China’s History Of Studying Africa & Its Importance To China-Africa Relations Today

Most people falsely believe that China simply began investing in Africa in the 2000s. But before its first engagement, China studied Africa for almost half a decade. What can Africa learn from this principle of ‘study first, then engage’?

By: Isaac Demuyakor

The Commission Of The Survey On Africa

In 1950, the Chinese government instituted a study on Africa since it knew little about the continent. Some universities, including The Peking University, China’s premier institution of higher learning were tasked to lead this research on Africa. In 1961, the Chinese Communist Party established a unit within their ranks to oversee the project of the established institutes.

On 27th April of 1961, Mao Zedong met African leaders in Beijing on a red carpet ceremony. This was part of the familiarization project for the Chinese to better understand African leaders and their continent. On 30th December 1963, a report was issued about strengthening ties with Africa. Other institutions led by Peking University with course instructors and professors like Ji Xianlin and Yang Renpian were charged with this African history project. This period saw the introduction of scholarships for African international students in China. Due to the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) soon after, all students were enrolled in universities based on their political performance. All courses related to social sciences and the humanities were stopped with the exception of African Studies.

In 1971, China’s relationship with the United Nations (UN) was normalized. Within this period, the country made entry into the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as one of the five (5) permanent members. By the 1980s, China’s project on Africa was complete. The history and survey of Africa was done!

By 1978, China published 117 books on Africa and 111 were translated into the Chinese language.

1977-2000 was also a very productive time for the Chinese study of Africa and China’s aggressive efforts to know more yielded results.

China-Africa Trade

By the beginning of 2000, major trade activities between China and Africa had started. This was a result of the productive work done in the 60s. Trade had increased tremendously as were more book publications on Africa.

In 2008, China organized the African Civil Society Dialogue Conference in Nairobi, Kenya. This was primarily to get closer to the continent and its people. Concerns about China’s role in the Darfur Conflict in Sudan surfaced as well as its support for countries with poor governance systems. But, China, in a rebuttal, used two principles in their foreign policy: noninterference in member country issues and the respect for UN and African Union (AU) principles of engagement. China also established a dialogue on Global Environmental Institute (GEI), an NGO that focuses on engaging stakeholders on environmental issues, across the African continent within this period.

In 2012, during the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) meeting, China promised $10 billion in concessional loans to Africa. The country promised to boost Africa’s agriculture sector through technology and provide 5500 scholarship packages for African students who want to study in China, among other agreements. This was a continuation of the effort to have closer ties with Africa.

In 2015, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) established a scholarship for people working in the Africa government sector to continue their education in China. The program still runs with select universities in China and the country continues to roll out a number of scholarships in all areas. These efforts have helped Chinese universities learn how to engage with African students and has helped Africans, including those in government, learn more about Chinese culture.

Programs like China’s One Belt and One Road Initiative continue this initiative. The One Belt and One Road Initiative is a global program to facilitate trade connections with the rest of the world. Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) Forum initiatives that bring together key strategic countries are also part of China’s initiatives to advance their global learning policies.

Where Does This Insight Mean For Africa?

History reminds us that Africa has always been a target for both its natural and human resources, from the British to the Portuguese, the Americans to the Germans. This spans from slavery where Africans were captured and sold like commodities on the market to Africa’s natural resources from timber to gold being exploited and sold. These events did not happen randomly but with an open or closed policy intention.

Currently, China’s foreign policy on Africa is well studied and known by scholars, but what is Africa’s foreign policy towards China? What are some of the lessons learnt from the past on how to deal with foreign powers, considering that this is not the first time Africa has been engaged with the outside world? What can Africa learn from the way China began its engagement with the continent through study then investment?

The Chinese have become a force to reckon in all spheres of our lives, from technology to trade and economics. Chinese people are also spread across the world through investment. The country has special economic zones targeting various continents. Backed by technology and strong leadership, China’s supply chain is so swift that it trades with every part of the world. China engages with everyone and their policy is to offer help backed with trade.

China has a population of approximately 1.4 billion people. Can the African continent, which has a population of approximately 1.3 billion, with a fairly young demographic, braze itself to take advantage of its population? Do the African leaders have a clear policy to impact on its youthful population? What can we learn from China’s strategy of engagement?

Isaac Demuyakor holds a Master’s in applied economics and studied in China. He has interests in international relations, trade, and food security with a primary focus on Africa-Asia.

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