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Eastern allure

Updated: 2013-06-21 11:23
By Andrew Moody and Zhao Yanrong ( China Daily)

Eastern allure

 Eastern allure

Kwaku Atuahene-Gima, executive director of the CEIBS Africa Programme, says the interest that many Africans have in China is a business role model. Feng Yongbin / China Daily

 Eastern allure

From left: Victoria Sekitoleko, former Ugandan minister of agriculture; Mahmood Mamdani, director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research, University of Makerere; Angelo Izama, a Uganda-based journalist.Photo by Zhao Yanrong / China Daily

 Eastern allure

Zhao Yali, Chinese ambassador to Uganda, says relationship building through officials training programs is important. Zhao Yanrong / China Daily

 Eastern allure

Garth Shelton, professor of international relations at Witwatersrand University, says many young Africans prefer to maintain a balance between the East and the West. Zhao Yanrong / China Daily

Eastern allure

From students to business people, many Africans are enthralled by China's rise and want to be part of it

Are Africans now looking eastward? There can be no doubt that with trade with China rising more than ten-fold over the past decade from $18.54 billion in 2003 to $200 billion last year, Africa's commercial ties have pivoted in that direction.

But does Africa's relationship with the world's second-largest economy - and to the rest of Asia, where there has also been increasing trade and investment - now cut deeper than just money?

With China, one symbol of a closer bond is the gleaming new $124 million African Union building in Addis Ababa, which was built by the Chinese as a gift to the African continent.

But do Africans themselves - most coming from countries with deep ties to the colonial European powers such as Britain, France, Belgium and Portugal - now feel drawn to China?

Certainly, many young Africans now want to study in China. The numbers of Africans going to Chinese universities has more than trebled, from 8,799 in 2008 to 27,052 last year, according to China's Ministry of Education. Some put the figure at nearer 80,000, if the number includes children of African residents in China going to higher educational institutions. Some of this has been driven by increasing numbers of scholarships being made available to African students.

Li Changchun, former member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, said in Nairobi in 2011 that offering such academic bursaries was about building a "better tomorrow" for China and Africa.

Many Africans, particularly young graduates, now aspire to work for Chinese companies such as computer giant Lenovo, mobile telecommuncations company Huawei and many of China's state-owned infrastructure companies, rather than Western companies, since it is these companies that may now have the more significant local presence.

Mahmood Mamdani says that many young Africans have been dazzled by China's progress over the past two decades.

Mamdani, speaking from his book-lined office at the University of Makerere in Kampala, where he is director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research, says he has noticed an eastward shift in thinking.

"They are becoming convinced it is not just a spark and that this has longevity. They are convinced that the horizon is changing and that the West will no longer have a monopoly here and will not even be as globally dominant as it is now."

Mamdani, who is also Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia University in New York, says that despite the increasing numbers of Africans going to Chinese universities, it is the Western universities that still appeal most.

"That is because the American university system is incredibly well developed and has a long tradition of academic freedom. That has been compromised to some extent by the 'war on terror' and all the regulations surrounding homeland security that go with it but it is still way ahead of anything else in the world, and that is recognized here."

Certainly, the Chinese government sees it as important to encourage links beyond trade with Africans.

This is certainly true in Uganda, where up to 50 scholarships are provided for undergraduate and postgraduate study in China each year. In 2012, some 480 Ugandan government officials also took part in seminars and training programs for up to two weeks.

Zhao Yali, Chinese ambassador to Uganda, speaking from his shaded residence in Malcolm X Avenue in the Kololo district of Kampala, says this kind of relationship building is very important.

"For the long term it is very important. These young people get to China and study, and when they come back they might become politicians or other senior figures within society.

"It is very good for them to be in a position to tell others what China is like. It is something you cannot do if you don't have that personal experience."

To what extent does Chinese culture, history and aspects of its civilization have an impact on the everyday life of Africans beyond the "Made in China" label they see in goods in the shops and in the markets?

Harry Verhoeven, convener of the Oxford University China-Africa Network, says Africans remain far more exposed to Western rather than Chinese culture despite the undoubted greater presence of China on the continent.

"Africans will know about Sir Alex Ferguson, Wayne Rooney and Bono. They will be able to tell you two or three things associated with London and American culture but they would know hardly anything about China."

The researcher in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University says it is an anomaly - given the presence of Chinese companies and investment in Africa - that most young Africans only learn about China when they study in the West.

"I think there is so much more fascination and an understanding about China in the West, particularly in countries like France, and many of the Africans I know that have developed an interest in China have done so through this route."

