China-Africa Young Leaders Forum: Another Governmental Talk?

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The establishment of Africa-China Young Leaders Forum in Windhoek, Namibia is a result of China's top legislative leader, Wu Bangguo's tour in three African countries in May, 2011. It reflects the will and the expectation of continuing the heating cooperation between China and various African nations in the new millennium. But have the young leaders of both sides realized many true stories occurred beyond billions of dollars of bilateral deals, and been ready to handle them?

In recent years, Chinese high-level leaders frequently visited Africa in order to deepen the strategic partnership between China and various African nations. On May 24, 2011, Wu Bangguo, second in command of China's Communist Party and China's top legislator, started his two-week visit in four African and Asian countries--Namibia, Angola, South Africa, and Maldives.

In Namibia, the first Africa-China Young Leaders Forum was hosted in Windhoek. During the two-day forum, 180 young delegates (60 from China and 120 from various African countries) discussed on a broad range of topics regarding China-Africa relationship, such as its historical roots, its context, the trade and investment relations, and the role of media in shaping the relations. The forum was concluded by reaching the Windhoek Declaration, calling on young leaders in Africa and China to take their responsibilities in national development and China-Africa cooperation.[i]

It was not surprising that the youth forum was merely reproduction of governmental talks, as it feeds into the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Established in 2000, FOCAC focuses only on China-Africa trade and economic cooperation, without much emphasis on people-to-people exchange.[ii] I did a quick web search in Chinese on, which is the biggest Chinese searching engine in the world. I did not find any online application for the participation in the forum. Very likely, the 60 Chinese young leaders were appointed by the Chinese government to properly represent China's position on Africa.

Then the question is: to what extent do these young delegates and leaders represent the actual China-Africa "interaction"? A recent article from Xiao Yuhua argues that "contemporary Sino-African relationship lacks adequate civil society role." Media likes to highlight decorated government-to-government interaction between China and African nations and overlooks the importance of the involvement of NGOs, Chinese SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises) and other civil society players.[iii]

In addition, the majority of Chinese people living and working in Africa have nothing to do with Chinese governmental regulation of bilateral trade policy. Many past studies (including my field work in Ghana) have revealed that the majority of the small and medium enterprises run businesses on their own, with very little connection to the Chinese government and Chinese embassies at the host countries. However, the activities of these Chinese merchants and entrepreneurs have caused tremendous impact on the local communities, such as employment conflicts, influence on the local markets and producers, and on corrupted African governmental officials dealing with cultural conflicts. These influences have been perceived by African people as what "China" has done, not what "individual Chinese" have done. And currently what the Chinese government can do is only to call on the Chinese corporations to abide by local laws and be responsible to the local civil society.[iv]

If the government-led Africa-China Young Leaders Forum only continues the conversation of trade and economics, problems associated with Chinese immigrants might not be discussed. The discontent of African merchants over Chinese goods and Chinese merchants might not be discussed. Illegal entry of Chinese people into African nations might not be discussed. It is then hardly for the forum to generate meaningful solutions for the issues common Chinese and Africans encounter in daily interactions.

Then how this forum may make reality of the hope that "Africa-China relationship is a win-win forever"?[v]

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