Sunday, June 12, 2011

Audience and Africa

Hillary Clinton has taken a rather candid shot across China's bow. While on a diplomatic tour of Africa, she described China's newish influence on the Continent as New Colonialism.

She's suggesting China's representatives are going into Africa for the natural resources, paying leaders for access, and getting what they paid for. Which sounds fine if you think of Africa like a Stop-n-Go.  If, however, you take Africa's history with these kinds of transactions into account, Clinton's comment cuts pretty deep, from a Western point of view, at least.

I think Clinton has a point, and I like that someone has the... guts to call this as she sees it. In several of these exchanges, China is dealing with notoriously corrupt leaders to gain access to local resources. Often the result is rich African leaders with more money to defend themselves from the civil unrest fomented by dwindling resources and stagnant development. It's bad news. This NPR story has a nice bit on how African leaders are happy that China doesn't attach strings to its investments. No one talks about human rights during these exchanges, they talk about coal and currency.

It seems like Clinton's message should be loud an clear for all involved. But there's a rhetorical problem here. It's one of audience and frame of reference.

Let's start with the US:
When US officials speak publicly on diplomatic issues, they believe they are actually speaking publicly - that they are speaking to the citizens of a nation. There are plenty of private talks with leaders, of course, but in these open forum talks - like the ones in which Clinton is chastising China - US figures believe they are speaking "for the world to hear."

Part of this belief is influenced by the US conviction that the power of a nation is held in the hands of its citizenry.

China, on the other hand...
China has a government and culture that believes centralized power and respect for authority are the natural way of things. When the Chinese make deals with African leaders (corrupt or not) they believe they are meeting all of the appropriate expectations for international exchange. The Chinese don't see the well-being of African citizens as a Chinese concern. The African leaders are the ones who have to worry about the well-being of African citizens, and the Chinese are giving those leaders lots of money.
The Chinese beleive that the power of a nation is held in the hands of its leaders.

Then there's Africa.
We might see a shift in the near future, but for now, and for most of modern history, many African citizens have not been able to shake autocratic rule. The history is brutal in many places, and hope for an empowered citizenry has been fleeting-at-best in many nations. There are exceptions, but those are not the places that Clinton's concerns are focused.
The African leaders that enjoy the benefits of autocratic regimes are happy to have trade partner that won't challenge the status quo, and the citizens are not yet in a place to effectively voice any kind of opposition... yet. They don't see themselves as agents of change in today's Africa.

I like to think the only legitimate source of power for governments comes from the people being governed, but some of the actors in this US-China-Africa exchange do not share my views. That's bound to affect how messages are composed, transmitted, and received.
Clinton speaks to the concerns of global citizens.
China speaks to the concerns of leaders of nations.
Both believe they have the ear of the people with legitimate influence. Both have good reason to believe they've picked the right audience.
African leaders like being the primary audience, and they have very real influence.
Citizens of African nations should have a say in where their nations' resources go, but the impact of those citizens is hard to measure.

Just another wrinkle in geopolitical diplomacy, I suppose, but also a nice way of considering the "Speaker-Audience" relationship.