Dan Banik speaks with Lina Benabdallah on how China brands its model of development, the types of knowledge production and network building activities it undertakes, and whether African countries have much say in how China-Africa relations are conducted.
Within international relations theory and foreign policy circles, there is considerable interest in understanding China’s rise to power. In an exciting new book, my guest argues that China’s various types of encounters with countries in the Global South are very different from the behaviour and investment strategies of the US and European countries.
In Shaping the future of power: Knowledge Production and network-building in China-Africa Relations, Lina Benabdallah explores the integrated roles of social relations, knowledge production and power in China’s foreign relations.
She argues that it is simply not enough to look at the amount of loans, aid and foreign direct investments originating from China. While these material factors are important, we mustn’t ignore the investments made in people-to-people relations and human resource development in China-Africa relations. Indeed, relations and relationality are central to China’s foreign policy and diplomatic conduct.
In the book, Lina examines how China deploys social capital and relational productive power on the African continent through knowledge production via human resource development and professionalization programs. Chinese investments in human resource development, she argues, expand Beijing’s network of connections with military officers, civil servants, journalists and regular citizens. They also act as spaces for expert knowledge production, and norm diffusion.
Lina Benabdallah is an assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University in the United States. We discussed how China brands its model of development in Africa, the broad categories of knowledge production and network building activities, and whether African countries have much say in how these relations are conducted.
(prepared by Ingrid Ågren Høegh)
Benabdallah In my mind, other than infrastructure, the highways, the architecture that we see Chinese companies be involved in building in Africa, which typically are the image of China-Africa relations, there’s a whole other set of architecture and a whole other set of tissue that we don’t see, but in my argument that is extremely important to understand.
Theme music You are listening to In Pursuit of Development with Dan Banik.
Banik Within international relations theory and foreign policy circles, there is considerable interest in understanding China’s rise to power. In an exciting new book, my guest argues that China’s various types of encounters with countries in the Global South are very different from the behaviour and investment strategies of the US and European countries.
In her book titled – Shaping the Future of Power: Knowledge Production and Network-Building in China-Africa Relations, Lina Benabdallah explores the integrated roles of social relations, knowledge production and power in China’s foreign relations.
She argues that it is simply not enough to look at the amount of loans, aid and foreign direct investments originating from China. While these material factors are important, we mustn’t ignore the investments made in people-to-people relations and human resource development in China-Africa relations. Indeed, relations and relationality are central to China’s foreign policy and diplomatic conduct.
In the book, Lina examines how China deploys social capital and relational productive power on the African continent through knowledge production via human resource development and professionalization programs. Chinese investments in human resource development, she argues, expand Beijing’s network of connections with military officers, civil servants, journalists, and regular citizens. They also act as spaces for expert knowledge production, and norm diffusion.
Lina Benabdallah is an Assistant Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forrest University in the United States. We discussed how China brands its model of development in Africa, the broad categories of knowledge production and network building activities, and whether African countries have much say in how these relations are conducted.
I hope you enjoy our conversation.
Banik Lina, welcome to the show and congratulations for writing this super interesting book.
Benabdallah Thank you so much. Thank you for the invitation. It’s a great pleasure to be with you today.
Banik I want to get us started with a very broad question and that really has to do with how China is or has been branding its model of development on the African continent. So my question really is how successful do you think Beijing has been in promoting this idea that the Chinese model of development is a good one to emulate and is indeed a very successful model of development?
