Africa-Asia prospects II: more solid research on Africa needed to inform Sino-African relations

In China, there is a gap between theoretical research and the reality of Africa, Wei Jianguo, director of the Chinese Society for African Studies, said recently. “For instance, if we could have a better understanding of the situation in Libya and give relevant risk evaluation reports, much loss would have been avoided.” Specialists sometimes fail to provide proper policy advice and instructions to the government and Chinese companies, he added.

Fundamental theoretical research of African studies in China lags behind policy research, and the weak theoretical foundation could result in shallow and improper policies, according to Zhang Hongming, vice-director of the Institute of West Asian and African Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

However, they all agree China’s African studies had made considerable progress since they commenced in the 1960s. “China’s African studies started very late compared with the West. The first research institution on Africa was established in 1961,” said Zhang. Whereas, Western academia and governments have enjoyed a long history of African studies dating back to the 19th century . It has become a well-established multi-disciplinary research field covering a wide range of subjects including anthropology, history, political science, linguistics, geography, sociology and economics.

As a comprehensive research field, it requires a large research team covering various disciplines and different regions on the continent. “This is because more people interested in Sino-African relations, but the number of people focusing on Africa itself is decreasing,” said Zhang. A lack of financial support for research has also hindered development. Zhang said the research has sometimes succumbed to the funding bodies’ initiatives.

The Uppsala-based Nordic Africa Institute (Nordiska Afrikainstitutet) is one of the few centers in the world that finances international research on Africa. This institution is open to everyone, not only African or Scandinavian researchers. Last year NAI accommodated a collaborative research on China-India-Africa relations The Rise of China and India in Africa: challenges, opportunities and critical interventions published by British Zed Books.

This is the kind of research to address the concerns raised by Zhang Hongming.

To give you an example of the importance of this publication, Steppes in Sync will quote from a chapter on China’s aid and cultural policy by Liu Haifang, a researcher at the Chinese institute, where Zhang Hongming is a vice-director.


With regard to all Asian, African and Latin American countries, the external cultural policy of the Chinese governent was ‘to make friends first, then to reinforce understanding, and finally to establish official relations naturally’. At the 1955 Afro-Asian Bandung Conference, [Chinese Premier] Zhou Enlai pointed out that African and Asian countries needed to develop economic and cultural cooperation with each other in order to overcome the historical legacies of imperialism and colonialism. His call for cultural cooperation  was written into the final communique’ of the Bandung Conference.


In the sixth National Foreign Aid Working Conference held by the State Council in 1983, it was emphasized that the working guideline should be Liangli er xing (China’s aid to other developing countries should be dependent on its own capability), jinli er wei (at the same time it should try its best) – the former meant materially, while the latter meant mentally. Accordingly, grant aid was to be given only to the least developed countries (LDC), while the proportion of contract and technical services and the promotion of joint ventures were to be expanded substantially.

Official Chinese policy makes no pretence that China is in Africa to help ‘civilize the natives’ or promote democracy, as is the case with Western development aid pronouncements.

See Africa-Asia prospects I: Japan’s dilemma of North or South for the Japan’s position on aid to Africa


 The Chinese government currently allots 5-6 million Chinese yuan every year for cultural diplomacy initiatives with African countries. The sum is normally divided into two parts: the first is for people-to-people exchange (including cultural officials, performing troupes, academic exchanges, artists and performers), the second (approximately 1-1.5 million yuan) is used for cultural facilities or purchase of materials and equipment, such as books, DVD players and stereo systems.

Since the end of the 1990s, the cultural marketplace has become a new but overarching element in China’s globalizing policy, deliberately designed to cultivate supportive international public opinion of China.

The first goal of China’s cultural diplomacy is to present a positive image of China.

The second is to anchor China’s ‘peaceful rise’ and the ideal of a ‘harmonious world’ in the minds of the external world

The third goal is related to the economic interest in developing China’s cultural industry, in addition to promotion of Chinese culture.

 Key programmes for promoting Chinese cultural diplomacy:

  •   Human resource training

From 2003 to 2006, China trained more than 10,000 Africans in many sectors, including 3,700 government officials and 3,000 professionals. Alongside the enormous increase in the number of scholarships (4,000 per year) announced at the Sino-African Summit held in November 2006, the Chinese government promised to finish the task of training 15,000 Africans by 2010.

  • Establishment of African Confucius Institutes

The number of Confucius Institutes around the world is expected to grow from 100 in 2004 to 500 by 2010. Out of 245 exisitng Confucius Institutes worldwide, only twelve are to be found in Africa, as of June 2008.These institutes are located in Egypt (two), Cameroon (one), South Africa (two), Zimbabwe (one), Nigeria (two), Kenya (two), Madagascar (one) and Rwanda (one).

  •  Organizing symposiums and forums
  • The National Voluntreer Project

this project was oficially launched in 2004 and the first eleven young Chinese volunteers were dispatched to Ethiopia in 2005. The aim of the programme, as stated by by President Hu Jintao in 2006, is ‘to encourage Chinese youth to participate in construction, medical, agricultural and teaching careers in Africa’. The volunteers are selected by the Association of Youth Volunteers under the central Communist Youth League and are given briefing courses on local customs and history before their departure

  • Municipal foreign policy and the Sister Cities Programme

Since the first relationship between Changsha (Hunan) and Brazzavillewas established in 1982, seventy-three cities from twenty-eight African countries have enterred into sister-city relationships with Chinese cities.

On June 23, 2010 China Hunan International Sister Cities Cooperation Forum &International Sister Cities Conference was unveiled in Changsha, the provincial capital of Hunan. 43 international friendship city representatives of Hunan and institutions of high learning representatives coming from 20 countries such as Australia, France, Japan and Korea, etc, gathered here and communicated on the same topic with different languages: Intercity Cooperation and Common Development.
  •  The African Cultural Visitor Programme

In contrast to the one-way indoctrination of African visitors in the USA, candidates applying for China’s cultural programme must submit a paper and make a presentation at the conference on their own country’s cultural management system, cultural policies, cases illustrating the results of implementing the cultural policies and the relation between domestic cultural policy and external exchanges.


Responding to criticisms, Chinese authorities started to require Chinese firms operating in Africa to abide by internationally agreed norms on labour rights, working conditions and environmental standards. A major Chinese firm Sinotel, with important branches in Zimbabwe and South Africa, has joined the UN-sponsored Global Compact.

For dessert, here is an excerpt from a day of Mona Lisa Moyo, a Zimbabwean student of  international studies in Beijing


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