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Red threads of engagement

Updated: 2013-05-31 09:54
By Kenneth King ( China Daily)

Training cooperation has been an important asset in China-Africa ties

China has an important role as an education collaborator with Africa, and this is significant both economically and politically.

At the same time there are also some questions that come to the mind, concerning China's engagements in Africa.

The foremost question is why does China run one of the world's largest short-term training programs, with plans to bring some 30,000 Africans to China between 2013 and 2015?

Yet another question is why China gives generous support to more than 30 Confucius Institutes teaching Mandarin and Chinese culture at many of Africa's top universities from the Cape to Cairo.

There are also posers on why China is one of the very few countries that has increased the number of full scholarships for Africans to study in its universities, with a total of 18,000 students anticipated between 2013 and 2015.

China claims to have been involved for 60 years in South-South cooperation for mutual benefit to China and Africa. While its dramatic economic and trade impact, particularly on Africa, has caught global attention, little focus has yet been given to its role as an education collaborator and especially to the critical role of China's support for training and human resource development for Africans in China, and within Africa itself.

China is not pursuing these training and education initiatives because of support to the Millennium Development Goals or the Education for All goals. These and other goals are being discussed a great deal at the UN high level panel meeting on post-2015 being held in Bali. But these debates are not yet so evident in China; 2015 may be referred to as the date for the next meeting of the triennial Forum on China-Africa Cooperation as much as for anything else.

Nor is China providing these training resources to Africa in the manner of a traditional OECD donor. Instead, this provision of many different forms of training support is presented by China as South-South cooperation, or as elements in a new strategic partnership between China and Africa. At its simplest, it is seen as an example of win-win cooperation, or as an illustration of "common development". In other words, it is claimed to be one side of a process of mutual benefit: China is gaining something from Africa, and Africa from China.

This is not to say that cooperation is symmetrical - with Africa offering parallel training numbers to China as it is receiving. Rather, China currently sends 100,000 tourists to South Africa and 1,000 students annually, but these are not aid projects, but private initiatives. There are similar examples of win-win cooperation with many other countries in Africa.

Arguably, HRD cooperation is part of China's soft power cooperation with Africa rather than the "hard power" of infrastructure development, trade or material resources.

Training cooperation has been one of the "red threads" of China's engagement with Africa dating back to 1956 when China started diplomatic relations with Egypt. Equally, it has featured significantly in each of the five FOCAC summits between 2000 and 2012.

How different, if at all, is China's provision of short-term and long-term training from that of other big providers, such as Japan, Germany or India? Surely, they are all part of cultural diplomacy or cultural cooperation. As such, they can be expected, in due course, to impact on trade and on technological cooperation, if the experience of training in China proves to be positive and valuable.

In 2011, there were almost 300,000 foreign students in China, the vast majority of whom were self-supported. Exactly the same is true of African students in China; while the China scholarship numbers in 2011 were more than 6,000, self-supported students were more than double this, at more than 14,000. In other words, China is evidently an attractive destination for international study, including by Africans, quite apart from its scholarship provision.

The same point could be made about China's formal promotion of Mandarin and of Chinese culture and history via the Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms. This is possibly the largest language promotion project the world has ever seen, taking place in nine years since the first Confucius Institute was opened in Seoul in November 2004. Yet it is dwarfed by the sheer numbers of students worldwide, who are learning Chinese outside these institutions.

A last point about China-Africa training is even harder to calculate than the number of Mandarin language learners across the world: that is the number of Africans who are acquiring skills in Chinese firms from Senegal to Ethiopia, and from Egypt to Zimbabwe.

This too is very different from training in enterprises associated with other nations in Africa because of the presence of perhaps as many as a million Chinese "settlers", traders and entrepreneurs, large and small, who have turned up in almost all the countries of the African continent over the last decade and more.

Of course their main purpose is trade and not training Africans any more than that was the purpose of the Europeans and Indians who came to Africa in earlier decades. But there are many opportunities to learn on the job in Chinese firms and to use Mandarin.

There are debates about China's expanded presence in Africa and several of these relate directly to human resource development.

The author is a professor at the University of Edinburgh & NORRAG. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily Africa Weekly 05/31/2013 page9)

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