Mosaic of China Season 01 Episode 03 – The China/Africa Correspondent (Eric OLANDER, The China Africa Project)
Eric Olander has been a journalist since 1989. His recent incarnation has been with China Africa Project, in which he reports on China's huge and growing influence across Africa.
EO: I… I'll say American Pie. "My, my, Miss American Pie
OF: Eric, it's beautiful, what's wrong with you?
EO: I mean, I'll be on that front line podcasting, but not singing.
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. When all of their stories are pieced together, they form a Mosaic of China. I'm your host, Oscar Fuchs.
Firstly, in case you haven't already, please do join the groups on Facebook at @mosaicofchina and Instagram at @mosaicofchina_*. And for WeChat, please send me a note directly on my ID: mosaicofchina* and I'll you to that group myself. Thanks to everyone who commented on all the photos that I posted from last week's interview with Maple. The photo of the beautiful lake in Tibet seems to have got the most attention. And I did hear from many of you that I forgot to explain 相声 [Xiàngsheng] in my outro. Sorry about that, I totally missed it out. Maple brought it up, it's sometimes translated as 'crosstalk', in which usually two performers act out a dialogue between them, and it's full of comedic puns in Chinese. It reminds me a little bit of 落語 [rakugo] in Japanese. Because somehow I always need to talk about Japan in this China podcast. Anyway, both those art forms are similar to Western stand-up comedy, but as Maple pointed out, they're not personal, they're heavily scripted and rehearsed, and most of the comedy just comes from wordplay, nothing else.
Anyway, today's episode is with Eric Olander. Eric has been a journalist in China off and on since 1989. His most recent incarnation has been with the China Africa Project, which he explains early in the podcast. But you'll quite quickly hear afterwards that his knowledge goes way beyond this niche area. He talks very eloquently about journalism issues in general, such as bias, censorship, his relationship with the public online, and the relationship between officials and the online media, including the way in which China's soft power is being felt in places like Africa and beyond. Since Eric has so many interesting things to say, it was very difficult to keep the interview short. So apologies for going a bit long on this episode, I hope you'll agree that it was worth the few extra minutes.
OF: Well, thank you so much, Eric. I know it's a busy time, so I appreciate your time today. Eric is the co-founder of the China Africa project. And you've been in China now, on and off, for how many years?
EO: Since 1989. I started studying Chinese in 1985, long before most of your audience was even born. Long before Chinese was cool and hip. You know, there were no skinny white people walking through the(former) French Concession back when I was here the first time. It was rough and tumble, there's no doubt about it. And so for me, the journey from the 1980s till today has been just… You know, I feel like it's been an honour and a privilege for me to have the opportunity of seeing this. This journey that they've gone on, from being one of the poorest countries in the world in the 80s, to now being the second largest economy in the world, is remarkable. And when you you see that trajectory I walk around Shanghai and Beijing just mouth agape all the time going "I remember when this was nothing".
OF: Well, before we go too far down that road, what is the object that you've bought today?
EO: So my object is my moleskin book.
EO: It's one of those notebooks. And OK, it doesn't have to be a branded book. But it's a notepad. And for me as a recovering journalist and still a journalist, but also as someone who is hopelessly neurotic with lists, it's how I organise and structure my life, it's how I keep things going forwards, how I keep my head clear. I find that even in this digital world - and I'm extraordinarily digitally oriented, I am connected to everything - being analogue is to me far more effective in many ways, in terms of getting ideas out of my brain and into the real world. They go on paper first, oftentimes. And lists and things like that. So my object is that notebook, and you will almost never see me without it.
OF: And this is what iteration of this book, how many of these books do you have at home now?
EO: Hundreds now. Because this is something that I actually started way back as a teenager, making my to-do lists for the next day before I go to bed. That was a habit I picked up. It was a habit that was not taught. I just started doing it.
OF: And there's something nice about actually physically crossing it out with your pen when you've done it, right?
EO: Yes, exactly. And there's something therapeutic about writing it out. Now I have Evernote online, and I do a lot of that task and list based stuff on Evernote. But it's different than writing with a pen. And I don't use just normal pens. I use fountain pens. I mean, really old school. But those cheap fountain pens that European students use in school. But it is part of this kind of aesthetic of being connected to the old and the new, the analogue in the digital. And I think both are important.
OF: Well, that's great. And tell me, how does this pad then relate to what you do, on a day to day basis today?
