TRANSCRIPT: Lessons for Central Asia from the Belt and Road Initiative in Africa

Transcript of the seminar "Lessons for Central Asia from the Belt and Road Initiative in Africa" with Cobus van Staden and Nargis Kassenova

Back to the main page for "Lessons for Central Asia from the Belt and Road Initiative in Africa"

Kassenova: Good afternoon. My name is Nargis Kassenova, and I'm in charge of running the Program on Central Asia here at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. Well, it's not often that we have an event—an Africa-related event here at the Davis Center. Yeah, and I was trying to check when was the last event and if I'm not mistaken, it was a talk on Soviet policies in the Horn of Africa during the Brezhnev era, which was done in 2016. But now probably it's going to change because Russia is, as you know, is getting more and more active in Africa. It's becoming a hot topic and we have our own REECA student—I don't know where he is—Peyton, who is doing research on Russian...(I saw him, but...) Russian policies in Africa. But today we'll take a different entry, a different angle.

Kassenova: We'll look at China's BRI in Africa and try to draw lessons from it for Central Asia. And I think it's quite appropriate here to recall Halford Mackinder's concept of World-Island. Where he talks about one super continent, which is Europe, Asia, and Africa. And what we see now is that China is actually trying to connect this World-Island. And China, as you know, has been promoting connectivity between Asia, Europe, and Africa and, well, basically that's something that now connects us, yeah, connects Central Asia with Africa.

Kassenova: We thought it would be really good to compare these two regions despite obvious differences. We have very different legacies in terms of relations with China. We have very different settings. We are connected to different parts of China obviously, and in case of Central Asia it's by land, in case of Africa it's by sea. But we also have some important similarities. Central Asian states and African states are relatively young states with sets of vulnerabilities. They're generally resource rich. They are hungry for investments, they want to have more infrastructure, but at the same time they are constrained by weak institutional capacities and by poor governance.

Kassenova: Among similarities, I also want to mention the behavior of elites. When I read about African cases, it sounds very familiar to what we have in our region. So we thought it makes a lot of sense to kind of put these two regions together and to see what's going on, especially considering that the modus operandi, how China promotes connectivity in these two regions have a lot in common. These are the same banks, these are the same usually SOEs that operate and build these infrastructure projects.

Kassenova: And we sort of face the same sets of opportunities and challenges, and I think, today, let's try to discuss ways of addressing these challenges and try to kind of go deeper. Okay, and for this conversation, we have an excellent, excellent speaker with us: Cobus van Staden, who is a senior researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs focusing on China-Africa relations.

Kassenova: Cobus van Staden completed his Ph.D. in Japanese studies and media studies at the University of Nagoya in 2008. He expanded his work to comparisons between Japan and China during his postdoctoral positions at the University of Stellenbosch—I'm sorry if I'm mispronouncing—

van Staden: No.

Kassenova: —at the University of Johannesburg before joining Department of Media Studies at the University of Witwatersrand in 2013. He is also quite well known for running the multiplatform China Africa Project, which includes the China in Africa podcast, the most prominent podcast dedicated to China-Africa relations, which is downloaded about 30,000 times per month. So, wow, Cobus is with us. The floor is yours.

van Staden: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me, it's really a thrill to be here. So as Nargis pointed out, I'm not an expert on Central Asia. So the points I'm making very much come from an African perspective, but I do believe that it is possible to draw lots of parallels, and that in lots of ways the experience that China has had with Africa and the kind of track record that China built up in Africa set some precedents for what we're seeing in the rollout of the BRI at the moment.

van Staden: I also, as Nargis mentioned, I come from a media studies background, even though I work a lot in geopolitics and in development studies at the moment, my background in media studies, I focused particularly on the use of media in public diplomacy and the development and history of East Asian public diplomacy in Africa. And from there, I moved deeper and deeper into China-Africa relations. So for me, because of this kind of somewhat unique background, I tend to look a lot at not only at the way that the BRI it operates as an economic system or operates within the geopolitical context, but also in how it's narrated.

