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China, Confucius institutes and the capture of Africa’s future

The first building that one comes across when entering the University of Zambia, which sits on the terraces of a busy motorway to and from the country’s main international airport, is an imposing and massive structure known as the Confucius Institute. That the institute, named after a major icon of Chinese culture, has been 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. It is no wonder that there were even serious plans by the university’s principal administrators to relocate their ‘crumbling’ offices to the brand new Chinese building. It took the ‘awareness’ of diplomatic representatives of a Western power for the plans to be abandoned after they threatened to stop supporting the university if its topmost officials moved into the structure belonging to the rival Eastern power.

 

If Zambia has been singled out in this preface, it is only to give context to the rise of Chinese Confucius schools across Africa. What one encounters in Lusaka – the creation of a Confucius institute, the strategic location in which it is constructed, and the fact that this language school is set to operate within the premises of the top national educational institution – is seen on a continental scale. Inserted today in many of Africa’s most prominent institutions of higher learning is a Chinese Confucius school. While much ink has been spilled on the effects of China’s engagement with Africa on the economic front, very little has been said on its cultural facets. This conspiracy of silence comes against the unmasked aim of the Confucius Institute as a tool of Chinese cultural export and the fact that it will be fifteen years in December 2020 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 demonstrates are 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 Africans fed up with being treated as if they are at the nether ends of the civilisation scale to discuss the aims of the Chinese Confucius Institute and the threats it poses 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 program was founded in 2004 to promote Chinese culture on the international scene. It draws its leadership from the Communist Party of China and has since seen its presence throughout the world surge to over 500 schools, 48 of them in Africa, representing 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 super power and reflects a long-term strategy aimed at securing the country’s growing influence abroad and fashioning the world order under its cultural imprint. The founding of the school also represents an admission, perhaps learnt from the West, that economic and nuclear power can only go so far in terms of effective control of the world; that to truly control a people, one must influence the cultural habits, the language and belief systems of such a people – referred to as soft power. This strategy of conquest has been previously deployed in Africa by France, Britain and the United States – expressed through cultural industries and the creation of enduring institutions of cultural dominance like Alliance Francaise, the British Council and the American Cultural Centre – to considerable success and devastating effect on the African psyche akin to what the continent’s renowned writers like Okot Bitek and Chinua Achebe wrote on the colonial condition.

 

It is 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’, in particular a very visible one, the Chinese are creating the obligation to reciprocate, much in the same way that the ‘development aid’ gift has done for the British, French and Americans. 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 Africom.

 

A school also becomes a medium of shifting ways of seeing the world and it is an exceedingly effective way for a state to build and extend its cultural capital internationally. Zambia offers an illustrative case study on this score. On 7 May 2019, China ‘subcontracted’ the Zambian government to start offering compulsory Chinese lessons in Zambia’s public secondary schools. This followed the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between representatives of Confucius institute and the Zambian government. Chinese history is already part of Zambia’s high school curriculum, one that has only patchy Zambian history in it and which, in any case, is an elective subject. One of Zambia’s diplomats, in justifying the MOU, claimed that since ‘Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world, it is prudent that our children learn Chinese’. Non-Chinese people rarely speak Chinese, so it is not the most common second language, globally. The official’s thinking however points to an acknowledgement that Zambians in future will largely be working for Chinese, and not Zambian, employers.

 

Most importantly, the signing of the MOU suggests that the Confucius Institute is a Trojan horse or ‘catfish’ that China deploys to lure unsuspecting victims into gradually ceding their sovereignty. Having arguably captured Zambia’s present leadership, the Chinese – who already enjoy considerable presence in the country’s strategic economic sectors, effectively control the national public broadcasting corporation, and are erecting monuments, on the outskirts of the capital city, for their ‘fallen heroes’ – are now moving to capture Zambia’s future, starting at secondary school, before the targeted age group’s mental faculties develop or recognise the entrapment. Thus, Zambia has effectively laid at the disposal of the Chinese its public education system to complement the Confucius Institute in producing large numbers of the would-be local labourers, administrators, interpreters and other accessories of this colonialism by stealth. This is a point that was lost on the country’s Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Higher Education, Mabvuto Sakala, leader of the delegation that traveled to Beijing to sign the MOU, when he addressed officials from Zambia’s mission to China:

 

“We want to ensure that we have an assured pipeline of trained Chinese language teachers to support the national rollout of Chinese training and assessment by the Examinations Council of Zambia. In this light, we will be discussing with our counterparts here [in China] the development of a fast-track local teacher [training] programme as prepared by the Confucius Institute at the University of Zambia”.

 

These remarks reveal how China has captured the soul of Zambia’s ruling elites. For in adding Chinese language lessons to its secondary school curriculum, Zambia is offering to further aid the development of China’s economy, as the teaching material, alongside other cultural tools of learning, would have to be procured from China for the market that the country’s high schools would, in effect, become. Given the lack of qualified Zambians and instruction materials to teach and examine Chinese language in public schools, it is likely that China may, in the interim, ‘donate’ more ‘gifts’ or subsidies in the form of Chinese educators (‘occupying forces’) and textbooks to help Zambia in its self-induced journey to being a colony of the Eastern powerhouse.