EO: So now, you've caught me at a really exciting time in my life, because I'm finishing up here in China with WPP advertising where I was working. I mean really, when you work here in advertising and marketing, it is at the highest level. I mean, there is no bigger stage than China today. I mean, New York is definitely a big stage. But pretty much New York and Shanghai are as big as it gets. So it's been just an amazing two years, just a wonderful opportunity. It came to an end sooner than I had planned. But that is life, right? And so confronted with what to do next, I started to go down the normal path and started talking to people about jobs. And people were looking at me in a very odd way. They said "What is somebody with 1.2 million followers coming and looking for a normal job?" When people with 1,000 followers all think they're going to be the next KOL star. And so I was guided, through the universe talking to me saying "Go out into the world and see if you can leverage this platform to do exciting things with it." So now this notepad is filled with new designs for websites, new business strategies for email newsletters. And together with my partner in South Africa – Cobus van Staden, who I launched the China Africa Project with 10 years ago – we're launching a new premium service of daily emails, working with writers in China, in Africa, and around the world to contribute really amazing content. And if this is a space that's interesting for you, and you need it for your work or to better understand the world, what we're going to be doing is absolutely essential.
OF: Well, great. Tell me then, what is the China Africa project?
EO: So the China Africa Project is an independent, non-partisan multimedia website. We are entirely self-funded. This was a passion project of ours for the past 10 years. And we just were interested in it. My background is in China, but I moved to Africa in the mid 2000s. And I saw the rise of the Chinese in Africa in a dramatic fashion. In the mid 2000s when I went, there was virtually no Chinese presence. And by 2007,2008,2009, it just went boom. And what I was seeing out there was these narratives in Western media – from the UK, and from the United States, predominantly - of 'China's colonising Africa, China's taking over Africa'. And then I would ask my friends, employees and colleagues on the ground in Kinshasa, where I was living at the time. I said "What do you think?" And they gave me these very complex, nuanced, textured, answers. And I thought 'That's the story'. And the Western narrative, which still is prevalent today about China, is that China is a very, very provocative issue for people on the outside. It's either good or it's bad, and for the most part - 90 some odd percent of the coverage of China - it's cynical or negative. Not all of it. I mean, there's good reasons for that. So I don't actually want to get into that. But I just was seeing a very, very complicated story that wasn't being reflected. And that's where I decided I'm going to start writing, blogging, and eventually podcasting. And Cobus joined me for the journey. So we explore every facet of Chinese engagement in Africa: social, political, cultural, economic. Doesn't matter, if it's related, we do it. And we've built up a large audience, because people seem to really value the impartiality that we bring. We're not advocating for a company, a culture, or a country. And that's really, really important. Even though he's South African, and I'm American, we're both white guys, we really, really are passionate about taking that middle ground.
OF: And tell me, there are so many topics that you you approach Africa from. From the politics side, from the economy, from the culture. Give us a few examples of what you've seen in terms of the Chinese impact and the Chinese influence. And I guess, just any Chinese stories in Africa.
EO: Yeah, so we could spend the next two hours of this podcast - we wouldn't bore your listeners with that - and I could sit here and tell you that China is the best thing that's ever happened to Africa. It has brought infrastructure, it's brought telecommunications, it's brought trade. And what it's done is, it's liberated Africa, from being dependent exclusively on Western colonial powers, which was a story that has been a hangover for the past 50-60 years since the end of colonisation. And China brought choice to Africans, that they didn't have to take what France was saying, or what the British were saying, or what the Americans were saying. And they could have those options. That's very, very powerful.
OF: Even when they were being quite benevolent, there just was no choice.
EO: There was just no choice. Now there's a choice. And choice is a really empowering thing. And it gives agency and it gives confidence. And it's really very, very important. But I could also sit here, and I can tell you that China's the worst thing that's ever happened to Africa. And everything that I would say would be 100% true. Just like with everything that's great about it would be true, everything that's bad about it would be true. The mechanisation of resource extraction is on a level that the French and the Belgians could have never dreamed of. The arrival of Chinese vendors is both a blessing and a curse. If you are a producer, you now have to match the China price. The same problem that we're facing in the US and Europe is confronting Africans. If you're a consumer, you love it. Because you have competition in the marketplace. They're breaking the stranglehold of local producers who, for decades, choked off competition. Now the Chinese come in and said "We'll sell that pot, that pan, whatever it is, at a fraction of the price". That's great for consumers. So there are benefits on all sides. The thing that I walk away with from this relationship is, if you hear anybody say it's either good or bad, they're missing a big part of the story. Because it's both/and.