van Staden : And I think the narration of the BRI is incredibly important and it is a key kind of hinge issue, which isn't discussed enough and which is also a hinge which connects it to Africa. [Noise...] Sorry, another podcast, competing podcast. So in thinking about the BRI, one of the problems with the BRI is that it's both so massive and so vague. It is manifested in these large crowds of different kinds of projects, but at the same time, it's incredibly, it's kind of all over the place—and to the extent that one of the metaphors that I've started using and thinking about the BRI is the philosopher Timothy Morton's idea of a hyper object which he originally applies to global warming as something that's kind of so large, again all over the place, so kind of wide ranging that it resists a career-end interpretation.

van Staden : So it's both as a centerpiece of Chinese foreign policy and yet, it resists a geographical distinction or geographical definition increasingly. It started off as setting up geographical roots, that has been discarded. We now see countries like Nigeria, countries in South America, for example, signing onto the BRI. We're seeing the BRI manifesting as the digital thought road, we're seeing the BRI in space. So it's a concept that is both a disparate collection of different projects all around the world. And I think this is a context where narrative becomes really important. Because the BRI can be seen as a bunch of projects that are woven together by narrative. And in more specifically competing narratives.

van Staden: And this one kind of thread that we can start pulling that kind of to get us closer to dealing with what the actual implications of the BRI is going to be. And because what one sees in Africa is, again, a very similar situation, very similar, lots of disparate projects all woven together by different competing narratives. And so once one starts unpacking the narratives, it starts getting easier to start looking at what the projects are actually going to mean in real life.

van Staden: So I think I'm going to start off just giving you a quick—locating us in the China-Africa relationship very quickly. Pointing out a few of the mechanisms and few of the similarities that link the BRI and China's earlier rollout in Africa. And then we're going to move on to talking a little bit about the impact of some of these issues relating to the BRI on African governance, and then linking onto that to talk about some of the research we've done in relation to African agency and African decision making in the context of the BRI.

van Staden: And in all of these cases what I hope is to open a conversation where we can start drawing some parallels from the African experience into Central Asian and rest of BRI kind of experience. So the China-Africa relationship started off, I think, somewhat earlier than a lot of people tend to assume. A lot is made in official Chinese narratives of the Ming era, Ming dynasty era and sailor Zheng He who traveled to Africa, met African people, very crucially in the Chinese narrative, didn't colonize anyone, didn't take anyone as a slave, took some giraffes back to Beijing. There's these famous lithographs of him leading giraffes into Beijing.

van Staden: And I tend to kind of underplay the Zheng He narrative a little bit. For me, the more interesting and more fundamental kind of meeting point is the Cold War, where China played a very strong role in Africa. China was an enthusiastic supporter of anti-colonial struggle in Africa. Several countries' later leaders or generals assigned, received training in China. All of that took place also within the context of the Sino-Soviet split. So there was a struggle for influence between China and the Soviet Union in Africa.

van Staden: A lot of what came to be the parameters of the China-Africa relationship was already set during the Cold War, including the strong emphasis on non-interference, on the non-interference doctrine. A strong focus on South-South cooperation and also a strong focus within the narrative of South-South cooperation, this idea that China is the older brother in the relationship. So it's an egalitarian relationship within which China still has a little bit of, due to its size, due to its strength, due to the fact that its revolution came so much earlier, whichever way, kind of, the narrative spun it, there was always this narrative of, "We are equal in the South-South relationship and yet China is a leader, is a natural leader in that space."

van Staden: So after the opening up process from the mid-seventies onwards, China lost a little bit of interest in Africa for a while, due to the tumultuous changes within China itself, and also a focus in China on kick-starting development by maximizing relationships with the global Northwest, and obviously with Japan as strong development partners. After the Tiananmen incident, there was a reversion of interest from China towards Africa. That was partly because it was suddenly faced.... China was suddenly facing a much, kind of, more frosty international environment. It needed diplomatic support. At the same time, it was also the earlier versions of what came to be known as the going-out policy.

van Staden: So the push for Chinese state-owned enterprises to lock down international supply chains, to try to find new markets, and to build up international experience and track record—that coincided with a moment in Africa where A) Africa was reeling from structural adjustment processes. It was very difficult for Africa to lend or to borrow money, I mean. It was also a moment of flux in international development discourses where they developed less interest in funding infrastructure in Africa, and a shift in emphasis towards funding things like civil society development, for example. So there was kind of an organic kind of meeting of needs, where China was looking for allies. It was also looking for resources.

