The Political Currency of Mao’s Little Red Book

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Anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism were some of the key points of agreement between Black anti-colonial activists and Chinese Communists, but under what heading is Afro-Asian solidarity expressed today?

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EDDIE CONWAY: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway coming to you from Baltimore.

Recently I have been looking at the relationship between African-Americans and the Chinese, and the relationship between China and the nations of the African continent. So joining me today to give us an overview of that relationship is Dr. Robeson Frazier. He’s an associate professor at Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism at the University of Southern California. He is also the author of “The East Is Black: Cold War China in the Black Radical Imagination,” which explores black American political relationship with Communist China during the Cold War. Professor Frazier, thanks for joining me.

ROBESON FRAZIER: Oh, it’s a pleasure to join you today.

EDDIE CONWAY: So the spread of Chairman Mao’s Red Book seemed to have played a key role in our development and organizing, and it looks like it was also involved in the liberation movements in Africa as well as in South America. What happened with that? Is that Red Book still important today? What’s the outcome of that?

ROBESON FRAZIER: So there’s a great and fascinating question. I mean, actually, to also refer to your previous question when you were talking about and mentioning Robert Franklin Williams, he and his partner Mabel Williams, another extremely important black radical activist thinker, internationalist, both of them. You know, I think the circulation even of Mao’s Red Book, Robert Franklin Williams is essential. He and Mabel Williams are a central factor too in Red Book’s ability to travel and take on a certain kind of political, cultural capital in places beyond China throughout the 1960s and ’70s.

From my studies, when people like, you know, the young men and women who establish the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, the young black men and women who establish organizations like the Revolutionary Action Movement, the Congress of African People, the works, one of the works that they’re reading are the writings, the ideologies, the, the arguments of Mao Zedong.

And so it’s particularly interesting how his positions about protracted struggle, you know, about revolutionary praxis , about tactical alliances, about united fronts, how that takes on a certain kind of currency and value in places and in political context beyond that of China throughout this period you’re referring to. And I think today while the book maybe doesn’t and those works don’t have the same amount of currency, at least within the U.S., I mean, I still find in my relationships and conversations with organizers, activists who are part of radical organizations, they too, you know, reading Mao’s works and trying to figure out and center how these ideas might be applied within the specific national or local context of their own work.

So it’s interesting, you know, that this book , which really becomes, especially after he’s translated in the late 1960s. I mean, you know, people, I mean, I talked to my uncles who refer to the ways that it just took on a certain kind of power and currency and capital, you know, in terms of being able to juxtapose different kinds of political beliefs and outlooks.

You know, in Harlem, in Baltimore, in Philadelphia in the late ’60s and ’70s, but even today as I said, like how people are still pulling from pulling from it.

EDDIE CONWAY: OK. Well, let’s leap forward a minute, because I’m concerned with the relationship now of China and the continent, of the African nations. Can you, do you have any kind of opinion of what’s happening over there now in terms of the relationship and interaction between black Africans, or Africans in the diaspora in particular, and the Chinese expansion into Africa?

ROBESON FRAZIER: Well, number one, I think it’s, you’re seeing different kinds of developments in different countries. You know, so China is more heavily involved and active in specific countries. But I do think we’re seeing right now a serious kind of prioritization among the Chinese government among Chinese corporations and really expanding their economic footprint within the continent. As you and I were talking about before in terms of, you know, like providing resources, money for infrastructure development. You know, working to expand the footprint of different kinds of Chinese technological devices, cell phones. You know, within various African countries, kind of national marketplaces.

I mean, we’re also seeing it from the other side in terms of China’s efforts to, you know, gain access to various African natural resources. I mean, you know, specifically the kind of you know minerals that are utilized within our cell phones. So I think there’s a serious kind of investment by the Chinese state and corporations in Africa, and that’s really kind of, that, that isn’t new. I mean, China’s been really prioritizing Africa since the 1960s.

You know, we can go back to the Tanzam Railway, and you know, one of the benefits, at least early on of China’s efforts in Africa was that China was willing to provide interest free loans. So for many African nations they looked at the Chinese as, you know, an important alternative to that of the IMF or the World Bank, or you know, the kind of U.S. model of globalism, which is really neocolonialism, neoimperialism.

