Bring back the “Bandung Spirit” in China-Africa relationship

Chinese scholar Liu Haifang argues that China should re-discover its early embrace of Africa to build a new foundation for China-Africa solidarity.

By Liu Haifang

The racial discrimination controversy in Guangzhou’s Covid-19 response measures is a shrieking noise in China-Africa relationship, making many anxious that it could derail years of pragmatic, mutually beneficial cross-continental collaboration.

I was alerted to the events in Guangzhou by my African students in Peking University. For me, they were the “whistle blowers” on this incident. They asked me, shouldn’t governments on both sides and concerned citizens do something about it? Realizing how serious the situation was, I immediately passed the message on to my government contacts, even though it was late at night, hoping that they would take it seriously. As the Guangzhou incident quickly occupied global headlines, I received a great number of letters and messages from friends on both the Chinese and African sides. They were invariably filled with worry, anxiety and a deep sense of loss over the damaged China-Africa friendship. I was clearly not the only one concerned.

However, having witnessed these exchanges of goodwill, and more importantly, the actions of young volunteers in Guangzhou rising up in response to the situation, I am more convinced than ever of the exceptional connection between China and Africa. It manifests itself not just in the highly formal relationship between “sovereigns”, but also in the day-to-day experiences of ordinary people, who realize the potentials of their lives through the cross-continental exchanges that are no longer limited to the economic sphere. For many years, people have entrusted the China-Africa relationship with the ideal of achieving a truly equal and reciprocal international relationship. No one wants to see it distorted and destroyed.

Scholars have a responsibility to approach culture-centrism and racism from a critical, analytical point of view. Just as the coronavirus outbreak is fast becoming an opportunity for humankind to slow down and examine what is lost in our single-minded pursuit of globalization, so has the China-Africa relationship, after a period of smooth sailing development, reached a point where we can take a moment to reflect on how we view each other, our shared qualities and our differences. The Guangzhou incident highlights the huge gap of language, culture and values between China and Africa, a reality that everyone needs to face in pursuing a sustainable cross-continental relationship. Colleagues of mine who have participated in discussions at the Peking University Center for African Studies all agree that scholars and academic institutions have a key role to play in promoting mutual understanding and an exchange of hearts and minds.

In the 1990s, the University of Chicago Press published Africa and the Disciplines: the Contributions of Research in Africa to the Social Sciences and Humanities, a collection of papers edited by scholars Robert H. Bates, V. Y. Madimbe and Jean O’Barr. The papers illustrated the value of African studies to the modern university and argued that, rather than chasing university rankings and competitiveness, higher education institutions should focus on “refining students’ sensibilities”. Through the study and research of Africa, universities can become truly “internationalist” and vehicles for promoting global understanding and respectful behavior. As globalization reaches today’s stage of uncertainty, extreme nationalism/tribalism, selfishness and finger-pointing, this responsibility of higher education institutions is particularly relevant.

Africa University

Research on Africa in the People’s Republic of China began with seriousness after the 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia, the first large conference of newly independent Asian and African countries. Many scholars in the field recognize that China’s initial gaze on the African continent in the 1950s was different from that of the Western world. As Professor Zheng Jiaxin of Peking University, a renowned Chinese scholar of Africa once put it, “the People’s Republic shares the same outlook and destiny as its Third World peers and will always side with the Third World.” He paid particular attention to the agency of African people in his compilation of African history and advocated for placing people at the center of their history, a reversal of a century of imperial historical tradition that elevates “African colonial history” above “African History”. But have we, as Chinese African scholars, adhered to this people-centered principle?

In 2007, Professor Li Yangfan of Peking University’s School of International Studies, published an article titled “Asia-Africa-Latin America: the forgotten world”, which discussed his experience of being confronted by an African diplomat. “Why do you always invoke the United States in your talks? What about the Third World?” he asked Professor Li. Similarly, my Peking University colleague Professor Chen Pingyuan brought up his own experience of feeling “stung” by his Chinese students’ indifference to Africa in a 2016 article. When he excitedly described Africa’s first electrified railway, the Addis-Djibouti railway, in class, the reaction of the students was ignorance and a lack of interest. Professor Chen reminisced that when he was a college student back in the late 1970s, the world view of his whole generation was shaped by the idea that “the people of Asia, Africa and Latin America must be liberated.” He recognized that young people’s upbringing is always intertwined with the national and global power structures of his or her time.