Benabdallah Yeah, I think in terms of branding the Chinese model of development as you said, however broad this this means, it has been a common branding practice for Chinese elites to kind of market China’s experience as one that is really close to Global South experiences in development. Meaning China’s development model has, in Chinese official rhetoric, always been pitted against the Western alternative and building on history of solidarity, anti-colonial experiences, Global South momentum, and all of the spirit of Bandung, have all been part of the way that China brands its development model to say to Africans, to say to developing countries in the Global South, that wait a minute before you think about European countries and Washington Consensus and blueprints from IMF and the World Bank, those countries’ experiences are so far away that they don’t really get you. They don’t really understand the challenges that are so peculiar to Global South countries the way that China does. And you always see these contrasts, you always see this sort of almost playing like on nostalgia in a way that will tell you, Shenzhen 40 years ago was a fishing village. It was very simple. It came from humble beginnings. So that’s part of the story and of course it resonates with a lot of Africans in general whether they are from urban areas in big cities or not. When you have a story that starts from these humble beginnings and that it reaches the levels of development that Shenzhen has reached today. It’s a mega city. It’s a tech hub. It’s you know, the Silicon Valley of China, and of course that their aspirations that Africans have to reach a level of developmental that we see in China today. And so playing on that history, playing on that story of you know, China that is close and resonated with the experiences of Africans in their struggle against colonialism or imperialism or domination of hegemons from the global North has always been part of this branding mechanism of China’s development model. And it has worked. It resonates. It’s something that a lot of Africans and African leaders really can identify with. It is a story that’s very identifiable with. So there’s a big appeal. We can see why because there are a lot of similarities because the challenges are very similar, but also because the timeline is very similar Chinese elites and officials, you know, you hear them always come back and identify China as the biggest, largest developing country. There’s a reason for that and they’re always coming back to say China is actually still trying to achieve development in its own inner provinces and southernmost, western provinces in China. And that’s really important because you can use that to say China is still in the process of development, going through similar experiences that other countries in the global South, in the developing world are going through. And that brings them closer together than to say this has been a quote-unquote advanced progressed developed countries and how there’s a little bit of a hierarchical relationship going on there of almost speaking at countries and governments in the global South and you don’t have that in the China-Global South relationship, between China and Africa relationship more closely.
Banik I agree with you. That is also my impression that what Beijing has done, its leaders, businesses, officials, ambassadors is to promote, as you say, much more of a humble projection rather than being arrogant. They don’t want to say that they’re the best. So it is always playing it down. But what I also like in your work is that you highlight how Beijing actually performs this kind of dual role. On the one hand in certain circumstances it highlights that it is a developing country and I’ve heard Chinese ambassadors say this all the time, but it is the largest developing country in the world and this actually has a very useful function in my own analysis. I find that it actually creates much more realistic expectations from recipients. So, you know, the message that is often imparted is that because we are the largest developing country, don’t expect too much. You know, whatever you get is what we can give. So there’s no room for bargaining for even more. So that’s one aspect that highlights that China is the largest developing country in the world, there’s rural poverty, still 200 million people who need to be lifted out of poverty. So that identity I think is very important in trying to get people to feel that it is a part of this south-south cooperation. But what I also like in your book is that you say that the other function that it does perform is also as a big power in many ways. So my question here is how does Beijing actually balance this dual performative role as you call it? When does it highlight the developing country identity? And when does it perhaps act as a big emerging or a big important power?
Benabdallah Yeah. I think you said it best. Its a very pragmatic way of positioning China’s role in the world that best serves the interests of whatever policy platform Chinese elites are dealing with. In the context of China’s relationship with the US, for example, you see a very different China. Especially under Xi Jinping’s leadership. It’s a very kind of confident voice and also very assertive and you see policies that more and more call the China-US relations the new type of great-power relations. And so it retains that almost dance with playing with the words and the terminology that is used about great powers and big powers, yet always adding Chinese characteristics to things. Adding that stamp of Chinese characteristics that always is going to be slightly different, that it’s going to be a little bit with a nuance in a way to show that as much as China is getting assertive and getting confident in its position in the world, it still is very much a distinct kind of power. It’s not the same old, same old. And so that is a very different China, you see for instance when you’re looking at China’s foreign policy around the issue of the South China Sea for example, or in territorial disputes that China has. That’s a very different type of identity or performance of the identity that you see. When it comes to of course being the leader of the global south that China has always wanted to be, then you see scaling down some of the different type of discourse that’s put forward and the discourse is again going back to you know, this sort of anti-hegemony, anti-imperial, anti-colonial solidarity, going back to that rhetoric around China being just another developing country, like you said, when it’s really important to, for instance, in the WTO or in other spaces where it would cost a lot to perform a hegemonic role, then it makes more sense to scale back and to not have to foot the bill in terms of those, you know, public goods, things that quote-unquote you have to pay as part of that hegemonic or big power role. Another pragmatic function of identifying with the global South for China has actually also been seen in voting behaviour in the United Nations or in international organizations where Global South countries are the majority countries. And so keeping a close identity and identification with the block of the Global South actually works for China in that way as well. So, like you said, functionally, it makes sense. There’s definitely a pragmatic approach to playing on these dual identities where, when it matters to stand up to the US, or stand up for the interests of China’s national interests, then you can activate that, and then when it really matters to identify and keep a lower profile, then you do that, especially in these situations of international organizations or areas where Global South countries’ votes matter to China in that way. And so, yeah, there’s an act of balancing, as you said. A lot of that balancing is, I think, probably easier to think about it as, you know, China’s foreign policy towards for instance the US, towards it’s kind of immediate territorial disputes and maritime security, that’s a different type of function of Chinese foreign policy. And then the rest of the world, meaning the Global South, that’s the second sort of identity performance. And it depends which one gets highlighted or which one gets activated depending on what is the policy issue at hand.
