I don’t want to get into the general discussion on race in China, an old one on China blogs which has been done to death here, here, here, here, and here. However, this translation by Roland Soong of a story on today’s protests in Guangzhou following the death of an African trader trying to evade the police, perhaps the first instance of an anti-government protest by foreign immigrants in modern China, is certainly big news as far as I am concerned. The idea of foreigners in China, who make up only a very small number of mainly short-term residents who do their best in the main to avoid any trouble is quite extraordinary.
The fact that it involved the African population in Guangzhou, who from my experience are mainly small-time traders resident on short-term visas (i.e., working illegally), and who suffer all the disadvantages of being a foreigner in China without most of the advantages enjoyed by those obviously from rich countries do, is not surprising. The violent language used in the article to describe their protest is not supported by the photographs, but typical of many articles written about foreigners, especially black people. I will be especially interested to see how the people at the demonstration are treated by the authorities, because whilst this kind of thing has happened at least once in most countries with immigrant populations, race relations (rather than trying to subsume all races into a single Chinese race) is an entirely new thing in China which the authorities may be unprepared for. Some may be inclined to find proof of Chinese racism in this story, all I will say is that Emmanul Egisimba is just as dead as Amadou Diallo, Steven Lawrence, or Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, and it will be the response of the authorities which will show their true attitude, especially if they choose to simply deport those who protested.
A lot of people are giggling that the new GazProm-Nigerian joint venture company has selected the name “NiGaz”. This seems to me to say more about American hangups than about anything else. The word for “black person” in Russian is негр (“nyegr”), from the French nègre; it uses the letter combination n-e-g rather than n-i-g. As for Nigerians, obviously, if n-i-g tripped any insulting connotations for them, they would have selected a different name for their country. “Nigeria” comes from the name of the River Niger, whose etymology is unclear but likely stems from the Tuareg phrase gher n gheren, “river of rivers”, shortened to ngher. It almost certainly has no relation to the Latin root “niger”. The fact that southern American whites took the French word nègre, pronounced it with their own accent, then transcribed that as nigger, that this word acquired the derogatory connotations one might expect in racist American society, that American blacks then reappropriated the word and creatively misspelled it as part of a pop-music subculture — this is something neither Nigerians nor Russians should really be expected to keep track of.
More generally, it’s really not possible to keep track of which words in your language might be offensive in other people’s languages. In modern English, we identify people as “Jews”, from the root j-u-d (from the Hebrew yehuda, Judah or Judea); if someone called me “a Hebrew” I’d think they were either archaic or aristocratically anti-semitic or joking, and indeed “hebe” is an out-of-date anti-semitic slur that’s now been reappropriated as the American Jewish version of “nigga”. In Russian, the opposite is true: the neutral word is еврей (yevrei), from “Hebrew”, while the word жид (zhid), from the j-u-d yehuda/Judea root, is an anti-semitic slur.
It’s kind of pointless to argue with Thomas Friedman but in today’s column he seems to be arguing that if only Europeans hadn’t developed such an irrational dislike of the US, Russia and China wouldn’t have been able to sabotage the attempt to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe. Let’s see how you like that, you Europeans – you stopped being our friends and now look what’s happened! Huh? I am really unclear on how Friedman thinks higher favorability ratings for the US among European publics would have stopped Russia and China from vetoing the Zimbabwe sanctions bill in the UNSC.
Nathan Geffen of South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign has some blog posts beginning here describing the anti-immigrant violence that began May 22 in Capetown, and his own and other volunteers’ efforts to provide shelter for displaced immigrants. Geffen terms the violence “pogroms”.
Thomas Friedman has a pretty good piece today on the fact that Barack Obama is the only candidate who could singlehandedly change the global perception of the United States simply by virtue of being who he is. This is an insight that’s hardly original to Friedman, but the fact that Friedman embraces it is pretty significant: it signals the entry of this meme into legitimate, mainstream inside-the-Beltway punditocratic conventional wisdom. It’s significant to see Friedman writing this:
It seems to me that the strongest case one could make for an Obama presidency right now is rarely articulated: it is his potential to repair the broken relationship between America and the world. As I travel around, I have never seen a president and a vice president more disliked in more places than George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
Again, this is pretty obvious stuff, and Friedman knows it’s obvious; but it is important to acknowledge the unpopularity of an American president abroad as a foreign affairs and security concern. Friedman’s implication that Obama’s potential popularity would make the US safer and more powerful may serve to blunt the edge of the ongoing carping that he lacks “experience” on “national security”. A Thomas Friedman seal of approval is pretty useful in that regard.
