China Summons Past to Advance Into Africa

By Antoaneta Becker
LONDON, Sep 27, 2010 (IPS) – Irked by accusations that it is the new coloniser of Africa, China is looking to use soft power and historical evidence of its ancient links to the continent to justify its economic embrace of Africa.

Chinese archaeologists have been sent to hunt for a long-lost shipwreck off the Kenya coast to support claims that China beat white explorers in discovering Africa. Meanwhile Beijing is preparing to fund more research on the continent to aid its companies and banks’ quest for expansion there.

Last month saw the launch of the new China-Africa Research Centre under the Ministry of Commerce. The centre’s aim is to “provide a theoretical basis for the Chinese government’s Africa-related decision-makings,” Huo Jianguo, president of the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation under the ministry said at the opening. It will also provide consultation services for companies with plans to expand their businesses to Africa, he added.

“For a long time our Africa strategy resembled our strategy for economic development — ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones’, says He Wenping, director of African Studies under the Institute of Western Asian and African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “We were not well prepared to go to Africa and had to pay a high price, learning from our mistakes. But now we are consolidating our strategy and there will be a new focus on learning about Africa and speaking for ourselves.”

Much hope is being placed on the treasure hunt conducted by Chinese and African archaeologists in Kenya. They are searching for an ancient shipwreck and other evidence of commerce between Africa and China dating back to the early 15th century. The sunken ship is believed to have been part of an armada commanded by Admiral Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch from the Ming dynasty who the Chinese claim reached east Africa 80 years before the Portuguese seafarer Vasco da Gama.

The three-year exploration project was launched in July and it is symbolic of China’s intensified efforts to present its modern-day conquest of Africa as a continuation of Zheng He’s “journey of peace and friendship” in the ancient world.

Chinese records speak of Zheng He’s fleet of 300 ships and thousands of sailors that sailed the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Starting in 1405, Zheng He made seven journeys to Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

He is said to have reached the coast of Kenya as early as 1418 loaded with goods and gifts from the Chinese emperor. The sunken ship archaeologists hope to find is believed to have been shipwrecked as it returned to China carrying among all a giraffe handed by the Sultan of Malindi as a present to the Chinese court.

“His trip is truly symbolic of what China’s intentions towards Africa were then and what they are now,” insists He. “The Chinese that reached Africa did not colonise, they went as traders and explorers.”

China is the leading importer of raw mineral resources from Africa. Its foray into African countries has been portrayed by some critics as “plundering”, drawing anger at home. The archaeological project highlights China’s desire to publicise that its blossoming relationship with Africa has a much longer history than originally believed and it is not just about business but about a historical legacy too.

Until a few years ago Chinese officials liked stressing China’s support for African liberation movements in their fight for independence and their common anti-colonial ideological heritage. But the 60-years history of contemporary relations with Africa is now regarded by academics at home as no match for the West’s presence in Africa since the 15th century.

Many Chinese scholars have pointed out that China lacks the wealth of knowledge about Africa that western countries have accumulated over the centuries. Without the shared religious background that links African with European countries, China has had to tap ancient history in its efforts to justify its expansion into Africa.

Aware of the need to present its own view of history and development between the two continents, Beijing has been mulling the setting up of a China-Africa Research Fund that could support institutions and individuals in African studies. Much of the current African research undertaken by Chinese scholars is funded by international institutions and Western countries’ grants.

African students are also seen as a factor that will play a role in shaping the new China discourse on Africa. In recent years the Chinese government has encouraged more African students to study in the country, offering thousands of scholarships. In 2009 China had 120,000 students from Africa, ten times more than it did in 2000. Cultivated as the future government elites, these students are being taught not only Chinese but trained also in engineering, science and agriculture studies.

All this has not gone unnoticed in Europe, which China claims still regards Africa as its “backyard”. A recent report by Chatham House in London said resources and expertise on Africa have been allowed to wither in Western governments, academia and the news media.

“Beneath the rhetoric of the importance of Africa, diplomatic and trade resources devoted to it are still being cut in many Western capitals, leading to a downward spiral of ignorance and thus marginalisation in strategic awareness,” wrote the writer of the report Tom Cargill.

If left unchecked, the report warned, this trend will wipe out Western countries’ comparative advantage over China in policy and academic understanding of Africa. (END)