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It's more than just academic

Updated: 2014-06-13 09:19
By Bob Wekesa ( China Daily Africa)

It's more than just academic

Scholarly approach to China-Africa ties comes of age

Fifteen years ago, social scientists began trying to decipher the burst of energy in China-Africa relations, and since then there has been no sign of a let up in interest in the subject. In fact, China-Africa relations now continue to attract so much interest that they probably hog much more intellectual firepower than, say, Africa-US, Africa-Japan or Africa-India studies.

Click on any Internet link in most social sciences and you will need to separate chaff from wheat in the stockpile of new books, journal papers, reports, calls for papers and invitations to forums in places as far apart as Washington, Accra, Guangzhou, London, Moscow and Cape Town.

In the years since the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation was set up in 2000, research tended to be descriptive, but over the past five years it has gradually become more incisive. Analyses are progressively dispensing with suppositions of China as the bogeyman in Africa's development giving way to more sophisticated offerings about the benefits and challenges as the continent and country deepen their ties.

On top of more than a dozen calls for papers in areas as diverse as agriculture and migration, numerous quality conferences are lined up in the coming weeks and months. Probably the one that holds the greatest promise of new insights in the field is being organized by the Chinese in Africa/Africans in China Research Network. Being hosted at the School of International Studies/Academy of Overseas Chinese Studies at Jinan University in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, in December, the event is the research network's third, the first two having been held in Johannesburg.

One of the innovations of the Jinan event will be a platform for early-career scholars to test their theories, methods and findings under the tutelage of China-Africa experts. The convener of the session on budding scholars, many of them doctoral students or recent postgraduates, is Professor Jamie Monson of Macalester College in Minneapolis. His book Africa's Freedom Railway chronicles the Tanzania-Zambia Railway and is considered a must read for China-Africa historians.

Monson says the next generation of China-Africa researchers needs to be mentored.

"In a relatively new and dynamic field like ours, graduate student research is often at the cutting edge. Graduate students and post-doctoral researchers are engaged in fieldwork and may not have had the opportunity to develop their findings into published articles and monographs."

Monson sees the mentorship contribution for fledgling researchers on two fronts. It "allows fresh, innovative field research on China-Africa topics to be shared with a scholarly audience so that these findings may be incorporated into our collective scholarly conversation".

Second, forums such as that at Jinan University provide "informed" support from experienced hands in the field especially because of the feedback gained. It is for this reason that the early-career sub theme will be discussed in two sessions.

The CAAC Research Network's mission is to place people at the heart of its research endeavors in the belief that Chinese and African actors, whether they are aware of it or not, have an impact on people's lives in ways researchers must try to decode. Such is the people-centeredness of the Jinan University conference that, going by the session descriptions, all matters economic and social are boiled down to human experience.

From the role of intermediaries in economic engagement either way (in China and in Africa) to issues of race, gender, the nation-state, class and region and on to everyday expression and communication, the conference affirms the centrality of citizens in China-Africa discourses. Even "place and space", a session bound to be fairly abstract, is conceived as a theorizing people interactions.

Tu Huynh, a Jinan University lecturer and an organizer of the event, says the conference will focus on dynamics in Africa and China or trans-nationalism.

It's more than just academic

Probably no other city anywhere deals with Chinese-African interaction as much as Guangzhou. Gordon Mathews, professor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is intrigued enough about the phenomenon to pursue interactions between Africans and Chinese in the city as a research agenda. What do the interpersonal relations tell us about trust, doubt, love and betrayal? Mathews will lead scholarly discussions on this interpersonal topic at the Jinan conference,.

Tu says her university was chosen as the venue for perhaps the biggest single gathering of China-Africa scholars by dint of its location in Guangzhou, because of the concentration of Africans there. A further sweetener is that Guangzhou is central to the changing interests in the research field, with an increasing focus on Africans in China rather than the observed preponderance of Chinese in Africa.

Mathews says of Guangzhou that "far more than any other major city in China, it has a large population of African traders, somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 at any given moment", attracted there by its reputation as the manufacturing center of the world.

Mathews argues for Guangzhou's status as a China-Africa research Mecca adding that Yiwu, a small-commodity center in Zhejiang province, is a poor rival, given that the number of African traders is much smaller and "their presence is often more temporary".

Beijing and Shanghai, he says, "are off the map for most Africans traders" but probably more interesting for researchers pursuing African students and for diplomats. For this reason, Guangzhou is the obvious choice as a place to understand Chinese-African relations in China.

While interactions borne of trade relations in places such as Guangzhou and Yiwu often animate discussions, there is an increasing appreciation of migration of skilled labor either side of the Indian Ocean. Leung W.H. Maggi, an international relations scholar at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, will head discussions on how relations are entering a new phase in which research and development and innovation are leading to the increased mobility of highly skilled workers between China and Africa. "Our interest is in how mobile talent is expected to diffuse knowledge both directly and indirectly across borders, thereby boosting mutual benefits in knowledge production and performance," she says.

