China in Africa: Over 40? You Probably Don’t Get It

There is a discernable generational divide when it comes to opinions about the Chinese in Africa.  It isn’t subtle and the split lines up according to age.  In almost every instance, those over 40 years old frame the issue in “colonial terms” clearly influenced by their own early education of Western imperial activity on the continent.  For these critics, Beijing’s engagement in Africa is binary — it’s either good or bad.  This explains why so much of the news coverage on the subject is structured in such simple terms with headlines like “Is China Good For Africa,” et al.   For this generation, the memories of decolonization, Live Aid and the countless Hollywood portrayal of a female  aid worker (and they are always women in the movies) gently holding a starving African child have had a profound impact on their worldview.  For the over 40 crowd, their education in the West never clearly condemned colonialism for its brutal failings.  There was always a hint that European, and even American attempts, to “civilize” the “natives” was a benevolent ambition.

A new generation of bloggers and scholars is emerging who approach Sino-African relations with significantly more sophistication than older observers who are burdened by their early education of Western imperial activity on the continent.

Since the launch of the China Talking Points “China in Africa” podcast two months ago, I have found there is an entirely different perspective from a new generation of twenty and thirty something bloggers and academics who are unburdened by this conventional thinking.  They seem to approach the topic with a refreshing lack of intellectual baggage that permits a far more nuanced view of the issue that doesn’t frame the subject in that “good vs. bad” framework that is so typical of their older peers.  In universities across Europe and in South Africa (none in the United States that I have found so far), a new crop of students and bloggers is emerging who approach the subject with an unprecedented of level of sophistication.  To these younger observers, China’s activities in Africa are evaluated much more comprehensively, taking into account the histories of both Africans and Chinese.  Furthermore, there is a sense the Chinese should be judged in isolation rather than in the context of Western imperial policies of the past.  And unlike their older peers, this under-40 group generally approaches the subject with significantly less prejudice about China, instead focusing on the tangible impact of Beijing’s policies on the continent.

Judge for yourself:

1. Charlie Pistorius: South Africa academic and blogger who writes the “To Seque” blog (www.toseque.com) and the “Taming the Dragon” column for Johannesburg’s Moneyweb web site.

2. Lila Buckley: Oxford University graduate student who is focusing on Chinese engagement in African agriculture.  She recently posted a guest blog on Deborah Brautigam’s “China in Africa: The Real Story” about her research in Senegal.

3. Johanna Jesson: Researcher at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and Phd. candidate at the Roskilde University who specializes in transparency issues related to Chinese aid and investment on the continent.  In particular, she has written extensively on Chinese investment patterns in both the DRC and Gabon.

4. Henry Hall: Masters candidate at the London School of Economics who is doing research on Chinese-Zambian relations.  Henry also publishes the weekly email newsletter and website China Africa News.

5. Dr. David Robinson: African historian who lectures at Perth, Australia’s Edith Cowan University.  Dr. Robinson recently published “Hearts, Minds and Wallet: Lessons from China’s Growing Relationship with Africa.

So while age by itself should not be considered the determining factor in judging the competence of any journalist, blogger or scholar, it does seem that younger observers are engaging the Sino-African issue with a very different perspective.  This is a particular issue that is extremely complex with intersecting histories, cultures and peoples who defy the simple stereotypes that are depressingly common in much of the mainstream press’ an academia’s coverage.

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