Interview: Lina Getachew Ayenew talks complexity, change and China-Africa relations

We chat with the author of The Complete Beginner’s Guide to China-Africa Relations

Five years in the making, The Complete Beginner's Guide to China-Africa Relations catalogues the intricate and often seemingly impenetrable themes that have influenced the relationship between two global giants over the last half-decade. Written by Lina Getachew Ayenew, a Beijing-based academic originally from Ethiopia, China-Africa Relations is the culmination of years of in-depth research and personal insight, resulting in an accessible entry point to a deeply complex topic.

Ayenew grew up in Addis Ababa, the bustling capital of Ethiopia, with her parents and four sisters. After receiving both her undergraduate and master's degrees from Yale University, she would eventually move to China in 2011 to teach a public health course in English to medical students at Xiangya Medical School. Now, eight years later, Ayenew lives in Beijing with her husband and baby daughter. Having already written the first Amharic-Mandarin language guide, the pioneering thinker now debuts The Complete Beginner's Guide to China-Africa Relations with a book signing and discussion at The Bookworm. Ahead of the launch, we talked to Ayenew to find out more about the woman inside the cover and what ‘relations’ really mean between China and the continent of Africa.

Origins of the book
‘Back home, my neighbourhood kind of became a faux Chinatown. It’s not officially what we call Chinatown, but there are so many Chinese businesses that it felt like that.’ Having seen the influence of China in Ethiopia, and then coming here to work, Ayenew wanted to understand more about the complex trade and bi-lateral collaborations that have boomed in recent years.

‘In this day and age, where there’s such a data overload, I sometimes really appreciate someone just telling me what’s important’, the author tells us. So, that’s just what she did.

'I started writing the book five years ago. When I started writing it, it was not intended to be a book, it was just a one-time report. But then I was just curious about the subject and I decided to continue researching it. So every year I started doing it, and the idea of publishing came because I felt like I had enough material and I wanted to have it in a nice home. Having a baby really pushed me to [publish] it. It’s like something happened in my brain where I suddenly cared about being an inspiring person. If she were doing something like this, would I want her to just go for it? Then I should be modelling that behaviour.'

Eventually, what started as a commissioned report became an organised source of the most important events and trends from 2014 to 2018.

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China-Africa relations in the next five years
According to Ayenew, 'There are a lot of students [from African countries] coming to China, which is a new phenomenon over the last five years. So now, what’s happening is that the kids will graduate from their programmes and go home. What are they going to do? How are they going to change the conversation? Are they going to negotiate better? Are they going to make the relationship closer? Are they going to talk amongst each other?

‘The educational opportunities that China has provided to African students in terms of scholarships, or even just universities opening their admission doors, has been a major asset to a young continent. These opportunities can be greatly transformative for the students and this one sector can help China and the continent achieve closer ties. Another sector is infrastructure – we need so much infrastructure. It personally affects a citizen. Is a road there or not? Is your commute three hours long or half an hour long? That’s why I like the idea of infrastructure. It’s very visible.'

'For instance, in Ethiopia, you can see it. There’s a road or a train. Literally, because of China-Africa relations, someone on the street can get to work faster. Or the introduction of cheap smartphones: because of that, more people can see their friends on Facebook. When [you] see a building going up or a road being built, you can see it with your own eyes. No one can take it away (or hide it in a Swiss bank) and I think a lot of the goodwill [people feel for China] comes from that.’

But, of course, not all changes to the system are going to be good.

‘One of the most important things is that some sectors might have to be protected from Chinese companies. If retail workers bring cheap goods from China and start selling them as peddlers – of course, there will be tension. The responsibility is on African governments to protect sectors.

‘One of the most surprising things that I [learned about] was donkeys. Apparently, African donkeys are suffering from demand in China because there’s a Chinese medicine ingredient that comes from donkeys. Who knew? Donkeys in African culture are very important financially to families. They carry things and do work – adding economic value and reducing human labour – and that’s a really important contribution. To see how that was affected by China-Africa relations was really interesting. Donkeys have become more expensive and some countries have embraced it by creating abattoirs.’

Why should you read it?
The guide is primarily aimed at diplomats, academics, students, aid workers, business people and the media. Of course, it’s not a bedtime read. But with its simple layout and straightforward explanations, the book presents a nuanced overview of the most prevailing themes and events that have shaped relations between Africa and China of late. If you want a better understanding of the relationship, which is only going to get stronger and more complex in the coming years, then Ayenew’s guide is a good place to start.

Perhaps a few too many people may view China’s interest and investment in Africa as predatory, but, as Ayenew explains throughout the guide, it is much more complicated than that.

‘The more I learn about [the relationship between China and African countries], the more I can’t answer whether it’s good or bad. There are some sectors that are benefiting from it and there are some sectors that are not. Asking if China is good or bad is like asking if a fire is good or bad. It depends on the context: You could burn a house down, or you could cook food. I think the fact that China became very interested in Africa ­– for good or for bad – made other places interested in Africa as well. I love that it has renewed interest in Africa.’

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What will you learn?
The guide outlines big policies, from the Belt and Road Initiative to the creation of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). It talks trade by detailing the inevitable flood of cheap Chinese products into African markets and the effect of Chinese overfishing and demand for rhino horns on African ecosystems. The guide discusses broader international relations as well, examining the impact of the Trump administration and the influence of other Asian nations. It also examines the perception of China in Africa, with polls and stories illustrating what various countries think about China’s role throughout the continent.

How can you meet her?
Lina Getachew Ayenew heads to The Bookworm on Wednesday 20 February to discuss her work with Joseph Mendo’o, a PhD candidate at Peking University. The book launch is hosted by Kente & Silk, a team of African and Chinese professionals advocating for a new era of China-Africa relations. In May 2018, they hosted the first-ever Africa Week in Beijing, which saw over 600 people engaged in different cultural events. For more information, check out their WeChat account (ID: KenteandSilk).

Get the book
The Complete Beginner's Guide to China-Africa Relations is currently available for purchase by year.

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