Reflections from a week in Beijing
“Do you know serendipity?” Huang asked me over a bowl of beef noodles at the Peking University cafeteria. A PhD candidate researching aid programs to Africa, she explained to me that luck played a big role in her fascination with the continent. The school she was at just happened to have a very good African studies program. Her parents were afraid for her to travel to Africa, but that didn’t stop her from going to Kenya to research. Anyways, she reported cheerfully, her parents are “more and more understanding”.
During my week in Beijing, I met several graduate students and professors with similar stories. These few have studied and traveled to Africa despite the fact that colleagues, friends and families often do not understand their decision to do so. One professor admitted that her daughter resented her course of study. Another student observed how upon returning from Africa his colleagues would keep their distance from him for fear that he was carrying some virus.
I also sat in on a class and witnessed a group of bright, engaged undergrads critically discuss and debate international aid practices in Africa. To what extent is democracy a requirement for development? What role do big countries play in development in Africa? How can individuals have an impact?
A few days before, I attended a lecture by Tang Xiaoyang on China-Africa economic cooperation. Tang is a young researcher who I am told speaks eight languages and has spent a considerable amount of time in the field. While the lecture itself was interesting, the Q&A was more so. One African man stood up and in impeccable Mandarin questioned China’s ideological influence on the continent. What type of influence does China bring and is it positive? A second, in English, asked about FDI. How can we transfer more know-how so that China-Africa economic relations lead to more wealth creation for the African people? A third: why do contracts seem to always go to Chinese companies and not local ones? Tang responded fluently in Chinese and English.
Why is this exciting to me?
To answer that it is helpful to go back a few years.
In 2010, I was shadowing a caregiver as part of a public health project in a South African township when I met young women named Nombeko. Despite having HIV, she was in good spirits when we first met. Over the next few week I was glad to become a frequent visitor to her house; her energy and optimism provided a much-needed break from the other patients, many of whom were old and suffering.
However, soon Nombeko started to lose weight. I watched as she all but withered away. Her energy and smile disappeared. When I asked the caregiver about her, she told me a story that is all-too familiar in her community: Nombeko had been receiving grants that the government provides to incapacitated sick people. When she started her HIV treatment and her health improved Nombeko lost the grant. Consequently, she was forced to make a choice between her health and money to support her family. Nombeko chose the latter and stopped taking her medication.
She died because of that choice; because the innumerable macro and micro causes that landed her in a situation so dire that she felt she needed to put her life at risk for a little bit of money; because of a failure of national healthcare policy to fully meet the needs of recipients.
There is no easy fix for situations like Nombeko’s. Based on my experience in that township and elsewhere, as well as my studies at Georgetown and in China, I have become convinced that the solutions to the globe’s most pressing and intractable international development problems necessarily involves extensive and intensive cooperation between individuals and organizations from developed countries, China and the local community.
This type of collaboration is not easy. Linguistic, cultural, historical barriers and the tendency to “Other” those that seem different make communication and mutual understanding exceptionally difficult.
That said, last week in Beijing, I met individuals that are devoting their lives to attempt to break through the barriers that limit understanding. As a result of their efforts, as well as of those Africans that are coming to China to study, the spaces for important conversations in China, and the potential for collaboration, are opening up and expanding.
There is still a long, long way to go
As one of the preeminent Chinese scholar on Africa, Li Anshan, puts it: “The study of Africa in China is promising, but needs yet more effort and hard work” .
A few months ago at Zhejiang Normal, I struggled through the first lecture for an intro graduate level class on “African Culture and Development”, taught by another prominent Chinese Africanist. It was disconcerting. At no point in his lecture did he think to suggest that Africa is a place with an incredible diversity of cultures, peoples and histories. His general discussion of “culture” and “history” was imbued with the “progress” narrative that makes sense when studying European civilizations but is problematic when superimposed upon African history .
Outside of academia, misunderstandings about Africa and Africans abound and manifest themselves daily in racist-sounding, off-the-cuff comments by uncouth cab drivers and classmates alike.
Clearly, there is still a long way to go. But if the conversations that I witnessed in Beijing are any indication, at the very least individuals are looking out and beginning to ask the right questions.
This is a good sign because China’s Africanists, and perhaps even Huang herself, have a critical role to play in the future.
 For a history of African studies in China see Li Anshan, “African Studies in China: A historiographical Survey” in Chinese and African Perspectives on China in Africa (2008), 2-16; Kenneth King, “African students in China: Changing Characteristics, Contexts and Challenges” in Soft Power (2013).
 For example: He began his discussion of “Culture” with an anecdote about how humans were uncivilized and did not wear clothing, and then they put on clothes and “became civilized”. Civilizations, he further declared, can be recognized by the existence of writing, cities and agriculture, ignoring for instance the value of rich oral traditions and incredibly complex, sophisticated de-centralized societies, such as Jenné-Jeno in the Western Sahel.