OF: Well, I see now you have your own podcast on this topic.
EO: Again, I could talk for two hours, and I won't bore your audience with that. But still 10 years later, it's still something that fascinates me.
OF: Well, it is fascinating, especially with how you've positioned yourself as being in the middle. And I guess that leads me to ask you, how do you go about interviewing officialdom? Not just in China, but on both sides of this equation?
EO: And it's even beyond officialdom. Because I'm coming at this as a white, American, male. And race and gender and identity are really important in this, because those are issues that affect the storytelling, and affect the perceptions of how stories are told. And I have to be very, very conscious of my privilege, I'm conscious of my status, I'm conscious of who I am. And my goal is to step back in the process. My goal is not to make me the centre of anything. My goal is to make the people that we interview the future. And the voices that we're bringing up into the podcast and on the website and into the circle of this discussion. They are the ones that we really want to bring out. And so I don't have a confrontational style in my interview method. I have a style where I really want to try and allow you to speak. Now that pleases some people. And other people say "Well, you should have been much tougher on this Huawei spokesman, or this government spokesman. And because you did not ask those gotcha questions, you are therefore revealing your biases". And that's very interesting, because in these very hyper-partisan times, people will take one show or one tweet or one piece of comment, and then they will extrapolate that across your whole professional background. And I resist that. And this is the beauty of the fact that I don't depend on anybody for anything. This is self-funded and we do this because we love it. So some people are happy, and some people are not. But because we are independent, we just keep doing what we think is right. And what we think is right is to stay in the middle, to not take a side, to really be impartial, and to bring as many voices as possible to the debate.
OF: You hit upon something which made me think. Something I heard recently on the news was, there was an argument that all news organisations should be decoupled from the commercial angle, just like what you've described. And that actually, media organisations - be it TV shows, be it magazines, newspapers - they actually all should be like non-governmental organisations, charities almost. Do you see now with all of this' fake news' nonsense - all of this partisan politics coming into what should be very nonpartisan mediums - do you see that there's a solution, apart from people like you?
EO: No. I used to run the largest business news channel in Vietnam, I was the first foreigner to ever run a news organisation in Vietnam. And the first response that you get from people who come and visit, they say "Wow, the censorship must be terrible". And in Vietnam, just like in China, there is political censorship on content. And I say to them - and they always get very surprised - that I have spent now 25 years working at CNN, AP, BBC, France 24, all over the world in most of the world's major media organisations. And in every case, I've encountered censorship. I've encountered censorship in the United States where it's predominantly corporate censorship. So it's commercial. That is, at CNN we never covered critical stories of our main advertisers. You don't bite the hand that feeds you. So the tobacco industry, when I was there in the mid 90s, was under massive scrutiny. CNN stayed away from that story. Only until Congress started to investigate it did CNN go in. Why? Because RJ Reynolds, which was a big consumer product company, did a lot of business with Turner Broadcasting. They did not want to jeopardise those advertising relationships. You will never see a local TV station in the United States do an investigation on used car sales. Because used cars are a massive advertiser. It's just the nature of the way it is. In France when I was the Editor in Chief of France 24, the censorship and the bias there was cultural. So they will cover Francophone African countries at the expense of Anglophone African countries. Day to day decisions are made based on linguistic and cultural leanings of a country. I was in editorial meetings where we had decisions about "Do we send crews to Zambia, or to Cameroon?" And I lost the discussion sending crews to Zambia. And then afterwards, they say "Well, of course, because Cameron's a Francophone country." That's a form of censorship in my world. Government-run media, Voice of America, you know, they're not independent either. So the point is that after a career of working in these news organisations, I have yet to find one that is impartial. And this fantastical idea that non-governmental organisations are somehow impartial too is just offensive and ridiculous too. They are actors in the political space like anybody else. And I think that one of the things that I've noticed after covering Africa for so long, and covering South Asia and whatnot, is that we give NGOs a pass, as if they're some kind of saints. They're out there raising money, they have agendas and whatnot, we need to treat them like we treat any other actor in the space. They are not immune from these biases, and from being misled or whatever. They do good work. But who cares? They are actors with agendas, we need to treat them as such.
OF: And so you touched upon there, when you had people giving you a hard time for not asking the right question, that one example you gave. It made me think about actually how you now manage the news landscape in this day of immediate feedback on social media. Give me your 'every day' about how you manage social media.
