Exchange! Then Understand...

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What role does the academia in China play under the framework of China-Africa relationship?

The documentary team sent me to Zhejiang Normal University (ZNU) to find out what role academia plays in the relationship between China and Africa.

There are not many African Studies programs at Chinese universities, despite the long historical relationship between China and most African countries. After all, social science is not big in China, as the nation's main focus is economic development and innovation. There are only a handful of universities doing research in order to provide a theoretical base for China-Africa relationships. Among them, ZNU's Institute of African Studies is one of the more renowned.[i]

ZNU has always been playing an important role in China's African Policies. Its research and publications provide theoretical foundations to the policy makers. It was the first university that educated next-generation scholars in China-Africa studies. In addition, it was selected by the Ministry of Education as one of the institutions for "20+20 Cooperation Plan of Chinese and African Institutions of Higher Learning"[ii]. This plan was proposed at the 2009 FOCAC[iii] and established one-on-one cooperation of Twenty Chinese and twenty African universities. In 2010, the institute helped establish the Confucius Institute at the University of Yaoundé II in Yaoude, Cameroon. Teachers and volunteers are sent to Cameroon annually, to teach Chinese and facilitate cultural exchange [iv](For more information of China's global Confucius Institute, check this website[v]).

My Visit at the University

The university is located in a small town called Jinhua, four hours driving from Shanghai. The railway station is not very clean, and the roads are quite narrow. Since I had an email conversation with staff from institute, my visit was scheduled and ran quite smoothly. [vi]

I was fortunate to meet with Professor Liu Hongwu, the Director of the program, and a famous Chinese scholar in the field. He told me many surprising facts that is rarely caught by the Western media. For example, for over ten years, the university has trained over 400 African educators under the auspice of government funds. These African trainees ended up benefitting the educational system of their mother countries. In addition, the university welcomed many speakers, visitors and governmental officials coming from China, Africa and the West. Professor Liu's next ambition is to unite scholars from other universities in Zhejiang Province to do research in different fields under the single context of China-Africa Relations. Some examples include agriculture and the environment and so on. This ambition is very admirable, in my opinion.

In the afternoon, Prof. Zhou Haijin took me around the building. I visited the Institute's African Museum. It is currently the only university-based museum in China that is dedicated to showcasing African artifacts that reflect its rich culture and history.

Dr. Barry Sautman Was Also Visiting!

Photo from ZNU's website

During my visit, it was coincident that Dr. Barry Sautman[vii] and Dr. Yan Hairong[viii] came and presented at a seminar organized by the institute.[ix] These two scholars are famous in the field of China-Africa Relationship Studies. In fact, I cited their research on Chinese immigration into Ghana in my own Honors Thesis.

I was invited to be a part of the seminar as well. They talked about how Western Media has distorted the real facts regarding China's involvement in Africa. I found it very persuasive. I was also lucky enough to have a personal conversation with Dr. Sautman after the presentation. Dr. Sautman said I was the first Chinese student he has ever met, who has studied China-Africa relationship at a university in America.

Conversation with the Students

The university also arranged a meeting for me have conversation with one Chinese and two African students (one from Mozambique and the other from Ivory Coast), who are currently studying at the institute. Based on my interview record, I was able to get the answers to several questions, as follows:

Question 1: What made the African students come to China?

Answer: Opportunities. Chinese Embassies in various African countries provides scholarships to bring a number of African students to China for exchange. Chinese has become an increasingly important language, so the one who speaks Chinese can help build bridge for the government and the companies in their countries.

Question 2: What do they study?

Answer: China-Africa relationship, African culture and history, economic relationship, Hausa language and so on. Because the program is new, a few more courses will be offered next year.

Question 3: How was studying the subject like?

Answer: There is more need for theoretical studies on China-Africa relationship. But there is not enough data to develop theories at this time. Concrete examples are lacked, and data come from the Bureau of Commerce. They read papers from both western scholars and Chinese scholars. They realized the importance to compare the viewpoints from both sides.

Question 4: How do African students feel about the current China-Africa relationship?

Answer: Very good. Opportunities to deal with China are increasing. Many Africans are buying small commodities and making a lot of money in Guangzhou. But China's visa policy needs to be more friendly to Africans.

Question 5: Do Chinese students and African students get along with each other?

Answer: Pretty well. Cultural difference is large. They have little knowledge about each other at the beginning. But at least they play soccer together and chat about some common topics about life. African students also need to deal with other Africans from different cultural backgrounds.

What to Take Away From the Visit?

First, academia in China is becoming increasingly influential in Chinese governmental policy making process. For example, Professor Liu has suggested that China takes cultural cooperation into consideration when it makes agreement with African nations. His suggestion was adopted at the recent FOCAC meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

Second, although China has made a great effort on the facilitation of educational exchange between Chinese and African universities and think tanks, Chinese universities are facing challenges yet to be solved. The government should provide more funds to support Chinese scholars to travel in Africa and do research.

Third, after all, cultural and educational exchange still seems to be unimportant compared to economic cooperation, because one can calculate the money but cannot calculate how much Chinese and Africans understand each other. However, exchange of scholars between Chinese and African universities is so important if both parties want to have better understanding of each other.

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