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Deborah Brautigam – an expert on China’s debt in Africa

Deborah Brautigam, Director of the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University.

Is China merely the next colonial power to wreak havoc in Africa and make the continent financially dependent, while raw materials flow bountifully to the Middle Kingdom? This is the impression given by many media reports. Deborah Brautigam, Director of the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University disagrees – and is increasingly distraught by Western reporting: “I’m always surprised how much journalists still fall back into Cold War reflexes when reporting on China.”

When Brautigam criticizes reporting – for example, on China’s supposed debt traps – it doesn’t have the sharp, bitter tone that some media critics from the periphery of society adopt. Her criticism is based on years of field research on the ground, so it has a solid foundation. For her latest book, for example, Brautigam traveled to Africa and spoke with local farmers. After food prices soared in the late noughties, explanations were sought. “At the time, there were a lot of rumors circulating in Western media about Chinese land grabs in Africa,” Brautigam explains.

‘Cold War reflexes’ in the media about China

It was assumed that the Chinese would use bought-up land to ship food back home. In 2010, the New York Times reported about African farmers who were being driven off their land by foreign investors. The Chinese would have a particular eye on sugar cane plantations. Brautigam and her team evaluated the corresponding Chinese investments. What they discovered was a very different story. “Only in one major project did the Chinese invest in food on African soil,” Brautigam says. That project involved rice farming in Mozambique. The yields were intended for local markets.

Brautigam has been researching Chinese activities in Africa for more than 40 years. In the early 1980s, the US American was one of the first to focus on Chinese development aid in Africa and to research what goals the Chinese were pursuing. In doing so, she looks back to the Mao era of the 1960s. She is now one of the world’s foremost experts on Chinese-African relations. Brautigam’s interest in Asian cultures and China, in particular, is rooted in a four-year backpacking trip from Istanbul to Thailand in the late 1970s right after she graduated from college. It was a time of change in Asia. “When I left Iran, the Shah was overthrown. When I left Afghanistan, the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan was beginning,” Brautigam says. At least, Thailand remained largely stable. There, Brautigam gave English courses and learned Thai.

It wasn’t until she returned to America that she decided to learn Mandarin. “It was a purely practical decision between Chinese, Japanese or Korean,” Brautigam says. She chose Mandarin because most people speak it – in retrospect, it was exactly the right decision. David Renke

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