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Book Review: Will Africa Feed China? by Deborah Brautigam

Will+Africa+Feed+China+Book+CoverIt is safe to say that Professor Deborah Brautigam is a “leading” China-Africa scholar and in some respects “the leading” China-Africa scholar. “A leading” and “the leading” labels are not without controversy, and so is “China-Africa” versus “Africa-China” – but these are issues for another day. Suffice it to mention that, when the Johns Hopkins professor produces a book on the topic, it is bound to attract attention.

My sense is that Will Africa Feed China? has attracted the kind of attention that a Brautigam book would, though less so than her 2009 book, The Dragon’s Gift. Brautigam is known in Africa-China circles for calling attention to and debunking taken-for-granted myths about Chinese interests in Africa. Just punch in the word “myth” in the search bar of her popular blog and you see myth-bursting writ large. While her 2009 book alluded to the separation of fact and fiction in Africa-China engagements at a time when Africa-China relations were on a meteoric rise, her latest work is even more pointed in puncturing ill-informed suppositions. The Dragon’s Gift generally and fleetingly disabused erroneous media generated yarns. The new book can essentially be read as a repudiation of the deleterious role of the media in circulating wrong-headed tall stories about “Chinese land grab” heft in Africa.

It is with this role of the media in Africa-China engagements as well as Africa-China scholarship that I am here concerned. But before attempting a media-focused appraisal of Will Africa Feed China?, it is worthwhile summarising reviews on the book since its October 2015 release.

A review of reviews

As expected, reviewers have appraised the book in differing ways. Salutary reviews with an eye on the buyer’s pockets would be expected from the publisher, booksellers and book endorsers – no disappointments there! Independent reviewers may however provide a detached barometer on how the book has been received. One reviewer concludes that “the prose flows well” but a “narrow” focus on “proving a negative” and approaching the topic from the Chinese rather than African end of things are drawback. The same reviewer also reckons Brautigam focused on agriculture to the exclusion of other Chinese interests in Africa. This is echoed by another reviewer whose appetite was whetted for more than Brautigam offered, the argument being that she could/should have offered some pro-African agricultural development recommendations. Another reviewer is all thumbs up for the book and uses Brautigam’s debunking of media myths to throw in their own observations on how and why media and civil society are forces of negativity. Some do little else than regurgitate some of Brautigam’s debunking while others endorse the book as “an engaging, eye-opening read”, one that “throws many buckets of cold water on a narrative that many perhaps want to believe is true, to fit pre-ordained opinions and viewpoints”.

One reviewer posits that the book would not have been necessary in the first place. This is because the mere thought of Africa feeding China is an unfathomable, rhetorical proposition. However this reviewer finds the book necessary because “there are plenty who believe otherwise. And it’s not just pot-smoking conspiracy theorists”. Some of the respected news outlets such as The Economist are said to be the, well, rumormongers. It is quite telling to note that a quasi-review-cum-report based on the book by The Economist did not push back on Brautigam’s dim view of media-generated hyperbole by The Economist itself.

All in all, it is safe to conclude that Will Africa China? has received favorable coverage. Even criticism at the book for offering too little in terms of scope can be read in positive terms as readers wanting more. A perusal of the reviews suggests they are quick and holistic appraisals of the book. Reflecting on the deeper disciplinary and methodological considerations of Brautigam’s new offering might perhaps provide different reading of Africa-China engagements. In my case, the fact that the book seeks to debunk media-created myths provides an opportunity for reflection on the link between the two major variables of the book: media and communications on the one hand and the agricultural sector on the other hand.

The media dimension

While China’s agricultural interests in Africa is the main focus of the book, there is little doubt that media and communications is an important subtheme. Consider, for instance, the incidence of the keywords related to media and communications: Article, data/databases, editorial, headline, Internet, journalism/journalists, opinion, magazine, media, news, newspaper, piece, radio, report, reporters, story, television and website. These words appear at least 112 times on their own and at least 119 times as part of a specific organisational media platform (for example, Sinochem website or Google or New York Times) or a country’s media (Chinese website for instance). Collectively, “media code” appears at least 230 times which on average means once per page.

