The ‘intellectual frontier’ between Africa and China



The growing relationship between China and Africa have been the topic of much discussion and debate in recent years. Media coverage of these Sino-African relationships tended to focus on what Chris Alden and Yoon Jung Park have called in a recent book chapter the ‘upstairs’ dimensions: Chinese investments in Africa, developmental assistance and the impact of these relationships for the shifting global geopolitics. The establishment of the BRICS group of emerging states is probably the clearest indication of these shifts, and has also attracted a great deal of debate. Media coverage of BRICS, as with China-Africa relations more generally, has largely been dominated by economic and political issues.

But the growing interest in China in Africa is not limited to businesspeople, entrepreneurs and politicians. Increasingly, China-Africa relations are also becoming the topic of scholarly attention by academics and researchers at institutes and think tanks.  Perhaps the most official example of these think tanks is the China-Africa Think Tank Forum (CATTF) that is incorporated by the Chinese Foreign Ministry into the framework of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) as a regular mechanism for civil dialogues between China and Africa . The first meeting of this think tank forum was already held in 2011, in Hangzhou and Jinhua, where representatives of Chinese and African think tanks, the African Union  and organizations representing economic and political organizations came together to discuss how an ongoing dialogue between Chinese and African thinkers could be established. The forum provided a space for high-level academic debates and exchanges.

The 2nd Meeting of the CATTF was held in 2012 in Ethiopia, co-hosted by the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS) of Addis Ababa University (AAU) and the Institute of African Studies (IAS) of Zhejiang Normal University. According to the proceedings of this meeting (published in book form and edited by Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe and Liu Hongwu ), the event was attended by more than 100 officials and scholars from 15 countries the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), Chinese and African think tanks, and other regional organizations.

At the most recent meeting of CATTF, held in 2013 in Beijing, discussions about research collaboration continued. The news service All Africa reported that the discussion centred around the theme of ‘Upgrading Sino-African Relations and Constructing Chinese and African Soft Power’. The issue of Chinese ‘soft power’ in Africa, as it is being expanded via cultural exchanges such as the Confucius Institutes as well as its increasing media footprint on the continent, remains a hot topic for debate in scholarly circles.  For instance, a recent conference held at the University of Westminster in London, compared the ‘soft power’ initiatives of China with that of India. The conference debated the concept of ‘soft power’ developed by the American political scientist Joseph Nye, and how the notion of ‘soft power’ can be used to describe the way China and India use the media to communicate their growing influence in geopolitics. In Nye’s conception, ‘soft power’ is the means through which countries exert influence in the global arena through attraction and persuasion rather than through coercion or force. (see a more detailed conference report here)

The African organisations represented at the 2013 CATTF meeting in Beijing included, according to All,  the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, CODESRIA from Senegal, AERC from Kenya, the Institute for Peace and Security Studies at the University of Addis Ababa, the Centre for Chinese Studies at the University of Stellenbosch, Université Mohammed V in Morocco  and the International Relations Institute in Cameroon. In a statement issued at the meeting, it was stated that Chinese and African think tanks and scholars stand on the ‘intellectual frontier’ of the developing relations between China and Africa, and that they can help to improve relations between these two regions.

This ‘intellectual frontier’ is being explored at several universities in South Africa. For instance, the Centre for Chinese Studies at the University of Stellenbosch presents itself as the “most prominent and high quality point of reference for the study of China and East Asia on the African continent”, and engages in “policy-relevant analysis” for government, business, academia and NGO communities.

On the terrain of media studies, Chinese investment in South African media companies like Independent Newspapers and the pay television platform StarSat, as well as the increased presence of Chinese media organisations like CCTV and Xinhua, is being followed closely. The University of the Witwatersrand’s journalism department runs a China-Africa reporting project that aims to ‘improve the quality of reporting around China-Africa issues’. At Rhodes University, a research unit for Media in the Global South (RUMIGS) has been set up , where work around the representation of China in South African media is being conducted alongside comparative projects on media systems in the BRICS countries.  A forthcoming issue (November 2013) of the journal Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies will focus on ‘reporting China in Africa’ and features contributions from various scholars working in this area – an illustration of how vibrant this topic is becoming in academic circles.

But especially interesting is also how discussion of China-Africa issues are taking place in the virtual realm of the internet. A good example is the, a blog that also hosts podcasts and updates on Facebook.  The email listserv Chinese-in-Africa/Africans-in-China, run by dr Yoon Jung Park, has grown into a vibrant community of scholars working on China-Africa relations. The Internet is after all perhaps the biggest think tank of them all – although, as a recent article shows, the strategies pursued by the Chinese government to control online activies can also influencing and legitimizing the development of a less open model of the Internet in Africa. If this influence goes unchecked, it could reverse the gains made in the online African public sphere.