Eric Olander is the co-founder of the China Africa Project (CAP), an independent, nonpartisan media initiative dedicated to exploring every facet of China’s engagement in Africa. Eric is also the co-host of the China in Africa podcast that is now among the top 10% most downloaded shows worldwide. Eric is a fluent Mandarin-speaker with more than 25 years of journalism experience at many of the world’s leading media companies, including CNN, the BBC, and France 24.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
KrASIA (Kr): Tell us more about your background, and why you became interested in the China-Africa narrative.
Eric Olander (EO): I began studying Chinese at the age of 15, and I worked for a Chinese radio station while attending high school in the US. All of this happened in 1985. In fact, the Cold War was still ongoing and China was much poorer than it is today.
I visited China for the first time in December 1989, and I remember staying with my host family and helping to collect food rations, using a coupon that would redeem a sack of rice. China was really in a bare and sad state. Looking back, I was privileged to have visited China in the early years. Because the country we know today is a stark contrast to China back then.
Right after graduating from university, I worked as a journalist in Tokyo and Beijing. Then I rotated around CNN, BBC, AP, and CNBC. By 2005, I was running the largest TV station in the US for Asian immigrants.
All the while, China was just another country on the map. But from 2008 onwards, things took a turn. Nobody would have foreseen China’s economic boom and the spread of Chinese products (as well as culture) across the globe. Chinese restaurants, Chinese banks, Chinese companies—they sprang up everywhere.
Over the news, however, there were two sides to the story. US newspapers were slamming China for colonizing Africa and overstepping geopolitical boundaries. Yet Chinese newspapers contained their own version of events, about how China is doing good for Africa. There were great intricacies to discover.
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