamics between the two players in one relatively small country. Brook joins Eric & Cobus to discuss how he approached the story and what it was like to cover the Chinese on the ground from Namibia.

Join the discussion. What did you think of Brook Larmer's reporting from Namibia and how he framed China-Africa relations?


Twitter: @eolander | @stadenesque

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When Xi Jinping visited Donald Trump this week at the U.S. president's Florida estate for their first face-to-face meeting, many of the photos of the two leaders together conveyed a sense of awkwardness. After all, Trump represents a new generation of volatile, populist western leaders that Xi may still be learning how to engage. Trump, for his part, may also be learning that it's a lot easier to insult the Chinese on the campaign trail than it is during a high-profile presidential summit.

While these two presidents come very different backgrounds and work within totally unrelated political environments, they do share some similarities, though, when it comes to their respective foreign policy visions.

"America First"

Trump, under the banner of "America First," is quickly moving to reduce Washington's international engagement through proposed trade restrictions, limits on immigration and cuts in foreign aid among other areas. The emerging 'Trump doctrine', if there ever is such a thing, is rooted in a classic zero-sum, realpolitik that says if one side wins, the other side loses. Gone are any of those lofty notions that America is a force for good in the fight for democracy, human rights and social development around the world.

According to Donald Trump's worldview, international relations, be it with the Chinese or anyone else, boils down to a series of transactions where the overriding objective is to negotiate the best "deal" for the United States.

"China First"

There's no question that most senior Chinese officials would recoil in horror if their technocratic approach to policy making was compared to the Twitter-driven style of the new American president. Be that as it may, there are a growing number of areas where the Chinese and Americans have a surprisingly similar approach in how they manage their international relations.

Gone are the days when China fomented revolution in Africa or nominated itself as the great third world power who stood up to the Americans and Soviets. Today, there isn't even a whiff of ideology in China's foreign policy, instead, the Chinese worldview is intensely pragmatic guided by the sole objective of advancing Beijing's interests.

This pragmatism allows Chinese policy to be free of the complications that often accompany value-driven agendas. Instead, this "valueless" foreign policy strategy is focused on opening new markets for Chinese exports, securing sources of raw materials and strengthening the country's position in Asia vis a vis territorial disputes.

Sure, Xi Jinping may be talking up the benefits of global trade and international cooperation on climate change, but a number of leading China experts including Francois Godement of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Paris, argue that it is unlikely that these new positions represent any substantive change in Chinese policy. Instead, they contend, it is extremely unlikely the Chinese will want to take on the burdens and obligations of global leadership on security, environmental or even trade issues that don't directly serve their narrow interests.

Transactional vs. Pragmatic

So while the foreign policies of these two countries are framed in very different ways, "transactional" vs. "pragmatic," they're both similarly "valueless" in the sense that they're not driven by any over-arching ideology other than advancing their own country's agenda.

Francois joins Eric & Cobus to talk about China's "valueless" foreign policy agenda and how Beijing is adapting its international agenda to the new realities of the Donald Trump era.

Join the discussion. Do you see any similarities in how the Chinese and Americans approach foreign policy? Let us know what you think?


Twitter: @eolander | @stadenesque | @fgodement

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Chinese companies, generally, have a terrible reputation in Africa when it comes to labor relations. There are widely-held perceptions PRC firms are often abusive, insensitive and generally have a poor track record when dealing with African employees. Reports of human rights violations at Zambian mines, late pay for Kenyan railway workers and poor treatment of construction crews in Cameroon are just a few examples of the kinds of infractions that have gone a long way to shape the narrative about Chinese labor relations across Africa.

To fully understand this issue, though, we have to ask two key questions:

1) Although many of the instances of Chinese labor abuses in countries like Zambia, Ghana and elsewhere in Africa have been verified by journalists, NGOs and governments, do these represent the exception or the norm?

Chinese companies employ tens of thousands of workers across Africa in everything from construction to manufacturing to IT, so determining exactly an accurate scope of alleged labor violations is extremely important. Unfortunately, to do a research study on such a large scale is logistically difficult, extremely expensive and maybe not even possible given that most Chinese companies would likely be very reluctant to participate in this kind of investigation.

2) Are employment relations at Chinese companies in Africa better or worse than those at other foreign-owned companies?