EO: There are two things that I do. If they are respectful, I will engage them. I don't want people who just agree with me. In fact, I live for the discussions, and for people who are on different sides. And my goal is not necessarily to persuade you. That is not my goal, for me to be right and for you to be wrong. My goal is to present facts and evidence and reason behind why I think it's this way. And then you can decide for yourself whether or not you agree. And at the end of this discussion, if there is civility in it, and it's like, "I enjoyed that" then it's great. As soon as the F-bombs, S-bombs, as soon as anything comes out, you automatically get muted in my world. And it's just, you're gone. I disengage, I don't pay any attention. I have too many people to talk to, and to engage with, that I just don't waste my time with that. And it's not serious. And also, this has to be fun and enjoyable. And when people start hurling those kind of personal missives your way, it's not fun and pleasant. It hurts when people say "
You're a bad interviewer" or "You're a bad this", but that's OK, that's good. Because I like the fact that they're listening in, they're engaged. Fortunately I don't get too much of that negativity, but it does come up. And I just classified as, if it's civil and if it's relevant, then it's OK. If it's uncivil, and it's not relevant, then it's very easy on social media just to go "Boop, you're muted". And I don't see that anymore.
OF: And I guess, because it's an English language podcast, you're going to get lots of English language comments. Do you get some Chinese people who are commenting? Do they have a different quality or different timbre to their comments?
EO: Yeah they do. In terms of how the Chinese interact with the outside world, it's very, very interesting. And I don't actually think the Chinese in this sense are that much different to the average American. The average American's awareness of the outside world is actually quite low as well, for different reasons. In the United States, people have access to the information; people here simply don't have access. So I find that when I have a discussion with a Chinese person about US-China relations or China-Africa relations, oftentimes they're coming to that discussion with about 20% of the information that we have available. They just have not been exposed to the level of detail that we have, and to the complexity of the narrative that we have. So there's a lot of confusion. And it's one of the reasons why Chinese stakeholders will often go from zero to pissed off very, very fast. Because they don't have the data tools to respond to these types of arguments. And we'll start saying "Well, what about this? What about that? What about this?" And they can't respond, so then it ends up oftentimes leading to "OK, well, then… you just don't like China". And that happens a lot. I don't think that's a productive outcome of a conversation. Which is one of the reasons why people who have lived here for a long time - and know the information ecosystem that they're working within – have an ability to navigate that, to try and extract out more. Rather than people who have just come off the boat, they start peppering the Chinese with questions, and they run into that wall very, very quickly.
OF: So as an extension to that, is there a certain way that you would ask questions to a Chinese official that you perhaps wouldn't do to others? Or is it basically the same?
EO: Well, first and foremost, Chinese officials don't engage with foreign media. It just doesn't happen. It used to be that Chinese scholars and think tanks would engage with foreign media, but now that's been cut off too. There is no incentive whatsoever for a Chinese scholar to talk to me, or to talk to a journalist. Unlike in the United States or in the West, where oftentimes scholars want to become more famous and well-known, and that drives speaking and drives a lot of different things that are in their benefit. Here, it's only lose/lose for them. If they say something that is wrong and out of line with what the party line is, their careers could be over. I'm very, very sympathetic to the individual who has to make that decision. Because at the end of the day, he or she has a family to feed, has a career to advance, and I understand that. I'm disappointed though, because the Chinese voice is often missing from the discussion. So it's one of the reasons why the Chinese get such bad press around the world. It's simply that they don't participate in the discussion.
OF: Now, I thought though, the Chinese were starting to recognise this, and starting to work out "Yes, we need to work on our soft power approach, not just our hard power approach". It sounds, from what you're saying, that they're taking a step back from that now.
EO: No. Soft power is a very complicated thing. It's manifested in many, many different ways. However, there are new forms of soft power that are coming out. So when you talk to young Africans, 16/17/18 year olds, you say "What do you think of China?" And they pull out their Huawei phone, or they talk about Boomplay which is the Spotify for Africa, or they talk about StarTimes which is the pay TV service, these are all Chinese brands. And their world is shaped by technology, by gadgets, by the content that comes through those channels. And a lot of that is Chinese. Musical.ly, for example, is a Chinese brand from ByteDance, it's in the United States. Now people don't necessarily know that that's a Chinese thing. But there's starting to be some awareness now - particularly with TECNO which is the largest phone company in Africa - that these are Chinese brands and they've brought high quality products at a low price, and have been able to to connect hundreds of millions of people that will once not connected. That is a form of soft power. The other very quick thing on soft power, we in the West discount infrastructure as power. We take for granted that there's a road in our neighbourhood, we take for granted that there's a bridge, a hospital, an airport, whatever. In the United States, less and less. I mean, our infrastructure sucks. But in Europe it's great infrastructure. But when Africans come over to Shanghai, and they see what's been built here in their lifetimes, that is inspiring, it's motivating. And it's very, very powerful. People are impressed. They don't do that with the United States, or France or Spain, because they've had it for a long time. This is 35-40 years old. They say "If the Chinese were as poor as we were in my lifetime, and they did it, it can be done." It's an inspirational story. So that's another form of soft power that people don't think of.
