Excerpt from Carnegie-Tsinghua China-Africa Economic Cooperation in a Global Context Q&A
The following exchange between Tang Xiaoyang, a scholar of Chinese-African economic relations, and an audience member from Africa occurred – entirely in Mandarin – during the question and answer segment of a talk hosted by the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing. For me, it exemplifies the expanding capacity for real dialogue between people from China and various African countries—as universities and organizations host lectures, conferences and seminars and, critically, as more Africans come to China and study Chinese. Indeed, in order to realize the potential benefits (and limit costs) of Chinese-African economic relations, the linkages established at events like this are incredibly important. That this exchange occurred in Chinese illustrates how the language has become a critical medium for establishing these linkages, along with English.
Substantively, Tang’s response to this question about China’s ideological influence in Africa is quite interesting. Note for instance that while the audience member frames his question in terms of the role of China as an influential external actor, Tang responds by shifting the focus entirely to the critical role of locals in “accepting” different ways of thinking. As mentioned in previous posts, this emphasis on local agency is often lacking in discussions of the influence of China or “the West” in Africa.
Also interesting to me are the strong liberal undertones of his answer. In his discussion of Chinese ways of thinking that might not be accepted by Africans, for instance, he actually identifies “individual economic self-reliance” – a value (it seems to me) rooted in liberal economic notions – as an example. In addition, in his discussion of how to deal with globalization, he does not ask: “How can traditional cultures be protected”, as many critics of globalization have, but rather: “How can a tolerant attitude to various influences be adopted?” This question evokes a fundament principle of liberalism, namely the idea that since human beings can flourish in any number of ways (Modus Vevendi), political systems should enable and encourage toleration. As such, Tang’s discussion of the influence of Chinese ideology in fact reveals a considerable amount of “Western” liberal influence.
Speaking as an African person, previously we had African ideas and then, due to the issue of colonialism, Western ideas came over and influenced us. Now, Chinese people are doing a lot for us, and as they do they also bring Chinese ideas. For example, when a Chinese leader says “its like this” then its just “like this” [meaning, he or she is not questioned]. Africa already has problems with democracy. And as a result of a number of important factors, our development has lagged behind:
Do you think China’s ideological influence on Africa is positive? What are the benefits and harms that Chinese ways of thinking present for Africa’s development?
Do Chinese ways of thinking have a positive or negative influence in Africa? In fact, I think the ways of thinking that can actually be accepted are all those that Africans [already] can understand; and as such, the ways of thinking that produce results are all actually African’s own ways of thinking.
I just think, if a Chinese person (with Chinese way of thinking) goes off and attempts to teach some method [of thinking]—if [he] attempts to use China, for example, by using the Confucius institutes to teach some abstract theories or literature—then African people will not necessarily be able to accept it. There may be many Africans that are unable to accept it. In actuality, those ways of thinking that do in fact have an impact are all those that Africans can understand and accept. Those are the ways of thinking that will have an influence.
For example, Africa may [consider] the way that China does business. Some African employees, through engaging with Chinese people, may discover that their way of doing business is also very good and potentially beneficial. Therefore, whether or not this [way of doing things] is accepted, frequently has to do with an individual making a personal judgment: he [or she] might think: this will benefit me, so I will accept it.
Therefore, of course, if we are to ask, is this type of acceptance good for a society; now that is a different question. You mentioned that by now you have accepted many Western ways of thinking—including some that individual people might think are good. For example, now an individual that can wear clothes that are a little more fashionable or has realized better material circumstances might think that [Western influence] is a good thing. But the entire society or the local tradition will not necessarily accept these things. Other people or other ways might not consider these things good at all.
This is also true for China’s influence. For example, Chinese people might say: “You should be frugal.” Some Africans may say, “Good”; others may think, “Why do we need to do work as if one’s life depends on it like a Chinese person? This is not the our own way of life.” This [questioning] also includes Chinese people’s increasing emphasis on individual economic self-reliance. Some people might think this is good and accept this; others might think Africa still needs a kind of communal, sharing-based, societal style.
This is to say, different people will have different ideas about [foreign] influences. Precisely which road will these diverging ideas ultimately lead Africa to walk along? That is for African society and locals to decide. The different peopleof Africa need different ways to connect and engage in discussion so as to realize the potential conflicts to transformation, and then address these conflicts in a rational manner.
Another major trend that needs to be taken into account is globalization. In the wake of globalization, it doesn’t matter if it’s Europe, China, India or another country’s influence, every region of the world will encounter all sorts of ideas. Therefore, within the context globalization, how can a tolerant attitude [be maintained] in order to incorporate increasingly diverse influences? This is not just something that Africa should do, but also China and all other countries as well.