/ 31 May 2019

Cultural imperialism with Chinese characteristics

Cultural imperialism with Chinese characteristics
Soft power: A Senegalese man waves a Chinese flag in 2009 as he waits for China’s president to arrive. (Seyllou Diallo/AFP)


The first building that one comes across when entering the campus of the University of Zambia, which sits on the terraces of a busy motorway to and from the country’s international airport, is an imposing structure known as the Confucius Institute.

That this institute, named after an icon of Chinese culture, has been erected so prominently at Zambia’s oldest and most prestigious university reveals, on the one hand, the long-term vision of its promoters, and, on the other, a nation not yet attuned to how foreign cultural symbols naturalise power and influence, especially in instances where little has been done to create and celebrate local symbols.

At one point the university’s principal administrators even planned to relocate from their crumbling offices into the new Chinese building. It took the intervention of Western diplomatic representatives for this plan to be abandoned, along with their threat to withdraw funding from the university if its top officials were to reside under the ideological banner of a rival superpower.

If Zambia has been singled out in this preface, it is only to give context to the rise of Confucius Institutes across Africa. What one encounters in Lusaka has been mirrored across the continent.

Much ink has been spilled on the effects of China’s engagement with Africa on the economic front, but little has been said about its cultural diplomacy — and the Confucius Institutes that are at the forefront of this, and have been since the first African Confucius Institute was unveiled at the University of Nairobi in December 2005. That this subject has been neglected is unsurprising given that criticism of China’s role in Africa has largely been driven by France, Britain and the United States, countries that have their own vested interests and equivalent institutions of cultural indoctrination in most African nations.

There are grave issues at stake here, including the question of who sets the continental agenda; the paucity of forward-thinking African intellectual opinion on key debates about the continent’s fate; and the stifling of African agency on these matters.

As Africans who are fed up with being treated as if we are on the nether end of the civilisational scale, we need to discuss the aims of the Confucius Institute — and similar institutions of soft power projection, such as the British Council and Alliance Française — and the threats posed to African culture. Culture matters because it is the invisible thread that ties people together, or separates them.

Control through culture

The Confucius Institute programme was founded in 2004 to promote Chinese culture on the international scene. It draws its leadership from the Communist Party of China and has since seen its presence throughout the world surge to more than 500 schools. Forty-eight of them are in Africa. This rapid expansion has coincided with the steady rise of China as an emerging global superpower, and reflects a long-term strategy aimed at securing the country’s growing influence abroad and fashioning the world order under its cultural imprint.

The founding of the school also represents an admission, perhaps learnt from the West, that economic and nuclear power can only go so far in terms of effective control of the world; that to truly control a people, one must influence the cultural habits, the language and belief systems of such a people — one must project “soft power”.

This strategy of conquest has been deployed in Africa by France, Britain and the US — expressed through cultural industries and institutions such as the Alliance Française, the British Council and the American Cultural Centre — with a devastating effect on the African psyche.

It is quite telling that the Confucius Institutes have been presented as “gifts” to Africa and as a way of “strengthening” Sino-Africa relations by making the latter understand China “better”. By giving the “gift” the Chinese are creating the obligation to reciprocate, much in the same way that the “development aid” gift has been used by the British, French and Americans. It is not surprising that development aid arose in Africa just after the formal end of colonialism.

In the short term, the Chinese use these institutes to mark their territory on the African landscape and this becomes a visible, symbolic marker of their power and presence on the continent in a way that is not as politically or socially sensitive as the creation of, say, a military base.

A school also becomes a medium of shifting ways of seeing the world and it is an exceedingly effective way for a state to build and extend its cultural capital internationally. Zambia offers an illustrative case study on this score.

The Trojan Horse

On May 7 China “subcontracted” the Zambian government to start offering compulsory Chinese language lessons in Zambia’s public secondary schools. This followed the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between representatives of the Confucius Institute and the Zambian government. Chinese history is already part of Zambia’s high school curriculum.

One of Zambia’s diplomats, in justifying the MoU, claimed that since “Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world, it is prudent that our children learn Chinese”. The official’s thinking points to an acknowledgement that in the future Zambians will largely be working for Chinese, and not Zambian, employers.

Most importantly, the signing of the MoU suggests that the Confucius Institute is a Trojan Horse that China deploys to lure unsuspecting victims into ceding their sovereignty. Having arguably captured Zambia’s present leadership, the Chinese — who already enjoy considerable presence in the country’s strategic economic sectors — are now moving to capture Zambia’s future, starting at secondary school, before the targeted age group’s mental faculties develop or recognise the entrapment.