OF: So we've come to the end of the first part of this conversation, but I guess my last question would be a crazy one, which I don't know how you're going to answer. But what would you predict about what's gonna happen in Africa in the next 5-10 years when it comes to Chinese influence?
EO: So Africa is staring down the barrel of a gun. And it's interesting, because it's a similar gun that the Chinese are staring down, the same barrel. And it's the demographic barrel. China here is staring down the idea that in 10-15 years, their old population is going to crush their young population. And you know, there's the saying that 'China is going to get old before it gets rich'. Now, Africa is the opposite problem. Africa is a traditional pyramid. It's a continent of 21 year olds, 22 year olds, 23 year olds. Well, what do 23 year olds do? They get busy and they have babies. So they're, around the next 10 years, facing down a surging population of 300 million new mouths to feed. And they have to industrialise, and employ, and really create societies that are engaging for these young people that are coming up. This huge population. Africa is going to face the brunt of climate change, disproportionately. Already it is. South Africa was on the verge of running out of water. Not just Cape Town, but the entire country. The deserts are spreading faster in Africa than they are anywhere else. The extremes in heat. Climate change is going to wreak havoc in many parts of Africa. So that's another reason why this infrastructure has to be built as a buffer against the changing climate. So both are racing against time, but for different reasons. And it's one of the reasons why a lot of African leaders have turned to the Chinese for loans, and for infrastructure, and for support. Because no-one else is lining up to give them this money. The West will talk a great game about human rights, and "don't take the Chinese money," and debt sustainability, and all of this. But they're not willing to build the ports, the roads, the freeways, the highways, the hospitals, the special economic zones. And so again, we can hear from the West all of those pleasantries, but at the end of the day, they're not lining up to give the money, the Chinese are. So I think that this is a very important calculated risk that African leaders are making now. It's a gamble. It's a risk. But because they've got that population bulge that is coming, they've got to do something about it.
OF: Very good. And I'm very conscious that I'm saying 'Africa' as a huge generalisation, I mean…
EO: 55 countries.
OF: I know, I mean it's terrible.
EO: Lots of people. You're talking from Cairo to Cape Town and everything in between. The diversity. And by the way, the same applies to China. You know, I always say that this is not a single country, this is 1,000 countries. And they say 'it's a civilization posing as a country' and I think there's a lot of truth to that. So the diversity in this country is also misleading in many respects. And this is not a single actor, when we're talking about the Chinese. Chinese provinces are engaging in Africa, Chinese government, Chinese corporations, Chinese state-owned enterprises, migrants. It's happening on so many different levels. So I think again, these are shorthand words for very complex ideas.
OF: Let's jump into Part 2.
EO: Oh-Oh. The lightning round.
OF: The lightning round. You can answer as quickly as you can, or you can take your time. It's up to you. So Question 1, what is your favourite China-related fact?
EO: US$24 billion – $1 billion every hour – sold by Tmall and Alibaba on November 11, in that sale. Think about it, 24. And I think last year was like 26 billion, more than $1 billion an hour. Incredible.
OF: So just to explain, that's November 11th every year. Explain what happens in China.
EO: So what they do is, they created this anti-Valentine's Day. So it was it was Singles Day and they picked November 11, because it's sticks, you know, representing single people. And Alibaba, the world's largest e-commerce company, started just discounting products. And they created this phenomenal type of culture around selling. And so everybody, all the brands line up, the whole country, it becomes like a national holiday. So basically take Black Friday, Black Monday, Cyber Monday, all of those kind of sales and put it on steroids. And this is compacted into just one 24-hour period, they're selling more in volume than all of the Christmas holiday shopping season in the United States. It's remarkable. 24 billion, and it just keeps going up every year.
OF: Amazing. Do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?