In what amounts to the problem of the statement, Brautigam writes that “hunger and food security, land grabbing, the fate of small farmers in faraway African villages, Chinese migration” are crucial issues plagued by “inadequate data, all covered by the international media with TV, radio, and newspaper stories of sharply varying accuracy”. Media is found to be problematic in circulating fiction rather than fact, warranting Brautigam’s “peeling away layers of myths” in an effort that required “extensive fieldwork” with an eye on “a more balanced and realistic account”. In analyzing the book, one can put aside the ‘main’ agricultural investment dimension of the book and concentrate on the media subtheme. Such an endeavour would in essence mean that the ‘complementary’ media dimension is elevated to become the main theme, while the main agricultural theme is stepped down to become the complementary theme.

Thus, it is not just that Brautigam sets out to establish Chinese agricultural investments in Africa, but that she sets out to establish Chinese investments in Africa by closely analyzing media coverage of the phenomenon. To belabor the point, Brautigam could as well have swatted away media coverage on the topic and gone straight for the juggler – Chinese agricultural investments in Africa. Indeed, Brautigam is forthright: “This book challenges four widespread beliefs about Chinese agricultural engagement in Africa that have shaped conventional wisdom, circulating through influential policy circles and popular culture (read media) ….”

What motivates Brautigam’s focus on the circulation of misinformed information on Chinese agricultural investment in Africa? Food, Brautigam suggests, is a highly sensitive and political matter on its own. But things are made worse when the media fuels speculation about a supposedly food-ravenous China devouring food-hungry Africa’s farmland. The real and present danger is that media consumers assume that “because it featured in The Economist, The Guardian or the website of a famous think tank, it must be true”. Worse still, “the nature of knowledge circulation is such that first impressions are very hard to erase”.

In an almost equivalent to “gotcha journalism”, the book’s methodology is one where a media item is identified and re-narrated, then deconstructed in a bid to overturn falsehoods, errors and hyperbole. Brautigam’s approach can thus be said to be mixed methods, triangulating development economics with a media-based qualitative content analysis. Upfront, Brautigam implies that the book is work in progress as it could “provide a baseline for current and future analyses”.

Straddling the continent, the most telling examples of mismatches between media-generated content and reality are in Benin, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal (West Africa); Democratic Republic of Congo (Central Africa); Angola, Madagascar, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, (Southern Africa) and Tanzania, Uganda (East Africa); Mauritania (Maghreb); Ethiopia, Sudan (Horn of Africa). Thus, the most incisive debunking is done on selected cases, in 18 African countries.

The media theme can be broken down in any number of ways. Consider the why and wherefores. For instance, on the one hand, Brautigam makes generalisations on why and how the media report Chinese agricultural engagements with Africa the way they do. On the other hand, Brautigam makes reference to individual media covering specific Chinese agricultural engagements with/in Africa.

Why the media gets it wrong

A number of independent and interrelated factors are presented to explain why the media report the way they do the supposed “land grabs”. It is “not easy” for media to “avoid sensationalism” and “there is little investigative” reporting. The media relied on “easy to access”, unverified content from the Internet generally but websites and databases specifically which was then published as fact. A related consideration is that unsubstantiated information flows back and forth from websites, databases, media, think tanks, books, journals, etc., is “recycled …[as] facts long after their sell-by date”. The genesis and wide circulation of the inaccuracies is described as follows: “Some of the early efforts to collect data on Chinese investments have been flawed”. Indeed, some of the investments captured in datasets “failed to move beyond a press conference or an expression of interest”. Interestingly, some aspects of the China-land-grab sensation come from China itself! This is because in their zeal to report only the positive side of the story, Chinese media “predictably fail to cover” problematic agricultural issues while contributing to exaggerations.

How the media gets it wrong

An analytical media-centric reading of the book would show that the generic ‘why’ considerations impel the generic ‘how’ aspects. On the one hand, it is not just one media item that circulates inaccurate data, but “hundreds of newspaper articles and editorials, sensational statements and robust myths”. It is via the relentless blitz that the Chinese-land-grab story is conditioned into a home truth. This is the case of the media citing erroneous databases and websites. On the other hand, “the headlines and media reports turned into “data” that became the foundation for analysis by researchers in NGOs, universities, and think tanks”. This second point is a reverse: the researchers, academics, policymakers, etc., source their information from the media. By looking at the problem from both the database/website prism and the journalism/media prism, Brautigam manages to demonstrate the link between media and interested parties such as civil society and academia in the Africa-China knowledge production sphere.

