left corner left corner
China Daily Website

Thousands of human stories not told

Updated: 2013-11-22 10:38
By Andrew Moody ( China Daily Africa)

China's involvement in Africa has been steep learning curve for diplomats, businesses, says academic

Harry Verhoeven believes many Chinese working in Africa may help shape the future course of China when they return home, .

The Belgian academic says this aspect of Sino-African relations is often ignored with the main focus instead always being on China's impact on Africa.

"Part of the economic miracle on the Chinese mainland was fed by entrepreneurs from places like Taiwan, Singapore or Hong Kong," he says.

"People, who have experiences in Africa and possibly Latin America, will play a similar role in terms of shaping and changing future economic thinking and activity in China."

Verhoeven, only 28 and already one of the leading international experts on the China-Africa relationship, was speaking in the modern Manor Road Building headquarters of Oxford University's Department of Politics and International Relations.

He says China is more likely to be influenced by its citizens working in Africa than Western countries who have workers there. This is because, unlike them, the second-largest economy has so far been less exposed to foreign cultures, particularly those with a colonial history.

"They will return to China having worked in countries with different cultures and systems whether these are political, related to corporate governance or environmental regulations or dealing with trade unions. All this is likely to affect their ideas. For some it will reinforce their existing views but for others it might change their perceptions of the world fundamentally."

Verhoeven, who has a frenetic energy and makes regular trips to Africa, is the convener of the Oxford University China-Africa Network, which he founded in 2009.

It organizes conferences, workshops and seminars and also produces a newsletter. Next year it is planning a major conference in conjunction with Fudan University in Shanghai at Oxford that will focus on China's soft power and the China model.

"We try to position ourselves as offering this place where people can stand back and reflect," he says.

The academic says people are often surprised at his relative youth when they meet him in person after previously only speaking to him on the phone.

"They think I am an old Oxford don with a beard. The British High Commission organized a lunch with some senior ANC people in South Africa recently and when I turned up they thought I was the interpreter. I had to say that I actually was the guy," he recalls.

Thousands of human stories not told

Verhoeven says that one of the big largely unwritten and under-researched aspects of the China-Africa relationship is the individual human stories of the many thousands of Chinese who now live on the African continent.

"What is extraordinary given the sheer scale now of the population movement of the Chinese to Africa and back, how few of the stories of these people have been told. What are the motivations of these people, their biographies and how it has changed the way they see themselves and the way they see China," he says.

"There is some research happening. We are beginning to get some PhD students taking an interest and map out this human dimension more."

He says it would be refreshing to take the China-Africa relationship out of its normal economic context and China's demand for Africa's resources and look at these other aspects.

"I am not saying the experience of a Chinese shop owner in Botswana is necessarily very different from a UK BP worker in Nigeria but the point is we don't actually know.

"Just as an example there have been Chinese barefoot doctors in Tanzania for decades but the stories of these people have never been told."

Verhoeven studied political science at the University of Gent before moving to the UK to do a master's at the London School of Economics.

It was while doing a doctorate at Oxford, part of which looked at the links between political power in Sudan and water, vital for life in such arid conditions, that he emerged as an Africanist.

He also became interested in the China-Africa relationship because of China's investment in Sudan's dam program. He is publishing a book through Cambridge University Press on Sudan early next year, which will have a sizeable section on China.

Verhoeven recoils from the often-quoted largely Western view that the Chinese are the new colonialists in Africa.

"Frankly, anyone who has studied colonialism in Africa, recognizes what is happening with China and its activities is a very far cry from colonialism," he says.

"Raw colonialism is actually occupation. It is actually running the thing."

He says the biggest single mistake observers and commentators about Africa make is assuming that Africans have "no agency" or control over their own destiny.

"It is the biggest thing hands down and it is something that I keep going on about in everything I write. There is just this lazy assumption in the West and elsewhere that Africans have no agency and are just victims."

Verhoeven says a growing topic of interest with the China-Africa relationship is whether China will move in future to safeguard its personnel and securitize its assets on the continent as Western powers have done with theirs in the past.

"The classic example is the Persian Gulf with America and Britain starting off with just economic ties and then expanding their embassies, extending their influence and, after a while, establishing military bases," he says.

"The question is whether China will follow the same pattern which would be entirely unsurprising from an international relations perspective."

Verhoeven says China's involvement in Africa has been a steep learning curve and that many Chinese diplomats and business leaders working on the continent have earned "street credibility" in Beijing as a result.

"These kind of experiences are formative and are very important. I recently spoke to a few (Chinese) people who had served many years in Sudan on how it had changed their outlook on the world and African countries."

There has been much focus recently on African countries achieving double-digit economic growth and speculation as to whether the 21st century might belong to it as well as Asia.

Verhoeven is skeptical, however, whether Africa is quite yet on the brink of new dawn with, according to the recent McKinsey report, Lions on the Move, 200 million consumers ready to drive growth further.

"I am neither an Africa pessimist, nor do I go along with the Africa Rising lingo either. A lot of the discourse comes from people who live in Nairobi," he says.

"That is not to say there isn't a new class of consumer emerging but an awful lot of places in Africa are getting worse and not better. I still think economic growth has been too commodity-driven in most countries and wealth accrued to a very small number of people."


 Thousands of human stories not told

Harry Verhoeven says the network he founded in 2009 offers a place where "people can stand back and reflect". Nick J. B. Moore / for China Daily

(China Daily Africa Weekly 11/22/2013 page32)

  • 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.