left corner left corner
China Daily Website

Scholastic aptitude

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

Researchers run their academic gauge over the China-Africa relationship

Before 2000 there were only smatterings of China-Africa research. Today the field is brimming with output from private and public think tanks, universities, publishing houses and freelance scholars. Observers of the Africa-China relationship see the creation of the Forum on China Africa Cooperation in 2000 and the emergence of China as Africa's No 1 geo-economic partner in 2010 as the catalysts for the deluge in research seeking to comprehend the "new type of partnership".

Given its fledging, albeit rapidly expanding, nature, most of the Africa-based researchers who have kept faith with Africa-China studies are cutting new pathways in a way that fly in the face of received wisdom that Africa is more acted on than acting. Chris Alden, a professor at the South African Institute of International Affair, says Africa too is changing China.

Yoon Jung Park of Rhodes University, a Korean-American, cut her teeth in Africa-China academia when she undertook doctoral studies on Chinese South Africans and their ethnic, racial and national identity constructions at the University of the Witwatersrand, graduating in 2005.

"I was interested in how they viewed themselves and how they were viewed by other South Africans, especially in the post-apartheid era," she says

The period of her doctoral studies happened to coincide with "a great deal of interest in China-Africa relations as well as new Chinese migration to the continent and it seemed a natural segue to move on to an examination of these newer Chinese migrants", says Park, widely credited with creating and sustaining the chinese-in-africcaafricans-in-china online research network.

The multifaceted intensification of relations between country and continent is indeed drawing in some of Africa's finest brains. For Professor Herman Wasserman, also of Rhodes University, the looking glass for Africa-China relations is communications and journalism. "China's involvement in Africa has given rise to debates about how journalistic values and normative frameworks on the continent may be impacted by exposure to a new media system," says the journalist-turned-media scholar whose teaching career has spanned universities, foundations, international journals and book publishers in Australia, Finland, Ghana, India, Norway, South Africa, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and Zimbabwe, and now China.

Wasserman, as editor of the peer reviewed journal Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies, an imprint of the publishing house Taylor & Francis, is now in the final stages of producing a special issue dedicated to Africa-China cultural flows. Until now this has been a theme deemed to be under-studied when contrasted with the deluge of matter on Africa-China economic links. To reflect the boom in academic journals zeroing in on Africa-China relations, the Zambia Social Science Journal is now calling for papers. The journal will be co-edited by Jessica Achberger, deputy director at the Southern African Institute of Policy and Research, whose interest in China was aroused when she taught English at Shenzhen Secondary Experimental School during 2008 and 2009.

The whole area of Chinese public diplomacy and the attendant soft power is of huge interest to African researchers, and the same applies to the popularity of the topic in China itself. For Wasserman, "how China may use the media as a means to create a more attractive picture of itself - and how African media may respond to those attempts" provides an entry point for understanding the wider Africa-China phenomenon.

Also in the soft power column is the South Africa Institute of International Affairs' researcher Yu-Shan Wu, whose works on Chinese media-based diplomacy have been cited extensively in both academia and the press.

Sven Grimm, director of the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University, says he is "interested in China as one of the major partners of Africa and following an evolving relationship (by) exploring its potential, its real impact, and how risks are managed". Grimm has re-invigorated the center since taking over in 2011, having worked in the area of Africa's relations with external partners since 1999.

However, commenting on the potential for China as an opportunity, Grimm says he is "not so confident that the opportunities are being grasped across the continent". "China's major impact is (or could be) a change of mindset toward a can-do business engagement rather than aid", as this would have "broader repercussions across the African continent", he says.

A stable trope in the Africa-China research output is a push-back on what Macharia Munene, an Ohio University-trained history and international relations scholar at United States International University in Nairobi, has called "the rule of power" by Western powers as opposed to the "rule of law" where their interests are concerned. "It is (this) Euro-arrogance that helped Africa and China to gravitate toward each other," he says, while identifying potential areas of friction in the "fact" that the relationship is not one of "equality" but of "need".

He says he was motivated to focus on Africa-China relations because "China cannot be ignored by serious people, and the future is great as long as both sides know what they are doing". Since 2008, Munene has published more than 10 academic and press articles, many based on his attachment to Chinese universities such as the China Foreign Affairs University, cutting a niche as one of the outstanding thought leaders in the field.

With China giving scholarships to students from the 50 African nations with which it has reciprocal diplomatic relations, the students who are academically inclined will in short order contribute to Africa-China scholarship. Daouda Cisse, a Senegalese scholar at the Centre for Chinese Studies of Stellenbosch University in South Africa, is one such, having graduated from Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in Wuhan, Hubei province.

Wrong image

Lloyd Amoah is a professor at Ashehi University in Ghana and a doctoral graduate from Wuhan University with a bent for the funny side even with serious issues. In a recent academic paper, he tells of how some erroneous Western portrayals of China are not only negative but also exaggerated and then propagated as fact. He writes that when one researcher made claims that China sought to acquire swathes of arable land in Mozambique when (he) was asked to produce evidence in the form of notes or source materials, he claimed to have lost them.

In response to the increasing need for new graduates to fill a personnel gap in the field, established scholars are guiding new researchers into an emerging truth-seeking tradition. For example, Maddalena Procopio, an associate researcher at the Association National de la Recherche Espace Chine-Afrique, is now conducting fieldwork, under the guidance of Chris Alden, also a professor of the London School of Economics, on the Kenyan state and society's responses to Chinese socio-economic agency.