In 2013, Sino-Africa scholars Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong compared labor conditions at Chinese-run Zambian copper mines with those of other foreign-owned mines. Contrary to the perception that Chinese-owned mining companies were more abusive, Professors Sautman and Yan discovered that PRC firms generally have similar labor relations with their workers as do companies from other countries: “our findings show that all foreign-owned mining houses are exploiters of Zambian workers and Zambian resources, but CNMC (a Chinese state-owned mining company) is neither the worst abuser nor the super-exploiter.”

Considering both the perceptions of poor labor relations at Chinese companies in Africa and the findings by Sautman and Yan that sometimes those same perceptions are not always accurate, another pair of researchers decided to do a similar in study in Kenya. In a working paper written for the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C., Zander Rounds and Huang Hongxiang compared employment relations at both Chinese and U.S. firms in Kenya.

Just as in the Chinese-run Zambian copper mines, there also appears to be a divergent gap between the perception and reality when examining Chinese and U.S. labor relations in Kenya. Their conclusions were not as clear cut as many might have expected. Zander joins Eric & Cobus to discuss their findings and how Chinese and American companies in Kenya struggle with many of the same employment issues.

Join the discussion? Would you prefer to work for Chinese company or an American firm? Tell us why.

Twitter: @eolander | @stadenesque | @zanderrounds


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Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz's recent state visit to Beijing is the latest evidence that China is manuevering to play a bigger role in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. The two countries reportedly signed deals worth upwards of $65 billion during the summit. Beijing's plans for the region, though, extend far beyond just doing business and the Saudi kingdom.

Any country that vies for influence in the Mideast must first win the hearts and minds of the "Arab Street," which explains why China is investing considerable diplomatic and financial resources in Egypt. Although the Egyptians do not have much in the way of natural resources, the country's strategic location along the Suez and its disproportionate influence in Mideast politics are both very attractive assets to policy makers in Beijing.

Until recently, the U.S. and Europe have been the dominant foreign powers in the Mideast but now it appears their influence is beginning to diminish, providing a new opening for China. "This decade has seen an unprecedented surge in enthusiasm for the Chinese model of development in the Arab world," said Sino-Arab researcher Kyle Haddad-Fonda in a recent article in World Politics Review. "As the American vision of democratic capitalism has lost its luster, many Arab intellectuals have turned to China," he added.

Kyle joins Eric & Cobus to discuss why China thinks the timing is right to make a new effort for expanded influence in Egypt and the broader Mideast. Join the discussion. Do you think it's a good idea for China to challenge U.S. hegemony in the region or should the Chinese be cautious given how fraught politics are in this part of the world? Let us know what you think.


Twitter: @eolander | @stadenesque

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Countries throughout Africa are struggling to figure out how to contain the skyrocketing price of donkeys due to surging demand for the animals in China. Donkey skin is fast becoming an increasingly prized commodity due to its use in a traditional Chinese medicine known as ejiao that is popular among the PRC's large population of middle class consumers.

Now the same story that we've seen with ivory, pangolins, sharks and countless other African animal species appears to be repeating itself with donkeys. Criminals are stealing the animals, small-scale farmers are being priced out of the market and rural communities who depend on donkeys for their livelihoods are suffering. Sensing the potential for social unrest, several countries have moved quickly to ban the donkey trade but even that may not be enough to bring the situation under control.

Nairobi-based journalist Lily Kuo is covering the story for the U.S. online financial news site Quartz. Her latest report on the issue sparked an intense reaction online, particularly among western environmental activists. Lily joins Eric & Cobus to discuss the complex politics of the donkey trade in Africa.

Join the discussion? Are you angered by the demand for African donkeys in China? Or, do you think this is an opportunity for African livestock companies to open a new market by breeding these animals just as is done with pigs and cows? Let us know what you think.


Twitter: @eolander | @stadenesque | @lilkuo


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The China Africa Project (CAP) is now the largest multimedia journalism project in the world dedicated to exploring all facets of China's engagement in Africa. With over 600,000 followers across its various platforms, including 30,000 downloads a month of this podcast, the CAP has developed a sizable audience since it launched in 2010.

Every month, CAP co-founders Eric Olander and Cobus van Staden receive multiple inquiries about who is behind the project, how it's funded and if there is any hidden "agenda." In this week's episode, Eric & Cobus take you behind the scenes for an introduction to the hosts, our back-story and future plans for The China Africa Project.

Join the conversation. We always welcome feedback from our listeners on what you think of the show and what we can do to improve the content. If you have specific questions about The China Africa Project or China-Africa relations in general, please don't hesitate to contact us.


