Eric Olander on the complexity of China’s relationship with Africa

Written by AJ Cortese Published on     6 mins read

While China’s engagement with Africa increases, the One Belt One Road policy diversifies China’s trade partners and reduces demand for African raw materials.

Eric Olander is the co-founder of the China Africa Project (CAP), an independent, nonpartisan media initiative dedicated to exploring every facet of China’s engagement in Africa. Eric is also the co-host of the China in Africa podcast that is now among the top 10% most downloaded shows worldwide. Eric is a fluent Mandarin-speaker with more than 25 years of journalism experience at many of the world’s leading media companies, including CNN, the BBC, and France 24.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

KrASIA (Kr): Tell us more about your background, and why you became interested in the China-Africa narrative.

Eric Olander (EO): I began studying Chinese at the age of 15, and I worked for a Chinese radio station while attending high school in the US. All of this happened in 1985. In fact, the Cold War was still ongoing and China was much poorer than it is today.

I visited China for the first time in December 1989, and I remember staying with my host family and helping to collect food rations, using a coupon that would redeem a sack of rice. China was really in a bare and sad state. Looking back, I was privileged to have visited China in the early years. Because the country we know today is a stark contrast to China back then.

Right after graduating from university, I worked as a journalist in Tokyo and Beijing. Then I rotated around CNN, BBC, AP, and CNBC. By 2005, I was running the largest TV station in the US for Asian immigrants.

All the while, China was just another country on the map. But from 2008 onwards, things took a turn. Nobody would have foreseen China’s economic boom and the spread of Chinese products (as well as culture) across the globe. Chinese restaurants, Chinese banks, Chinese companies—they sprang up everywhere.

Over the news, however, there were two sides to the story. US newspapers were slamming China for colonizing Africa and overstepping geopolitical boundaries. Yet Chinese newspapers contained their own version of events, about how China is doing good for Africa. There were great intricacies to discover.

Kr: And how did this develop into the China Africa Project (CAP)? 

EO: I picked the brains of different individuals. All of them gave nuanced answers to this issue. “China was right in doing this, wrong in doing that” and so on. Then I figured this simply isn’t a black-and-white affair. It’s a whole gray area. And I wanted to turn it into my story.

I started blogging and celebrating that complexity. I even made the effort to build relationships with Chinese shop owners, construction workers, and business leaders over here, to get to their interesting stories. The journalists in the US, European, and even Chinese media—none of them got the narrative right. They were missing nuances here and there, trying to come up with their own version of sensational topics. The importance of journaling the China-Africa story led to the creation of CAP.

Kr: How has CAP progressed from its early stages?

EO: CAP has truly expanded from its humble beginnings. We pride ourselves on being neutral—not pro-African, not pro-Chinese, not taking any side.

On the Chinese presence in Africa, too many people ask, “Is it good? Is it bad?” Well, it’s both. I believe in presenting both sides of the story. As a result, I’ve been criticized for being anti-Chinese, whereas some claim that I’m anti-African, while Americans say I’m being too critical. But on that note, I know I have been doing my job well as a journalist. I’ve been fair and impartial.

Of course, I also receive praise for this project. I’m happy to hear from people, that they appreciate this voice of sanity in a world of craziness. They are aware of my team’s deep expertise, and how we have chosen to “stay in our lane” of China-Africa knowledge.

Kr: What are the key areas in which we see increasing engagement between China and Africa?

EO: Let’s start with the positive. Nigeria is going to be a critical market for the Chinese. With 200 million people, it is in fact the largest consumer market on the continent. That means Chinese companies will inevitably shift some focus there.

At the same time, the Chinese are getting shut out of the US, parts of Europe, and sometimes even Brazil. Given the current political situation and trade restrictions, the world is getting smaller for China. And that means Nigeria takes on an increasingly critical role as a consumer market.

Years ago, people would have said, “Oh, Africa is too poor.” But today, we hear that Africa is a “potential market” and “worth the expansion plans.” Alibaba is coming in aggressively and we see AliExpress beginning to take hold in Africa. Tencent is rumored to be working on a WeChat lite version that is bandwidth-friendly for the African market. These are the positives in China and Africa’s relationship.

Unsurprisingly, the negative side arises from political rivalry. Trump’s administration left the US and China at loggerheads, for the most part. And the question now is how Biden will approach relations with China in 2021. Will he follow the momentum in Washington,  and try and confront the Chinese around the world? If he adopts a hardline stance against China, then Africa will once again be a staging ground for that competition. That is very, very bad for Africa.

They clearly remember what the Cold War was like, and how they suffered enormously for it. They don’t want a repeat of history, yet do not have enough leverage to change things at this point.

Also, China’s trade with Africa for raw materials is likely to go down. In 2008, 30% of Chinese imported oil came from three African countries. By 2018, that number fell to less than 18% from one African country. We observe that the Chinese are diversifying their supply of oil and other raw materials because they don’t want to be dependent on any single region. With the One Belt One Road policy in place, China is also strengthening its position. Africa is essentially of lower economic importance today.

Kr: How do you view China’s influence on Africa’s recovery from COVID-19?

EO: Back in May, at the World Health Assembly meeting, President Xi Jinping issued a statement on making the vaccine “a global public good” for poor and developing countries. Everybody interpreted “public good” as something for free—the way that the US offers security and defense, and even the GPS to the world.

Come late fall, as people started asking about China’s vaccine plans, they rephrased it as “a good that is accessible and affordable.” Even if the world accepts a flip-flop on China’s decision-making, there are definitely implications for the African community.

We are already aware that Pfizer vaccines are slated to cost USD 45–50 per vaccine and require –90-degree refrigeration. This is simply not feasible for the African nations where people live on two dollars a day. Apart from the lack of funds, storage infrastructure makes it doubly impossible. Now with China’s indecisive stance and political maneuvers, Africa cannot assume that China’s vaccine supply will be easily available to them.

The good news is, Africa is managing the COVID-19 outbreak decently well and vaccines are not in outrageous demand. But the bad news is Africa once again receives the short end of the stick because it is poor and developing compared to other parts of the world. And one decision made by China could influence Africa’s recovery pace greatly.

Kr: What are some final thoughts you want to leave with our audience?

EO: As I always say, I tell both sides of the story. If you are one of those people with your mind already made up about the China-Africa relationship, be it good or bad, then you’re missing the complexities and nuances embedded within. I think that’s an important mindset to carry.


AJ Cortese


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