Another moment of reckoning came when Chen read about Ugandan scholar and public intellectual Mahmood Mamdani’s 2016 speech in Shanghai. Higher education institutions played pivotal roles in the independence and rebuilding of many African countries, and yet due to Chinese academia’s increasing focus on global ranking and a “snobbish worldview”, these institutions were almost invisible in China.

Drawing from these two personal experiences, Professor Chen reflected that academic excellence is only one aspect of a university’s mission. Its contribution to a nation’s political, societal and economic development goes far beyond published papers and patents. He raised the expectation that modern China’s study of Africa should be strengthened. And he emphasized that he was not talking about elitist “African Studies” (capital letters), but to incorporate Africa into the curriculum of liberal education in China and make it part of society’s shared knowledge.

Our study of Africa must step outside the small echo chambers of think tanks and the restrictive focus on China-Africa economic collaboration. We must respond to the Chinese public’s need for knowledge about the outside world, and show them Africa from an objective and equal perspective. It is an Africa with texture, rich in its history, culture and traditions and brimming with a youthful perspective.

Revisiting Historical Perspectives

150 years before Lord Macartney’s famous refusal to kowtow to Emperor Qianlong, Dutch emissaries reached the land of the Bakongo people (located between today’s Angola and Congo Brazzaville) in 1642 and kneeled in front of their king, in an effort to compete with the Portuguese who had traded with this prosperous kingdom since the 15th century.

Dutch Bakongo
Image provided by Prof. Liu Haifang

Europe’s early encounter with Africa was filled with such stories of admiration and fascination. Tragically, as the emergence of the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism irreversibly sank the continent into the abyss of exploitation, its image also suffered from continued alienation. Its lack of written history, much of it kept orally, was seen as a sign of backwardness. Hegel labelled Africa a continent “that is not a historical part of the world”, as he believed history only began with text-based records. Many forms of “rigorous”, “measurable raciology” banished Africans to the lowest in the hierarchy of human existence. Blackness was no longer a physical concept but an ideological one associated with being uncivilized. As British-Ghanaian thinker Kwame Appiah lamented, the entire African belief system, value system and knowledge system were demolished and discarded.

A Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) Chinese writer Zhao Rushi left an early record of Africa in his book The Record of Many Foreign Countries. When Yang Renbian (1903-1973), a pioneer of African Studies in China, compared Zhao’s accounts with French and English-language accounts (including those translated from Arabian sources) of the same period, he found that Zhao’s grasp of conditions on the African East Coast was way more advanced than the Europeans of his time. Later accounts by Wang Dayuan (14th century), Ma Huan (15th century) and Fei Xin (15th century) were simple but authentic products of seafaring experiences and first-hand records of visits to the continent. Only after the Qing Dynasty did China’s view of Africa show signs of distortion by its encounter with the Western world. The racist myth of Africans being “inferior” held by colonialists began to influence the Chinese mind. If we browse the literature of the Qing Dynasty, occasionally we can still find expressions of concern for the fate of Africa and Africans, but most were imported from publications by Western colonialists. Most Qing Dynasty writing about Africa was filled with Sinocentric biases. “They looked down upon the dark-skinned races, and claimed that Africans were black, ignorant and beasty beings, ”as scholar Peng Kunyuan put it.

It is regrettable that China, which had left colorful, first-hand accounts of Africa way earlier than the Europeans, reduced its conception of the continent to bigotry and discrimination through the Qing Dynasty’s unquestioning absorption of Western knowledge. Today’s China must return to the starting point of its embrace of Africa when it was a newly founded country on the international stage; It must pick up the “Bandung spirit” again in reaffirming the Afro-Asian identity that was established in 1955; It must also look at the continent with a refreshed pair of eyes, just like the curious Song and Yuan Dynasty seafarers. This is where the foundation of today’s Africa research in China should be laid upon.

This blog is translated from a Chinese version with permission from the author.

Liu Haifang (刘海方), PhD (History), Peking Uni., is an Associate Professor in School of International Studies, Peking University. She previously worked for the Institute of West Asian and African Studies (IWAAS), the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), and a visiting scholar at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague(2007-8). She serves as Director of the Center for African Studies, Peking Uni., and the Vice President of the Chinese Society of African Historical Studies as well. Liu ‘s current research topics are Racial, ethnic issues, political development in contemporary Africa, China-Africa relations and African sustainable development studies, China’s foreign aid from global perspective; South Africa, Angola country studies, etc. 

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