van Staden: And it was also very interested in rapidly expanding into areas where it wasn't facing a lot of competition, which frequently then translated into China moving into high-risk environments—frequently in areas that were left open for a reason by more established Western actors. Frequently China would be in places like Sudan, for example, where it later came to face a lot of criticism for dealing with African dictators. But it was also frequently one of the drivers in that movement, was to try and find spaces where there wasn't already preexisting competition from Western actors.

van Staden: So what we see is that... [aside: thank you] ...the parameters were being set for a way of operating between China and Africa that was based on connectivity, particularly infrastructure connectivity that was frequently funded by Chinese state banks. That was dependent on elite-elite relationships where it was very important for the relationship between... The government-to-government relationships, and within that, frequently party-to-party relationships became very important. And in that process, the relationship came to be shaped, I think, by the needs of the elite.

van Staden: What we see frequently in South Africa, for example, is that China, there's a kind of a shared vocabulary between the Chinese Communist Party and the African National Congress, for example. They come from similar places that have similar party structures. They're similarly structured in the sense that you have a lot of societal power running through the party, the party being kind of a locus of social and economic power. And so within that relationship, this kind of strong elite relationship that sits within a strong bilateral state-state relationship becomes this kind of structuring mechanism. Essentially that structuring mechanism is replicated over and over.

van Staden: So that's something that, for example, the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation, FOCAC, which has become the biggest kind of multilateral platform for China-Africa cooperation, operates or looks like a multilateral forum, but is actually structured as a large number of bilateral relationships. So all of these kind of structuring mechanisms become... I think it's really important to kind of keep them in mind. It's important to keep in mind the role of the elite-elite relationship as it sits within a bilateral country-to-country relationship. And I think those remain very important within the BRI.

van Staden: On the commercial side, for Chinese state-owned enterprises to gain international experience was a really strong driver of China-Africa relations. So you have a situation where in a lot of cases they would be providing infrastructure in Africa under extremely difficult conditions. They would be in weakly governed states, frequently very large states, climate-wise very challenging. A whole lot of fields or a whole lot of sectors, the kind of field experience or the underground experience that these companies gained was invaluable, I think, in a lot of cases.

van Staden: And it was one of the reasons why the state was so enthusiastic in supporting this kind of roll-out through mechanisms like the EXIM Bank, for example. So you have a situation where you have a relatively flexible and easy-to-obtain financing coming with, dovetailing with tied contracting, which I mean obviously there's a lot of criticism to be had or a lot of criticism to be aimed at tied aid. But in the case of Africa, what that translated to was efficiency, ease, and efficiency.

van Staden: African leaders would essentially get a project that they could go from discussion to implementation in a year, a year and a half, two years, whereas World Bank projects—in the first place, a lot of those weren't being funded by the World Bank at all—and even if they were, the process would take a decade, maybe. So in that context, the difficulties of...although the problems with some of these issues kind of decreased in importance, because, in a lot of cases, African governments, they didn't really have a second option. If Sudan wanted to put in a data network, Western companies weren't clamoring to start doing work in Sudan, for example. They weren't really, really anxious to set up a cell phone network in the [inaudible 00:21:28], for example.

van Staden: All of these places that are difficult to work in, high risk, difficult to finance and so on. So you can see the kind of rapid expansion of Chinese involvement in Africa had very real commercial payoffs for Chinese companies. They managed to get international experience in a relatively low-risk environment, where if something went crazily wrong, it's not like it went wrong in New York. Even if it was a failure, it would still be a failure within a relatively contained environment that didn't have a lot of fallout elsewhere for them.

van Staden: And there was a kind of, I think, a hard-nosed calculation that was coming from both sides, actually. Where even if the relationship or the situation wasn't perfect for either of the two, they managed to make it work between the two of them. Because frequently, in some cases they didn't have that many other options. And that's particularly true in the African case. So in a lot of ways I think Africa provided this testing ground for some of these mechanisms that were then later rolled out in other parts of the BRI.