But I do think kind of that what we’re seeing in China right now. I don’t know. You know, some folks actually refer to it as kind of like China’s own neocolonial project in Africa. And they are, it’s clear the relationship is extremely uneven. The relationship is extremely leaning towards China’s own interests. China’s ability to dump surplus goods in African countries, China’s ability to, you know, they’re dealing with serious labor issues, so they’re able to reposition workers, Chinese workers in Africa to, you know, build roads and build stadiums that no one ever uses. You know, build hospitals that at times, you know, the hospital’s built but there’s been no development of human skills where there can be doctors, African based doctors to actually work in those hospitals.

So the relationship is extremely uneven. But I do think what we’re witnessing there is something also unique and distinctive. And we’re still trying to cultivate the right kind of language and frameworks to make sense of it.

EDDIE CONWAY: OK. I was in Africa a couple of years ago, and I had the opportunity to come in close proximity to a lot of Chinese workers, as well as some of the cultural events. And it seemed, it felt to me that they were standoffish. Is there some something about their cultural, historical cultural behavior, or is there a distance now between the Chinese workers in Africa as opposed to how the Chinese were operating in Africa in the ’60s and the ’70s, when they were interacting with the young nations that were being liberated and supported?

ROBESON FRAZIER: I definitely think there’s a difference. I mean, one of the clear differences, you know, at least in the ’60s it was represented and framed through the notion of revolutionary solidarity. You know, solidarity for the sake of upending colonial and imperial relations. And the Chinese were also pretty active and showcasing this kind of solidarity not just through economic, military support but also, you know, through cross cultural exchange. So, and I’ll say this, it was oftentimes more leaning towards Africans coming to China, for instance, to study, and receive bachelor’s degrees and masters and professional degrees in particular kinds of subjects. So it was more leaning towards Africans going to China as opposed to China, Chinese going to Africa to engage and delve into Africa, cultures of different African countries and nations you know.

But nonetheless it was still oriented around a kind of sense of sharing of culture and the role that culture could play, and fostering political alliance solidarity. I think today, I mean, as you describe, I think what we’re seeing more of is Chinese companies, for instance, kind of coming into African countries and really kind of sequestering, segregating their workers. I mean, they basically, I mean I’m sure you probably saw this, they build these kind of compounds where their workers kind of operate. And to some degree it’s almost as if it’s their own kind of like mini version of China within, you know, Angola or Tanzania, or one of these, you know.

And as a result, that prevents any kind of sharing of culture, any kind of communication about difference. And you’re right. As a result these relations are far more economic than cross cultural. But I think that’s one, that’s one version of it. Because I do think there are, there also are, you know, Chinese entrepreneurs who’ve moved to various African countries. And you know, and that and that’s become their home. So there are also Chinese, kind of, enclaves in various countries. And you know, we’ve seen, it’s moreso Chinese men who are marrying African women, and having mixed race children. But it’s interesting to see this kind of development where the Chinese men are kind of becoming part of, you know, African communities.

And I’m interested to see there what their lives are like, what their wives’ lives are like. You know, what are their children’s lives like, and how is this producing different kinds of Chinese-Africa relations that oftentimes don’t get highlighted, for instance, in news media. You know that oftentimes it’s either framed through the kind of lens of the U.S. Saying the Chinese are over there fostering neocolonialism and imperialism in Africa, or it’s from the Chinese state narrative of look at all that we’re doing there. You know, look at our, how fruitful these relations with China are.

And I’m far more interested in the kind of, in the gray, you know, where we can recognize that this is an extremely uneven set of relations. But at the community level there’s far more complexity in terms of actually what’s, what’s transpiring.

EDDIE CONWAY: OK. Dr. Frazier, thanks for giving us an update on the past relationships, and the present relationship between China and Africa, and African Americans. Thanks for doing that for us.

ROBESON FRAZIER: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thank you so much for the invitation.

EDDIE CONWAY: OK. And thank you for joining the Real News.