“Of course China is good for Africa, but it is how to make the most of the relationship that matters.”
This statement perhaps best summarizes Nigerian journalist Solomon Elusoji’s attitude towards one of his country’s and his continent’s most important, discussed and divisive relationships in the 21st century. It is not how he always thought of China, however. At the age of just 23, the young journalist, then a freelance reporter with Nigerian daily newspaper, ThisDay, received a phone call from his editor. She said, “I want you to go to China.”
“I knew nothing about China then. I knew it was a communist regime and it seemed like North Korea, a very militaristic state. To me it was just a distant place that Africans went to to buy cheap goods and sell them back to Africa.”
The opportunity was organized by the China-Africa Press Center (CAPC), which operates under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ media department. It was explicitly part of Beijing’s public diplomacy in Africa, explained to Elusoji as “helping [African journalists] understand Chinese media, politics and society”. It offered not just fully funded reporting opportunities in distant China – an opportunity which would rarely be available to Africans – but also the chance to study a master’s degree at Beijing’s prestigious Renmin University. It included attendance at major conferences and political events – such as the Twin Sessions (the annual gathering of top legislators and political advisors in Beijing – reporting trips across the country, visits to media outlets and government ministries, and heavy doses of cultural tourism.
The young and ambitious Elusoji, freshly graduated from the University of Benin in central Nigeria and planning his next career steps, had that year already laid the groundwork to study in the UK, a historic destination for further studies for Nigerians, and held two unconditional offers. He had applied for the British government’s Chevening scholarship.
However, the new opportunity presented unexpected reporting adventures.
“When I began to learn about China, it struck me that there was a different world somewhere, a reality that didn’t…correspond to mine…I was on the verge of discovering something and I was eager to know what it was,” Elusoji writes in his book.
With adventure and the unknown calling, Elusoji chose China. It would prove eventful and formative. His understanding of China was revolutionized. Indeed, his perspectives on his homeland also shifted. On returning to Nigeria in 2019, Elusoji wrote about his experiences in the book Travelling with Big Brother: A Reporter’s Junket Across China. It is that book which formed the backdrop to The Initium’s conversation with Elusoji in July this year.
On accepting the opportunity to report and study in Beijing, Elusoji did what any young and intrepid reporter would do before the adventure of a lifetime. He read voraciously about China.
“All the news and books I found about China were written by white men. I could barely find anything written by Africans.”
This matters in a number of ways.
“For example, I don’t think a Westerner will come to China and be impressed by the infrastructure,” Elusoji says.
But this was precisely the first and very profound impression for Elusoji when he stepped off the plane in Beijing in 2018. In his book he describes the infrastructure passing by the window on his journey from the airport to the Diplomatic Residential Compound near Jianguomen, where Elusoji and his fellow African journalists would live for the year.
“[It] was akin to magic…Skyscrapers rose against the night sky. The wide roads, the elaborate, intricate bridges, the almost saintly magnificence of the city…My vision of China was already being reset.”
It is a theme that comes up throughout the book, as well as in our conversation. And, indeed, it is also a major theme in China’s projection of soft power in the developing world – the transformative power of ambitious infrastructure projects that China’s state-owned companies excel at.
This lack of diversity in perspectives on China in the English language can be very limiting, Elusoji comments. He comments that Western media approach is far too dominated by the lens of US-China rivalry, which tends to work with pre-set definitions of countries’ and regions’ roles on the chessboard of great power rivalry – Africa as poor and helpless and China as a rising, revisionist power.
“This provides no depth and glosses over the real issues,” he says.
One example Elusoji notes is the Chinese government’s concept of the “right to development” as part of global political and human rights, which it has been stridently promoting over the last few years. Western media for the most part seem to dismiss the notion outright. It tends to be seen merely as a challenge to Western notions of human rights and political freedoms. But “for an African, where lots of people are poor, the notion doesn’t necessarily sound like a bad idea.”
Elusoji is careful not to fall on one side. The issue is large, complex and tied up in colonial pasts and competing visions of the future. Perhaps the binary is a false one anyway. “As a journalist, I probably emphasise political freedom most…But I also understand that economic freedom [sic] can be a very powerful thing.” Two things can exist at the same time. What Elusoji most passionately calls for is a reporting on China and Africa that breaks out of the boxes and embraces complexity and nuance.
Getting it right
But his conclusion from being in China and grappling with these issues is categorically, “yes, Africa has much it can learn from China.” In his book, Elusoji touches on a deeper note. Throughout his time in China he finds himself observing and “wondering what could have been.” There is a sense that China got something right, where too many African countries went down a path of wasted hope.