van Staden: These included, as I mentioned, very, very crucially, the role of international experience, the role of Chinese financing linked to contracting by SOEs. And also the narratives that came with them, which rapidly developed into competing narratives of either win-win development, which if you read Chinese state sources of state media, that's a narrative that you see all the time.

van Staden: ...and then a counter-narrative that came from parts of Africa, some [inaudible 00:23:43] parts of African society, but also from the West very frequently, is a neo-colonialism narrative. So both of those narratives are problematic in lots of different ways. The win-win narrative is problematic because it doesn't take into account the incredible differences in power between China and its various African partners. The win-win narrative is frequently backed by a narrative of, "We both experienced planned and purposeful under development due to our unhappy interactions with the West." Now we are in a position where we as global South countries can work together to move together towards mutual development.

van Staden: There's a lot to say for that narrative, but it doesn't take into account the fact that—despite the fact that China can, in lots of ways, still be seen as a developing country. I know that's kind of ridiculed, I think, in some quarters. But the gap in development between Eastern China and deep Western China, it is significant. Parts of Western China have development levels that are similar to Africa, like, akin to Africa.

van Staden: So you can make the argument that China is a developing country, but from the position of a country like Benin or Togo, that's a meaningless definition. Because China can both be a developing country and yet a superpower. So what does win-win mean when the power relationship is so out of whack—how can I put it?—when the choices that are made by the smaller country can completely wreck or completely make their future economy? In that interaction between developing countries, the question of what "win" means on both sides becomes a very difficult question to answer.

van Staden: The neo-colonialism narrative is problematic for me in a different way, which is that it completely discounts African agency. It either assumes that African governments either are so weak or so corrupt that they can't or won't exercise control in the relationship. Or it erases the distinction between different African governments to essentially say that all African governments are equally the same, equally weak, equally corrupt. We've seen that in research, we've seen that neither of these two actually make sense.

van Staden: African governments have been very capable of throwing out Chinese companies. They've been very capable of kicking out Chinese citizens. They definitely don't lack agency in the relationship. They might have a lot less agency than China, but that doesn't mean they have no agency. At the same time, we've also seen African governments are very different in their relationships with China. They act in different ways in relationship to China. Some have a very close and natural rapport with China, similar to the way that I've pointed out the cultural overlap that you see between historically communist ruling parties like between South Africa and China.

van Staden: But in lots of other African countries, that kind of cultural overlap doesn't exist, and there are different ways of dealing with China. They're not all the same in relation to China. We've also seen African governments being quite capable of playing off Western actors against Chinese actors. A country like the Democratic Republic of Congo has done that quite effectively, where they managed to get concessions on both sides, managed to play them off against each other to try and get a better deal.

van Staden: So African governments are not powerless in relation to China, they make decisions, they set parameters frequently within the relationship they are in, a kind of a client position, where they put out tenders, where they make the decision about where the project is going to go, what kind of particular project they want. Where they make the decision about which contractor to get. Keep in mind that in a lot of these cases, even though the projects would be funded by a Chinese state–related bank, several Chinese companies would be competing for the tender. So Chinese companies would be competing with each other for that same tender in a lot of cases.

van Staden: So African governments have decision making power, they just have, kind of, just objectively speaking, they have a lot less agency than China has in the world. So this then raises a lot of questions about how we should think about agency, African agency, in relation to China. And that then, I think, leads us to also think about what agency means in the BRI zone. It also, then, in addition, raises a lot of questions about the particular choices made by African governments and what the role is of governance in the China-Africa space, African governance in the China-Africa space.

van Staden: Okay, so let's look at governance first. In a lot of the relationship between China and Africa, and this is also what we've seen—we've seen this narrative in relation to the BRI a lot as well—is the idea that China is exporting authoritarianism to Africa. And this needs to be unpacked because it becomes what authoritarianism means, kind of needs to be unpacked a little bit. Two things are frequently cited in relation to this. One is the role of training, that China does a lot of training of African officials, African police forces, African soldiers.

van Staden: It's a mechanism of China, of building China-Africa relations. That's incredibly powerful and, I think, is going to be a lot more powerful in the future. So in the first place, there's more African students studying in China now than in the U.S. and the UK combined. The only country that takes more African students than China is France, due to old Francophone connections.

