Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Sino-American Relations of Not-So-Devolved Bystanders

In front of a downtown hotel in the dusty highway town of Mbeya on Tanzania's far western borderlands with Zambia and Malawi, "the China World" shop still overflows with imported electronic goods coming through distant ports.  Among the goods that arrived via possibly two days of rough slow ride on trucks from the far eastern coast are supposedly the latest cellphones from China.  Advertised on big colorful banners as "high-resolution videos and crystal-clear sounds," the possibly exaggerated descriptions of shockingly inexpensive devices begged first-hand demonstrations as proof.  The permanently emotionless Chinese shop-owner has no qualms about turning on some music videos on these devices for his curious Tanzanian clients.  Out came the sounds and dances of the latest American hip-hop hits, something that the middle-aged shop-owner with little English skills could care any less about.

In the hotel itself, the little Chinese-made TV with no access to global English channels like BBC or CNN somehow had an English-language documentary channel of China Central Television.  Among tonight's programming was a collection of stories from new Chinese immigrants in Virginia.  Of all places in the US that America-loving Tanzanians would know about, Virginia would not rank very high.  Who knows, maybe by portraying Chinese lives in random places in America, the program hopes to find resonances among all nationalities that head to the US for their "American Dream."  It might even help local viewers start perceiving the Chinese as people still in need of economic largesse from the developed world, and not as the powerful economic colonizers that they are increasingly being seen as here in Africa.

The two examples illustrate just how Sino-American relations can affect the most grassroots of daily lives in places thousands of miles away from either China or the US.  While America entrenches its cultural dominance, Chinese traders have been busy stretching their economic reach to every notable town.  Honestly, it has become difficult to imagine a Tanzania without either American culture or Chinese commerce.  Surely no one on the streets of Mbeya, or even at the highest level of the national government, will contemplate as such, but any shift in Sino-American relations, as it faces the trials of the Xi-Obama summit, may affect third parties in the developing world just as much as the two countries themselves.

The primary source of influence may be the two nations' competition as benefactors, active promoters, and financiers of global economic development.  For a place like Tanzania, desperately short on developmental expertise and capital, whom to ask and accept help from, in what form and under what circumstances, may greatly affect the trajectory of the country's economic future.  That is not to say Sino-American competition in developmental support and aid provision is a "zero-sum game" of the Soviet-American, Cold War style.  Instead, it is one that affects what the recipients like Tanzania will end up prioritizing in the course of economic growth.  Will it be pouring money into massive infrastructure projects in exchange for facilitating top-down projection of large corporate interests?  Or will it be attempts at more democratic distribution of resources to the most basic community level through small but scalable bottoms-up development projects?  For developing countries with limited amount of resources and political capital, balancing the two ways may not be a viable option.

The former, a model that Chinese state-backed firms excel in, often finds quick, enviable results in willingly adopted states.  Recent news of Addis Ababa's opening of sub-Saharan Africa's first modern urban tram system seemed to draw massive attention among the educated in Tanzania and many other neighboring countries.  Many here seem to use the opportunity to ridicule their own government's inaction on economic development while Ethiopia surges ahead with those shiny Chinese-financed and built trams.  Whether justifiable from their values to overall national development, such massive infrastructure projects allow proponents of Chinese model of top-down development to argue for visible benefits.

But, on the flip side, is it really worthwhile to launch projects that only benefit 3 million urban citizens in a mostly rural country of more than 60 million, even if those 3 million did truly benefit?  That is the question being obscured as China continues to sign off one large infrastructural project after the other in this part of the world.  Completion of such projects only serve to increase economic discrepancy between their immediate beneficiaries and other without access to them.  And at the slow pace of financing and construction, not to mention fundamental political bias in awarding certain regions over others, top-dwon investments in a large scale will always leave some people, of the politically, socially, and geographically "inconvenient," behind, gradually making them the economically backward over time.  This has been the story of China itself as it rapidly developed as a global economic power over the past decades.

Yet, ironically enough, "economic discrepancy" may be one of the few points of commonality in a conflict-filled Sino-American relations.  The growth of American corporate wealth and power vis-a-vis those of the traditional middle class has made America's traditional moral high ground of "equitable economic opportunity for all" sound so much hollower.  Hollywood movies and hip-hop music videos may still portray the heroism and wealth of the average Joes and Janes in the US (a "reality" stamped firmly in the imagination of the Tanzanian audience), but the real-life average Joes and Janes of the world seem to underestimate just how much Chinese and American economic worries are converging in their domestic manifestations.

Then, as the logical next step, today's Sino-American relations, projected to this piece of the world's distant corner, becomes a competition not of instilling differing ideological values of development, but competition for economic partnerships that create new adherents for products and services.  Simply said, it is a race to gather new markets for corporate interests.  It is under this background that Chinese phones and infrastructure is battling American cultures and promises of equality.  It is a battle of hardware against software that allows each state to utilize its own relative advantage to bring locals into its own economic orbits.  So, of course, it is done not strictly for the benefits of the locals, no matter how much it is portrayed as such on the ground, but for the betterment of domestic economic actors in both countries.

At the Xi-Obama meeting in Washington, DC, surely many political and economic issues will be on the agenda for discussion.  But out here on the streets of Mbeya, the implications of the meetings will be felt strongly in a narrower and more biased manner.  It does demonstrate the power of the two largest state-level economic actors on this continent, presented in the physical form of NGOs,corporations, individual businessmen, and professionals.  The high-level economic compromises and conflicts of the two nations will trickle down to rural Tanzania over time, and it will be interesting to see how changes in Sino-American relations follow the Xi-Obama meeting will be shown on the ground here.

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