Too often that has come from poor and corrupt politics.
“African governments time and time again have failed their people, choosing power over people,” Elusoji says. And this is an issue that affects the relationship with China deeply. Ultimately, Elusoji says, the success and failures of the relationship will be determined by how African governments approach it. In other words, our understanding of the China-Africa relationship needs to be far more grounded in the realities of African politics than it tends to be.
“Of course China is good for Africa. China has capacity that is useful for Africa’s economic development…Getting past the distracting question helps us to focus on the real one, the one which puts Africa in charge of its own destiny…The important question, really, is how will Africa show up?”
To date we have seen too many African leaders abuse the opportunities the relationship offers, opting for populist projects such as football stadiums rather than pursuing projects which would be of genuine benefit to national economies and the people. But there is hope, Elusoji defiantly says. He sees a strong need for training among African leaders on how to approach China, but also a bolstering of civil spaces in Africa so that Africans can hold their governments to account on their dealings with China.
A cosmopolitan hub of intellectual activity
Against this backdrop of governance challenges, the need for scrutiny and the need for a better understanding of China, in Beijing, Elusoji found a lively and eclectic group of engaged Africans – journalists, academics and business people – discussing precisely these issues.
In the bowels of the glass and steel structure of the Soho building in Sanlitun there is one Nigerian restaurant. Curious about this island of home in a foreign land, Elusoji went to investigate, with the idea to write a story about the place. On arriving he ordered egusi soup made from seeds and vegetables, a spinach-like vegetable called okazi, and yam, Nigerian staples. Not long after sitting down an African man came in and “as is customary among most of the black people in Beijing”, he waved at Elusoji, “this comrade in a foreign land.” He sat down to talk. The man, Sunny, was also Nigerian. Small talk moved quickly into politics, two Nigerians righting the wrongs of their nation’s politicians in a basement restaurant in Beijing.
The chance encounter was just one of many with an eclectic Nigerian and African community in Beijing. Colleagues attending the CAPC fellowship came from Mauritius, Tunisia, Kenya and Botswana, while fellows on similar programs for Asian countries came from Mongolia, the Maldives and elsewhere. An Italian restaurant near their apartments in Jianguomen provided the meeting place for the most agreeable of cuisines for this diverse and no doubt disorientated group of reporters. For Elusoji, who had never travelled abroad before, “meeting people from different countries was a feeling akin to spreading your wings across the universe…To have friends from across Africa, especially, helped me to think differently about the continent, about how we are all so different and yet so similar.”
One fellow Nigerian Elusoji met later in his stay, a trader turned academic called Charles Okeke, even founded a network for politically minded Africans in Beijing, the Conscious African Network. It met monthly in restaurants around the city with the express purpose of “educating, enlightening and sensitizing fellow Africans…on the need to get involved in the continent’s rejuvenation.” Okeke is a proponent of reforming Nigeria into a one-party, meritocratic state. While that might sound like a theory straight from a course on CCP governance, Okeke in fact sees it as consistent with the politics of Europe’s developed and rich constitutional monarchies. He also says he came to his conclusions only after meeting other Africans in Beijing who told him stories of bad governance and corruption from across Africa, issues he previously thought were Nigerian national problems.
“The case of Nigeria is not peculiar. The 55 African countries have the same problem. And it is that of leadership…This was designed by the colonialists. They left us with a democracy that is not democratic,” Okeke told Elusoji in an interview conducted on the rooftop of the now-shuttered hub of intellectual activity among Beijing’s foreign community, The Bookworm.
“The democracy we have in Africa today is a faulty democracy. That is why we have to review it. By reviewing it, we have to have a democracy based on merit.”
Okeke was just one of a number of African thinkers Elusoji met in Beijing, many of whom were drawing on lessons from China’s development successes and interpreting them into African contexts.
The existence of this community for lively discussion on African and global affairs contrasted the tightly controlled media space Elusoji encountered soon after his arrival in Beijing. The CAPC cohort’s first reporting trip – just a few days after arriving – was to the 2018 Twin Sessions. Elusoji recalls both the dry and formal discussions and the pandering questions of American Multimedia Television’s (全美电视台) Zhang Huijin (张慧君), made infamous by the exaggerated eye rolling of fellow journalist Liang Xiangyi (梁相宜). “The Two Sessions reinforced what I had read about China, that China isn’t a free speech country.”
Not surprisingly, many of the journalists taking part in the program were skeptical about their scope for free reporting while in China. However, when one of them asked the CAPC director Chen Zhe whether their reporting would need to be vetted before publication, he responded “we don’t have such rights.” This was upheld, with journalists writing as they pleased for publications back home. It is not, of course, a luxury afforded to Chinese journalists.