EO: In Chinese, they have these things called 成语 [chéngyǔ]. If you are a highly educated Chinese person - and maybe even kind of middle, but an educated person - you will speak in these idioms and these phrases. And Chinese is a beautiful language for that, because it can mean so many different things. And you can get a very complex idea into just 2-4 characters, normally 4 characters. So they have one called 养儿防老 [yǎnger fánglǎo], which means that the young, when you grow up, you are taking care of your parents. And so the son, it's a male responsibility. So when you're an older man, taking care of your elderly parents, you say 养儿防老 [yǎnger fánglǎo]. Ot's the filial piety type of part of the culture. And I just absolutely love how in this culture, elderly people are cared for and looked after and valued. And in my culture, for the most part, older people oftentimes are not.
OF: Well said. What's your favourite destination within China?
EO: I spend most of my time in the tier one cities Beijing, Shanghai, 广州 [Guǎngzhōu], 深圳 [Shēnzhèn]. But just like where you come from, and just like where I come from, the heart of the country is not in these tier one cities. The heart of the country in the countryside. So I was just in 贵州 [Guìzhōu] which is in the south, which is one of the more poor provinces, I was in 新疆 [Xīnjiāng] a few years ago, in 甘肃 [Gānsù]… I've been to about 15 different provinces. And so for me, it's going out into the countryside, and it's just the simplicity of it, you roll back 4-500 years when you go into the countryside. You're still seeing oxes. And electrification hasn't reached everywhere. It's much better than it was. But the standard of living is very, very different. The way that they do things, the tiered farming, the mountains are all tiered. I mean, these go back centuries, and how they do things in those techniques. And you realise again, just the scope and scale of how big China is, and how complex it is, as soon as you go out. And by the way, you only have to leave Shanghai an hour or two outside and you've gone back centuries.
EO: So for me, it's not a specific place, just not being in the big cities.
OF: If you left China, what would you miss the most, and what would you miss the least?
EO: I never leave China. I've been involved in China since I was 15 years old. I've been coming since I was 18 or 19. So in this particular case, I am actually physically leaving the country, but I'm never leaving. I am always connected to it through my work. And I will be back. So for me, it's a 'see you later'. The thing that I miss the most is the pace. Everywhere else feels slow compared to Beijing and Shanghai. And just that amazing energy that people have is just unbelievable.
OF: And that's specifically Shanghai compared to other cities too, right?
EO: It is specifically Shanghai.
EO: Beijing, Shenzhen runs at this pace. Some of the big cities run at this pace. There's a China speed, there is definitely a China's speed. I am wired for that. And maybe I've been raised in it. But I go back to New York or London - or some other places that are presumably fast - and they feel very slow. So I love that and it's just… it's kinetic. It's energising. You get going, and out you go. Seven days a week, the Sundays here are as busy as the Mondays. And I love that. What I don't like - and with everything there's always good and bad - the waiting in line thing. It's gotten much better. It's much better. It's a generational thing. I generally find people under 30 are very good at waiting in line, and people over 30 are not. And you have to remember that everything in China is about scarcity. This is a country of 1.4 billion people, where resources are in short supply, seats in schools are in short supply. Everything's in short supply. So people have to fight with what they can get.
OF: Yeah, when you say that it makes you think "Yeah, the ones who did not push in the front of the queue are the ones who are not here anymore." When you think about what happened in China's history
EO: Historically, and that's just if you don't fight to get everything, you're not going to get anything. And that's just the mindset. And I understand where that comes from. But when you're waiting to check out of a hotel, and a guy just walks straight in front of you… And the amazing thing is, he doesn't even see you.
OF: Yeah, it's not rudeness, actually.
EO: It's not actually rudeness. And you're just like "No, no", you know, and then he looks at you and he goes "Oh, I'm so sorry". And I think Westerners oftentimes misinterpreted it as being direct rudeness. He was only looking at the checkout desk. And he didn't see the two people or three people.
OF: Is there anything - even now, 30 years later - that still mystifies you about life in China?
EO: Every single day. I mean, the complexity of it never, ever ceases to amaze me.
OF: And this is someone who speaks fluent Chinese too, right?
