On the plane to Beijing, I had mixed inquiries and ideas about China. For instance, was Martin Jacques accurate when he argued in his influential book "When China Rules the World" that the common Western assumption is that, "to be fully modern, a nation must become democratic, financially transparent and legally accountable". Is this true of and for China? While Jacques argues persuasively that China is on track to become the world'sdominant power and that, when it does, the ball will be in its court to make the rules, on its own terms, with little regard for what came before, I wonder whether his interpretation of China is an accurate one? Or is this part of the conventional wisdom that given the US's current structural weakness we must turn to another to replace Washington as the global hegemon? As I contemplated these issues, I became overwhelmingly curious about what I willencounter in China, a country that everybody is talking about as the next superpower.
China's growth rate is phenomenal. Yet it is criticised for refusing to follow the Western model of electoral politics, an independent judiciary and a freely convertible currency. But China has its own way and it seems to be working for the Middle Kingdom. In fact, its restrictive currency rules have made China the world's leading creditor, while the United States sinks ever deeper into debt. And while the United States sacrifices the lives of its soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Chinese make money in both countries without losing a drop of blood. And while the U.S. is involved in leading the world order, which requires also fighting anti-Americanism, chasing terrorists, or taking the offense against whoever or whatever is posing a threat to the U.S. or its interests, China, on the other hand, focuses only on growing its economy, not only in China, but it used the relative vacuum that the West left in Africa, and set up projects in this long-marginalized continent.
Moreover, another query that preoccupied my mind as I was making my way to China, was whether China will help Africa to be modernised on its own terms? On the plane I remembered Dr El-Baradei's statement with reference to his request for political reform in Egypt. He said "when I visited China in 1970 it was a sort of shantytowns, now it is competing with the most powerful country in the world". Therefore, China which has inundated Egyptian markets with its cheap, eye-catching products, even Islamic products like Ramadan lanterns, has become a source of admiration, and a model that makes Egyptians relive their past as once a great empire which emulated progress and development and was the envy of others like the Roman Empire. Perhaps what we are seeking as Egyptians is to restore our pride and glory and make ourselves great again with the Chinese assistance.
In 1980, I watched in Egyptian TV, a documentary on China, and still remember when Dr Mostafa Mahmoud, a high-profile intellectual, said that one day the Chinese language will be the second language for all non-Chinese speaking foreigners. But as I arrived for the first time in China, and after interacting with many students, professors, academics, journalists and correspondents, I discovered that there are mutual cultural barriers between China and Africa.
For example, Chinese students complained about the lack of resources or outlets coming from Africa, compared to Western media, especially regarding news on Africa itself. In China, Africa is represented by only three African correspondents while in comparison China has over 20 Xinhua news agency bureaus spread throughout North and SubSaharan Africa, despite the fact that it is still a state media agency which expresses only governmental views. Such a lack of media resources from Africa may be due to the world's marginalization of Africa and towards news from Africa, Africa's relatively poor economy and financial resources.
Even in Egypt, the people and its media know little about Africa, nor do the education curriculums touch on African topics or people's lifestyles in Africa. Consequently, I realised that when these students inquired from our delegation about the jungles and wildlife in Africa, this is what is being conveyed by the mainstream media inside and outside China, because people in Egypt have the same impression.
Instead, both Egyptian people and the government feel superior and somehow look down on black Africans, in contrast to Western people who are considered smarter, more intelligent, more qualified for any jobs in the country, even if they do not necessarily have better qualifications. In Egypt, Africans are mostly ridiculed and treated inferior to others.
Probably, such lack of knowledge from both sides stems from geographical distance, or the lack of media existence, compared to the Western media outlets stationed in both Africa and China.
China's sky-rocketing economic boom has had a major impact on all fields in China, China's infrastructure being more developed in some cases than in Europe. Such progress has been a source of attraction to people from different nationalities, and encouraged many African students to apply for scholarships to Chinese Universities. Dr Ahmad Zuwail, Egyptian American noble prize laureate in chemistry based in America, who, after receiving the award in 1999, became a source of pride to Egyptians, said in a television interview that he, as Professor of Physics at the prestigious California Institute of Technology, is very proud of Chinese students who are coming to complete their studies in the United States as they are making outstanding contribution there, and schools there are passionately looking for Chinese students.
For that reason, I believe that these students going to the US and making an addition to education there are a product of state-run Chinese schools in China, and consequently, these schools, although government controlled (a cliché in Egpyt that refers to low-profile schools) are much better than many schools in Africa. This could explain why many African students are enrolled in Chinese schools and not vice versa.
An Egyptian student studying in Beijing told me about her 8-year experience in the country where there are few Egyptians studying, probably due to the language barrier.
She spoke about her difficulty in learning Mandarin, and attempts to speak with a Chinese person even if she does not know them in order to practice her language skills.
She sees China as an outlet for the liberal life that she wants to experience and an opportunity to escape the social and gender strictures of Egyptian society. She feels more comfortable in China because of its liberal society despite it being socialist as she is able to move around freely, independently and without judgement or societal control experienced by women in the Arab world.
"Yes... The Chinese government is socialist, there is a black out on media outlets, you cannot open some websites, like Face book or You tube, so it sounds very much like a closed society, but the reality is that the government removed many obstacles impeding progress, and released its grip on romantic relationships, and this could be one of the reasons for the progress in China, and all liberal societies, people will not overburden themselves with complicated relationships, romantic life here is so simple and open " she said. " As a result, China hosted Olympic games, became fully modern, developed, and in Egypt we failed in hosting the world cup, got zero, while South Africa made it, even at the cultural level, we failed to accomplish anything" she added.
Yet, after the experience I was still not convinced whether Martin Jacques was accurate to predict that China is the next superpower. Of course it has a booming economy, and it is beginning to play a more focused role with regard to global responsibilities, but there was one nagging issue that I felt was somehow lost in all of this talk about superpower status. China's cultural outreach and influence does not compare to that of the US yet. And if Beijing wants more in this regard, then it needs more investment in its cultural hegemony as a 'going global' strategy, which current indications show it is beginning to realise. But for now more needs to be done to understand the cultural practices and differences between Africans and Chinese. And here is the role for African and Chinese media to take up the opportunity.
(Muhammad Mansour worked previously for the Japanese publication Sankei Shimbun Middle East in Cairo. He is also a freelance journalist for the Daily News Egypt based in Cairo. The Daily News Egypt is the local division of the International Tribune Division.)
The article first appeared in Fahamu's Emerging Powers in Africa newsletter
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