Skeptical of China and Sierra Leone’s “friendship”

I wrote a column in Awoko about China’s influence Sierra Leone, and why I think it should be viewed with at least a somewhat critical eye. There are always copies of Freetown’s other newspapers in the Awoko office, and this column was a response to what I read  in them: seemingly nonstop fawning about the “friendship” between the two countries. I was hesitant to write the column at first because I thought I was a bit out of my depth, and this isn’t a good place to be in when arguing against the grain. But in the end, it was a combination my colleague urging me to write it (for reasons I’ll explain), and the 45th anniversary of China-Sierra Leone relations coming up, which made it kind of a now-or-never thing.

Here’s a link to the column:

China’s role in Sierra Leone deserves more scrutiny, less blind praise

It’s not my favorite column I’ve ever written, but I’m glad I wrote it. It sometimes seems like every third article in Freetown newspapers is about how much good China is selflessly doing for Sierra Leone. From the captions to the headlines and the long blocks of text in between, the framing is anything but objective or even-handed. As much as I like Awoko newspaper, I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t carry its fair share of these types of articles too. In fact, all the pictures above are from different issues of Awoko. I could make a whole other gallery with pictures from the other newspapers if I was really dedicated, but it would be boring, and also would never end.

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I don’t have a grudge against China, and I don’t think there’s some vast conspiracy here. In fact it’s obvious China has done a lot of good for Sierra Leone. But one reason the headlines and articles declaring the wisdom of Mao Zedong and Siaka Stevens for forging the diplomatic relationship (sorry, great and eternal friendship), and all subsequent leaders in maintaining it, and all the ways China will help Sierra Leone until the end of time, annoy me, is because they’re empty platitudes. Besides being devoid of any criticism whatsoever, they obscure the complicated reality of what’s actually happening, which I find interesting. It’s interesting to me what ordinary Sierra Leoneans actually think about their country’s relationship with China.

I know a few people on the Awoko staff feel strongly about China. Some of them went to China for higher education, at least one for a master’s degree, and most have also gone to seminars and trainings there. One staff member is there right now, writing stories and dispatches about his experiences for Awoko. One of these was about his visit to Lhasa in Tibet, and it was devoid of historical context and any mention of the Tibetan people. This isn’t exactly surprising, as of course the Chinese government wouldn’t allow anything else — but still. Some of the staff are passionate about China, and won’t hear a word against it. (One of my colleagues was getting tired of that, and wanted me to write something critical about China, which I was happy to).

Of course I might feel the same as they do if I was Sierra Leonean. China has invested a lot in Sierra Leone — and nott just token gestures. It’s built roads, bridges, a dam and stadium and more. Earlier this week I was walking with a colleague outside a hospital and he pointed out that the road we were walking on was built by China — before, the area was impossible to navigate. China has provided medical aid and scholarships for Sierra Leoneans. And there’s no doubt a lot more I’m missing.

So what exactly is my problem? I have one minor one, which is that I think this should be viewed as what it is: a business relationship. I don’t think it helps to have this attitude of unconditional gratitude. True, most diplomatic relationships are full of rhetoric like this, but this one takes it to a extreme.

According to 2013 policy briefing I cite in the article (from the South African Institute of International Affairs by Simone Datzberger), China is very interested in exploiting Sierra Leone’s mineral resources. Frankly, why would it be investing so much in Sierra Leone if it wasn’t? China wants to build good will, and clearly has. Again, I don’t think China is evil or even necessarily a lot worse in this than other powerful countries. There are certainly questionable motives behind what the US, Russia, the UK, France and so many others are doing around the world. But that doesn’t make China’s presence in Sierra Leone any less worthy of scrutiny and skepticism. This is what I focused on in the column. I mainly wanted to just say people should treat China’s motives with a tiny bit of skepticism, even if they continue to welcome investments from them.

But I think there’s another important criticism, echoed in another opinion column I cited. Unlike some other countries and international organizations, China doesn’t particularly care about fighting corruption and strengthening democracy in Sierra Leone.

I think this is very important, but one of my colleagues not only doesn’t agree, he said he likes China’s hands-off approach. I didn’t even have to bring up this point — he came right out and said he appreciates that China doesn’t try to interfere in Sierra Leone’s affairs, unlike, say the IMF, whose aid is conditional. For example, he said, China lets Sierra Leoneans follow their culture. Other international groups will try to forbid practices like female genital mutilation (that term is not a misrepresentation– he used the common acronym, FGM). Of course, my reaction was…that’s good! It’s a horrible practice, not matter how culturally important people believe it is. Which it turns out isn’t how a lot of people view the issue here. That and other cultural gulfs is the subject of a future blog post.

The day after I wrote this column, my editor told me as a by-the-way, “The Chinese are not very happy with your article.” I was glad (as always) to hear that my column at least occasionally gets some readership. But I was a bit surprised. My column was just one mildly skeptical article out of dozens of full-page pieces praising China. And it was an opinion column in an independent newspaper. What does it say that they weren’t happy about it?

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