A couple with their kid
As a frequent reader of Deborah Brautigam's blog “China in Africa: The Real Story”, I have almost become apathetic to those of her posts that address poorly researched essays and articles from Western sources on the always controversial topic of “China in Africa”. Again and again and again, Brautigam has called out media reports that make use of wrong statistics or present information that is blown out of proportion. The mere fact that Brautigam chose to name her blog “China in Africa: The Real Story” suggests that there is a plethora of misinformation regarding Sino-African relations out there.
As someone interested in relations between Africa and Asia as a whole, I am very much fascinated and want to learn more about China's activities in African countries. However, one has to consider just how much news on China in Africa from Western sources is actually factual and how we can go about challenging the exaggerations. Brautigam has started an amazing effort on her blog, but not all of us are privy to the sort of information Brautigam has access to as a professor at the American University when it comes to China's activities on the African continent.
Laziness, or perhaps something more sinister?
When the Western organisations and media report on the Chinese looking eagerly towards Africa because they want to seize land in order to grow food that would be shipped back to China, and do so on the basis of false "evidence", is this simply an act of lazy journalism? Or could it be that such inaccurate accounts are actually sustaining racist Western stereotypes about China's “neo-colonialist expansion in Africa” as Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong suggest? Sautman and Hairong are not the first, and will most likely not be the last people to refer to Western portrayals of China in Africa as racist. Chris Alden has also argued that accusations of Chinese imperialism in Africa and evil Chinese bogeyman buying up African land and maltreating African employees may be just an updated version of the Yellow Peril panic.
The Yellow Peril refers to the imagined danger of legions of East Asians taking over the West that arose first in the late 19th century with regards to Chinese labourers in Western countries, and later was associated with the Japanese in the mid 20th century during the second World War. The term referred to East Asians overtaking the West and effectively ruining the West. In this updated version, China is out to conquer not only the West but the entire world, African countries included.
Lou Jing with her mum
Considering that Africa and Asia are yet to communicate with each other outside the “long shadow of the European Empire”, as Ngugi wa Thiongo aptly puts it, it should come as no surprise that racist Western stereotypes about Chinese people are transplanted into different parts of Africa (while the same happens with stereotypes of Africans that the Chinese adopt, as can be seen in the manner in which “Shanghai Black girl” Lou Jing (above) received racist attacks by Chinese netizens. It is not rare to find Nigerians who refer to Chinese people, and Asians in general as “chinko”. While Nigerians who use such terms will claim that they do not mean it in a derogatory manner, it is clear the connections “chinko” has to another highly offensive ethnic slur.
It gets even more disturbing when one considered how these racist stereotypes are not directed at only one party. The Chinese may be portrayed as cruel and having disregard for human life, while Africans are portrayed as helpless victims in need of salvation.
The role Africans play
Last week, a Western cultural imperialism bingo card was released to remind folks that Western globalisation is real issue and that the “West is right” mentality still prevails. In such a reality, any news report or “factual” data sheet on China in Africa that comes from the West tends to be privileged. While I find it mildly irritating when Western sources over-exaggerate and present inaccurate information on Chinese activities in African countries, I tend to panic when African sources do the same thing. It is alarming when Africans resort to perpetuating Western Yellow Peril stereotypes.
I have also noticed a pattern in those Western portrayals that are highlighted and those that are ignored. Controversy and somewhat negative pieces are chosen over those that are neutral or positive. For example, there are African opinion essays that report that Chinese men are forcing African women to have unprotected sex and then abandoning the children that come from such liaisons. While the possibility of these reports should be taken seriously, no evidence is brought forward to substantiate them. Not to mention the fact that stories about Chinese men who marry African women and do not abandon their mixed race children are largely ignored, or ridiculed because, according to those doing the ridiculing, African women are so desperate.
Speaking generally, African portrayals of China in Africa tend to be largely negative when coming from civil societies or unattached parties, and positive when coming from governments. In my view, both portrayals are wrong and take away from the whole picture. The negative portrayals draw heavily from the unbalanced Western model, and on the other hand overwhelming positive portrayals come across as propaganda. There needs to be a middle ground while keeping these words in mind; “China is no enemy, but inflating the challenge from China could be just as dangerous as underestimating it”.
Africans who are interested in the facts need to work hard at rejecting Western stereotypes, and creating portrayals of Chinese activities in Africa that are not reminiscent of the Western constructed Yellow Peril. Can African journalists and writers talk about Chinese workers abusing their local employees in countries such as Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi without reinforcing the evil cold-hearted Chinese neo-colonialist stereotype? There must be ways in which Africans can craft relevant representations of China in Africa, after all we are experiencing this phenomenon first hand.