van Staden: So China is doing a lot of tertiary education of African students. It's training tens of thousands of African officials in areas that relate everything from anticorruption, which can be ironic depending on how you look at Chinese corruption, but also crowd control, lots of military, different aspects of military engagement, policing, and so on, and so on. So the tools of Chinese governance are being exported to China. At the same time, the second space where the issue of authoritarianism and the idea of China exporting authoritarianism is frequently raised is in relation to Internet provision.

van Staden: So several African countries are implementing facial recognition software very similar to what China's doing. Chinese companies like Hikvision, for example, are very, very involved in implementing closed circuit television and systems in Africa. Frequently a lot of those software systems are given away for very cheaply. [aside: Oh, thank you.] Because Chinese companies have had problems with having facial recognition algorithms be able to distinguish between dark-skinned people. So there's a lot of machine learning that's happening and a lot of, kind of, fights between African governments and Chinese authorities and Chinese companies about the ownership of African data.

van Staden: So there was a facial recognition system that was about to be implemented in Zimbabwe, and then Zimbabwe decided that they don't like the idea of all of these Zimbabwean facial recognition data flowing to China and essentially fueling Chinese algorithms' machine learning. So these are areas of contestation. When you look at Internet provision, the Internet provision actually becomes a really good space to look at the contradictions in these issues. Because Iginio Gagliardone, who's a media scholar who works in Johannesburg, he recently published a book in which he compared the Chinese provision of Internet services to authoritarian African countries and democratic African countries.

van Staden: So it was looking at Ethiopia and Rwanda as authoritarian countries and then at Ghana, and, I think, Tanzania, maybe, as democratic countries. And what he found was that in each case, whatever the government wanted, the Chinese companies—and these were companies, mostly Huawei and also ZTE—hey were happy to provide. If a government wanted a centrally controlled, authoritarian high-surveillance system, Chinese companies were happy to provide that.

van Staden: If the government wanted a checks and balances, free-market system with barriers to the level of surveillance that the government can engage in, Chinese companies were happy to provide that. There was almost a value free, or almost amoral, provision of services, whatever the government wanted, the contractors were generally happy to provide. So that then throws the issue back to the issue, then, of African government decision-making and African governance itself.

van Staden: At the same time, what we also found in looking at the issue of governance and also the issue of, then, decision making within Africa, we looked at the case of the Lamu Coal-Powered Power Plant. I don't know if any of you have followed that issue. Lamu is this really beautiful little island off the coast of Kenya that is also a UNESCO world heritage site. And so the Kenyan government was planning to build a coal-powered plant on that island that would then be connected to a development zone. It was to be funded by Chinese state banks. It was to be implemented by a Chinese contractor and the coal was supposed to come from South Africa. It was a surprising project to do because Kenya has very progressive energy policies.

van Staden: Actually, almost none of Kenya's energy comes from coal. It does a lot of geothermal energy, for example. So Kenya is really a world leader in responsible energy provision. But there was a faction within the government that was pushing for coal. And again, in this case China was happy to provide. And then the government was taken to court by a consortium of civil society organizations and local communities and actually lost in court. So the court managed to shut the project down. So again, here it raises a lot of questions about the nature of African governance, African government decision making, but it also starts raising interesting points about what agency actually and decision making agency means in the China-Africa space.

van Staden: So I did joint research with Yu-Shan Wu, who's a China-Africa researcher in Johannesburg, and with Chris Alden, who's at London School of Economics. And we started just to look at what we should think about agency in the China-Africa relationship. So the background to the study was, one of the things that you find a lot if you read discourse about China-Africa relations within an African space, is repeated calls for Africa to come together and negotiate with China collectively.

van Staden: That is something that you see all the times, this is a repeated call: Africa needs to have a more coherent China strategy, a collective China strategy, and then that China strategy should be taken forward collectively in relation to China—reflecting exactly these kind of anxieties about the massive differential in power between the two.

van Staden: So we started to unpack that, and in the process, we realize that the first step towards doing this is to start a process of essentially outlining and locating African agency in relation to China. And we started to look at a few case studies in relation to this issue. The first is the African Union. So the African Union, over the last few years, particularly under the presidency of Rwanda, which recently ended, the Rwandan president Paul Kagame set forth kind of a reform agenda in the African Union where he suggested that instead of doing the situation that we refer to before, where the relationship seems to be in forums like FOCAC, the relationship seems to be a multilateral relationship, but in reality it's actually a lot of small bilateral relationships stacked on top of each other...

