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Research in motion

Updated: 2013-05-10 11:04
By Todd Balazovic ( China Daily)

Research in motion 

He Wenping says that China has a lot to learn from the way that certain African nations are developing. Feng Yongbin / China Daily

Research in motion

China and Africa take significant strides in exchange of ideas

Sino-Africa expert He Wenping is one of China's latest generation of Africa researchers, looking beyond books to understand first hand the quickly developing relationship between the two.

The director of the Institute of West Asian and African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has spent more than 20 years researching the way the two powers interact.

But unlike many scholars, He has taken the feet-on-the-ground approach to researching Africa, spending a majority of the past few years traveling back and forth from her home in Beijing to the world's second-largest continent.

"If you want to really understand a place, a culture or a people you can't read it from a book; you have to go there," she says.

"I haven't kept count of about how many trips I've made to Africa, but I think now it's around 18 countries. Some countries I have been to several times, sometimes for weeks or months. My travels have covered everywhere in Africa - north, east, central, south."

While it is becoming increasingly commonplace, 30 years ago China's Africa researchers lacked even rudimentary reading materials in Mandarin, let alone on-the-ground experience in interviewing and interacting with Africans.

With more air miles between China and Africa than most, He has been hailed as one of the leading Sino-African experts - a title she takes with responsibility.

"Our first purpose is to offer our understanding toward the China-Africa relationship. We do so by sharing the results of fieldwork into research so that policymakers have relevant information when making decisions.

"But it is also important that we educate the public. I sometimes go on TV or radio to analyze hot spots in Africa, as well as write articles and commentaries for newspapers," she says. "You need to inform the public of your own thoughts and analysis."

Despite more than two decades of Sino-Africa research, He Wenping represents the new face of Chinese think tanks scholars and researchers who step beyond the books and into the spotlight to give in-depth insight into what is happening on the ground.

For her, this means expanding the breadth of research, evolving from basic studies on African philosophy to comprehensive reports on trade, policy and foreign relations.

"Now you can choose very specific sectors, even if they are very small, and give deeper analysis," she says.

She says that while she recognizes the growing importance of Chinese business ties with Africa, her interests are more on the political side.

"I focus more on political and foreign policy and long-term strategic planning. I am not an economist. I am a political scientist."

One of her analysis papers - written in English - focused on what peacekeeping role China could play in the turmoil affecting Darfur in Sudan, and how those events affected China's foreign policy.

But while many of her research topics focus on China's influence on the African continent, He veers from the common view that it is a one-way street, that it is just China providing aid to Africa.

Instead, she says that China also has a lot to learn from the way that certain African nations are developing. "I think it is a relationship of mutual influence," she says.

"We can also learn a lot from Africa. There are many different governing systems in Africa with many different ways of doing things, so in terms of development China can observe what sequences work and what don't."

Offering China as a model for development for any of Africa's 54 countries, however, presents an entirely different challenge.

While China and Africa are about the same size geographically, that is about as far as the similarities between the two go, He says.

"Africa is very fragmented and in each country the situation is totally different. Some are rich in resources, some poor in resources. Some are tiny with high density in population, some have lots of land but the population is spread out.

"So when they think about their industrialization, I don't think they can copy China's way at all."

What African nations can assimilate from China is its focus on education - something that would benefit both in the long run, He says.

She says with enrollment rates at universities in many African countries quite low, Chinese businesses can sometimes find it difficult to find local people qualified for highly technical aspects of a project.

The result is that many companies are faced with the choice to spend three or four years training someone, a costly time investment, or bring an employee from China, reducing potential jobs for the local population.

"So focusing on education is one relevant idea that they can take from China."

But even as she suggests Africa take notes on China's education system, He also points out that the limelight on Sino-Africa relations is leading to a shift in the nation's academic focus.

"To create think tanks and produce high-quality research, you need to have really talented people," she says.

"Many of the newer institutions have students who have never before done research on Africa. But they have their PhD degrees and have shown they have the ability for high reasoning.

"Even if their Africa knowledge is very limited, it doesn't matter, because they can enter the field with creative thinking."

Researching Africa is also gradually becoming a lucrative pursuit for academics, due to the rising grants and donations, the lifeblood for think tanks and research centers, He says.

"Resources for research are more than before, but they are still limited.

"China is no longer short of millionaires and billionaires, but we are short of millionaires and billionaires who want to put their funding into research. In the US and Europe, many think tanks were started with donations."

She predicts that as think tanks hone their ability to churn out relevant research, it will catch the eye of both government and private funding.

"When think tanks can produce a very good, influential report that leads decision-makers, people will pay more attention to those ideas being put forth by think tanks and it will give them more influence," she says.

"This in turn will attract more of the country's best thinkers and put things in a good circle. It will create a golden time for Africa researchers."


(China Daily 05/10/2013 page6)

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