Friday, November 03, 2006

China Tries to Empower, Not Pity, the Motherland

Here in America, all that most ever seem to feel about Africa is pity. The pity for what is now decades of civil wars. Pity for Africa's starving children. Pity for the orphans left behind from the devastation of AIDS. Pity for genocide, now spreading its wickedness from Darfur to Chad, seemingly unnoticed. Pity for girls who undergo infibulation or "female circumcision", (both part of FGM, as it is now labeled here in the West) usually at the hands of their own mothers to preserve culture and tradition.

Pity for the savages, it almost feels like sometimes.

Much of what we pity is the result of sad, depressing and enraging things, indeed, and I would not argue that our sorrow should not be there. But the trouble with pity is that it solves absolutely nothing for Africa, when what Africa needs is action.

America and Americans are very short on action those where Africa is concerned, despite what should be the clear understanding that where the West is concerned, Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn rule" is directly applicable. After all, had neither Europe in the Scramble for Africa nor America in its Peculiar Institution systematically meddled in Africa beginning hundreds of years ago, who knows whether we'd have anything to pity about Africa at all. After all, there is plenty to confirm that Africa was a fount of great civilizations, great knowledge and great culture that should educate and inspire us all. Africa unquestioningly remains home to abundant natural resources, as well. But we don't see that, or talk about that, when we are talking about solutions for what one might argue is the slow, but sure, die-off of Africans in Africa.

Perhaps because we are blinded by pity.

China, however, rising at a stratospheric pace to fill America's increasingly tenuous role as the strategic and economic powerhouse of modern times, apparently is not constrained by the same type of paralyzing pity, aka guilty paternalism born from the hundreds-year old disease known as white supremacy. This may in part be because China was not a colonizer and rapist of Africa. Thus, it appears to see clearly what we here in the West cannot, given Europe and America's past exploitative and meddling relationship with the African continent:

The promise of possibility, through economic coalition with "the land of myth and miracles."

This picture, from today's article in the NY Times announcing this weekend's summit in Bejing between the leadership of China and the leadership of Africa, is lovely, although the juxtaposition of the Chinese police officer is symbolic at many levels:

While we have been handwringing and promising token handouts (international welfare, basically) to assuage our Western pity, China has been courting - courting a suitor it knows is just as worthy, in potentia even if not in present actuality. Building a relationship, quietly, while we in the West say "all the right things" and continue to do nothing, to the point where not too long ago I was convinced that the West had come up with a new means to recolonize the greatest source of natural resources on the planet - let all the Black people die off. Which is why this week, leaders of 48 out of the 53 nations in Africa -- including 80% of the heads of state -- are coming to China. To bargain. As equals.

Such an event is historic. It puts me in mind of one of the last times that a group of non-white nations came together as equals for a dialogue that did not include Europeans or Americans:

The Bandung Conference of 1955.

Almost no one has heard of the Bandung Conference. Except for nationalists, that is (I myself learned of it from Malcolm X's rhetorical masterpiece The Ballot or the Bullet? The promise of Bandung was lost, ultimately, because of European meddling, whether we're talking about American or Soviet, as the Cold War played out on the world stage and each superpower brokered against each other, using "third world countries" as their proxies. Ultimately, the compromise "Non-Aligned Nations" movement that emerged from Bandung as a way to stay out of the Cold War was itself split apart, the last straw being the 1979 Soviet invasion of Abecause of such alignment. And with that, the promise of economic and cultural coalition between non-European nations.

Well, the Cold War is over now. So perhaps it's again time to get back to the lost work of Bandung. Certainly, Asian and African nations seem to think so, having reaffirmed the promise of Bandung at last year's 50th anniversary conclave. As did the Non-Aligned Movement, which met most recently in Havana just a couple of months ago. They even now have a news website.

I'm hopeful.

This is not to say that the Chinese have motives that are completely pure. Of course they are not - China's insatiable need for oil unquestioningly plays a role in its approach to Africa. Nor is it to say that the Chinese won't make money, creating new markets for its goods. Of course it will. A lot of it. And this is definitely not to say that the Chinese government's shit still doesn't stink to high heaven where human rights are concerned. Of course it does. Which is at least one reason why the picture of the Chinese policeman walking past the majesty of giraffes under the setting African savannah sun is symbolic. Africa has enough home grown dictators of its own and does not need China's help propping them up.

That being said, if what Africa needs to climb out of the genocidal malaise that most of its nations are in is not talk, but action, the Chinese are acting. When we here in America and elsewhere in the West have not (And when I say "we" I mean both Black Americans and non-; amongst the many shames that many African-Americans bear at the present time, our slave mentality and resultant rejection of our brothers and sisters in the motherland as our kin is close to the top of the list). Most importantly, the Chinese are acting in a way that gives something the West seems almost endemically incapable of offering to Black Africans, whether in the motherland or right here at home: respect As one African leader noted in today's NY Times article:

"They are not the first big foreign power to come to Africa, but they may be the first not to act as though they are some kind of patron or teacher or conqueror,” he added. β€œIn that sense, there is a meeting of the minds."