Thus, Zambia has effectively laid at the disposal of the Chinese its public education system to complement the Confucius Institute in producing large numbers of the would-be local labourers, administrators, interpreters and other accessories of this colonialism by stealth. This is a point that was lost on the country’s permanent secretary in the ministry of higher education, Mabvuto Sakala, leader of the delegation that travelled to Beijing to sign the MoU, when he addressed officials from Zambia’s mission to China.

He said: “We want to ensure that we have an assured pipeline of trained Chinese language teachers to support the national rollout of Chinese training and assessment by the Examinations Council of Zambia. In this light we will be discussing with our counterparts here [in China] the development of a fast-track local teacher [training] programme as prepared by the Confucius Institute at the University of Zambia.”

Not only will Chinese be on Zambia’s national curriculum, but those who teach will — in the short term, at least, given the lack of qualified Zambians — have to come from China, imported to smooth Zambia’s path into vassalage.

The English employed a similar strategy when colonising Zambia in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They sent or “donated” Christian missionaries, teachers, lawyers and judges, law-enforcement forces and administrators to the territory, who all served as a foundation stone for future conquest. The Chinese may seek to replicate this strategy because it enables the coloniser to conquer “the natives” with uninformed consent and to subtly export jobs for its population overseas. (The Bank of China, largely dedicated to servicing this emerging colonial infrastructure, already exists in Lusaka).

Linguistic colonisation

In the long term, these “gifts”, such as the Confucius Institutes, soften the general populace into paying “tribute” to those who become perceived as powerful benefactors. That they are being constructed on sites of national significance or in ways that dominate the landscape speaks to this long-term vision. The point is that Chinese imperialism, like all imperialisms, recognises that it must empty Africans of their independent human essence if it is to thrive and defeat existing patterns of social practices that inform locals’ knowledge and understanding of the world, and how they recreate and interact with it, be it through customs, moral norms, laws, beliefs, tastes, art or other forms of cultural expression.

Confucius Institutes are therefore nothing but China’s drones or vehicles for global dominance effected in the cultural sphere through the promotion of Chinese language, tastes, education, architecture, music, food, movies, beliefs, banks, dressing, art, film, thinking patterns, history and lifestyle, to be continued until such a time that these would have supplanted existing cultural precepts and raised local agents who would become the ambassadors or defenders of the new imposed order themselves.

A fertile ground already exists for the new coloniser. In Zambia, for instance, many are yet to understand Beijing’s wider motives beyond the surface or official rhetoric and are consequently accepting of these “gifts” as though they are unproblematic. As a result, it is easy for China to institute linguistic colonisation, one that captures and gradually establishes a firm grip on the mind, mannerisms, opinions and thinking patterns of the target.

Thus, even before she recovers from the debilitating threat that the use of a colonial language, English, poses to its struggle for nationhood, Zambia has moved to impose another foreign language on itself. This is understandable, though, given both the acutely low levels of historical consciousness among the country’s public leaders and the lack of serious national conversations on such crucial subjects. Getting people in captivity who are not aware of their bondage to realise that they are, in fact, in need of liberating or redemption is generally a hard task. It is difficult to extricate oneself from a history where one’s life experiences are strongly entangled in unequal relations to that of the coloniser — how does one unpick their education, their built environment, their foods, language, tastes, etcetera and throw it back?

Culture is dynamic; it evolves at every epoch and with every generation, and therein lies its creativity but also its vulnerability. It is creative because it is not static and, like life, it renews itself amid changing socioeconomic and political contexts. It is vulnerable because some cultures are being eroded and replaced with others, usually those that are more dominant.

Whether or not Africa’s new imperial suitor succeeds in its aims depends, in large part, on the resilience of the host cultures, the strength of the host economies, and the consciousness and agency of the host populations, exemplified by the local leadership.

It is probably easy for cultures such as that of the US to resist or at least manage external influences. For African cultures, already beleaguered by centuries of Western domination and operating in the imperial supremacist economic and social structures, which make Africa fertile ground for neocolonialism, the rise of Confucius Institutes is a threat.