Banik The kind of identity that China has in Europe or in the United States or in its own neighbourhood is very different from the kind of identity it projects in say many parts of Africa, where perhaps, you know, it is more humble than it is in other parts of the world. So balancing those different identities is crucial. I want to move on to the core argument in your book, which I really like, because it reminded me of what many of my students and colleagues in Africa, in Malawi, in Kenya, Ethiopia, Zambia have told me over the years, and that is how they feel somewhat neglected and almost not welcome in Europe or in the United States. How difficult it is to get a visa to visit these countries. How difficult it is to get a scholarship. And this feeling that a lot of my students have is that Europeans and Americans don’t really want us there, but China does. And there are numerous invitations coming their way and mind you, of course, depending on which part of society they belong to, and the kind of networks they have within their own countries, one could get invited for a training session in Beijing, Shanghai, wherever. It could be for journalists or judges or politicians or just you know, visiting students or some form of exchange. And the general feeling I’ve been getting for the last five six seven eight years is that China has really stepped this up. The frequent kind of mentioning of, in the Chinese policy documents, of exchanges and trainings. And I really like the fact that you highlight the fact that it isn’t just the military power, the economic power, that determines or shapes how China is viewed, but it is the knowledge production and the network building. So, could you please sketch out the broad categories of such knowledge production and network building? How does China go about building this social capital that you write about? How do Beijing’s strategies differ from other powers like the French or the Germans or the British or Americans who don’t seem to be prioritising the same, even though there is a British Council, but seems to be doing it in a different way. But what are these major categories of knowledge production and networks?
Benabdallah I think definitely the way that I view China’s power production and power building and in Africa I think is very different from other powers, although of course, there are going to be similarities. But the crux of the book and the argument I present is that if we were going to only focus on these types of power that we are trained to analyse and trained to only focus on, like military power or counting military bases and operations in Africa or looking at the material aspects of power that we typically see in most of mainstream analyses, we are not going to see a whole lot. We’re going to miss more than we actually see and the reason why I think that, is that in my mind, other than infrastructure, the highway, the architecture that we see Chinese companies be involved in building in Africa, which typically are the image of China-Africa relations, there’s a whole other set of architecture and a whole other set of tissue, types of connective tissue that we don’t see. But in my argument, that is extremely important to understand. So, if you’re going to really go about figuring out what is China-Africa about, just counting the railways and the ports and the bases and the buildings is just not going to be enough. Instead, I proposed to include human capital or social capital or connective tissue or these sets of networks and building close networks between Africans and their Chinese counterparts is really important. And this, you know, you can think about it as, for example, we have a lot of anecdotes coming out of, let’s say, South Sudan for instance, when the very first universities were being opened and funded and then you have you know, the first batch for example of class of like 300 students in South Sudan are all invited to go to China for training, whether it’s in engineering or in political science or in language or whatever it is, you know, later on, those students are going to come back and they’re going to take on major positions in their government. But at the same time, those are students, when they were in their formative years of being students or being trained, they are either fluent in Chinese or they are very familiar with China, or they are so familiar with China that they’ve called it home at some point. So, you know, it is going to matter. It is going to make a difference. As you said, when you compare this to the experiences Africans have of being denied visas to come to the US or being denied visas to go to Europe, or being treated with less respect in a way, in that relationship, that’s going to make a difference. It is important to think about what this means for building the connections, building relations between, you know, these African trainees, whether they are students or trainees already working in the government or political parties or judges or journalists or whoever, and their Chinese counterparts. And so, I think that’s very important. You know, what I also think is that these trainings, so I’ve traced the numbers of these trainings going on from the year 2000 onwards, and obviously the trend is upward, as we’ve seen the trend of China-Africa relations in a lot of areas. And so the Chinese government would come every 3 years, for example, and provide a certain number of government-sponsored scholarships and professionalisation trainings and then those numbers keep