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It's all go on the intellectual frontier

Updated: 2013-11-22 13:10
By By Herman Wasserman ( China Daily Africa)

Chinese, african organizations are helping make sense of a much debated relationship

Media coverage of the Sino-African relationship tends to focus on what Chris Alden and Yoon Jung Park, in a recent book, have called the "upstairs" dimensions: Chinese investment in Africa, development aid and the impact of these relationships on geopolitics. The establishment of the BRICS group of emerging nations is probably the clearest indication of these shifts, and has attracted a great deal of debate. Media coverage of the BRICS, as with China-Africa relations more generally, has largely been dominated by economic and political issues.

But growing interest in China in Africa is not limited to business people, entrepreneurs and politicians. Increasingly, China-Africa relations are also becoming the topic of scholarly attention by academics and researchers at institutes and think tanks. Perhaps the most official example of these think tanks is the China-Africa Think Tanks Forum that is incorporated into the framework of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation as a regular mechanism for civil dialogue between China and Africa. The forum provides a space for high-level academic debates and exchanges.

The forum's second meeting was held in Ethiopia last year, co-hosted by the Institute for Peace and Security Studies of Addis Ababa University and the Institute of African Studies of Zhejiang Normal University. According to the proceedings of the meeting, it was attended by more than 100 officials and scholars from 15 countries, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, Chinese and African think tanks and other regional organizations.

It's all go on the intellectual frontier

At the most recent meeting in Beijing, discussions about research collaboration continued. The focus was on upgrading Sino-African relations and building Chinese and African soft power. The issue of Chinese soft power in Africa, as it is being expanded via cultural exchanges such as Confucius Institutes as well as China's increasing media presence on the continent, is a hot topic for debate in scholarly circles.

For example, a recent conference held at the University of Westminster in London compared the soft power initiatives of China with those of India. The conference debated the concept of soft power developed by the American political scientist Joseph Nye, and how the notion of soft power can be used to describe the way China and India use the media to communicate their growing influence in geopolitics. In Nye's view, soft power is the means through which countries exert influence in the global arena through attraction and persuasion rather than through coercion or force.

The African organizations represented at the think tank meeting in Beijing this year included, according to the news service All Africa.com: the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs; the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, from Senegal; the African Economic Research Consortium, from Kenya; the Institute for Peace and Security Studies at the University of Addis Ababa; the Centre for Chinese Studies at the University of Stellenbosch; Universite Mohammed V in Morocco; and the International Relations Institute in Cameroon. A statement at the meeting said Chinese and African think tanks and scholars stand on the "intellectual frontier" of developing relations between China and Africa, and that they can help to improve relations between these two regions.

This "intellectual frontier" is being explored at several universities in South Africa. For example, the Centre for Chinese Studies at the University of Stellenbosch presents itself as the "most prominent and high-quality point of reference for the study of China and East Asia on the African continent", and engages in "policy-relevant analysis" for government, business, academia and NGO communities.

In media studies, Chinese investment in South African media companies such as Independent Newspapers and the pay television platform StarSat, as well as the increased presence of Chinese media organizations such as China Daily, CCTV and Xinhua, is being followed closely. The University of the Witwatersrand's journalism department runs a China-Africa reporting project that aims to "improve the quality of reporting around China-Africa issues".

At Rhodes University a research unit for Media in the Global South has been set up (by the author of this piece), where work around the representation of China in South African media is being conducted alongside comparative projects on media systems in the BRICS countries. This month's issue of the journal "Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies" will focus on "reporting China in Africa" and features contributions from various scholars working in this area, which illustrates how vibrant this topic is becoming in academic circles.

Particularly interesting is how discussion of China-Africa issues is taking place in the virtual realm of the Internet. A good example is the China Africa Project, a blog that also hosts podcasts and updates on Facebook. The email listserv Chinese-in-Africa/Africans-in-China, run by Yoon Jung Park, has grown into a vibrant community of scholars working on China-Africa relations. Perhaps the Internet is the biggest think tank of them all.

The author is professor and deputy head of the School of Journalism and Media Studies, Rhodes University, South Africa.

(China Daily Africa Weekly 11/22/2013 page11)

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