van Staden: To exactly avoid that contradiction, he suggested that the African Union should essentially have a delegation representing the entire continent to negotiate with China in a kind of a streamlined way. At the same time this report coincided with strong moves in Africa towards a more continental integration. So that happening on a physical basis through cross-border infrastructure, which in a lot of cases is actually also funded by China, but it's also happening through the formation of the continental free trade agreement.

van Staden: So there is this kind of strong move in Africa to try and have a more coherent African agenda. But then these Kagame reforms ended up being in some kind of ways being undercut from within the African Union itself. So you have a situation where some of the smaller countries, the smaller economies in Africa, were worried that they were going to be pushed out of negotiations with China by larger members. And then the larger members were worried that they were going to lose some of their control and decision-making control over their own relationship with China because of the African Union.

van Staden: So countries like Nigeria and South Africa were not as enthusiastic about these reforms as some of the other African countries were. But the point that we were making in looking at this case study was that in outlining and locating African agency in relation to China, it's important to move beyond the bilateral government-to-government relationship, where very frequently, when one reads and thinks about African agency in China, that is the level where that discussion is taking place: How can a government may get a better deal out of China?

van Staden: We realized that it's very important when outlining African agency to start outlining and locating it upwards, to look at what the potential is for future collective negotiation with China. What it would mean to set up an African agenda, what and what a collective African agenda would even look like, considering what incredibly varied and also massive continent it is. So it then becomes very important to say that if one is interested in having a kind of a continental relationship between Africa and China, rather than various African countries and China, then you need different kinds of continental mechanisms. You need a different narrative of what Africa needs. You need much more of a set agenda.

van Staden: And I think Africa is making decisive strides in that direction. So agenda 2063, where the African Union's development plan, I think, was a massive step in that direction in setting a collective idea, almost like a collective shopping list of things that they would like to achieve by late in the century—so in that sense, setting a narrative of what African development would actually look like, taking into account the very, very different competing interests that are present in the continent...

van Staden: So at the same time we started looking at cases like the Lamu court case, and also precedents to that along other zones of the BRI, including in countries like Malaysia, for example, where we saw BRI projects starting to be pulled into local, national, domestic political contestation, where BRI projects suddenly became part of presidential political races, where opposition parties were using China essentially as a stick to beat the incumbent. Talking about how incumbent parties are in the pocket of China. We saw it popping up in parts of Southeast Asia and it's certainly popped up in Africa. Every now and then you see particularly opposition parties using China as a way to undermine the incumbent.

van Staden: So the case, for example, in Malaysia, where there was a change in government, which then led to a renegotiation of a whole set of previously signed BRI related infrastructure deals, and which then actually also led to actually quite a significant saving kind of an expense, became one clue for us to argue that it's really important in thinking about agency to also start locating it downwards, to start talking about sub-state actors when one starts talking about what African agency would mean. And there it became very interesting for us to see how similar kind of trends are starting to pop up in different zones of the BRI and how Africa is, in a sense, in conversation with other parts of other communities in the BRI.

van Staden: So, for example, I recently was on a conference call with the advocacy organization, who focuses a lot on climate change, and they are busy with a campaign to try and make it harder for China to fund coal powered electricity provision in the rest of the world. And so they were in conversation with people from different BRI countries as well as experts from within China to talk about how A) to push the state insurance company Sinosure to stop insuring coal power plants in the rest of the world, and also to start to talk to Chinese experts to see how Chinese domestic environmental standards can be implemented along the BRI and in Africa, to hold Chinese companies to Chinese standards internationally rather than to have them to take advantage of weaker environmental legislation in the rest of the world.

van Staden: So the civil society, local communities, the courts are all becoming this kind of actors, agents essentially, exercising African agency. And Africa, I think, has a set of very interesting longterm precedent for this. So already years ago, I think around 2012, I remember incidents in Tanzania where Chinese companies that were busy putting in gas pipelines faced sudden protests and sudden violent protest from local communities. And it revealed this problem that you frequently have with Chinese companies where, because they come from such a centralized system within China, there tends to be the assumption that if a national government is on board for a project, then that means that the local communities would be on board as well.