Twitter: @eolander | @stadenesque

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The Chinese Communist Party-controlled international television news broadcaster CGTN (China Global Television News) faces a seemingly-irreconcilable dilemma. While the network positions itself as an alternative to the dominant global channels like CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera, CGTN also has a separate, arguably more important mission as the voice of the party that must always adhere to "core socialist values" according to mandates set by Chinese president Xi Jinping.

The problem is that news content and those "core socialist values" usually do not mix very well, resulting in programming that often more closely resembles pure propaganda. While this tension does cause problems in other state-funded newsrooms around the world, many of the journalists and production staff based in CGTN's Africa headquarters in Nairobi have learned how to navigate this delicate balance, according to new research by New York University Phd student Melissa Lefkowitz.

Melissa was granted rare access inside CGTN Africa where she spent two months interviewing staff and observing the channel's operations. She discovered that despite the obvious political challenges, particularly when it comes to reporting on China, and sometimes difficult cross cultural challenges between the Chinese management and African editorial staff, employee morale at CGTN is surprisingly positive.

Melissa joins Eric & Cobus to discuss the politics of Chinese TV news in Africa and her experiences with the people produce the news at CGTN in Nairobi.

Join the discussion. Do you watch CGTN? How do you think their programming compares to other international news networks like FRANCE 24 or VOA? Tell us what you think.


Twitter: @eolander | @stadenesque | @sinofei

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Even though China is one of Africa's largest investors, ranked seventh overall according to Ernst & Young, there are surprisingly few rules that govern private-sector investments between these two regions. These rules are established through bilateral investment treaties, or BITs, where two countries agree upon a set of standards for corporate investment.

While these BITs are popular in Europe and the U.S., the situation is quite different in Africa according to researchers. It's not that African governments don't have these kinds of investment treaties with the Chinese and other countries, rather, it's that no one seems to really care very much to either use or enforce them.

Lorenzo Cotula is a principal researcher at the London-based Institute of International Environment and Development and recently co-authored a detailed report on China-Africa investment treaties to explore whether they actually work. Lorenzo joins Eric & Cobus to discuss the importance of these investment agreements even as similar international treaties are facing unprecedented challenges in this new era when Donald Trump is re-shaping global geopolitics.

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Depending on who you speak with, China's engagement in Africa is often described in extreme terms as either the best thing to happen to the continent in the post-colonial era or just the latest foreign predator coming to pillage Africa of its resources. With China's presence in Africa now stretching across nearly all 54 countries where an estimated one million Chinese immigrants now live and hundreds of billions of dollars in annual trade/investment, the relationship between these two regions is extremely complicated.

So when critics want to showcase the negative consequences of China's presence in Africa there are countless examples of labor abuses, illegal logging and wildlife trading, corruption and so on. Furthermore, low-cost Chinese imports are placing huge pressures on African companies who now have to compete at much lower prices. Then there are the human rights concerns where Chinese companies have been accused of exporting equipment used for torture, weapons to unstable countries or technology to repressive governments.

While all of the negatives are true and well-documented (and there are many more), they only tell part of the story. The positive side of Chinese engagement in Africa's is equally compelling. The fact is that while many people complain about how China's massive infrastructure building boom in Africa is being built and financed, not to mention concerns about quality, money from some traditional donors in the West is drying up. African governments really do not have a lot of options when it comes to financing billions of dollars in rather risky infrastructure projects. So the thousands of miles of new rail lines, new digital networks, hospitals and ports that are being built would not have happened on anywhere near the scale without the support of the Chinese.
Beijing's commitment to African infrastructure development is a central part of the government's "win-win development" agenda, also a key message in its propaganda campaign that emphasizes China's "peaceful rise" to superpower status.

So is China's a partner or predator? The short answer, according to numerous leading Sino-African scholars, is that this vast complex relationship is not binary and cannot be reduced to either "good" or "bad." It is the same in Africa as it is for China's relations with other regions: "Both approaches offer oversimplified understandings of the complex interaction among the economic, geopolitical, and security dimensions of China’s relations with the rest of the world," said Dr. Matt Ferchen from the Beijing-based Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in a new paper on the perception gaps surrounding China's economic and military rise.

Matt joins Eric & Cobus to explain why he thinks views about the Chinese are so polarized in Africa and elsewhere and what impact the Trump revolution in the United States will have on China's engagement in Africa.

Join the discussion. Do you think China is making a positive contribution in Africa or do you feel that Beijing is simply following the abusive example set by the continent's former imperial powers? Share your thoughts:


Twitter: @eolander | @stadenesque

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