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2013-12-17 20.15.23

Podcaster, Hip-Hop Dancer, and Sino – Africanist: Winslow Robertson

I recently sat down for my first (and long overdue) leisurely chat with Winslow Robertson, an amazing guy who I have been promising to profile for some time. Winslow is based in northern Virginia and is the founding father of Sino-Africa DC (SADC), a networking group for local Sino-Africanists.  The archives of the SADC newsletter can be found here.  Winslow is also a podcaster and recently wrapped up an internship at The Corporate Council on Africa.  Over a conversation of several hours, I had the pleasure of learning about the genesis of his interest in Sino – African affairs, his thoughts on U.S. perceptions of Chinese engagement in Africa, and other more interesting tidbits, such as how he met his wife and I discovered that we share close academic and geographic ties as well as shopping habits (Jos A. Banks suits).

I frequently complain about individuals who chase hot issues, trying to portray a sincerely passionate interest in timely topics that are primarily on their mind because prominent outlets like The Economist and New York Times dedicate space to them. The recent conflicts in the Ivory Coast and Mali are particularly good examples of this.  An interest in Sino – African Affairs might be susceptible to similar criticism, but Winslow’s interest in this topic has been percolating for the nearly two decades he has been ‘seeing Chinese products and Chinese connections’ in Africa.

Formative Years:

As a youth in Accra, Ghana in the early 1990s (his father served with the State Department), Winslow was mesmerized by the National Theatre, recently constructed with assistance from China, frustrated by Chinese batteries for his Sega Game Gear that were plagued by a short lifespan, and intrigued by pink and green dyed rice (from the color of the sack in which it was stored) that he consumed, imported from China.

Although Winslow has also lived in Argentina and Venezuela, his African interests were firmly solidified by his formative experience in Ghana and Nigeria, where he learned English.  He completed his BA in history from James Madison University (which is near where I grew up), writing his thesis on the provision of Liberian rubber during World War II and returned to Ghana for a summer session at the University of Ghana.  He has also spent time in Niamey, Niger, where I was stationed in the Peace Corps (although he has fond memories of the Marine house, whose legendary imported American beers I never enjoyed) and where I saw firsthand the extensive impact of Chinese investment in Africa, particularly in infrastructure (Niamey is/was also home to one of my favorite Chinese restaurants).

After college, Winslow spent a year teaching English in China, where he also found a part-time job teaching hip-hop dancing and where he met the woman who would become his wife (she was his student, I’ll let you guess as to which class she was enrolled in).  Following a courtship that extended to encounters in Niger, the pair settled in Syracuse, where Winslow pursued his MA in history (my own field of graduate study as well) and wrote a thesis examining Sino – Nigerian relations.  If you want a taste of some of his more academic work, I recommend this interesting post on anti-African protests in China in the late 1980s.

Winslow had flirted with the idea of doctoral studies, but ultimately determined that step might constrict his career space in the private sector.  Winslow’s enthusiasm for private sector engagement in Africa is palpable – an unsurprising state of affairs given his own entrepreneurial drive (‘I don’t want to just talk about stuff, I want to do it’), the prominent example of China’s own economic growth, and his recently concluded internship at The Corporate Council on Africa (‘an invaluable experience’ that offered insights on how US businesses approach Africa).

A Reconsideration of Sino – African Relations

I know little about Sino – Africa relations, but Winslow offered interesting insights on several fronts, calling for a more measured evaluation of Chinese engagement in the continent.  I had often thought that the existence of Chinese investors and immigrants in Africa was the result of an innate Chinese drive and determination that those of European extraction lack.  However, Winslow observed that Chinese engagement in Africa emerged as a result of concerted effort from the state to promote Africa as a consumer of Chinese products and that the Chinese have until very recently, been adverse to engagement in Africa, for many of the same reasons as those in the West.  As Winslow notes, ‘China can’t afford to take Africa for granted.’

Winslow also sounds a note of caution on the economic situation of many Chinese immigrants in Africa.  He observes that many Chinese on the continent are quite poor and that contrary to popular belief ‘they don’t have elaborate global supply chain networks.  They have hustle and long-term vision.’  While Winslow states that Chinese bosses can be difficult and that many Chinese have significant difficulty adjusting to African cultural practices, he also notes that the willingness of Chinese to establish shops in remote locations in countries like Lesotho addresses important local needs.  He notes that ‘Chinese actors in Africa are really good at learning best practices [and are] self-aware’, cognizant of the cultural barriers they face.

Winslow also noted with great concern ‘a certain way that Chinese are racialized’ in western media.  As an example, he cited the case of Chinese managers who were charged with shooting some of their protesting African employees at a mine in Zambia, which supposedly represented Chinese-Zambian relations writ large.  I was vaguely familiar with this case but had no idea that one of the managers, Xu Jianxue also held Australian citizenship or that the Chinese embassy was none too happy about the way the mine was operating but as a private company there was not much the embassy could do.

I do not even come knee high to approaching Winslow’s knowledge of Sino – African relations, although my gut reaction is to tend towards a more critical evaluation of the relationship.  However, I believe that Winslow has very well summarized the difficulties of studying an issue as complex as Sino – African engagement:

“In the China – Africa narrative you can find any story you want.  You can find South – South solidarity, you can find repugnant racism, you can find naked commercial interest, you can find genuine human connections, but there is not one single narrative.”

Winslow is a beast in the Twittersphere, but if you are not already a follower, he tweets @Winslow_R. You can subscribe to the SADC newsletter here.

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