left corner left corner
China Daily Website

The great connector on the Web

Updated: 2013-11-22 13:10
By Bob Wekesa ( China Daily Africa)

Academic has played critical role in bringing researchers worldwide together

The Chinese-in-Africa-Africans-in-China research network is a global community of Africa-China enthusiasts representing a truly eclectic and global mix - academics of all hues and persuasions; journalists and civil servants and social activists; consultants and businesspeople, to name but a few. Heavily reliant on the Internet, the group is a virtual study in the benefits of the information superhighway.

For a group so diverse, however, there is no doubt that the online platform's more than 300 members would agree that had it not been for one person, it would have long gone the way of other initiatives that start with gusto, only to lose steam and wither with time. The person in question is Yoon Jung Park, an academic who is, as Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, would have it, "a maven, connector and salesperson" of ideas.

Indeed for many, chinese-in-africcaafricans-in-china@googlegroups.com is where they go when they want to inquire about a certain Africa-China detail, engage in a line of polemics, congratulate one another, scour job or research openings, announce an event or a publication or simply engage in banter.

In a commentary for a forthcoming academic journal issue, Park talks of the network's humble beginnings. It started out in 2007 as a small research working group after a public seminar co-hosted by the Centre for Sociological Research at the University of Johannesburg and the South African weekly newspaper the Mail & Guardian, she says.

That meeting in Johannesburg was motivated among other things by a dearth in the literature on interactions between Chinese and Africans on the continent against increasing ill-informed anti-Chinese sentiment in parts of Africa. These and other challenges were being fed and fueled by prejudiced, uninformed and exaggerated media coverage. Here was a crater that needed intellectual filling.

For instance, Park was astounded by misconceptions about the Chinese in Africa. She says: "As a Korean-American, it is one thing when Africans mistake me for Chinese as most East Asians who bear similarities to Chinese people are assumed to be Chinese. However, I have many white American and European friends and colleagues who come back with stories from remote parts of Africa saying that they, too, have been mistaken for Chinese."

These early stirrings served to rouse Park along with scholars such as Tu Huynh, Barry Sautman, Yan Hairong and Karen Harris, all prolific China-Africa specialists. Along the way, the network would benefit from the stewardship of Jamie Monson, Solange Guo Chatelard, and Heidi Ostbo Haugen, who are equally familiar names in China-Africa scholarship.

In 2009 alone five papers by Park focusing on Chinese migration to Africa were published. Any scholar would appreciate having a single paper published in an international journal, let alone five in a year. To publish a paper titled "Recent Chinese migrations in small towns of post-apartheid South Africa", Park took an ethnographic approach, drilling down to the grassroots in search of evidence.

At the same time Africans were also increasingly traveling to Chinese cities such as Guangzhou and Hong Kong in search of opportunities. Before long, Park's small group had expanded to include researchers from the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong; the US; the UK; France; Norway; Portugal, Spain; Sweden; and Switzerland; as well as Mauritius, Mozambique and South Africa. Studies were popping up in which researchers sought to make sense of China in countries as far apart as Cape Verde in the Atlantic and Mauritius in the Indian Ocean not to mention several countries in mainland Africa.

Thus in 2009 the initially small group transformed into a global research network heavily relying on the Internet, with Park serving as convener-cum-moderator. The following year, the group moved further toward institutionalization when a steering committee was formed. Last year the network held its third major event, a working conference and public seminar, at Monash University in Johannesburg. Next year, the event moves to China, with another event planned for Nairobi two years after that, resources allowing.

For many academics in the field, Park included, doing Africa-China research is not easy. Language and cultural considerations are the first barriers. "I wish I spoke Chinese. It would certainly make the field research easier," she says, adding that she decided to explore "African perceptions of China and Chinese migrants, or social and political responses to Chinese, and impacts of Chinese on social changes in Africa", rather than vice versa. Clearly the new generation of Africans learning Mandarin at universities in their home countries or in China will serve to fill this gap.

Echoing a challenge other Africa-based researchers have pointed out repeatedly, Park further identifies "gaining access and earning trust" that makes "many Chinese migrants reluctant to speak to researchers". However, she quickly qualifies this view.

"Who can really blame them?" in view of the combination of negative media perceptions compounded by language and cultural barriers.

In the network's formative days it basically found a quasi-home and succor wherever Park went, first as a post doctoral fellow at the University of Johannesburg and later at the University of Rhodes in Grahamstown, South Africa. An institutional turning point was on the cards when she helped structure a new partnership with the Social Science Research Council in New York and some seed funding from the US-based Henry Luce Foundation.

"This will allow us to expand our membership, increase the visibility of our work and launch a website, which will provide additional platforms for engagement on China-Africa issues," she says.

The coming of age of CAAC is thanks to a dense network of partners and collaborators Park has forged, often as a consequence of her own research work.

Running through some of the institutions that have lent support to her research as well as the network, she mentions Fahamu, an independent African social justice organization, Jinan University, the South African Institute for International Affairs and the Human Sciences Research Council, Stellenbosch University's Centre for Chinese Studies and the Wits China Africa Reporting Project. More recent partnerships have been clinched with Yale University and the Institute of African Studies conference hosted by the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

For China Daily

The great connector on the Web

Yoon Jung Park with her family. Park is responsible for an online platform on China-Africa studies. Provided to China Daily

( China Daily Africa Weekly 11/22/2013 page10)

  • Group a building block for Africa

    An unusually heavy downpour hit Durban for two days before the BRICS summit's debut on African soil, but interest for a better platform for emerging markets were still sparked at the summit.