 

For a country like Zambia, regarded by many as ‘backward’ and heavily saturated with Chinese debt, one wonders if China would next send more ‘occupying forces’ to ‘help the native evolve to the level that effective official engagement requires’ and to pick Zambia’s best land or strategic resources in the event that the country fails to pay its huge debt. The English employed a similar strategy when colonising Zambia in the late 1800s and early 1900s – they sent or ‘donated’ Christian missionaries, teachers, lawyers and judges, law enforcement forces and administrators to the territory, who all served as the basic or founding infrastructure of conquest. The Chinese may seek to replicate this strategy because it enables the coloniser to conquer ‘the natives’ with uninformed consent and to subtly export jobs for its population overseas – the Bank of China, largely dedicated to servicing this emerging colonial infrastructure, already exists in Lusaka. Thus, in addition to putting the submissiveness of Zambians to the test, weighing if it is infinitely malleable, China may be using Zambia as a case study of how far it can push soft control before direct political control is necessary.

 

In the long term, these ‘gifts’ (like Confucius schools) 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. The point is that 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 expressions. Confucius schools are therefore nothing but China’s drones or 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, film, thinking patterns, 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 ambassadors or defenders of the new imposed order themselves.

 

A fertile ground already exists for the new coloniser in different African countries. In Zambia, for instance, many including public officials such as the cited diplomat and Permanent Secretary are yet to understand Beijing’s wider motives beyond the surface or official rhetoric and are consequently accepting of ‘gifts’ like the institute and the teaching of Chinese language in all public schools as though they are unproblematic. As a result, it is easy for China to institute linguistic colonisation, one that captures and gradually establishes a firm grip on the mind, mannerisms, opinions and thinking patterns of the target. Thus, even before she recovers from the debilitating threat that the use of a colonial language, English, poses to its struggle for nationhood, Zambia has moved to impose another foreign language on itself. This is understandable, though, given both the acutely low levels of historical consciousness among the country’s public leaders and the lack of serious national conversations on such crucial subjects. Getting people in captivity who lack awareness of their bondage to realise that they are, in fact, in need of liberating or redemption is, generally, a hard task. It is difficult to extricate oneself from a history where one’s life experiences are strongly entangled in unequal relations to that of the coloniser – how does one unpick their education, their built environment, their foods, language, tastes, etc., and throw it back?

 

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, exemplified by the local leadership. It is probably easy for cultures like that of the United States 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 and spread of Chinese Confucius schools threaten 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, subtler and dangerous form of colonialism, which, unlike the Western interventionism of the continuing 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 imperial West lacks the moral high ground to disparage China’s actions. For instance, France has over 931 cultural centres in the world, followed by China (531), UK (191), Germany (151), USA (105) and Portugal (90) as of December 2018. Many of these cultural tools of Western imperial hegemony are in Africa. By infusing the institutes into existing national educational institutions, the Chinese are investing and securing the spread of their ideas and culture into the minds of Africa’s would-be leaders in industry, academia and politics. Hundreds of Africans from literally all the major or influential echelons of society travel to China regularly on State-sanctioned trips of indoctrination. This strategy of conquest is not new. The British, French, Portuguese and United States have all previously employed it. They still employ it to this day. What is new is old: the tragic failure by African leaders to learn from history. As a result, Africa continues to learn languages of foreign powers, none of whom learns Africa’s languages. The continent refuses to see anything wrong with this and remains, to outsiders, a phenomenon of great amusement and spectacle, including on how lowly it thinks of itself and conducts its internal affairs.

 

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. It is a symbol of group identity and an effective tool of transmitting the culture, norms, values and thinking patterns of that identity through other people and books. This explains why the establishment of the Confucius Institute in many African countries has gone hand in hand with the establishment of a Chinese International School. Learning Chinese language is mandatory in both outlets since it is the medium of instruction. 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 look East, seeking to imitate the increasingly assertive and emboldened position as well as the values of the Chinese Communist Party, which recently held a congress where the leadership of Xi Jinping was given almost unassailable status.

 

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 China Towns on the African landscape, expressed through new export growth centres and multi-economic zones; and the preservation of position at the bottom of the global value chain. Combined with the already entrenched devastating 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 for building capacity in so many areas where it has a deficit. What Africa needs is a serious discourse initiated and led by Africans themselves on what explains the continent’s current position on the world scale of progress, what it can do internally to develop, to define its own priorities and 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 the existing approaches to economic and political development; they need to create narratives of nationhood through available media that resonate on a very phenomenological level with the masses and which would need to be hopeful and tempered by a hard realism of all needing to pull together; they need to establish political organisations which both represent wider social and national considerations, not narrow sectional, class and ethnic interests, and have clear ideological visions, policies that are inward looking and 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 visons and which ground learners in the national values, 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 destroying 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 and how they destroyed foreign cultural symbols. In short, what Africans need is to reject what they have become (cheap labourers for foreign-owned corporations or political leaders who strut around with self-importance when they are nothing but the disposable playthings of multinational corporations and foreign powers), fight to rediscover their full humanity, and be willing to pay the full price for their complete liberation. In practice, this means evolving and beginning a new praxis – living their belief that they are human, in everything they do, and rejecting all that dehumanises them. This involves a fight, a revolution, sacrifices, pain, defeats and starting all over again until they get it right.

 

The Kenyan writer 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 and false consciousness of an ideological world view that reinforces the power and interests of the very forces that are committed to dismantling it, 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 into the abyss? When will Africans fully realise the power that comes from knowledge – and knowing beyond the narrow confines of imperial knowledge – and from building relationships and ties?

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