In Africa, China has an image problem. You’ve read the headlines: China is flooding our markets with cheap fakes; it is callously poaching our rhinos; it is building stadiums and roads that don’t last a decade; it is undercutting our labour; it is stealing our diamonds; it is coming to colonise us all over again.
Some of this is sometimes true. Much of it is not, or not completely, the product of nervous imaginations and a well-founded fear of foreign nations who take from Africa more than they give. But image is not about substance, it is about perception; and, after decades of doing things its own way – consequences be damned – China is wising up to the importance of fixing its controversial image in Africa.
A few initiatives are worth noting. The expansion of Chinese media into Africa can’t be ignored. State news agency Xinhua has become the largest wire service operating in Africa, while the Chinese public broadcaster’s new Africa channel (CCTV Africa) is based in Nairobi with a full complement of African staff. Likewise, there has been a significant cultural investment in the form of Confucius Institutes (cultural and language centres designed to rival the British Council or Alliance Française) sprouting all over the continent.
In the long term, however, perhaps the most influential and certainly least examined initiative is the Chinese government’s mammoth scholarship programme, which has grown exponentially over the last decade. There are an estimated 12,000 African students studying in China with the support of the Chinese government.
This is an astonishingly high figure, dwarfing scholarship programmes offered to African students by any other country. So, questions need to be asked:
What are African students doing there? How are they being treated in China? And who really benefits? To figure this out, I asked a few African students who are actually there.