Alden can claim an African perspective in that he is associated with the South Africa Institute of International Affairs, where he heads the China Africa Project. His seminal contribution to the field was in theorizing on China as a "hegemon, partner or competitor" in a 2006 paper, which he appears to have fleshed out into the book China in Africa, published in 2007.

Grimm holds that Africa-China relations are still not well appreciated. "I am still surprised by the shallow levels of knowledge on China in Africa and on Africa in China. I am aware that this is mostly an expert communication, but would want to see more public knowledge, too. At the same time, the adaptability and the pragmatism of Chinese actors in African countries is an ever surprising feature."

As a budding researcher, Procopio is already making some surprising findings that should whet her intellectual appetite. "Confusion surrounds (Africa-China's) form of engagement. The flood of literature often makes monolithic generalizations and is not empirical, leading to speculation, which in turn contributes to lack of proper understanding from academics on what is really happening," she says and wonders why most people in Africa harbor perceptions of "a massive presence of Chinese people" when even casual observation bears out the contrary. She also wonders why "Nairobi, the hub of East Africa, and geo-strategic destination for Chinese activities, has no Chinatown".

As much as Africa-China scholarship has been gaining traction over the past decade, gaps still abound. One of the frustrations shared by scholars undertaking primary research is the difficulty in getting Chinese and African interviewees to talk, lending an unhelpful shroud of secrecy to the phenomenon and contributing to the much lamented myths.

As with all academic research, scholars in Africa are uncovering astounding truths in the course of their work. For example, Wasserman says: "South African media are actually less negative about China-Africa relations than some of the dominant voices in media commentaries may lead you to believe." However, "this cautious optimism is mostly framed in business terms", he says, and less from the social and cultural aspects of greater involvement of China such as migration patterns.

Hailing the China Africa Think Tanks Forum, funded by the Chinese government, Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe, director of the Institute of Peace Studies at Addis Ababa University, sees collaboration between Chinese and African scholars as feeding government policy formulation in Africa. "CATTF is a platform for African and Chinese scholars and academics to critically question Sino-African relations and propose alternative pathways. This gives African researchers and scholars the opportunity to learn from past mistakes and assist their governments in developing sustainable and fruitful relationships."

In a recent talk at Leiden University in the Netherlands, Jessica Achberger, who has studied Africa-China relations, identified one of the challenges in Africa-China studies as "Western hegemony over scholarship (that) dictates a pessimistic view", such that, as a corollary, scholars fail to ask the right questions.

Scholastic aptitude

Most of the African researchers maintain collaboration with Chinese counterparts. For example, the Centre for Chinese Studies has links including exchange agreements with Xiamen University, the Institute of West Asian & African Studies within the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the Shanghai Institute for International Studies and Development Research Council. The center hosts visiting academics and organizes lectures for stakeholders.

To address the "hamstrung" and "limited capacity" by African researchers, Tatiana Carayannis and Nathaniel Olin of the US-based Social Science Research Council propose setting up "summer institutes for African researchers devoted to studying China, or thematic workshops that would aim to develop and deepen understanding among researchers".

Collaborative work is indeed already underway. For example, Wasserman has recently structured an exchange agreement between Rhodes University and Tsinghua University. In his capacity as a key driver of the Highway Africa conference held annually in Grahams Town, South Africa, he has helped put China-Africa transnational issues on this significant new media conclave. He is also associated with two big international projects researching South African media in the context of BRICS and China's soft power initiatives.

One of the outstanding examples of collaborative effort is being undertaken by the University of the Witwatersrand's department of journalism dubbed the Wits China-Africa Reporting Project and initiated in 2010. The project funds Chinese and African journalists to travel and report in Africa and has supported more than 30 journalists.

The project, which includes an annual conference, hosted a group of 10 Chinese journalism students during the football World Cup in 2010, says Brigitte Read, the project's coordinator, preparing for the fourth such conference.

In addition, the project offers fellowships to Chinese journalists who then benefit from Wits' academic resources. Through the program, journalists have been immersed in practical skills before traveling to countries including Angola, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, South Sudan, Tanzania and Zambia.

With African nations allocating little or no funds for research, Africa-China researchers have had to think of other ways to raise resources. Park says: "I have been establishing relationships with donor agencies, networking and doing homework to find out which agencies fund work on China, Africa, migration and research, and trying to establish partnerships with institutions for projects and conferences."

For Wasserman, involvement in international research teams is a means of securing resources for financial input critical for research output.

"I have my own research funds such as the National Research Foundation (of South Africa), but I also participate in international research such as the one funded by the Academy of Finland and the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation in Taiwan."

While the Centre for Chinese Studies relies on funding from its mother institution, Stellenbosch University, Grimm says the think tank also prospects for funding from national governments and private philanthropic foundations across the globe.

"All (our research) is on the website, with the exception of commissioned pieces for governments that are not always publicly available," Grimm says.

While recognizing financial and human resources as a key challenge for African researchers, Grimm says "the situation is brightening as there is an increasing number of Africans having been to China and knowing the cultural background and about political and economic relations between China and Africa".

For China Daily

Scholastic aptitude

Song Chen / China Daily

Scholastic aptitude

Clockwise from above: Sven Grimm, director of the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University; Macharia Munene, scholar at United States International University in Nairobi; Daouda Cisse, a Senegalese scholar at Stellenbosch University. Photos Provided to China Daily

Scholastic aptitude

Chris Alden, professor of South African Institute of International Affairs. Nick J.B. Moore / for China Daily

( China Daily Africa Weekly 11/22/2013 page1)

  • 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.