But there is one issue which unsettles the China-Africa relationship deeply. Racism. And it is a complex issue. Elusoji is conflicted about the use of the term in the context of Chinese attitudes towards Africa. “The word racism is very closely attached to things like slavery and colonialism”, he says. “I associate racism strongly with Caucasians, with the West. And I find it hard to imagine, for example, a black person being racist to a white person, or a Chinese person being racist to a black person. There is this strong political and social context.”
It was a point reiterated by one of the African academics active in China back in 2018, Dr Hodan Osman, then Executive Director of the Centre of East Africa Studies in Zhejiang Normal University and now an advisor to the Somali Prime Minister. “What did colonialists do in Africa?,” Elusoji recalls her saying. “They treated humans worse than animals are treated, took people out of the continent and enslaved them. So how can the term colonialism, and the historical meaning the word entails, be used to describe the relationship between China and Africa? I think it is extremely obtuse.”
And it is certainly true that the Chinese government approaches Africa with far greater respect than Western governments ever did. As Elusoji notes, the red carpet has frequently been laid out for African leaders visiting Beijing. And China does not approach African governments with demands about how they govern their country. “There’s lots of talk about Chinese expansionism in Africa, but it just isn’t the same thing,” Elusoji summarizes.
And yet, life in China presented a conflicting picture. Elusoji recalls one incident in particular that changed his thinking. One evening during a reporting trip to Wuhan organized by the CAPC program, two colleagues went down to the hotel swimming pool to relax after a busy day being bussed around for reporting and interviewing. But on entering the pool, the two Chinese women who were swimming there hastened to leave. Coupled with incidents of people staring at him, touching his skin and hair, a distinct picture of discrimination against Africans in China began to emerge.
For quite some time, Elusoji had seen these incidents as merely ignorance and ultimately harmless. Some of his colleagues saw it quite differently, however. His South African classmates were categorical that it was racism.
After the swimming pool incident in Wuhan, Elusoji came round to their side. “After mulling over [their] experience, I realized it was foolish not to call it…what it really is: racism. To do otherwise is to sugarcoat it, to ridicule the black experience,” he writes in his book. But Elusoji still qualifies this, calling racism in China “subtle, hard to describe, and often easy to miss.”
He also notes that, for all the propaganda machine’s insistence that China and African countries are equal brothers, there is an underlying narrative that China is “helping” Africa, a narrative which contributes to the idea of Africans as poor and inferior.
Elusoji remains unclear about what to do about the issue, however.
“Chinese racism is a big deal and something really bad for a lot of Africans living in China. But what are you going to do about it? What leverage do we have? So a lot of people just wave it off and get on with their lives.”
He saw this in African reactions to the recent scandal about a Chinese man, Lu Ke, filming young Malawians singing songs and even being made to read overtly racist messages in Chinese for the online video market back in China. Africans noticed the story after the BBC investigation, but quickly moved on. Such incidents are too common and just not the major priority for Africans, he explains.
Ultimately, Elusoji thinks that “African countries need to become much better versions of themselves”, linking back to his point about how African governments need to “show up” in the relationship with China. Good governance and strengthened economies are what will dispel lingering racist sentiment in China, Europe and across the world, he believes. In that sense, the relationship with China presents an opportunity to overcome racism, if governments approach it right and make the most of the opportunities available to strengthen Africa.
Back to Lagos
Since returning to Lagos in 2019, Elusoji has become active in a growing community of African journalists interested in China and with experience in China. He hosts Twitter spaces on issues ranging from China and human rights to development and continues to work on China-related stories with Nigerian media. Reactions to his work and his new perspectives on China have been mixed. Many are genuinely appreciative of the new light he sheds on China, too often regarded as mysterious and unknowable, while some regard him as “some sort of Chinese agent.”
“Generally speaking, I feel many Nigerians would like to know more about China, but there are not enough reasons to make the effort. The language barrier, for example. And China is not exactly an ideal destination for aspiring migrants, a category which most young Nigerians fall into.”
For his part, though, Elusoji is “convinced China has a huge role to play in global economics and politics this century, especially as it relates to the development of African societies, for good and bad.”
And that deserves thorough, detailed and nuanced coverage. It is people like Elusoji, with an interest, understanding and will to keep enquiring who will be critical in holding both Chinese and African stakeholders to account and shaping how, as he puts it, African governments “show up” in their dealings with China.
A Chinese version of this article was originally published on the Initium.