Of course, what Friedman doesn’t mention — what few commentators would mention — is that one major reason an Obama presidency would help change America’s image abroad is that he’s black. The point here is not that the US should elect a person of color because most of the world has dark skin pigmentation and it will make us more popular. The point is that the US boasts of itself as a country where the color of one’s skin does not matter — and yet its leaders always seem to be white. That feeds into the terribly damaging global sense that the US is a hypocritical country, a country that is not to be trusted in the way it talks about itself. (As Friedman notes, when the US serves up human rights concerns abroad these days, it gets back a giant forehand smash of “Abu Ghraibs” and “Guantanamos”.) It’s fatal to be known as a hypocrite and a liar; it kills public diplomacy dead. One thing the US has got to start doing is living up to some of the pledges it has made to the world. And there is no better, more convincing argument that the US is what it says it is, than for Barack Obama to win a presidential election.
Not that that’s the only, or perhaps even the main, reason he’s popular. Bill Clinton was hugely popular from Vietnam to Africa. Friedman’s also right that at an ability to listen intelligently goes a very long way.
Filed under: Africa
In an overall pretty decent piece on the Nigerian elections in Slate, June Thomas writes a couple of things that let you know she only spent 12 days in Africa:
When elections are decided by whose turn it is rather than who has the best ideas, it’s hard to be optimistic about democracy.
It is? How about compared to, say, the Biafran civil war? Or Sani Abacha?
Still, it’s hard to imagine that a tiny elite can overrule the objections of 140 million people forever.
Is it? Why?
Sebastian Mallaby’s piece in yesterday’s Washington Post was interesting, with a slightly off-base self-righteous feel and a few inchoherencies in its basic thesis. Mallaby’s trying to claim that China’s policy towards Sudan doesn’t just condone genocide, but repudiates the whole shift in thinking about development aid that’s taken place in the west over the last few decades. Mallaby characterizes this as the insight that good government is crucial in implementing aid and effecting development change. He then goes on to argue that China itself is an unsettling warning that development may not lead to good governance.
Thing is, Mallaby seems to be characterizing “good governance” as rule of law plus democratic accountability. And it’s by no means clear that these two factors really are crucial in the initial phase of development takeoff. Thailand, Taiwan and South Korea were fairly corrupt dictatorships while their development takeoffs took place. Ditto for China. Vietnam has certain kinds of accountability that may serve to limit corruption and ensure efficiency, but they seem perhaps culturally rather than institutionally rooted and thus hard for foreign donors to quantify or improve. In Africa, meanwhile, the countries that have been held up as examples of good governance and effective aid for development – Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania perhaps – are still in the baby stages, in economic terms. They haven’t had the kinds of sustained Asian Tiger-style takeoffs that would prove, once and for all, that there is a development strategy that works in Africa.
And of course if Mallaby is saying that good governance (meaning rule of law, democratic accountability) is necessary for development in the Western view, and that China disagrees, and then in his last paragraph implying that the example of China may show that development doesn’t LEAD TO good governance (rule of law, democratic accountability)…then how did China successfully develop? If it didn’t have good governance? Isn’t it true that Africa is eager to learn from China partly because it may be proof that “good governance” as enforced by Western aid organizations ISN’T necessary for development? Or that there is something about good governance which could be defined differently from the way the West defines it? I don’t think many African countries will have a lot of luck trying to imitate China or Vietnam, but I don’t think the reasons have much to do with “good governance” as defined by the West.
That said, China’s role in Sudan seems pretty gross. That’s Nick Kristof’s topic on his blog today – he got some emails from Western aid workers who were beaten up and sexually assaulted by Sudanese gov’t last week, and they want to organize something like a boycott of Chinese goods or some kind of publicity action around the 2008 Olympics over the issue. That actually seems to me like it might be productive – just a voluntary citizen action that shows Western outrage and makes it clear their Sudan policy is smearing China’s international brand, which they’re obviously investing A LOT in promoting right now.