increasing every year. They get more and more and more. What’s really important about that story is we have to ask the question of why. Why would the Chinese government invest such money in these professionalisation trainings and in these scholarships? And what’s even more important to ask is what happens in these trainings? These are not just meetings, it’s not sporadic. What happens in professionalisation trainings when they become routines? For example, Angola or other countries, they have agreements to send delegations every year. It’s just a routine. It just became a thing. So embassies in different African countries will call for participation and then people submit their applications and then, you know, they send a delegation. Then they do this yearly. And so what’s interesting to me is what happens during these meetings. What is going on in these meetings? And I give the examples in the book. The chapter on security, for example, I talk about China-Africa Security Summit, where we had in 2018 close to 50 high ranking military attaches from African countries go to China for this one training summit. And the summit lasted 2 weeks. And so it’s at that point when you hear that it lasted 2 weeks, the question isn’t, you know, it’s not just about those photo ops, those moments that you see, but its 15 days of exactly what? And the answer is that a lot of it is social capital. A lot of it is meeting people and putting a face to a name and getting connected and getting to spend time and the social art of banqueting, as I talk about it in the book. So all of these matter. These social opportunities to hang out and to meet is really important.
Banik I’ve seen this in my numerous trips to China. It’s not just what happens in the classroom. It’s also actually more important what happens outside. It’s going on trips. It’s going into the field during sightseeing together and all of this kind of bonding at lunches and dinners is absolutely crucial. I was particularly interested in better understanding how does China select countries? I like what you just said about how this has become routine. But is there a certain criterion that China uses to select groups within countries, which countries get what type of training, if its military or journalism? If it’s for the judges, if it’s political parties, are there certain types of workshops and training sessions that are prioritized for certain groups or is it just this one big category of workshops and exchanges that you just basically pick and choose from and do say perhaps some of the African participants, can they sign up for something? I mean do they decide themselves or are they just offered something and you either say yes or no?
Benabdallah A lot of this is discussed and negotiated on both sides, meaning Africans, depending on which country you have, you can basically make motions or ask, so through representatives of embassies in Beijing, these would be African delegates, would be consulting with their Chinese counterparts on a regular basis. So, you know that every three years there’s a China-Africa Forum, the preparation for this Forum includes these consultations between African representatives in Beijing and their Chinese counterparts and this is where the African governments share their feedback or what they want out of the relationship. So there are mechanisms of consultation that are going on all the time. But to your point about what we see in terms of countries and patterns, countries in Africa that received the bulk of these trainings, I haven’t really found a big trend around regime type, like do democracies receive more of these than non-democracies? I have not seen anything that distinguishes a single country based on…
Banik And I noticed that you didn’t find anything with natural resources either, right?
Benabdallah I think language plays a role in here. For example Anglophone countries tend to be where these training opportunities are facilitated, because sometimes with other African countries, you can imagine that the training is not going to go very smoothly because the language barriers can be rather big. I think, at the end of the day, if you take a network-approach to China-Africa relations, the way I take it, it’s going to matter to see how much of these network layers overlap. Right? So, I take a country for example in Ethiopia and I see that the layering of all the relations going on with China is very, it ends up being very dense. The node of the network is extremely dense because you have the cultural part and then you have the training part and then you have the trade part and then you have all of these things that overlap together. When I compare that to, for example, China-Algeria relations, the layers don’t add up to that much of a dense point. It doesn’t layer up that much. You’ll find sporadic trainings here and there and then you don’t find any Confucius Institute, for example, there’s no layer there. So then you understand basically, based on taking a network approach to it, which countries in Africa are closest or strongest in the relation to China. And taking a network approach, I get to see how big the point is of the overlap of all these layers of networking. And when you do that, you see Ethiopia stands out, you see Kenya stands out. You see a couple of countries in southern Africa as well stand out. So you can do that, but it won’t necessarily like you said, it won’t necessarily be because of natural resources or because of regime type or because of other specific variables.
