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Shaping future global engagements

2015-01-05 14:09 China Daily Web Editor: Qin Dexing

China must keep counteracting false stereotypes about its role in developing regions such as Africa

The scale of China's global engagement is astonishing. China is the key trading partner for most countries in the world and plays a central role in many international organizations and multilateral institutions.

Chinese companies operate in diverse economic sectors across the globe. After the global financial crisis broke out in 2008, China emerged as the world's leading creditor, overtaking the World Bank. Of the $500 billion it invested overseas between 2005 and 2012, three-quarters went to the developing world.

With much of the Western world reeling, China was responsible for holding up an ailing global economy in dire straits. Chinese investment and trade in the developing world has contributed to strong growth, particularly in Africa, where there is greater optimism than at any time since the wave of independence in the 1950s.

The story of China's transformation from relative recluse to leading actor on the international stage is dramatic. At the beginning of the era of reform and opening-up in 1978, China was only just beginning to emerge from self-imposed isolationism. There were multiple sources of domestic instability and external sources of national insecurity. Internationally, China was a minor player.

Under senior leader Deng Xiaoping, China made rapid progress settling and securing national borders and normalizing diplomatic relations. As economic reforms took off, particularly through special economic zones, China became enmeshed in global production networks and supply chains. By the time China entered the World Trade Organization, "going out" was the obvious strategy for Chinese companies seeking resources, investment opportunities and markets globally.

Structural reforms in the Chinese economy ushered in a wave of outward migration, albeit less radical than the one accompanying the great urbanization project underway in China itself, which has resulted in individual Chinese traders and workers contributing to far-flung economies often in the most unpromising circumstances.

As Spanish writers Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araujo put it in their book China's Silent Army, these are the "anonymous people with a limitless capacity for self-sacrifice who brave prejudice and uncertainty to set up businesses in the most unlikely places".

State companies and private individuals are the two most visible faces of China's global engagement. In global media discourse, dominated of course by Western media narratives, they have given rise to erroneous myths about China's activities and intentions that have solidified into something approaching conventional wisdom.

China is described as a neo-colonialist that only cares about securing natural resources and uses its economic power to entrench its influence around the world, even suggesting an alternative "Beijing Model". This is a jaundiced and announced perspective.

In many cases the buoyancy of developing economies such as those in Africa can be traced directly to their engagement with China. The key issue now, as populations grow and resources dwindle, is how African governments use current income to plan for future development. China's contribution to the development of roads, railways, hospitals, bridges, airports, dams and schools will be invaluable to finding a route to sustainable modernization.

Meanwhile, waves of Chinese migration are said to be threatening to overwhelm local populations. This is clearly ludicrous.

The actual number of Chinese migrants is often exaggerated, sometimes becoming politicized by opposition or nationalist politicians, which is what happened in the Russian Far East in the 1990s and more recently in Zambia. In reality, Chinese migration is not unmanageable. There is a total of around 1 million Chinese across the entire African continent. Where tensions have occurred, it is in locales with small populations where seemingly negligible migration can have an unbalancing effect.

The New York Times writer and Columbia University Professor Howard French shows in his recent book on Africa that the idea that Chinese migrants are "all the same" is plain wrong.

Chinese migrants come from diverse backgrounds and have a variety of occupations. Across Africa they can be found logging timber, farming crops, raising pigs, running restaurants and hotels, operating medical clinics or trading at local markets. Many of them are also buying homes, getting married and starting families - in short, settling down in Africa for the long term and belying narratives about uncaring, short-term attitudes.

What French's study shows is that Chinese migrants to Africa share in common a tenacious work ethic and ambition to improve their lives. In the process, many of them are bringing affordable goods and services to communities for the first time.

What can account for the wildly different interpretations of Chinese activities overseas? They reflect and embody fundamentally opposed world views. Those who believe China's rise is a "threat" will perceive China's global engagement as threatening. Those who believe in China's "peaceful rise" will see it in a different light.

The importance of these perceptions is evident in how the media have framed China's activities in different parts of the globe. Western media have viewed China's engagement with the developing world with suspicion, and sometimes hostility and envy. These biases reflect and reinforce popular attitudes and misconceptions about China's rise.

Research shows several regularities in Western media coverage of China's engagement in contexts as different as Africa, Russia and the South Pacific. Cambridge University Professor Emma Mawdsley has analyzed how UK broadsheet newspapers report on China's engagement in Africa. The predominant framing was of China as an exploitative villain, with African elites painted as venal or incompetent co-conspirators and African people as powerless victims.

China was cast as self-interested and indifferent to Africa, while "the West" was said to care about Africans as "partners in development". My own research on Australian newspapers' coverage of China's engagement with South Pacific island nations showed similarly negative and hypocritical framings. China was routinely described as ravenous, prowling and exploitative, while at the same time indifferent, stealthy and cunning.

In recent years China has invested heavily in new media operations to balance negative and biased global media narratives. This is an important task. China's global engagement is going to increase in coming years and its economic activities will bring its companies and people into greater contact with local populations in every corner of the world.

It is important for host countries, for China and for international society as a whole that these interactions are positive. Intensifying connections in any sphere can cause friction, and it is vital they are managed and sources of tension minimized as much as possible.

In this regard, the Chinese government, one of the most efficacious institutions in the world, can do more to address the concerns that some host populations have. I am not suggesting that the government make efforts to monitor the behavior of private individuals abroad, but concerns about the ways in which State companies operate, for instance, could be better addressed.

Labor conditions, pollution, lack of knowledge exchange and the general unaccountability of Chinese companies are real issues that can damage China's prestige and reputation. And while China is at pains to demonstrate its respect for African nations' sovereignty, less effort is made to learn and adapt to local cultures and norms.

Transposing practices and norms directly from the Chinese environment can be problematic considering the incredibly diverse range of places where Chinese companies operate. Demonstrating greater sensitivity to local cultures could go a long way to enhancing positive attitudes toward Chinese engagement. While less tangible than infrastructure projects or trade figures, these practical, grassroots activities are an important component and basis of "soft power".

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