Entrepreneur Karim Alwadi is a man of multiple cultures. Born in Damascus to a Syrian father and a Russian mother, he moved to Moscow in high school, and then to China when he was 18. Since then, he’s received his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in International Relations, focusing on Sino Arab Relations, at Ren Min University, and a PhD in International Politics from China Foreign Affairs University. He’s also started up and founded several companies in China spanning sectors from machinery manufacturing, infrastructure development, trading of oil commodities, to the travel industry, and started his own family, finding what seems like a permanent home in Beijing.
So suffice to say, he’s more than qualified to write a book on China, with new book ChinaPhobia – A Wasted Opportunity. Published by Penguin Books, ChinaPhobia is a non-fiction text that considers the rise of China as a global superpower, both politically and economically, and how that rise has cast fear and hate into the world, leading to a domino effect which may very well lead to a new world war and threaten global peace and stability.
Karim didn’t do this alone however, and has in fact enlisted the help of his own father, Mohammad Kheir Alwadi, a prestigious journalist and former ambassador from Syria to China. Together, the father-son duo present their two points of view in the form of a conversation through ChinaPhobia, and readers get to hear both the political and economic perspectives and insights towards this phenomenon. Speaking to Karim over videocall, we fond out more about his history with China, and the process of writing this debut book.
“My family has always been more politically-inclined than business, and I’m the first person to go down the business route instead, as an investor mostly involved with Belt & Road projects in Central Asia,” explains Karim. “But a lot of that scene has changed in recent years, with the USA in its Trump era, and how there’s an increasing number of places that are gaining anti-Chinese sentiment and skepticism. We wanted to do something to fight that phobia, and over the last three or so years, we’ve been working hard, getting over the learning curves, and finally getting ChinaPhobia published.”
Karim himself thinks about how he is a product of a Syrian and Russian marriage, and how his family has implicitly been involved in political scuffles, what with the Cold War and Russophobia, along with being a Muslim, and facing Islamophobia firsthand. “With China as my home, the last thing I want to face is yet another kind of phobia,” he says.
On the dialogic format the book takes, Karim explains how it reflects some of the real conversations he’s had with his family from time to time, offering not just differences in viewpoints regarding politics and economics, but also a generational difference, representing a change over time. “I don’t necessarily inherit my father’s views and beliefs, and I share my own ideals in this book, and hope it reaches a wider audience,” says Karim. “We’re not just people talking about China, but also people who have talked to important people, with my father even mingling with the higher-ups as an ambassador and diplomat. And it’s interesting to learn about how China may seem to only listen to the top of the pyramid, but are actually listening to people on the ground and paying close attention to what 90% of society is saying and doing, and responding to that.”
Karim says that he is neither in love with China nor demonising the West, and attempting to come in with a neutral, non-judgmental perspective. “We’re not here to defend or justify China’s actions, but to explain the logic and reasoning behind their decisions, such as how leadership mindsets translate into policy and trickle down to the people,” he says. “I’m also not a diplomat and I tend to be very direct and forthcoming with what I say. It’s not an anti-China and pro-China book, but an explanation of the ChinaPhobia that has emerged, where every action is being read as political, like say the moment they give out vaccines, it becomes a form of diplomacy.”
“For sure, China does have its own issues and problems, but it is not evil. They have been and still are undergoing a process of growth and evolution, and right now need objective criticism rather than demonising,” he adds. “One thing you have to remember is how China is already the biggest economy in the world, and that forces them to act that way as well, taking on certain responsibilities towards the world, and the world will have your gaze on you, where the smallest change will move things globally. Take for example how during COVID, when there was a lack of Chinese tourists to Spain, the pigeons actually went hungry, or how during lockdown, with a lack of driving in China, Nigeria began to have problems exporting oil to China due to the lack of demand.”
In terms of how the book has affected his relationship with himself and his father, Karim is positive, and in fact, talks about how it’s brought them closer. “I’ve always shared a good relationship with my father, and after writing this book together, it feels like we’re best friends, especially since it’s helped him open his eyes to how I have something to offer to the conversation as well,” says Karim. “He’s very well-regarded as a writer, and this book helped him realised that I was able to express myself in a more academic way as well, and created some dynamic differences in opinion while sharing some commonalities in thinking. Plus, having written it during lockdown, it gave us something to bond over and do during the pandemic, especially since I wasn’t able to do my usual travelling for my business.”
Is Karim hopeful for the future of ChinaPhobia and the hate that’s around the world? “ChinaPhobia is only getting worse right now, and it has to before it gets better. And for that to happen, we need more people to adopt a new way of thinking,” he says. “What we can do is to have a fact-based dialogue not based on panic and paranoia, or you’ll never get anywhere. Having a phobia of this extent is like two lions fighting in a forest on fire; eventually, somebody will win, but bu then, the forest will have burnt down.”
“The next generation will ask us ‘what were you guys thinking?’ That’s why it becomes a wasted opportunity, rather than focusing on the big issues like fighting global warming and social mobility and inequality,” he concludes. “And that’s why we end the book with Carl Sagan’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’. We want to remind people what’s really important, that it is the lives being led and not who is currently leading the world and has all the power. It’s about finding the wisdom and courage to stand up and find a solution to co-existence.”
ChinaPhobia: A Wasted Opportunity is published by Penguin. More information available here
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