Overall, Will Africa Feed China? is a valuable book not just because it calls attention to myths in the Africa-China field, but because it pinpoints some of the sources of rumours such as a supposed Chinese government strategy to settle one million Chinese people in Africa. Moreover, the media-based approach utilized by the author is not only a first for book-length project but contributes new thinking in the linkages between various Africa-China disciplinary persuasions.

Room for further work

Several issues can be picked up from the book. One, as Brautigam herself puts it, the book should not be taken as conclusive on Chinese engagements but a work in progress. The stories and fieldwork are concentrated in 18 out of the 54 African countries. Even within the 18 countries, it is safe to conclude that only a number of cases of rogue reporting were investigated by Brautigam and her team. In short, Brautigam has made a major contribution in pinpointing some cases of Chinese agricultural investments in Africa but a conclusive book on the topic is yet to be written.

While Brautigam offers some views on why the media gets it so wrong, it would appear she does not go to the heart of why the myths arise in the first place. There must be philosophical and ideological factors that impel journalists, particularly Western journalists to spread the unverified information beyond the dearth in investigative journalism rigour. There also must be philosophical and ideological factors that inform Chinese journalists’ unwitting contribution to the misinformation. Brautigam could have embellished her book with thoughts on these perspectives from the Africa-China media and communications field.

I would agree with the reviewer who argues that, on balance, the book is more inclined towards explaining the China end of things more than it does the African story. One needs only to compare and contrast Chinese and African sources to conform this. It is for this reason that I would categorize the book as “China-Africa” rather than “Africa-China”. Additionally, the book is presented from an essentially Western scholars’ perspective, which is an important perspective that needs to be understood as such. One of the many ways to back up the claim that the book approaches the topic from a Western rather than Chinese or African perspective is to consider the media establishments cited. The bulk of the news media featuring in the book are Western: Inter Press Service, CBS News, Washington Post, Daily Mail, The Atlantic, The Economist, The New York Times, The Guardian, Asian Business (part of the Wall Street Journal), Financial Times, Associated Press, Voice of America, Christian Science Monitor, Africa-Asia Confidential (UK-based), Reuters, CNN, and Harper’s Magazine. The Chinese media cited are: Far Eastern Economic Review, China Daily, Xinhua, Beijing Morning Post, Caijing, Hunan Daily, Peking Review, China Business News, CCTV, GuojiShangbao and China Economic Herald. Only three African media appear: the Savanna magazine of Mozambique, Gazette de la Grande Ile of Madagascar and The Herald of Zimbabwe.

The media-based approach that Brautigam uses ably serves to debunk myths yes, but from a scholarly media and communications perspective it is rather unsystematic. One may pose the question of just how many media outlets that have information relevant to the topic miss out from Brautigam’s analysis? Indeed, this calls to mind the lively debate between Brautigam and the US-based Centre for Global Development (also known as AidData) when the latter released a report on Chinese economic activities in Africa based on media content in 2013. Brautigam has contributed an important approach towards getting down to the facts in Africa-China engagements: undertake the hard work of verifying facts through extensive secondary research and fieldwork before you publish figures. But her approach is not quite comprehensive. This is where the media-based data collection method proposed by AidData seems a better bet, albeit one fraught with the potential for the double, even triple data citation that Brautigam warns us about. It would appear that the ideal approach in the use of media to obtain accurate, complete, quality and credible Africa-China data lies somewhere between Brautigam’s rigorous approach and AidData big data approach. In fact, as one of the book reviewers points out, this would be unnecessary if the Chinese and African governments had data and were ready and willing to share it.

Dr Wekesa is a postdoctoral fellow at the Wits Journalism Department. This article is part of the author’s academic interest in Brautigam’s repudiation of the role of media in Africa-China engagements.

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