This is the same philosophy, for different reasons, that China had towards Africa during the great uprisings that overthrew colonialism, when Chairman Mao Tse Tung was preaching solidarity with all African and Latin American nations then in revolutionary struggle, causing Western panties to get seriously in a bunch:

To achieve a lasting world peace, we must further develop our friendship and co-operation with the fraternal countries in the socialist camp and strengthen our solidarity with all peace-loving countries. We must endeavour to establish normal diplomatic relations, on the basis of mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty and of equality and mutual benefit, with all countries willing to live together with us in peace. We must give active support to the national independence and liberation movement in countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America as well as to the peace movement and to just struggles in all the countries of the world.

(From Mao's speech at the Eighth National Congress of the Communist Party of China, 1956).

In other words, for at least 50 years, when it comes to Africa, China has been nothing but consistent. 50 years ago, the West was successful in waving the "anti-communist" banner and breaking the relationships that were forged at Bandung and beyond. It's a case of "what might have been?"

While we cannot know what might have been if the promise of Bandung had been effectuated, we do know where things stand now.

Which is that Africa, and Africans, are dying. More and more each day. And that pity simply has not done anything to fix that.

So it's time for something else. So why not from a world power that has never offered pity, but has been consistent in offering coalition with Africa?

Especially since the bonus effect is that the West might well step up too: even if late, it's still enlightened self-interest for America to re-evaluate and repair its relationship with Africa (if it can drop the racist paternism part of the help equation, that is.) $5 says that we might actually see the Millenium Promise get some meaningful funding despite years of broken promises by Bush, once the White House gets past next week's midterm elections. After all, it's not like folks have not been watching China's conduct towards Africa for some time, albeit warily. Pundits left, right and center here in the west tend to focus more on the oil part of the equation than the non-European hegemonic part of the equation, but that's to be expected when they don't see those non-white nations they are scrutinizing as their equals to begin with. It is the latter that give the Chinese a leg up. Since they are not offering pity - they are offering possible solutions. Even in a time where indeed sorrow is rightfully felt about Africa, paralyzed pity is the least valuable thing we can offer the Motherland.

What she needs instead is equal bargaining power -- starting with the power of international standing in the world of trade - to heal the wounds that colonialism has made to Africa's economics, Africa's people, and Africa's potential for survival.

And if that is offered in good faith by China when it has not been by the West? Then perhaps we are merely picking up where we left off at Bandung, 50 years ago.


At 8:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

great comment.

At 12:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Man, you got it right!

At 2:52 PM, Blogger η„‘名 - wu ming said...

what is interesting is that china is treating african governments as equals - or at least not as colonial overloards - at the same time as chinese society generally talks about africans in strikingly racist late 19th century social darwinist language. in a sense, it is the mirror image of western liberals' approach.

i have less hope for the outcome of such interactions, though, if just because the driving ideology of the current chinese regime is so utterly at odds with the spirit of bandung and the non-aligned movement. china is totally comittted to neoliberal globalization, and will be more than willing to bankroll regimes like sudan's if it gets them the resources they need at the prices they want. whether this still represents a step up for africa remains to be seen, but the change in rhetoric is a welcome improvementat any rate.

what could really change the balance is if african regimes got smarter about selling their resources, bargained harder for higher commodity prices, and then put that money into building up the sorts of infrastructure that would reduce the need for western foreign aid, with all of the strings that get attached. OPEC or diamond selling cartels (if not producers) might provide a potential model for getting out of the dependency game.

At 5:51 AM, Blogger Shanikka said...

Wu: Sorry I'm just responding.

I agree with you that China's willingness to "deal", for want of a better term, is not necessarily indicia of a sense that Africans are all that beloved. But that makes the Chinese different than....nobody. And in the end, as long as they are willing to deal equitably, what they actually think is secondary.

I certainly agree that China's motives aren't "pure" for all the reasons you state. This will indeed put African leaders to the test; they will have to develop an international sophistication quickly to avoid being rolled. The actual dollar amounts that came out of the summit were disappointing, in that regard. But they are still better than nothing. And the deals do indeed focus on creating some much-needed infrastructure. Infrastructure furthers something that is not wholly international in scope: regional and intra-continent trading. Frankly, it is that which is of as much interest to me as anything else, other than the fact that China's willingness to deal will press the issue in other countries that have been hamstrung by paternalism and a "welfare approach" to Africa (the worst thing for Africa, in my opinion.)


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