From January 10-17, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi embarked on a five-nation African tour to promote friendly relations between Africa and China, and to continue a Chinese government tradition of making the African continent the first overseas visit of the new year. While in Kenya, Wang defended China’s role in Africa, asserting, “We will not take the old path of Western colonists, and we absolutely will not sacrifice Africa’s ecological and long-term interests.” Wang’s statement alluding to the idea of a “neo-colonial China” in Africa is evidence that Beijing is becoming increasingly aware of Africans who question China’s role on the continent, and whether Chinese investments actually benefit local populations.
In the first decade of the 21st century, the Chinese government has made better country to country relations with various African countries a top economic and political priority. In 2013, China’s trade with the African continent topped an estimated $166 billion and in a 2014 speech at the World Economic Forum in Nigeria, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang discussed his dream of one day connecting Africa’s major cities by Chinese built high-speed railways “with no strings attached.” Analysts and academics have showered consistent praise on Beijing’s improved relations with the African continent, while the Obama Administration’s 2014 U.S./Africa Leader’s Summit was widely seen as a reaction to the inroads that Beijing had been making on the African continent.
Although Chinese involvement in financing infrastructure projects, debt forgiveness, and scholarships for African students to Chinese universities had given China a net positive image among various African countries in a 2013 Pew Research Global Attitudes Report, there remains room for improvement. While many African countries are very grateful for the economic partner that Beijing has shown it can be, allowing these countries to abandon or mitigate their sometimes rigid economic partnerships with the West, China must still convince Africans that its interest in their continent is authentic. By improving people-to-people relations, understanding, and mutual respect in a relationship that many Africans feel reeks of European colonial stereotypes, China and Africa can strengthen one of the 21st century’s most dynamic economic and strategic partnerships.
Africans in China
In a 2014 Al Jazeera report on African migrants in Guangzhou, journalist Jennifer Marsh highlighted the plight of African migrants trying to achieve their own Chinese dream in one of China’s most populated southern cities. Marsh writes “While the central government publicly welcomes the migrants, recent draconian visa legislation has sent a clear signal: Africans in China – even highly prosperous, educated economic contributors – are not welcome.” The Al Jazeera journalist’s story highlights the story of Cellou Toure, a Malian migrant whose small business suffered because of his inability to get a Chinese visa despite being married to a Chinese woman and having three Malian-Chinese children. Many Africans view situations like Toure’s as the hypocrisy of the Chinese government’s goodwill towards Africa, as African migrants witness firsthand the business success of Westerners who marry Chinese women and are allowed prosper legally in small and medium enterprises under the protection of the law.
All one has to do is scour the internet under the keywords, “Chinese prejudice against Africans in China” to discover a litany of blogs and articles on the experiences on young African migrants, students and travelers, many of whom are proficient in Mandarin, as they recount their experiences in China. In A Minority in the Middle Kingdom: My Experience Being Black in China former African-American expat, Marketus Presswood witnessed the racially charged atmosphere in his Chinese school and classroom, finding it increasingly difficult to hold on to his teaching jobs as an influx of white Westerners flooded the Chinese education market in the early 2000s. Presswood remembered overhearing one of his students remarking, “I don’t want to look at his black face all night.”
As a former African-American expat living in China over a period of three years, I can remember horrible stories of racism experienced by other expats of African descent. One of the worst involved a brilliant young medical student from Guinea Bissau who studied Mandarin and medicine in the coastal city of Nanjing. This young medical student was fluent in Chinese and when she reported to a local Chinese hospital to do her residency and training, many of the Chinese patients would not allow her to touch them or treat them because she was African.
These stories and many others highlight the barriers and racial stereotypes that many mainland Chinese people harbor against people of African descent. Much of the problem has to do with Chinese people’s ignorance of Africa, African cultures, and African history, with most Chinese people judging Africans based on the period of European enslavement and the continent’s subsequent history. Another part of the problem is China’s centuries old “white skin” beauty standards, which act as a psychological and generational barrier that views darker skinned individuals as less civilized and unworthy of being called beautiful. In China, one of the most common racial stereotypes about people of African descent is that they all like to eat chicken and watermelon. This particular stereotype hails from the American south during the post- enslavement period, and has nothing to do with other Africans in the African diaspora, highlighting the Chinese lack of understanding of Africa.
Chinese people often argue that an Asia modernity cannot be judged through Western institutions and a Western narrative of history because Asian culture is distinctly different. So the question must be asked, why does China deserve such deference when it views the African world from a European viewpoint and how can China be the leader of developing and underdeveloped countries that it knows little about? If the Chinese government wants to increase its political and economic allies on the African continent and amongst the African people, the next step in the Africa-China relationship must seriously address people-to-people relations.
To improve people-to-people relations, the Chinese government could start by encouraging Chinese companies and state-owned enterprises in Africa to hire 20-30 percent of their workforce locally. This would stimulate the local economy and stifle complaints of a racialized hiring process amongst Chinese companies in Africa that prefers to import Chinese migrant labor because of complaints of lazy African locals. Beijing could also create a path to residency for African owners of small and businesses in China who have married Chinese citizens, contribute to their local economies, and who have not been in trouble with the law. Most importantly, while the Chinese education system focuses heavily on the suffering of the Chinese nation at the hands of Western imperialism, the education system could also focus on a more in-depth understanding of imperialism’s damage to other nations such as the African Diaspora, India, and Asia.
At the 2006 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing, former Chinese President Hu Jintao opened the ceremony with a speech in which he reminded African dignitaries and guests of the centuries-old trading relationship between China and Africa, and the ancient civilizations to which China and Africa held claim. Maybe it would be better if the Chinese leadership taught this shared history to its own people.
Paul R. Burgman Jr. is pursuing an Msc. In International Political Economy at RSIS, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.