Who runs the world?

May be it is just because my adviser at some point studied the politics of language and identity (see here and here), but this morning over breakfast as I was watching the newly elected appointed successor of Hu Jintao as president of China give his inaugural speech to the press I was reminded of the continued soft (and hard) power of the English speaking North Atlantic world – or just simply the US.

In my opinion, it says a lot that the Chinese authorities felt the need to have a translator in the room, and for Mr. Xi Jinping to wait after every paragraph or so for the English translation to go through (they may have had translations to other languages as well, I was watching it live on the BBC).

Imagine the day when a newly elected US president, standing on the steps of the Capitol, gives a speech in English but has to wait every now and then for a Mandarin Chinese translation to go through.

I may be making too much of this. It all might have been a deliberate attempt to engage the rest of the world. As Time reports, Mr. Xi urged the press to facilitate more exchanges between China and the rest of the world:

But most of all, Xi was in a celebratory mood, advising the gathered press to do their part in furthering cross-cultural awareness. “Friends from the press, just as China needs to learn more about the world, so does the world need to learn more about China,” he said in a jocular tone. “I hope you will continue your efforts to deepen mutual understanding between China and the world.”

Language is very central to human interactions, and whoever has power over language usually has a lot of sway (as is argued in the books above). This morning someone won the politics of language. And it was not Beijing.

Graphical Illustration of China’s global reach

NPR has this cool graphic on China’s global investments [click on image to enlarge].

Notice that Nigeria is among the top destinations of Chinese investments.

In my alternate universe Abuja (the undisputed regional hegemon) is stable and uses this, and the fact that it is also among the most important sources of US-bound crude oil, as leverage to nudge the two biggest global powers in the direction of a more stable and coherent Africa policy.

More on this here.

the lion and the panda: still working on the relationship

The ambiguities in China’s relationship with Africa have created fertile ground for politicians. Opposition parties, especially in southern Africa, frequently campaign on anti-China platforms. Every country south of Rwanda has had acrimonious debates about Chinese “exploitation”. Even in normally calm places like Namibia, antipathy is stirring. Workers on Chinese building sites in Windhoek, the capital, are said to get a “raw deal”. In Zambia the opposition leader, Michael Sata, has made Sino-scepticism his trademark.

Much of this is wide of the mark. Critics claim that China has acquired ownership of natural resources, although service contracts and other concessions are the norm. China is also often accused of bringing prison labour to Africa—locals assume the highly disciplined Chinese workers in identical boiler suits they see toiling day and night must be doing so under duress.

Even so, the backlash is perhaps unsurprising. Africans say they feel under siege. Tens of thousands of entrepreneurs from one of the most successful modern economies have fanned out across the continent. Sanou Mbaye, a former senior official at the African Development Bank, says more Chinese have come to Africa in the past ten years than Europeans in the past 400. First came Chinese from state-owned companies, but more and more arrive solo or stay behind after finishing contract work.

Many dream of a new life. Miners and builders see business opportunities in Africa, and greater freedom (to be their own bosses and speak their minds, but also to pollute). A Chinese government survey of 1,600 companies shows the growing use of Africa as an industrial base. Manufacturing’s share of total Chinese investment (22%) is catching up fast with mining (29%).

That is the Economist reporting on the ever-growing Sino-African relationship. The main takeaway point is that Africa is increasingly becoming a manufacturing base for Chinese companies. With that comes transfer of technology, development of local expertise, increased competition and exposure to what’s happening outside the continent. In a few decades Chinese labor will get too expensive to support a robust export-oriented economy. That, coupled with increased domestic consumption in China will provide a good chance for African countries to finally begin their own move towards export-oriented industrialization and service provision.