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China and Africa: handling 'otherness'

An evolving, complex universalism makes western discourse obsolete but also creates new challenges. We are all 'other' now.

Kerry Brown
3 August 2016
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang & Ethiopian Premier Hailemariam Desalegn. Elias Asmare/AP/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang & Ethiopian Premier Hailemariam Desalegn. Elias Asmare/AP/Press Association. All rights reserved.The London-based Telegraph newspaper carried a story in June 2016 by a British student in Africa, who painted her life there as one of trauma and insecurity. Initially capturing the attention of readers, it was soon withdrawn due to an alarming realisation: it turned out to be a grossly inaccurate misrepresentation of present-day Zambia. Even had there been any degree of truth to this account, the fundamental problems with presentation and underlying value statements rendered the story little more than an embellished fable. It was, put simply, deeply patronising, treating Africa like some backdrop in a concocted drama to satisfy a visiting fantasist.

Despite the extremity of this case, it does raise an important issue: how to write about 'the other'? What sort of options are available now, in the twilight of post-modernity? And the question is less about some transcendent 'other' than straighforwardly about other people from the same genetic coding who happen to live in different cultures, speak different languages, hold different faiths, and live in a different way.

This is not just an academic question. Far from it. One of the many side-effects of globalisation is that it has resulted in a world of otherness being easier to access, and yet also becoming noticeably more disjointed and fragmented. Globalisation is still accompanied by an imperative to universalise and create common standards to fit our understanding within. And yet every day we see clashes between Muslim and Christian, believer and atheist, Asian, African and Caucasian, suggesting that far from becoming more similar, we feel increasingly different. The principal problem remains: how do we find a universal language which is true to analytical categories, and can be used to guide comprehension and understanding, whilst not being interpreted as hegemonistic and therefore inadmissible for some audiences?

Take one example. For years, the complaint by many outside China during the era of great enclosure under Mao Zedong was that the place was written about as though it were on another planet. People who managed to enter went to observe, maintaining an outsider’s distance as they gazed in at lives they perceived to be either suffering or deluded. In recent years, however, this example of outsider’s language has undergone a metamorphosis from pity to criticism. Martin Jacques, Frank Dikötter and others have examined how Chinese writings themselves contain deep strains of racial and cultural superiority vis-à-vis 'the other'. But whilst Chinese mainstream discourse does convey a sense of superiority, that isn’t by any means the full story. Countering the notion of a proud, ancient continuous civilisation is an opposing sense of resentment and victimhood, born in the modern era and currently expressed in narratives of colonial oppression promoted by the Chinese government.

Since the turn of the millennium, the situation has become even more complicated. Chinese themselves are, in the eyes of some, now 'neo-colonisers' in much of Africa, as the employment and other opportunities they created in the continent were said to be restricted to their own population. More recently, there are signs of a turn. Middle-class Kenyans seem to have a favourable view of Chinese investment, while Mandarin can now be learned as one of two compulsory local languages in a number of junior-level schools in South Africa.

Most Africans would agree that Chinese people are hard-working and efficient, though beyond that they might focus on different aspects of China's impact in their countries. That Kenyan middle class may see improved railways built with Chinese investment and effort as a business asset, but sadly few would deny that the Chinese tendency to ask fewer questions than western partners has provided an enabling platform for continued government corruption in Africa. The Harvard-based Kenyan scholar Calestous Juma, and the late Kenyan philosopher Henry Odera Oruka are among those who have argued for a more integrated and systematic approach to the outside world which strengthens local African identities during transnational cooperation – something undercut by the largely laissez-faire philosophy that currently dominates the realm of Chinese investment.

The one source of agreement in looking at China and Africa is that the notion of otherness is a complex, variable one. At one time its articulations were largely or solely European. Now there are contesting forms. Universal standards and categories are hard to hold fast to in this context, even though we suspect they have to be there somewhere. The best we can say is that when we write or theorise about others from where we are, we risk a certain degree of pretentiousness, ironically like the student who wrote the article on Africa criticised above.

One of the great convictions underpinning globalisation was that a world of 'sameness' could be discovered and then recognised. Today, this has been complicated by the sound of non-western voices becoming more prominent in transnational alliances and adding new dimensions to the oversimplified liberal narrative of a universal interest or objective. At varying socio-political levels, people across these very different cultures experience dissent and disagreement, on different terms, about different things.

Conquering the gap between culture, intellect, identity, and poverty-dictated limitation which developed countries have often been struggling with is a task that will become increasingly important for non-western countries as they take the lead in large-scale projects realised on non-western soil. The simple fact is that we are all 'other' now.

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