Banik The other distinction I noticed in your book, and I’ve seen it in practice, is the difference between sending African participants to China for training and sending Chinese specialist experts to Africa for certain types of training, and in my work on Malawi, I find that having Chinese doctors in a local hospital for two years, in a very sort of highly malaria-prone region, is seen to be wonderful by the local population, that Chinese doctors are there, in contrast to say many Western doctors who are not in that kind of situation. I’ve also noticed that there is, at least in countries like Malawi, much more interest in going to China than having the kind of workshops and trainings done in their own country. And so I wanted to ask you whether you see certain types of trainings being more impactful than others? So, you know, you write about vocational training, for example, that China conducts in Africa, and I was reminded of these ATDCs, agricultural technical demonstration centres, that haven’t had the kind of impact that perhaps China wanted them to have in many of these African countries. So, do you see a distinction between the kind of trainings and exchanges that happen in China versus the ones that happen locally and which one of these is impactful you think?
Benabdallah That’s a very good question. I think maybe when we think about the trainings that actually happen in China, those have the added impact of, and the goal of, the cultural trip, the show-and-tell aspect. That when you bring in a delegation from a group of African countries to China, typically that delegation is, on top of sitting in seminars and meeting people and going to facilities, they also travel. And by traveling, you know, I mean, they go to the mega cities, the usually stops, but they also go to rural areas and they do the sort of, seeing first-hand how far has China come in the last 30 years. I think that is a huge impact, going back all the way to the first question you asked, that is a way that’s folded into these professional trainings, is a soft power element that shows first-hand experience in China through these kind of really curated travel itineraries that tell the story. They tell a very specific story about China’s development that is going to stay with people. That is going to lead to aspirations and lead to wanting to see China’s development as a model. And I think that is impactful. And these tend to be, I guess, more costly, financially speaking, than the other way around, than hosting trainings in African countries, but their impact is really quick, and the impact is there. It’s very strong and you get the treatment, the VIP treatment from the day you leave to the day you come back. And the utmost respect of your time, and all of that really matters. Now the trainings that take place in African countries, they tend to be longer-term, the outcomes are long-term outcomes. So the agricultural demonstration centres are a case of that. They’re not quick turnaround projects. You have to experiment on crops, the yield sometimes takes years for the results to actually show. So those tend to be less impactful, not because they’re less successful, but they are things that take a long time, and sometimes what happens is the trainers from China, they rotate a lot. So there’s a quick sort of turn-around in that aspect as well. So, it tends to delay things. So, it’s not as quick of an impact. What I’ve also noticed is, in terms of vocational training, we all know that vocational trainings have made a huge impact in China’s development story itself. So by vocational, I mean centres that are going to train thousands of young and skilled people into some skill, whether the skill is, you know, to prepare to work in a factory or to prepare to work in whatever industry is recruiting, or whatever industry needs the labour, that vocational training is really a huge pillar of China’s development model domestically. And that has translated into the way that China views its role in development in Africa. Meaning there’s an assumption that there is a big need for vocational training in Africa because that’s attached to what development means and needs. And so we see there’s a huge impact and focus on building schools for vocational trainings in Africa, and I have an example of this. There’s a training centre that the Chinese government funded and built for Mali. I was in Mali about a year ago to do some fieldwork. So, I go to visit. And this vocational training centre was basically agreed upon in 2017. And then it was built and then it was inaugurated in 2018. Its right outside of Bamako right by the airport area. It’s very shiny. It’s a huge centre, very new, it’s been inaugurated since 2018 but until today, 2021, it hasn’t opened. And so, it was very slow, and a lot of the reason why it hasn’t opened or been operating or functioning, shows you maybe the difference in the assumptions that maybe the government in Mali is not necessarily prioritizing vocational trainings the way that China connects vocational trainings to successful development. And so there is this multimillion-dollar centre. Huge, shiny, big, ready. It’s right there, but it’s not doing anything. So, it’s not necessarily that they are less impactful when they are in African countries, but they can be slow. There can be other challenges. You don’t see immediately the impact. For example when you receive a delegation in Beijing in China, the impact is really quick because you can just show them around and you can create a better impact, even if it’s probably more costly to invite delegation upon delegation to China.
