AFRICANGLOBE – From students to business people, many Africans are enthralled by China’s rise and want to be part of it.
Are Africans now looking eastward? There can be no doubt that with trade with China rising more than ten-fold over the past decade from $18.54 billion in 2003 to $200 billion last year, Africa’s commercial ties have pivoted in that direction.
But does Africa’s relationship with the world’s second-largest economy – and to the rest of Asia, where there has also been increasing trade and investment – now cut deeper than just money?
With China, one symbol of a closer bond is the gleaming new $124 million African Union building in Addis Ababa, which was built by the Chinese as a gift to the African continent.
But do Africans themselves – most coming from countries with deep ties to the colonial European powers such as Britain, France, Belgium and Portugal – now feel drawn to China?
Certainly, many young Africans now want to study in China. The numbers of Africans going to Chinese universities has more than trebled, from 8,799 in 2008 to 27,052 last year, according to China’s Ministry of Education. Some put the figure at nearer 80,000, if the number includes children of African residents in China going to higher educational institutions. Some of this has been driven by increasing numbers of scholarships being made available to African students.
Li Changchun, former member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, said in Nairobi in 2011 that offering such academic bursaries was about building a “better tomorrow” for China and Africa.
Many Africans, particularly young graduates, now aspire to work for Chinese companies such as computer giant Lenovo, mobile telecommuncations company Huawei and many of China’s state-owned infrastructure companies, rather than Western companies, since it is these companies that may now have the more significant local presence.
Mahmood Mamdani says that many young Africans have been dazzled by China’s progress over the past two decades.
Mamdani, speaking from his book-lined office at the University of Makerere in Kampala, where he is director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research, says he has noticed an eastward shift in thinking.
“They are becoming convinced it is not just a spark and that this has longevity. They are convinced that the horizon is changing and that the West will no longer have a monopoly here and will not even be as globally dominant as it is now.”
Mamdani, who is also Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia University in New York, says that despite the increasing numbers of Africans going to Chinese universities, it is the Western universities that still appeal most.
“That is because the American university system is incredibly well developed and has a long tradition of academic freedom. That has been compromised to some extent by the ‘war on terror’ and all the regulations surrounding homeland security that go with it but it is still way ahead of anything else in the world, and that is recognized here.”
Certainly, the Chinese government sees it as important to encourage links beyond trade with Africans.
This is certainly true in Uganda, where up to 50 scholarships are provided for undergraduate and postgraduate study in China each year. In 2012, some 480 Ugandan government officials also took part in seminars and training programs for up to two weeks.
Zhao Yali, Chinese ambassador to Uganda, speaking from his shaded residence in Malcolm X Avenue in the Kololo district of Kampala, says this kind of relationship building is very important.
“For the long term it is very important. These young people get to China and study, and when they come back they might become politicians or other senior figures within society.
“It is very good for them to be in a position to tell others what China is like. It is something you cannot do if you don’t have that personal experience.”
To what extent does Chinese culture, history and aspects of its civilization have an impact on the everyday life of Africans beyond the “Made in China” label they see in goods in the shops and in the markets?
Harry Verhoeven, convener of the Oxford University China-Africa Network, says Africans remain far more exposed to Western rather than Chinese culture despite the undoubted greater presence of China on the continent.
“Africans will know about Alex Ferguson, Wayne Rooney and Bono. They will be able to tell you two or three things associated with London and American culture but they would know hardly anything about China.”
The researcher in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University says it is an anomaly – given the presence of Chinese companies and investment in Africa – that most young Africans only learn about China when they study in the West.
“I think there is so much more fascination and an understanding about China in the West, particularly in countries like France, and many of the Africans I know that have developed an interest in China have done so through this route.”
In the Western Cape province of South Africa, Daouda Cisse, research fellow at the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University, who is from Senegal, agrees that Western culture is still very dominant in Africa.