Vera Fennell is a professor of political science interested in Asian studies and women’s studies. A speaker of Mandarin Chinese, she received her bachelor’s degree in East Asian Studies from Princeton University and conducted her graduate work at the University of Chicago.
Fennell is currently working on a manuscript that explores China’s strong relationship with the African continent. Fennell explains the source of this friendship, the current advantage that China gets from a long history of Sino-African “brotherhood” and why America should follow their lead.
While many western nations are only now becoming engaged in Africa, your research illustrates how communist China is leading the way. What have you learned?
Vera Fennell: My research is both historical and contemporary, examining how the present situation developed from historical roots.
China has had a long and storied history in Africa, much more than the United States. China partnered with many African states before they declared independence in the post-colonial movements of the 1960s. Originally, they reached out to support African sovereignty. They saw themselves as a leader in the Third World, as brothers in solidarity with African states emerging from colonial domination by Europe as China emerged from European colonialism during the first half of the 20th century. It was a way to distinguish themselves from the Soviet Union, their main competition in Africa.
China considered themselves similar to many African nations in the world’s view of them. They considered themselves underdeveloped. In the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s there was more poverty in Asia than in Africa. The West routinely thought of Asia, not Africa, as the disaster continent. It has only been in the last 3-4 decades that Asia’s economy has risen and Africa has taken their place.
Is China in Africa in order to dominate the region militarily, or to access natural resources?
VF: China has never in its entire history sent the People’s Liberation Army to any foreign land. Of course, in a time when raw energy resources are so often in the news, many people believe they are motivated by resource needs. While it is true that their outreach has been strategic, take for example their trade arrangements with the people of Sudan, it is more than just one country pursuing its own economic interests. The relationship goes back 40 years and provides Sudan another option over dealing with the west.
China’s success has been forged in infrastructure development. In Africa they build roads, soccer stadiums and even the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. They provide access to loans. In return they receive goodwill, which may lead to privileged access to resources.
It is a long-term strategy and there is much to learn from it. In 2000, China formed something called the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. It is a continent-wide meeting, occurring every four or so years (the last time was Beijing in 2012) and every African leader, NGO and global financial organization advising on the China-Africa Development Fund shows up. It is a mini United Nations session.
With these efforts, China has transformed their diplomatic relationships into privileged access to resources like oil and farmland (only about 7 percent of China’s land is good for growing crops).
Are there drawbacks to dealing with China?
VF: Because Africa’s relationship with China revolves around investment, development, infrastructure, and making low-interest rate loans or erasing the debt, various African states are benefitting despite never having had a colonial history with China. It does not mean that it is smooth going. There are many African states that are awash with cheap Chinese goods flooding the marketplace. For example, the Zambian textile industry has completely gone under due to the Chinese presence.
For many Africans, they see this as a new kind of colonialism – an economic colonialism. There are also places where the Chinese have had long term mining business, and what has happened to them in many instances is exactly what has happened in Algeria, where indigenous civil war groups in various African states have kidnapped Chinese oil workers and held them for ransom. It is a complicated relationship. But as long as China can point to their history in Africa of recognizing African sovereignty first, of never having sent in troops, and their generosity with African leaders, they are in a defensible position.
What interested you in this research topic?
VF: I was always interested in China. What made me start learning about it was my older sister, a member of the Black Panther Party when, in the ‘70s, the Party had three revolutionary heroes: Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Mao Zedong.
My first interest was in what China was doing for women’s issues. While Chinese women are not yet equal to men, considering their status in the early part of the 20th century the change has been remarkable. It was quicker than in a lot of other places—state policy required women get educated and working as part of a post-revolutionary China. State policy also limited the number of children they could have; urban professional Chinese women saw that as a good thing. That’s what 150 years of political and economic crisis can do for equality. They needed to remake the country and they needed everyone to pitch in. My doctoral dissertation examined women who were small business owners.
What is there for the modern, American student to know about this relationship? Are we going to lag behind in Africa?
VF: We could. I think that in the past decade, according to The Economist, of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world, six of them are in Africa. We have an outdated notion of what Africa is and China does not. China is courting many African states and leaders for access to resources, access to farmland, and it is part of the rise of the Chinese economy. If the 21st century is, as many people predict, going to be the Chinese century, then part of that is their relationship with Africa.
Fennell has taught courses on Chinese politics, the women's movement in China and American minority politics. Before academia, Fennell served as a legislative assistant for women's issues in the Washington, D.C. office of Congressman Charles B. Rangel and continued working for women's issues as the legislative intern in the New York City Commission on the Status of Women from 1989-1990. Fennell is a member of the American Political Science Association, the Association for Asian Studies and the Black Asianists Group.