How China’s Confucius centres affect African culture

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How China’s Confucius centres affect African culture

The comprehensive coverage on China in Africa in the March edition of New African said it all. So much ink is spilled on the effects of China’s engagement with Africa on the economic front, writes Sishuwa Sishuwa, and yet, very little is made of China’s cultural impact, such as the rise of its Confucius schools on the continent and what they entail for Africans’ sense of self-belief and identity. 

The first thing that one sees these days upon entering the University of Zambia, is the massive construction of the soon to be completed Chinese Confucius Institute. Apparently, also in the offing is a statue of Confucius, which may be erected at the entrance to the university to draw attention to the institute. The University of Zambia (UNZA) is located off one of the country’s busiest motorways – the Great East Road – which runs from the international airport into the country’s capital, Lusaka. No-one can miss UNZA on their first visit to Zambia.

The fact that the institute, named after a major icon of Chinese culture, is being 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 ones.

I am singling out Zambia, however, only to give context to the rise of Chinese Confucius schools across Africa. The creation of Chinese Confucius Institutes, the strategic locations in which they are constructed, and the fact that they are set to operate within the premises of the top national educational institutions – seen on a continental scale – gives serious food for thought.

However, not much noise is made about them. This silence comes against the unmasked aim of the Confucius Institute being a tool of Chinese cultural exportation, and the fact that it will be ten years in December 2015 since the University of Nairobi in Kenya became Africa’s first official recipient of this “gift”. That this important subject has been neglected is perhaps unsurprising given that criticism of China’s role in Africa has largely been driven by France, Britain and the United States of America, countries that have their own vested interests and equivalent institutions of cultural indoctrination in nearly all African nations. What this raises however is several issues: the question of who sets the continental agenda, the paucity of forward-thinking African intellectual opinion on key debates bordering on the continent’s fate, and the stifling of African agency on these matters.

The result is that within the highly problematic dominant discourse of development, Africa continues to be relegated to the bottom. Duty therefore falls on all to discuss, using pan-African platforms and media, the aims of these Chinese Confucius Institutes and the threat they pose to African culture. Culture matters because it is the invisible thread that ties people together or separates them. Life as we know and live it – its day-to-day mundaneness – is in fact culture. The Confucius Institute programme was founded in 2004 to promote Chinese culture on the international scene. It draws its values from the Communist Party of China and has seen its presence throughout the world surge to about 480 schools as of December 2014, representing nearly half of its target of 1,000 institutes by the year 2020. This rapid expansion within a short period 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 its cultural imprint into the world order.

Cultural habits

The founding of these centres also represents an admission, perhaps learnt from the West, that economic and nuclear power alone do not go so far in terms of effective control of the world. To truly and fully control a people, the powers that be must also influence their cultural habits, their language and belief systems. This has been routinely referred to as soft power. This strategy of conquest has been previously deployed in Africa by France, Britain and the United States – expressed through the creation of enduring institutions of cultural dominance like Alliance Francaise, the British Council and the American Cultural Centre – with considerable success and a devastating effect on the African psyche, akin to what renowned African writers like Okot Bitek and Chinua Achebe wrote about  regarding the colonial condition.

It is also 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”. What this means in effect is that by giving the “gift” – particularly a very visible one at that – the Chinese are replicating the approach of the British, French and Americans in the way they use the “development aid” gift.

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, military barracks or the Africom. A school also becomes a medium of propagating ways of seeing the world and it is an exceedingly effective way for a state to build and extend its cultural capital internationally.

In the long term, these “gifts” 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.

In other words, what many critics have termed Chinese imperialism, like all imperialisms, including its Western precursors, 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, how they engage in that environment, and how they re-create and interact with it – be it through customs, moral norms, laws, beliefs, tastes, art or other forms of cultural expression.

Confucius schools are therefore nothing but China’s vehicles for global dominance, effected in the cultural sphere through the promotion of the Chinese language, tastes, education, architecture, music, food, movies, beliefs, banks, dressing, art, 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 defenders of the new imposed order themselves.

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 amidst changing socio-economic 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.

It is probably easy for cultures, like the American one and others, to resist or at least manage external influences. For African cultures, already beleaguered by centuries of Western domination and operating within the imperial supremacist economic and social structures which make Africa fertile ground for neo-colonialism, the rise of Chinese Confucius schools poses several threats.

On a continent where the major cultural industries – film, television, music and food chains – are already dominated by Europe and America, the establishment of Chinese Confucius schools threatens to frustrate the continuing efforts to resuscitate Africans’ sense of self-belief and identity, their confidence in themselves and the world around them, and to unify the continent in a way that is perhaps best captured by the vision of the African Renaissance. Most importantly, a new, more subtle and dangerous form of colonialism, which, unlike the Western interventionism of the past, enjoys the consent of those on which it is preying, is quietly underway, and with deleterious consequences that will only become clear with time. The imperialism of the 21st century is cultural, soft, digital, less conflictual and effected in spheres where the West lacks the moral high ground to disparage China’s actions. By infusing the institutes into existing national educational institutions, the Chinese are investing and securing the spread of their culture into the minds of Africa’s leaders of tomorrow – in many areas – be it industry, academia and politics.

Language allows the consumption, internalisation and articulation of foreign ideas through various media (radio, television, books etc.) and the possibility of expanding relations across many places. Education, acquired through scholarships to China and through Confucius 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 increasingly look East, seeking to imitate the master.

Subservience of African cultures

Other possible threats include the continued marginalisation of African languages, symbols and heroes and the resultant self-emasculation of the African identity and other worst forms of enslavement that have never before been experienced, the increased subservience of African cultures to foreign ones, the rise of Chinatowns on the African landscape, expressed through new export growth centres, and the preservation of Africa’s position at the bottom of the global value chain. Combined with the already entrenched effects of American, British and French imperial presences on African culture, winning the ongoing cultural war that the Chinese have joined will be tough for Africa, requiring an ideological mind shift, 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 Chinese Confucius Institutes, Alliances Francaise, America Cultural Centres, the British Council or any other foreign institution of cultural control, are not among them. What Africa needs and lacks are its own ideological schools to build capacity in the many areas where it has a deficit. What Africa needs is a serious discourse initiated and led by Africans themselves. A discourse that explains the continent’s current position on the global stage, one that seeks to internally develop and define its own priorities and how to engage with the rest of the world – on its own terms.

African countries need to question the suitability of the neo-liberal economic agenda or current approaches to economic and political development; they need to create narratives of nationhood through media that resonate on a very phenomenological level with the masses and which would need to be hopeful and tempered by a hard realism. They need to pull together and establish political organisations which represent wider social and national considerations, which have clear ideological visions, policies that are inward-looking, other than narrow sectional, class and ethnic interests.

Africa needs visionary leaders who effect strategies for broad-based societal change and plan beyond their constitutionally- prescribed presidential mandates; and they need educational systems that are anchored in the national visions and which ground learners in the national culture and way of thinking and prepare them on how to engage with the outside world. And if Africans must write their own history, it must be both in practice (defeating the forces that dehumanise them and destroy 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, victories.

Renowned Kenyan literary giant 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 false consciousness of an ideological worldview which legitimises the power and privilege of the very forces that are committed to dismantling it, and as Ngugi wa Thiong’o says, 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 to the abyss? Could 25 May – Africa Liberation Day – be the day to reflect?


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