On a continent where the major cultural industries — film, television, music and food chains — are already dominated by Europe and the US, the establishment and spread of these schools threatens to further frustrate efforts to resuscitate Africans’ sense of self-belief and identity. It is a new form of colonialism, more subtle and in some ways more dangerous. Unlike the Western interventionism of the continuing past, it enjoys the consent of those on which it is preying, with deleterious consequences that will only become clear with time.

Learning from the past

Imperialism in the 21st century is cultural, soft, digital, less conflictual and effected in spheres where the imperial West lacks the moral high ground to disparage China’s actions. For instance, France has more than 931 cultural centres in the world, followed by China (531), United Kingdom (191), Germany (151), US (105) and Portugal (90), as of December 2018. Many of these cultural tools of Western imperial hegemony are in Africa.

By infusing the institutes into existing national educational institutions, the Chinese are investing and securing the spread of their ideas and culture into the minds of Africa’s would-be leaders in industry, academia and politics.

Tens of thousands of Africans from all influential echelons of society travel to China regularly on state-sanctioned trips of indoctrination. This strategy of conquest is not new. The British, French, Portuguese and US have all previously employed it. They still employ it to this day. Also not new is the tragic failure of African leaders to learn from history. As a result, Africa continues to learn languages of foreign powers, none of whom learns Africa’s languages. The continent refuses to see anything wrong with this and remains, to outsiders, a phenomenon of great amusement and spectacle, including on how lowly it thinks of itself and conducts its internal affairs.

The establishment of the Confucius Institute in many African countries has gone hand in hand with the establishment of a Chinese International School. Learning Chinese language is mandatory in both outlets since it is the medium of instruction. Education, acquired through scholarships to China and through Chinese schools, captures the promising youth of Africa, implicates them in Chinese philosophies, material and ideological exchanges, and creates a moral indebtedness that is difficult to totally unpick.

One possible outcome for this scenario is the production of a national leadership with a sense of alienation from its own settings and which may look East, seeking to imitate the increasingly assertive and emboldened position as well as the values of the Chinese Communist Party, which recently held a congress where the leadership of Xi Jinping was given almost unassailable status.

Other possible threats include the continued marginalisation of African languages, symbols and heroes, and the resultant self-emasculation of the African identity and other worse forms of enslavement that have never before been experienced; the increased subservience of African cultures to foreign ones; the rise of China Towns on the African landscape, expressed through new export growth centres and multi-economic zones; and the preservation of Africa’s position at the bottom of the global value chain.

Combined with the devastating effects of American, British and French imperial presences on African culture, which are already entrenched, winning the ongoing cultural war that the Chinese have joined will be tough for Africa, requiring an ideological mindshift, a strong and enlightened national leadership and significant consensus. People would need to be willing to endure a period of upheaval.

Africa has many needs, but Confucius Institutes, Alliances Française, American Cultural Centres, British Councils or any other foreign institution of cultural control are not among them. What Africa needs are its own ideological schools for building capacity in so many areas where it has a deficit. What Africa needs is a serious discourse initiated and led by Africans on what explains the continent’s current position on the world scale of progress, and on what this continent can do internally to develop, to define its own priorities and engage with the rest of the world on its own terms.

And if Africans must write their own history, it must be both in practice, by defeating the forces that dehumanise them and destroying their symbols and in the realm of ideas — capturing the centre stage as the subjects of history themselves — by writing and singing about their cultures and victories. In short, what Africans need is to reject what they have become — cheap labourers for foreign-owned corporations and political leaders who strut around when they are nothing but the disposable playthings of corporations and foreign powers — fight to rediscover their full humanity, and be willing to pay the full price for their complete liberation.

Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o once wrote that: “Our lives are a battlefield on which is fought a continuous war between the forces that are pledged to confirm our humanity and those determined to dismantle it; those who strive to build a protective wall around it, and those who wish to pull it down; those who seek to mould it and those committed to breaking it up; those who aim to open our eyes, to make us see the light and look to tomorrow and those who wish to lull us into closing our eyes.”

The question is: When will Africa wake up and free itself from clinging on to the adopted and false consciousness of an ideological worldview that reinforces the power and interests of the very forces that are committed to dismantling it, pulling down the emerging protective wall around it and lulling its inhabitants into closing their eyes so that, as they did before, they sleep again and condemn themselves further into the abyss? When will Africans fully realise the power that comes from our own culture, and the weakness that comes from being bound by the narrow confines of imperial culture?

Sishuwa Sishuwa is a Zambian historian and political commentator