Chinese cities in Africa

If it would be a contest, China is in pole position.

Last week I attended an evening at Pakhuis de Zwijger about Chinese cities in Africa, and the above is what has stuck with me. The evening was centred around the research of Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggeveen within their Go West Project, where they are travelling to African cities to research how Chinese activity in Africa is influencing these cities.

China and Africa are becoming more and more connected: some examples of this are through Chinese investment and through Africans setting up in China. There has also been increasing attention on this activity, as China’s engagement with Africa is happening on very different terms than European engagement with the African continent.

The evening highlighted specific activities of China in some of the places that the duo has travelled to so far (including Nairobi, Lagos, Luanda, Addis Abbeba – to name a few African cities): development of mass housing and establishment of Special Economic Zones.

Some of the points that struck me during the evening:

  • throughout the evening, the language used was very much in terms of a contest: who can build the most and the biggest (buildings, infrastructure, etc) and who can tie African governments to their own country the strongest? China isn’t the only country that is actively seeking opportunities in Africa – others include of course European countries, but also for example Turkey and Brazil. But is it really a contest? Is it really about being the most important non-African governmental actor (in whichever form) on the African continent? I don’t know – in traditional geopolitical terms, possibly it is. But in terms related to how to progress on sustainable development in Africa I don’t think it should be.
  • the evening shared different examples of Chinese firms building mass housing complexes in African cities, or of establishing joint economic development zones with a local government authority. Yet, what didn’t come through much in these stories was what the impact is on the development of society in these African cities: how does living in a gated compound (copied from the Chinese model of housing) change the social structure in any given African city where the way communities were living will have been very different.
  • what is the contribution of Chinese investment to economic and sustainable development of African cities and communities? What comes across in the contributions of experts during this evening is that the Chinese firms come in with their own workers (though this is slowly changing), underbid local African firms and are only recently becoming more interested in contributing to local capacity building. Some Chinese firms are starting to engage in a more active CSR-policy (and in fact, the Chinese government is requiring companies active in the extractive industry to implement CSR in their operations) and during the evening Huawei was mentioned as an example of a company which is developing a local CSR programme that focuses on local capacity building.  Yet, building the skills and capacity locally across Africa will be important to contribute to future-proof development.

Finally, the conclusion of the evening was also that it isn’t possible to ‘just’ copy the Chinese model to gain similar results in development and economic growth. Parts of it may work, but Africa is – of course – a different place. Africa is not one place, and it is likely that the Chinese model can be more successfully implemented in countries with a more authoritative government (examples are Ethiopia or Angola).

In any case, yet again an interesting Go West Project to keep track of while the research into the influence of Chinese urbanism in Africa continues.

Being I_am_Europe

‘Rotating curation’: does that ring a bell? If you’re on Twitter you may not know the official name but you might have seen them pop up: they are Twitter accounts with an account holder which changes weekly (usually), often used for accounts connected to locations: countries, cities, etc.

I have followed @sweden for a while now, apparently the first of these #rocur accounts, but until last week I had no idea of the huge amount of accounts there are. That is, until I curated one of those accounts: @I_am_Europe.

I applied for the curation for a few reasons. The main one being that it seemed like fun. Also a new way to have unexpected conversations, find interesting people and so on. A way to learn a little more about what works on Twitter in terms of engaging an audience. And maybe an opportunity to share and talk about some of the topics I think are important.

It was fun, but definitely also a learning experience again on the dynamics of Twitter.

Some of my take-aways from the week:

  • Interacting via a ‘new’ account and (partly) on a timeline of people – and group of followers – you don’t know is really quite hard to do at first. Of course, I could use my existing contacts – and I have sometimes – but I was also looking forward to be able to add to any new conversations. But it takes time to figure out who is who and what people are talking about.
  • Partly a continuation from the previous point, I underestimated how much time it would take to do well. Especially with my original plan of discussing some topics backed up with a bit of research and deciding how to integrate them in a day of tweeting without feeling like I was pushing these topics too strongly. And getting stuck in an unexpectedly chaotic work week didn’t help….
  • Considering those two points, it was very interesting to see what people replied to, favorited, re-tweeted. And mostly they were pictures of my city, pictures of shopping for food at the local farmer’s market or sharing excitement about an upcoming Arcade Fire concert. Huh… so much for interacting about all those other topics.
  • I used Wednesday most to share some other things, which on that day was mostly RT’ing and talking about the 25 year ‘anniversary’ of the Tiananmen Square protests on June 4th, 1989. An occasion I felt deserved a lot of attention.
  • Being ‘I_am_Europe’ also gave me access to some other sources and some people helped me out in finding some difficult-to-find data for research I’m working on. Yay, thanks again!

All in all, fun week! And I hope that the 1200+ followers of the account enjoyed my tweets of course.

But also, for me it proved that engaging and interacting on topics on Twitter that go beyond the daily details is difficult and takes time to work on – not just with physical time during a day to be online, but also time (weeks, months, …)  to build an audience and a connection with that audience. Suffice to say, using social media successfully isn’t easy….



Ontdekkingstocht van een nieuwe taal

Zodra ik op vrijdagmiddag in de tram naar Ypenburg stap, weet ik dat het bijna weekend is. Het enige dat nog bij mijn werkweek hoort – nou ja, vaak heb ik ook in het weekend nog genoeg werkklusjes te doen – is om het komende uur te proberen iets zinnigs te kunnen antwoorden op de vragen die mijn lerares mij stelt. In het Mandarijn Chinees, wel te verstaan.

Stiekem wist ik het natuurlijk al lang: om je echt te kunnen verdiepen in een land is de taal essentieel.

Dat ik het Chinees in mijn vorige baan als adviseur over ondernemen in China niet nodig had, was misschien eerder een uitzondering volgend uit de omvang van de organisatie waar ik voor werkte. Maar in de afgelopen anderhalf jaar is die werkomgeving volledig veranderd. En dus heb ik na lang wikken en wegen vorige zomer eindelijk die grote knoop doorgehakt.

Tegenwoordig verdiep ik me daarom weer in een nieuwe taal: de grammatica, uitspraak en – natuurlijk – héél véél karakters die bij deze taal horen. Het doet me soms denken aan de uren, dagen, weken die ik heb doorgebracht in het Arsenaal, een oud kazernegebouw midden in Leiden waar de opleiding Japans van de universiteit gevestigd is. En aan de hoeveelheid Japanse karakters die ik in die jaren in mijn hoofd heb moeten stampen. Toch nog een beetje onverwacht betaalt al dat harde werk van toen zich nu nogmaals terug.

Chinees en Japans zijn taalkundig gezien volledig andere talen maar het schrift… dat lijkt tenminste een beetje op elkaar. En dat zorgt ervoor dat mijn geheugen dat eigenlijk nooit zo heel visueel werkt dat nu wel doet.

Een nieuw woord in het Chinees onthoud ik niet als het me gewoon gezegd wordt. Maar zodra ik zie met welk karakter dit woord geschreven wordt, geeft dat direct betekenis. Zodat dus ook die uitspraak blijft hangen. Voor mijn docenten vast een ongebruikelijke manier van leren, voor mij de énige manier die er voor zorgt dat ik al veel sneller dan verwacht wat grip heb op deze taal.

De onmogelijke taal die Mandarijn voor mij altijd leek heeft daarmee ook eindelijk een beetje zijn aura van ondoordringbaarheid verloren.

Dit is geschreven voor #blogawayNL.