On China

Journalism and Essays on The Middle Kingdom

On China

Yellow peril in Africa? White folks should stop fretting.

At the outbreak of Algeria’s war for independence in 1952, there were one million French settlers living in that country alone. Today, an estimated 250,000 people of Lebanese descent live in West Africa. Some two million people of Indian descent live in East and Southern Africa (not counting a million or so more on the islands of Mauritius and Réunion.) Numbers like these are worth bearing in mind when approaching Howard French’s book of anecdotal reportage, China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa. (Knopf, New York, 2014)

China cannot avoid the messiness of African politics

This piece was published in The East African (Nairobi) February 6-11 2012. (Web version, missing a by-line, here.)

China’s gift to the African Union of a US$200 million headquarters in Addis Ababa symbolises not only the Asian giant’s increased engagement with Africa, but also the nature of that engagement.

Whilst the West has—since the end of the Cold War, at least—ostensibly striven to promote ‘sound macroeconomic management’ and ‘good governance,’ China’s style has simply been to do business with whoever is in power. Air-conditioned debating chambers for ruling elites are a logical sweetener.

“Speaking truth to power” and the trillion dollar war machine

A commentary I recently contributed to The Guardian (London), arguing that awarding a Nobel Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo, was unlikely to advance the cause of peace in China, drew many predictable ripostes from readers on the Guardian site, and some further flurries of bemused contempt in the China-punditry blogosphere (eg, here). It’s ironic how unwilling so many Western liberals are to hear dissenting voices in their own communities, and depressing how a technologically expanded “public sphere” so soon fills up with sound and fury signifying rather little.

Liang Congjie (梁从诫), friend of sanity

Liang Congjie, historian and founder of China’s best-known environmental NGO, Friends of Nature, died in Beijing on October 28, 2010, aged 78.

There is no Chinese template for development

Published in Uganda’s independent Daily Monitor on September 14.

It is good to see a debate about the extent to which Uganda can learn from China unfolding in the Daily Monitor’s pages. (Editorial, August 25; James Kahoza’s Comment, September 7). This reflects the growing, and essentially positive, feeling that Africa now has wider development opportunities than in recent decades.

But the Chinese would be the first to point out that their renaissance has derived from a determination to find their own path, through an experimental process of ‘feeling the stones to cross the stream.’ This has, certainly, involved learning from others: but selectively so, adapting lessons to the Chinese context, rather than importing ‘models’ wholesale.

It’s all down to Africa

An abridged version of this review essay, also discussing Paul Collier’s new book The Plundered Planet, appears on the Nation Media Group (Kenya)’s Africa Review website.

‘The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa’
by Deborah Brautigam, OUP (2009), 397 pp

Part of the Western world’s emotional response to China’s ‘rise’ has been a general alarm lest the Yellow Peril swarm across Africa in search of loot. It is as if there were a kind of Monroe Doctrine etched upon Western European and American hearts and minds: Africa is the proper sphere of influence of the white-majority Powers, ours alone to lecture, structurally adjust and bless with charity. No sooner does a Chinaman appear upon the savannah (actually, they’ve been around for decades, but few Westerners noticed them before) than we conclude that his ‘insatiable appetite for resources’ has brought him to strip-mine the continent, encouraging dictatorship, rampant corruption and exploitation along the way. Despite its unpromising title—how much longer must we endure Dragon, Tiger and Great Wall clichés?—Deborah Brautigam’s book is a useful antidote to such hysteria, correcting not just inherent bias but gross factual errors circulated by a string of prestigious media houses, international financial institutions, private think tanks and NGOs.

The lost knack of knowing when to shut up

April 21, 2010 - 9:00am -- Nick Young

‘The Case for God: What Religion Really Means’
by Karen Armstrong, Bodley Head 2009, 376 pp

Visiting the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence half a dozen years ago my daughter, whose eight years of life had been spent in China, asked her mother who the guy hanging on the cross was. To the brief explanation that followed Tian Tian reacted with the genuine shock of one from whose eyes the scales have fallen, revealing the banality of the world: “God was a man!!!???” We took this at the time as intuitive, pre-teen feminism (Why not a woman, an Earth Mother figure?) Recently recalling the event, Tian Tian clarified that, on the contrary, her remark was ungendered: what boggled her mind was the thought that God could begin to resemble, let alone be, anything so idiotic as a human being. Before she could read more than a handful of English sentences, she had grasped an essential thread of Karen Armstrong’s theology; and, as we shall see, that almost certainly had much to do with growing up in China—and not just because of the relative dearth of Christian icons there.

China’s hallmark sage goes abroad

Forthcoming in the June 2009 issue of New Internationalist (under the title ‘The Cultural Crusades’), this essay was commissioned as a discussion of the question whether, and how, China’s overseas Confucius Institutes are a manifestation of ‘soft power.’ It starts, however, by considering the changing fortunes of Confucianism within China.

Half way through my twelve years in China I discovered that an office manager I had just taken on spent his every free moment reading ancient Buddhist texts. At first I connected this to the trauma of a close shave with death in a car crash that had left him permanently disabled. But when I looked further I realized that the personal quest for meaning was widespread in our small office.

NGOs and Civil Society in China

The following article was commissioned as an entry for the forthcoming Berkshire Encyclopedia of China.

Talking with the enemy

In June 2008 I was invited by the pressure group, Human Rights in China (HRIC), to serve as guest editor for an issue of their quarterly journal, China Rights Forum. The piece below is an introductory article, discussing the role of human rights organizations like HRIC, that I contributed in my capacity as invited editor. HRIC declined to publish the article, offering instead to publish a truncated version comprising the first four paragraphs followed by one or two sentences selected from the subsequent text. I did not consent to this arrangement so the article sees the light for the first time here.


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