In the Western Cape province of South Africa, Daouda Cisse, research fellow at the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University, who is from Senegal, agrees that Western culture is still very dominant in Africa.

"In Senegal (a former French colony) you come across people who have never left the country but could talk to you about France as though they are living there. There is also a French influence on some of their behavior."

Angelo Izama believes that it would be impossible and too much to expect for Africa to make some sudden shift from West to East.

The 39-year-old Uganda-based journalist, who was speaking outside one of Kampala's most fashionable restaurants in the Kisimenti district, says such a move, if it is going to take place at all, could take a century.

"The software of the state of much of Africa is Anglo-American now. I think China's structural inroads are through trade and not culture. There may be a shift eastwards but it going to take 100 years," he says.

Someone who is trying to promote more of an interest in China within Africa is Victoria Sekitoleko.

A former Ugandan minister of agriculture, who spent five years in Beijing as a United Nations representative, now runs the Uganda China Culture Center in Kampala.

It houses a library with books about China and is a point of contact for young Ugandans wanting to study at Chinese universities.

"I would say many Ugandans know very little about China," Sekitoleko says. "The most informed people are obviously the diplomatic community and then the traders but they tend to know only Guangzhou (the southern Chinese city that has become a center for African traders)."

"A number of young Ugandans who have shown interest in going to Chinese universities have come to our cultural center. It is more difficult for them to go than to the UK, for example, since most of their websites are still in Chinese. We have been able to help them with applications, however."

Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo is convinced a fundamental shift is already taking place whether Africans themselves realize it or not.

The author of Winner Takes All: China's Race for Resources and What It Means for the World, who was speaking on the 19th floor business lounge of the Cape Westin Hotel in Cape Town, says you only have to go to the airport.

"Just today, see how many flights there are from South Africa to Asia. You can fly almost anywhere. There are at least four cites in Africa you can easily do direct flights to Beijing, Taipei or Hong Kong.

"Just look at the number of African and South American leaders who now go to Beijing rather than Europe or the United States. It is not rocket science. They have the money and capability to invest and this is affecting all aspects of life in Africa."

In Accra, Kwaku Atuahene-Gima, executive director of the CEIBS (China Europe International Business School) Africa Programme, says the interest that many Africans have in China is not cultural. Rather, they see it as a business role model.

Shanghai-based CEIBS set up the first Chinese-run business school in Africa in 2009 and has had a number of successful local MBA graduates.

"Most of our students have joined this program because they want to know why China has developed so fast and why they are so good at business," Atuahene-Gima says.

"They want to know why Chinese companies can compete so successfully against Western companies, which seem to have all the advantages in terms of strength in both technology and marketing. These are the things they want to learn and apply them to their own businesses, so we use a lot of Chinese case studies."

Verhoeven at Oxford University says many young Africans are certainly ambitious to work for Chinese companies, despite, in his view, retaining a preference for Western culture.

"Lenovo and Huawei and also companies like Sinohydro are all good, credible companies to work for, and many young African do work for such companies now.

"Organizations like CCTV (China Central Television) have actively pursued recruiting local staff and they have invested heavily right across Africa."

However, Sven Grimm, director of the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University, says there are some aspects about working for Chinese companies that remain unattractive to Africans.

"I think it is difficult to get on in a Chinese enterprise if you don't speak Chinese. I think perhaps the biggest obstacle is the glass ceiling you hit where it is difficult to reach senior management if you are not Chinese," he says.

In Johannesburg, Garth Shelton, professor of international relations at Witwatersrand University, says many young Africans are aware there is some kind of change happening on the continent by the sheer scale of Chinese activity.

However, he insists that this does not translate to them all wanting to suddenly become Eastern.

"Before the third year begins I always ask my students about their private assessment of China. They tend to say that we should maintain a balance between the East and the West and that we should definitely maintain our relationship with Europe and the United States but see China as an additional partner," he says.

In Kampala, Izama, who is a fellow of the Open Society Foundation set up by billionaire investor George Soros and also a former Knight Fellow at Stanford University, believes the choice for Africans is unlikely to be East or West but having to adopt a position in a more multi-polar world.

"There are parts of Africa that are Arabized, and there are many outside cultural influences elsewhere. I think if you look at the long-term future, the world could be very different, and one has to question whether terms such as East or West will much matter by then."

Contact the writers at andrewmoody@chinadaily.com.cn and zhaoyanrong@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily Africa Weekly 06/21/2013 page1)

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