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China in Africa: The Real Story

Research Ideas

Deborah Brautigam

It's way past time for researchers to go beyond the general overviews of Africa-China relations. Individual country case studies based on fieldwork are one way to do this. We already have a host of general country case studies based on a mix of fieldwork and internet sources. In almost all cases, due to the difficulty of doing research on this topic, these country case studies could be improved. But there are also a lot of more specific topics that would push our understanding of this engagement deeper.

On this page, which I hope to regularly update, I will post ideas for research, mainly for students who are able to do fieldwork. I welcome other ideas and will add them to the list.

(1) China's scholarship program for Africans. The Chinese have provided university scholarships (as I note in The Dragon's Gift) for many decades as a cost-effective diplomatic and foreign assistance tool. Thousands of African students are now studying in China each year. By 2012, the number will be up to 5500. But there is almost no research on how these students are selected: by local elites (as, apparently, in Namibia?) by merit (as others claim?) Or what they do when they return. Or even if they return! (brain drain?) (The late and much missed Professor Li Baoping did some research on returnees from this program.) There is little systematic follow up. An interesting area for further research.

(2) Comparative approaches to malaria treatment centers. I posted on this topic in this blog August 2010. The US has announced finance for ten malaria centers worldwide, while Beijing has a program to finance ten centers in Africa. How do these two approaches compare? What do they tell us about larger conceptions of development held by the two countries? A case study of "sequential" cooperation in Liberia would be fascinating (apparently the Chinese built the center, the US later took it over and helps run it). What impact do we see?

(3) Translations of labor codes. In Mozambique, the local labor code, all 209 pages, was apparently being translated from Portuguese into Chinese as of late 2007. Was this actually done? What impact (if any) has this had on Chinese companies following these laws in Mozambique? Has any other country done this?

(4) Commodity-backed loans in Latin America and Africa. How do these differ? How are they similar? What terms did China Eximbank propose in Ecuador and why was this denounced at first? [Update: I am doing this myself, with Kevin Gallagher. We'll present a first draft at the April 2013 International Studies Association Annual Meetings in San Francisco.]

(5) Telecoms standards. I was recently asked about the huge footprint of Huawei and ZTE, China's two flagship telecoms companies, across Africa. Is the billions of dollars in projects being done by these two companies connected to a Chinese strategy to get African countries to adopt a competing telecoms standard that will "lock in" Chinese technologies to the detriment of companies like Motorola? A fascinating area to dig into.

(6) China's short-term training programs. Thousands of African officials and NGO staff have now been to China for short-term training in courses ranging from 3 weeks to much longer. I haven't seen any assessments or studies of this: what do officials learn in these short-term training courses? Are these purely "PR"? How much stress is put on learning about the "Chinese model" or Chinese development experience? Is the political side of the model brought into the picture or emphasized?

(7) Quality of Chinese Roads/Buildings. Systematic paired comparisons of the quality of infrastructure can shed light on the often-assumed poor quality of Chinese construction. What can we learn from a controlled study? How long does a given stretch of Chinese-built road last compared with one built by the Italians or another country's firms, in similar conditions and maintenance regime?

(8) Anthropological Field-studies. Dozens of Chinese aid projects are being built or have been built and turned over to host governments. Chinese firms are doing joint ventures with African companies. How is this engagement working? Lila Buckley did an excellent, case study of one in Senegal. If you have fluency in Chinese and/or an African language (colonial is usually ok) you're well-placed to do this. Contact me if you need ideas of where to go.

(9) Labor Relations: Comparative Changes. In Ethiopia, according to some sources, labor unions were able to press effectively for the employment of Ethiopian workers in the Chinese ring road project. Labor unions have also made headway in Zambia. A followup study to the Africa survey published by Herbert Jauch and colleagues in Namiba that compares changes in Chinese-African labor relations across several well-selected cases would be useful and interesting.

(10) Project Comparisons. It would be great to have more paired comparisons of Chinese and non-Chinese projects. Or even Chinese and Chinese projects. How about comparing the toll roads being built by China Communications and Construction Company in Uganda and in Ethiopia? These are the first two toll roads built by Chinese firms in Africa, I believe. Where did the idea come from? How are they financed and implemented?