Banik I agree with you, because while it is nice for the local population to see Chinese experts spending several years in their countries and helping them, it is a longer-term commitment. I’ve actually found also that there are many challenges in terms of financing some of these ATDCs. After three years, the Chinese government will stop funding and some of these staff members would have to figure out how they are going to sustain these ATDCs and they have to actually come up with revenue-generating activities. So there are all of these other challenges. And I write a weekly column in a Malawian national newspaper, and I recently wrote a column on the futility of workshops. And this was mainly about workshops that are funded by Western donors and they are often seen to be very attractive in terms of getting per diem allowances, but they’ve also been criticized for taking people away from their work and there is this kind of feeling there’s a workshop mentality that you just want to go to as many workshops as possible to supplement your meagre civil servant income. When I’ve spoken to several public administration people, civil servants, many of them are my students, they say that well the element of getting an allowance etcetera is interesting, but we’re also interested in getting knowledge. It’s just that the knowledge that is imparted is often irrelevant, that you know, every donor, every NGO, comes with their own agenda and we have to learn about human rights or good governance or something like that, anti-corruption, ethics, etcetera. We don’t find them to be as relevant and it is particularly difficult when we return to our offices and we need to operationalize this knowledge that we received. There may not be an incentive when you come back to the office to use that knowledge. All of this gives this impression that these workshops don’t really serve the function of producing knowledge. It is more just supplementing incomes and that is where I think the Chinese model is different because as I understand it, and as I’ve seen it, there’s not really that much of a focus on this kind of allowance, but it is attractive to go to China, you know, you get an air ticket. And I wanted to ask you more about these specific chapters in your book, and you discuss military diplomacy and security trainings, you talk about trainings for journalists, maybe I’m asking you the same question again, but I was interested in trying to understand how is the content of these trainings decided upon? You did say that during the FOCAC meetings, leaders of course can express some sort of interest, but they’re at a very broad level, so if you sent military leaders or political leaders or journalists to China, what kind of training do they receive? Is it in terms of how you operate a weapon? Is it about how you conduct investigative journalism? What happens apart from these sightseeing trips? Is it useful knowledge that is imparted?
Benabdallah Yeah. I think this is a very good question and it goes back to some of the examples you were giving of the comparisons and the experiences of your students in Malawi about the workshops. I think that there’s a commercial and pragmatic and practical aspect of the workshops and these trainings that you see in the China-Africa relationship that I think is different from NGOs and Western donors and their workshops. And there’s a complimentary here, between the workshops that do the trainings and also the Chinese companies that produce equipment or produce military hardware or produce media or produce public health hospital technology. And so, a lot of times, what you see is they complement one another. And I did some interviews for example in Nairobi with journalists. From their perspective, when they go to China for trainings, they are actually trained to use a certain equipment, to use high-tech, very advanced equipment for journalism. And the idea is that when you go back, there is a sense that you can only use that knowledge if whatever equipment you have in your office is compatible with what China uses. If it’s not compatible, it’s going to be completely useless. And so in many ways, sometimes it makes sense because let’s say there’s a company or there is a media outlet in Kenya that acquires Chinese equipment, for them, it makes a lot of sense that their journalists or technicians or whoever is going to China to see how the training goes. But in other ways, sometimes what China is doing is the other way around. To incentivize. You are invited to be part of the training even if you don’t have the equipment, and the idea is that there’s a commercial and marketing aspect of these trainings, that when you go back home, you’re going to place an order for this particular equipment. We see that in military delegations, for example, you know when they go and they see and get paraded around all of these different agencies and places where you get to see Chinese technology at play. Then the idea is that when you go home, you’re going to place an order to have this equipment. And so, you know, there’s a complementarity there going on. For instance, you take an example of several groups or cohorts of engineers from Kenya, who go to China, and the particular training they get is how to run the Standard Gauge Railway, for example, or how to operate machines that have a complementarity with a project that Chinese companies are building in the country. I saw the same thing for example in hospital equipment, the same, so China would come in and build a hospital in some place and then equipment and then they go. And the problem is going to be how to maintain that equipment. So it’s going to be very different from typically Russian equipment that you have in some countries or Western equipment. And so, you know, there is a role there that you can see that these workshops, they really complement the marketing commercial element to them, that I’ve noticed.
