The People’s Republic of China is an extremely powerful nation; the largest national economy on the planet and a major military power, one which is deeply concerned with sustaining its access to the natural resources of Arabia, Africa and Oceania upon which it depends. Hence, its foreign activities need to be viewed with suspicion: Are they intended to foster some kind of imperial agenda, in the way that the foreign activities of other powerful nations do?
But such suspicion must be informed and rational. The problem with this (apart from sloppiness and paranoia) arises when ulterior motives are involved. In any country that has undergone colonial and imperial oppression, such as all African countries, ulterior motives are often suspected.
Accusations of colonialism, in particular, are dangerously easy to make and therefore often made for the purposes of manipulation rather than genuine anticolonialism. After all, colonialism was real, and neocolonialism is a clear and present danger, so it is tempting to make accusations on the grounds of “better safe than sorry”.
Yet all too often, what is called “decolonisation” is simply exploitation of racial resentment, as in attacks on colonial symbols or attacks on white competitors by African aspirants to jobs.
Another source of ulterior motive is the actual colonial power, the United States and its satellites. For several years now, the US has been waging an undeclared war against China, and a large part of this war is embodied in propaganda. Anyone officially associated with Western ideology, or trained up through Western institutions, is liable to be contaminated with the Sinophobia that Western media and its associated intelligentsia promotes. This tendency is particularly marked in countries that have little or no indigenous ideological structures, or where the local structures have been penetrated or supplanted by neocolonial structures.
All this means that the suspicion that we deploy against China must be tempered by an understanding of those seeking to heighten that suspicion for their own purposes, and must be tested by a close assessment of how well that suspicion is legitimated.
This takes us to Sishuwa Sishuwa’s article Cultural imperialism with Chinese characteristics. Sishuwa says that Chinese cultural imperialism is a threat to Africa’s indigenous culture. This claim is based on the Zambian government’s decision to make Mandarin compulsory for all schoolchildren. Unfortunately, there is no such decision; the government has decided to make Mandarin an optional second language at all Zambian schools, a decision sponsored by the Chinese government. Thus, Sishuwa’s article is founded on a misrepresentation of the situation, which would not be necessary if he had a good case.
Apart from this misrepresentation, however, Sishuwa has no case at all. No evidence is presented that the People’s Republic of China’s undoubted efforts to promote Chinese culture and the Mandarin language in Zambia pose any kind of threat to Zambian independence or cultural integrity. Actually, no evidence at all is presented that the People’s Republic of China is behaving in a colonial or imperialist way in Zambia. Perhaps it is, but if Sishuwa wishes to convince a sceptical reader that China is a menace to Zambian autonomy, he ought at least to provide examples.
Instead, Sishuwa repeats words like “imperialism” and “colonialism” over and over, declares (without any evidence) that apparently innocuous Chinese activities secretly prepare the way for evil policies, and deploys so many scare-quotes that it’s remarkable his printer didn’t run out of ink. Admittedly, Sishuwa mentions the cultural imperialism of the United States, Britain and France, citing the global reach of bodies such as Alliance Française. He thus notes the way in which these countries buttress their armed aggression, political destabilisation and economic manipulation in Africa with cultural imperialism.
But China hasn’t invaded Africa, doesn’t appear to be involved in political destabilisation, and is probably less economically manipulative than, say, the European Union or Brazil. Hence, China’s cultural imperialism is not obviously linked to anything sinister — unless, like the “Yellow Peril” propagandists of the last century, one believes that the existence of Chinese people is, ipso facto, sinister. (One photograph accompanying the article showed Chinese people being flagrantly Chinese in Africa, which suggests that this is as much a crime as “driving while black” is in the US.)
There are several questions to ask about this, but the first is: Who does it objectively serve? Who gains from a sustained attempt to repackage Chinese attempts to expand its cultural influence as imperialism? If such an attempt succeeds, it must harm Chinese influence and, therefore, help those opposed to China — that is, the US and its satellites, Britain and France, who together make up the main imperialist and neocolonial force intervening in Africa.
Sishuwa claims that he wishes to see Africa develop its own cultural and political tropes (and, presumably, more substantive socioeconomic forces) to challenge this imperialism and neocolonialism. In practice his entire article, and most of what he has done elsewhere, suggests an agenda pandering both to crude Sinophobia and to subordination to the forces benefiting from it.
China is one of very few countries to break free of the colonial stranglehold. Rather than blindly attacking the Chinese, it might be sensible to try to learn from their example. One of the things that China did, for instance, was to pendulum between first Russia and then the US without ever being blindly subordinated to either, until it was strong enough to stand by itself.
If this is the case, then it might actually be sensible to support Chinese influence in Africa to provide a counterbalance to Nato’s influence. It’s worth remembering that this was the stance of the old Non-Aligned Movement, upon which the Organisation of African Unity was founded. Perhaps, rather than shouting in chorus with the imperialists and the racists, such policies might be worth revisiting?
Mathew Blatchford teaches at the University of Fort Hare. These are his own views