van Staden: And that in Africa is, of course, not the case. In lots of cases in Africa, the local community was not informed of what the central government decided. The local community was not consulted in these cases. And in lots of cases, then, the local community has this powerful disruptive potential disruptive role in derailing projects, derailing timetables. And in the process, when it starts kind of scaling up to the size of the BRI itself, local communities then start playing this role where they start having a kind of disruptive influence on the BRI from below.

van Staden: So in the discussion of what the BRI zone and what Africa should learn from each other, how they should be in conversation with each other, these issues of how to, sort of, scaling agency upwards and scaling it downwards becomes really important. And we're seeing already conversations developing between African actors and other kind of actors within the BRI, the application of lessons taken from the BRI in the case of Africa and the other way around. And I think it's really important for that to be pushed more. So at the moment, I'm planning a project, I'm working on a project where we are literally trying to work with researchers in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and within China itself to try to just set up lists of best and worst practices of BRI projects and development projects within China, particularly in relation to climate change.

van Staden: So looking at what BRI-related infrastructure really did a good job, in particular, in different aspects of climate mitigation and which projects really did a bad job in order to put together a kind of a toolkit for African leaders to show them what best practices and worst practices actually look like. So that when they're making these decisions they have concrete ideas of what they're talking about, and then to also disseminate exactly the same set of tools to African civil society organizations. So that when they are advocating for or against particular projects, that they have the same set of tools and the same set of ideas about what best practices and worst practices will actually look like.

van Staden: These are kind of disparate areas that we're all working in. But the point being that, I think, one can make this the case that Africa in a lot of ways was a kind of a small-scale testing ground for a lot of what we're now seeing in the BRI. I think in understanding the BRI Africa provides an important precedent that should be studied, and then also Africa itself should step into much more robust conversation with the rest of the BRI community to think harder about what Africa can achieve in relation to China and just step out of this kind of siloing of the China-Africa relationship that we frequently see. So yeah, I'll stop there. Thank you very much.

Kassenova: Thank you so much. Let me say a couple of things to bring it closer to Central Asia. And then we can open the floor—

van Staden: Thank you.

Kassenova: ...for discussion. First, I fully agree with your point on the importance of agency. Definitely, these are governments who make decisions. These are governments who adopt legislation, regulations, who need to monitor the implementation, and so on, and so forth. But here what you were saying actually, I think, raised the question for me: it seems that the power structure is quite different in African countries and Central Asian countries. And you talk about the role of parties in relations between China an African States. And of course in Central Asia we also have parties, but our parties are quite vacuous and they definitely don't serve as this kind of institutions for having societal power run through them. So I was wondering if it makes us weaker in this regard, because we don't have institutions that will connect to authorities, governments with societies.

Kassenova: So and overall, definitely this kind of linkages are needed and we see society getting more and more awakened to growing presence of China in the region, particularly in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. But at the moment it's more disruptive as you discussed. So we have demonstrations and protests and so on. And then projects are being closed or stopped and so on. And definitely, I think, political elites, our political—needs to be awakened to their responsibility and they need to start taking seriously the engagement of the public, of society in decision making processes, policy making processes, and so on. I think our government's already facing this challenge and they need to definitely take it seriously.

Kassenova: Well, if we go above from the national level to the regional level, it's very interesting what you say about the collective China strategy, and we hear that in Central Asia as well, that Central Asia needs to be more unified. And unlike Africa, we don't have a Central Asian union. We have different arrangements with outside powers where Central Asian states participate. But they're not necessarily, they're not in the driving seat. I guess that's the way to kind of strengthen the agency of Central Asian states overall. But to be honest, I don't see a big potential in that for the moment.

Kassenova: I think there is more potential in reaching out and trying to connect to a global level of governance, and to what big powers are doing, and to find the place and position ourselves in this changing global governance system. That is something also, I think, that our authorities, but also societies, need to start considering. Because definitely BRI is a big package that comes with a lot of opportunities, very tempting opportunities, but also considerable challenges.