Banik That’s a great point, because I remember all those times I’ve stayed at Chinese hotels in many parts of Africa, and taken Chinese elevators with signs in Mandarin, and I’ve often thought of maintenance of these pieces of equipment, so there is absolutely much more need for that kind of knowledge. So you could say that China has perhaps addressed that criticism that it was accused of 10 years ago, that it was just building and then leaving. But now, in many ways, many countries want China to be there for longer periods to maintain some of the structures that are built. And for that, you can’t just have Chinese technicians, you must have local, so in that sense, maybe these training sessions are important. They even perhaps provide job opportunities in Chinese companies for local people. Maybe all kinds of very useful things happening and not just useless information being transmitted. I wanted to move on to this overarching issue of Guanxi and connections and networks, which always fascinates me in China, and I wanted to ask you about your methodology and I noticed and I read in the book that you were able to interview many people and as you’re aware, it helps to have one key informant who introduces you to others, opens the doors, and it’s just fascinating how one uses this kind of network not just in social and economic relations, but also in political relations, in terms of exchange of favours, and this whole circle of relations that you write about. And what I find fascinating is how what China and Chinese people do within China, is basically exported to other parts of the world. And in your book, you write about how this somehow works in an African context because one, I suppose, emphasizes mutual respect, one talks about solidarity, win-win and, most importantly, one talks about non-interference. So, in terms of this kind of networking and increasingly also political networks, you have this fascinating list of events and exchanges including the role of the famous Party School. I’ve taught there. And how political parties in Africa are in regular contact with the Party School of the CCP for trainings and visits. I wanted to ask you, how does this actually work in practice? How does one start this kind of networking? You were saying earlier about these layers of connections, right? So in Ethiopia, there are all kinds of things going on at the same time, this thickness of course of networking results in far more of these kind of networks developing, but if you were to start from scratch, would Beijing start from, or private sector companies starting sort of bilateral training or would it be a government-to-government initiative? And to what extent is non-interference a key aspect when one tries to sell this training connections network with Chinese characteristics?
Benabdallah Yeah. I think a lot of it is, if we talk about starting from scratch, I would imagine, I don’t know exactly, it would be a good experiment to see, what I would imagine is a lot of it has to come from government-sponsored initiatives, government-sponsored scholarships, and for example, non interference is very important and non-interference is viewed on both sides, you probably as listeners probably know, African countries that recognize Taiwan, for example, as a stand-alone independent country, are countries that do not have these opportunities with China because of that sort of non-interference, sovereignty, One-China Policy condition. And so it is already there. So once we get past that, countries that do not recognize Taiwan and only have official diplomatic relations with the PRC as the only representative of China, then they get the opportunities for trainings. I think if you were to start from scratch, I think definitely, is just going to take a lot of time and this is one important element that I wanted to highlights from the book, is if you’re going to only look at the surface level of what that infrastructure-building looks like, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. And the rest of it is just these decades-long exchanges and delegations. I’m from Algeria. For example, China-Algeria relations started before China, before Algeria became independent countries. The first delegations, the first visits, many of them, delegation visits to Beijing in the 1950s happened before Algeria was independent. And so its basically before day one. And that just goes to show just how far-reaching in time that these networks and connections go. And so now, whenever there’s going to be any new initiatives between China and Algeria, the very first thing you hear is that relations started in the 1950s and we can demonstrate this strong historic connection, the level of people-to-people, elite-to-elite connections going far back to the 1950s. And in 1963, China sent its first medical team abroad and it was to Algeria. And so whatever is going on, even if it’s just like a very new frontier of relations between China and Algeria, you will still hear back about the 1950s. And so I think that is the importance of sort of understanding the social capital and the Guanxi. The power of the network is that it really does take a lot of time and a lot of it is just quiet work because you don’t see it. It’s not an outcome that is tangible. You don’t see the return of investment manifest in a new airport terminal, but you have to be sure that we only have a Chinese base in Djibouti because of all of these heavy dense layers of networks that have been going on and been built quietly and strongly over the years and over the decades and at some point it just manifests in something like that, that there would not be that base without the networks. And that’s the main takeaway for me, is to really understand that these networks are the base of conducting any business. However small it is, whether it’s private or whether it’s public or government-sponsored.
