More research needed on China’s influence in Africa

Dr Ross Anthony has just taken up a two-year post as acting head of the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University in South Africa after the previous head resigned. He says there are very few independent research centres on China in Africa despite China’s growing presence on the continent.

“There’s a real need for this. China is huge in Africa, but many Africans know very little about it."

Anthony believes this is due to a number of factors, including lack of funding and a time lag in coming to terms with the fast-moving pace of Chinese involvement on the continent.

He says: “Unlike far more established institutions within the Euro-American sphere, building a knowledge of China within an African setting is a difficult task, including a general lack of research and teaching expertise, a lack of financial commitment by governments and other financial stakeholders."

Institutional and strategic lag

China's presence, particularly its economic presence, is relatively new in Africa, rising significantly only over the past decade or so.

“There has been an institutional lag in responding to this challenge which is exacerbated by the lack of resources many African countries have to deal with.

"Additionally, there is a strategic lag. Despite the fact that decolonisation occurred over half a century ago, European linguistic, cultural, political, legal and economic norms persist in many parts of Africa.

“Thus, while many African leaders are happy to have China as a new, powerful trading partner, a stubborn comfort zone prevents the full realisation that a global economic shift is underway in which the Asian presence in Africa is not a novelty but more likely a long-term phenomenon.”

This can only harm African interests, Anthony asserts. “The longer African states disregard capacity building on Asia, the less ably they will be equipped to deal with the new challenges it brings.”

However, he notes that things are starting to change. “The most dominant player in building up China knowledge within Africa is the People's Republic of China itself.

“It offers thousands of scholarships to African students to attend Chinese universities and has set up dozens of Confucius Institutes within Africa, which teach Chinese language and culture.

“Nevertheless, African states should not leave it up to China to completely fill the vacuum; from the African side, there is an urgent need to start building independent educational capacity on China and Asia more generally.”

Research interests

Anthony, who was born in South Africa, not only heads up the centre and does his own research, but also teaches Chinese history and politics on other Stellenbosch courses.

His research examines the relationship between Chinese economic investments in Africa and geo-political security concerns, stretching from eastern and southern Africa to the adjacent maritime territories of the Indian Ocean and Antarctic region.

It also covers the role the economy plays in determining political relations between China and Africa, recently fleshed out in a project focusing on the diplomacy of economic pragmatism in the triangular relationship between South Africa, China and Taiwan.

Anthony is also very interested in political and economic developments in Xinjiang province, on which he did his PhD as a Gates Cambridge Scholar in the aftermath of ethnic riots and brutal government repression against the Uyghurs.

“Xinjiang looks nothing like the China that you would imagine,” he says.

“It has a heavily Central Asian influence. You see people with green eyes, blue eyes, blonde hair, red hair, they speak Turkic and Persian languages and write in Arabic scripts. Traditional oasis architecture is similar to that in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa.

“We are not taught how multicultural China is. Xinjiang is a huge province, the largest in China, and until recently, one seldom read about it in the West. I had heard very little about it before I travelled there. It opened up a massive avenue of inquiry for me.”

He was also fascinated by the impact of China’s rapid modernisation on an ancient culture.

Of the unrest that took place when he was doing his fieldwork in 2007-08, Anthony says: “There were a lot of fights in the street, a lot of tension. Many young Uyghur men who had come to Urumqi from the oases towns of the south, were unemployed and disenfranchised.”

The Centre for Chinese Studies is keen to further research on China and publishes a journal that attracts articles from academics around the world. Anthony hopes it will get accredited by the end of the year. All the centre’s research is published online and is available through open access.

In addition, Anthony’s role involves building up staff capacity, which he says is a big challenge. He also wants to eventually develop homegrown expertise on China’s relations with Africa.

He is putting together an Asia studies programme for masters and PhD students, including students from other parts of Africa who are funded by the Soros Open Society Foundations, and Stellenbosch has a memorandum of understanding with four Chinese universities.

He would like to build South African expertise too. “We need to start teaching about China locally,” he says, “including to undergraduates.”