Maggi will direct analysis toward making sense of what she refers to as "brain circulation" and "brain exchange" and what this says about knowledge, technology and expertise transfer "as professionals move across geographic and institutional space, interacting with colleagues and non-human elements such as environment".

Maggi begins from the premise that lower-skilled migration - construction workers, small traders and retailers, farmers and the like - have been widely commented on already. The scope should be widened to analyze the relationship between interactions involving the migration of the skilled and the unskilled. The question seems to be: How does skilled labor encompassing professionals of all shades, elite businesspeople and academics, affect unskilled labor and vice versa?

Such an undertaking would yield a more realistic and complete picture of China-Africa migration.

Philip Harrison, professor of the school of architecture and planning at the University of Witwatersrand, and a colleague, Khangelani Moyo, are preparing to start collecting evidence on the visual images of Chinese in Johannesburg and other South African cities. In Guangzhou, Harrison will lead discussions on how Chinese people are depicted and portrayed through mediums such as photography, caricature, graffiti, drawing, sculpture, film and video in big African cities.

It was intriguing to see that by a professor of the built environment discipline, which typically deals with bricks and mortar, delving into the "soft" issues of representation.

"Look at it this way," Harrison says. "Buildings are not just constructions. They are spaces where individuals, families and communities try to be as comfortable as they can possibly be. When we think of designing buildings and neighborhoods, we think of how people imagine themselves and their neighbors in these neighborhoods."

Yoon Jung Park, convener of CAAC Research Network, will lead discussions on why China is globally competitive in garment and textile manufacturing and what lessons African countries can draw. China has been criticized for the impact it has had on the African textiles industry, and Park, while agreeing that there is room for a fresh look at this issue, reckons a country-by-country analysis of the factors that make textile manufacturing challenging in African countries is important.

"China cannot necessarily be blamed for being more competitive. There are all kinds of internal policy and capacity issues that must also be considered in allotting blame in this sector."

Citing Lesotho, she says that while it has "lost many jobs in textiles, the industry, government and the unions seem to have agreed on wages and working conditions".

She adds: "The garment industry remains the second-largest employer in the country. Socially, politically and economically, these factories are incredibly important to stability. The case of South Africa seems complicated by the relations between policies, unions and garment manufacturing owners, both Chinese and South African."

The Jinan University conference organizers expected moderate interest when they put out the call for papers early this year, but have been taken aback by the level of reaction from China-Africa researchers worldwide. They ended up receiving more than 80 proposals from which they settled for 39 papers after a competitive culling review.

"The overwhelming response is an indication of growing interest in deepening relations between China and Africa," Tu says.

"The CAAC has always focused on people's mobility, but this year, rather than just receiving papers explaining migration or who the migrants are vis-a-vis the Chinese state/government, we've also received papers that look at relationships, for instance marriages, friendship and cultural productions."

While interaction between Africans and Chinese may be entering a period of maturity, research still seems to be trailing the people-to-people dimensions - perhaps understandable given how long research takes. Nonetheless, indications are that sooner rather than later the number of China-Africa specialists will surge. Conference organizers say the bulk of responses came from early-career scholars.

"Because China-Africa is still a relatively new sub-field, how to approach and organize one's research is a concern, especially among those finding themselves having to rely more on ethnography," Tu says.

As well as the number of submissions, the quality has also risen. "The proposals were mostly very good, so in addition to quality, we have also taken regional and gender representation into consideration," Tu says.

As scholars sharpen their theories and methods before the conference, it is evident that universities worldwide are not relenting in studying China-Africa.

As a less than perfect continental representation, presenters will be drawn from the School of Oriental and African Studies in Britain, Stanford University in the US, Simon Fraser University in Canada, Zhejiang Normal University in China and Bamako University in Mali. Dozens of scholars will come from many more universities, making the conference a defining moment for China-Africa scholarship, say organizers.

Conferences such as the Jinan event in December contribute valuable perspectives on the China-Africa relationship, free of the hearsay being struck in some media. More importantly, conferences such as this can serve as sources not just for academics but also for policymakers keen to tap into the best thinking available on a growing trans-national relationship.

Another bonus is that the organizers promise to arrange side events in which scholars can see the China-Africa interaction actually working close-up - a huge boost given so many of the scholars have only interacted through email or social media. They will be able to meet and vigorously debate in the true spirit of constructive criticism.

For this and other reasons, Guangzhou is set to receive a different kind of visitor this winter: those who have spent long hours analyzing China-Africa relations according to academic standards and precepts.

For China Daily

It's more than just academic

 It's more than just academic

Guangzhou, as the manufacturing center of the world, has attracted a large number of Africans to do business and live there. That is why the Chinese in Africa/Africans in China Research Network is holding its third conference in the city. Photos by Zou Zhongpin / China Daily

(China Daily Africa Weekly 06/13/2014 page1)

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