Banik I wanted to ask you a final set of questions. We have a new research project looking at multilateralism with Chinese characteristics in Africa and Latin America, and I wanted to ask you about the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, FOCAC. Do you think it really is an exercise in multilateralism or is it bilateralism in disguise? I ask this because from your argument in the book, it is all about networks. It is about personal chemistry. It is about one country having a special relationship, historical relationship with China, that many other countries maybe on the African continent don’t share. Some would say these events every three years, FOCAC summits are largely symbolic because, as you also write, all has already been negotiated before the summit. So, is it by bilateralism in disguise? Because there is a power asymmetry, right? There are countries who perhaps are diversifying their dependence. It’s not just the West anymore. It is China. Whatever they can get perhaps is good. Maybe there’s more policy space for policymakers in Africa now. They can get certain things from China. They can get other things from Europe and the US. So, the question really is, these showpiece events, like FOCAC, are they really promoting something different other than state-to-state bilateral relations, or is it something more grand at a larger, continental scale? What are your thoughts on that?
Benabdallah I think FOCAC, and this forum diplomacy that China has, not just with Africa but other parts of the world, I think it’s very central to China’s diplomacy. It’s a backbone of Chinas diplomacy. It’s not the only tool in the diplomacy toolbox. It’s one of them. But it’s a very essential one. It’s a very important one. However symbolic, the forum diplomacy allows that collective optics, and optics matter a lot in politics. The perceptions matter a lot in politics and the perception you have here is China in the middle, 50 or so African leaders essentially paying tribute to the relation to Xi Jinping. And that is very important. The optics show harmony. They show basically agreement and they have that perception, even if we all know, obviously there’s a huge power asymmetry. We’re not even going to dispute that. There’s no sense in even doing that. The asymmetry is economic, it’s diplomatic, it’s political, and it’s, you know, we’re not going to dispute that, but what the forum does, it provides this opportunity, this platform, to visually put that win-win into an optic, to put the equal relations in optic, that we’re all standing here, that we’re all welcoming each other. And that’s very important. And it plays a political role. And it plays a role because we know that this is really important to China, to China’s foreign policy making, especially in the Global South. Doing everything China can to distinguish China from European powers, Western powers, colonial powers, hegemonic imperial powers, and the forum diplomacy is the opportunity to do that. It shows time and time again how all the images you get and the speeches and the discourses are all there to say, look China is your partner, we show up, we are here, we organize these things, we do them routinely, they’re not going anywhere. We can demonstrate our serious and sincere partnership to African countries by doing this. The agenda items are negotiated way before the actual forum takes place and way before we see any pictures from the forum. And they oftentimes are negotiated with the leverage being leveraged in the hands of Chinese elites, because they have the funding and the finances and all of those other leverages, with inputs from African representatives and diplomats, sure. There’s a consultation mechanism, sure. The African Union also has a role to play in FOCAC, sure. But we all know that when it comes to the nitty-gritty, to the actual details, those are all negotiated bilaterally and they are negotiated bilaterally also based on interests of Chinese funders and agencies and companies, firms, enterprises that are conducting all of these projects. The content and procedures of FOCAC are definitely bilateral. We all understand that that’s done bilaterally. What’s really important is the power in those moments to group together and there’s no other event in the world that can have that many African leaders get together. They don’t get together like that at the UN. They don’t get together like that at the AU. They only get together like that with China at FOCAC. And so that in itself brings together this momentum, this energy, enthusiasm about it. It provides all the optics about China being an equal partner, sincere partner that shows up, that is very serious about its relationship with Africa. That every three years you can count on it. There’s going to be a forum. I think that’s so important, maybe when the relationship between China and Africa will plateau, you know, maybe we will see different priorities come up. Maybe the Forum is not going to stay forever. Maybe things will be different, but we’re not there yet.
Banik It was a great pleasure to speak to you today. Thank you so much for coming on my show.
Benabdallah Thank you so much for the invitation. It was a pleasure to chat with you.
Banik If you enjoyed this podcast, please spread the news among your friends and share it on social media. The Twitter handle for this podcast is @GlobalDevPod.
Thank you for listening to In Pursuit of Development with Professor Dan Banik from the University of Oslo’s Centre for Development and the Environment. Please email your questions, comments and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.