EO: And again, the more you know, the less you know. And there's this great chart, actually, that was circulating on social media. And it shows 'age' versus 'time being here'. OK, so the young people who have been here for one year, all want to write the book on China. And they feel like they know it. And you can tell, these people who have just been here for 1-3 years. And then the longer you go here, the amount of time you spend here, the less you actually know. So the X/Y axis, and it just keeps going down, down, down, down. And I am extraordinarily humble about what I know and what I don't know. I have a graduate degree in Chinese foreign policy, I've spent 30 years here, I've been studying Chinese. I think I know a little bit compared to Westerners and other outsiders. And by the way, the Chinese themselves are not very well educated about their own country. A lot of the people who are raised in the cities don't know much about the countryside. Same, by the way, in my own country as well. It's too big for any one person to really grasp. And so I mean, nobody can really understand it. There is no such thing in my view as a 'China Expert.'
OF: And when I hear your podcast, it also makes me think "And there's no such thing as one monolithic Chinese policy versus Africa, versus anything, right?" Because it's so complex.
EO: It is very complex. You need an enormous amount of humility. And I always want to make sure that humility comes out in everything that I do related to China. So I'll get accused by Chinese people saying "Oh this Westerner thinks he knows everything". And I'm like "No, no, no, you don't understand. I don't know anything". I don't know. I mean, I'm not being just fake humble. I'm genuinely saying, I am learning every single day. Confucius had this idea that says "You only gain wisdom when you're 70". And I think there is some truth to that, that I still have another 20 years trying to figure this out before I start piecing it all together.
OF: OK, see you then. Where is your favourite place to eat, drink, or just hang out?
EO: I mean, the perfect answer for this, and the cliché answer would be, some corner dive in the French concession that serves the best dumplings that you've ever heard of it, that nobody else knows. And it's their secret spot, that only this one foreigner seems to know. I won't give you that answer. Because to be honest with you, eating Eastern Chinese food - so that is Shanghai Chinese food - actually is not my favourite. I gotta be honest with you. It's greasy, I don't like the MSG, and it's very salty. I prefer Southern Chinese food, 云南 [Yúnnán], and then Western Chinese food. I love that. But this food, I don't like. So I actually like the French bistros and the Western food here in the French Concession. I don't have a particular favourite. I mean, listen, I'm a big Wagas fan, I mean, that's a very kind of mainstream pedestrian answer. But they do good service. You know, what I'm gonna say? But I don't actually have a favourite dive, or corner, or hole-in-the-wall in Shanghai.
OF: What is the best or worst purchase you've made in China?
EO: A Roomba.
OF: Oh, you've got one?
EO: I've got one. And it broke within like two months.
OF: Oh so it was the worst one.
EO: It was definitely the worst purchase I've ever made in China, bar none. It was the Roomba. I mean, that's an international product, so it's not China's fault. The problem is that I don't understand the complexity of the return policies, the maintenance policies, and the whole thing. All of that gets into a Byzantine kind of system. So I still have this broken Roomba in my closet. And the best purchase that I've made - not really a purchase - is our little puppy Luna. And she's from Shanghai Animal Rescue. By the way, props out to Shanghai Animal Rescue, they are angels doing god's work there.
EO: So she will be with us as a memory of Shanghai for hopefully a very long time. But that is by far the best.
OF: Awesome. We'll have a photo of her please.
OF: OK, next question. What is your favourite WeChat sticker?
EO: I have a lot. I do. This was actually one of the harder questions. But I do like the slow clap. So I've got a couple of slow clap stickers, just to make fun of my friends who are either expressing pride or expressing something, and you kind of give them a slow clap. So yeah, so I'll say the slow clap.
OF: Excellent. Now the second hardest question. What'ss your favourite go-to song to sing at KTV
EO: OK, so this is quite revealing. I've spent a significant chunk of my adult life in Asia - Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, China - I don't do KTV. I don't do it for the betterment of society, and I don't do it because you don't want to hear me sing.
OF: Oh, but I do.
EO: Oh no, you really, really don't. And I don't do it for me either. So I actually am going to have to pass on this question, simply because I don't do KTV.
EO: But I could do, you know, like, shower singing like. OK, so if it's not KTV it's like the song in the shower. Oh god, this is like the cute, quaint dumpling place in the French concession, your whole character will be judged on how hip you are, on what song you sing, you know.
OF: Just say what's on your mind now, because that's gonna be your true real self exposed.
EO: Oh no. I… I'll say American Pie. "My, my, Miss American Pie
OF: Eric, it's beautiful, what's wrong with you?
EO: I mean, I'll be on that front line podcasting, but not singing.
OF: The final question, which for you actually is quite interesting. What other China-related media or sources of information do you rely on? Apart from of course, your own.
EO: Well, the thing that I read every day, without missing it, and it's a long meaty read is the Sinocism newsletter by Bill Bishop. And for anybody who's interested in China, particularly China-US, this is not optional. I mean, in these days, and right now. So he's doing basically the same thing that I'm doing, which is filtering through, providing some perspective, staying in that middle ground space. I'll also put out Jeremy Goldkorn and Kaiser Kuo with the Sinica Podcast and SupChina. Those guys are doing the same thing, they're all part of the same culture. We're all part of the same generation that spent a lot of time here in the 90s, have some perspective on China. The thing that I really want to caution people on is that there are a lot of haters on Twitter and things like that. I really think that when you consume information about China, it's increasingly important now to consider "Do the people that you are reading and following speak Chinese?" And in the old days, you didn't do it. And I use the same standard, could a Chinese person come to the United States and not speak a word of English, not read the New York Times, not understand anything that Trump is saying in his own language, and say that he really understands us? Impossible. And I think the same applies to China watchers outside looking in. If you cannot speak Chinese at a level sufficient to be able to understand what 习近平 [Xí Jìnpíng] is saying in a speech, even 80% of it, I just don't take you that credibly. In my view. So that's been a line now, I know that's a snooty line for a lot of people, but again, we apply the same standard to us, that you can't understand us if you don't speak our language. And there is no way you could understand American culture without speaking English.
OF: Great. Well, I can't think of a better place to end that conversation. Thanks so much, Eric. That was great. And of course, the final question I ask everyone on this podcast is, in the next season, when I interview more people, I want to have someone who you recommend. So who would you recommend that I speak to next?
EO: I am going to recommend that you speak with a wonderful woman by the name of 赵慧玲 [Zhào Huìlíng]. And 赵慧玲 [Zhào Huìlíng] is a vlogger. She is based here in Shanghai. She was born in Ghana, and has spent an enormous amount of time in Africa. And now she's dividing her time between Shanghai and different parts of Africa: Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania and other places like that. And really bringing African life to Chinese users on social media through vlogs and WeChat posts and things like that. And I just think she, in many ways represents the future, which is expanding the China/Africa relationship beyond a political/economic one to a human and cultural one.
OF: Excellent. I can't wait to meet her. Thanks so much, Eric.
EO: My pleasure. Thank you so much.
OF: Thanks again to Eric. You can find him mostly on LinkedIn, just search for him there under his name. He's also on Twitter at eolander. He also hosts the China Africa Podcast, which I'm sure you can find on whatever platform you're listening to this on.
This was the third recording in a row that I did at my apartment in Shanghai. And if I sounded a little on edge this time, it's because I was trying to impress Eric at the start of the podcast by offering him the tea which he'd requested. Only, since we're not a tea-drinking household, I needed to delve into the back of my cupboard, and in so doing I tipped over and smashed a whole bottle of vinegar all over the floor. So it wasn't the best start to the interview. Luckily for me, Eric is a class act, and he didn't ridicule me at all, which is definitely not what I would have done to him if the shoe was on the other foot.
Nothing much else to say about this recording, there was the usual mention of the French Concession, whose actual name is the Former French Concession. The reason I'm careful to mention this each time is because the Chinese don't really like this area being defined by the time it was under the influence of a foreign power. Which is actually fair enough I would say, I mean, I can't think of many countries that would wear that as a badge of pride. Mind you, even as I say that, I'm wondering whether that's correct, so please tell me if I'm wrong. Anyway, even though the former French Concession area does have a look and feel that's quite distinct from the rest of Shanghai, it's only really called that by the foreigners.
The other thing Eric mentioned which might not have been clear is the acronym KOL. He was talking about how people with 1,000 followers on social media think that they're the next KOL. In case you're not into marketing lingo, this just means an 'influencer', it stands for Key Opinion Leader.
Mosaic of China is me Oscar Fuchs, editing by Milo de Prieto, graphics by Denny Newell, China technical support by Alston Gong. If you like us, please rate and comment on iTunes or wherever you download this podcast. It really does help with the algorithms, in getting this podcast noticed by other people. So thank you very much, and I'll see you next week.
*Different WeChat and Instagram handles were mentioned in the original recording. These IDs are now obsolete, and the updated details have been substituted.
Oscar Fuchs was the Co-Founder and Managing Director of a global executive search firm dedicated to the Human Resources profession. He was born in the UK and has lived in Asia for 18 years, including 3 years in Hong Kong SAR, and 7 years in mainland China. In 2019 he sold his company, and launched Mosaic of China.