Africa must resist cultural imperialism, be it Chinese or Western


This is a response to Mathew Blatchford’s column ‘Don’t attack the Chinese — learn from their example’, which was itself a response to Sishuwa Sishuwa’s essay ‘Cultural imperialism with Chinese characteristics’.

Ordinarily, I do not respond to reactions to my articles that make no attempt whatsoever to engage with the substance of my writing. I believe that ad hominems, however well presented, are not arguments. 

Mathew Blatchford’s reply to my article, Cultural imperialism with Chinese characteristics, falls into this category. Don’t attack the Chinese — learn from their example’ is so devoid of substance that any response to it risks conferring upon it a seriousness it in no way deserves.
Nevertheless, in pursuit of genuine intellectual debate, I have broken my own rules on ad hominems and made a rare exception.

To recall: the premise of my argument was that Confucius Institutes in Africa should be seen as an extension of China’s economic dominance and expression of cultural power. I developed this point with examples from Zambia, in particular, and the African continent more generally. Blatchford neither disputes my core argument nor offers any alternative explanation to my assertion that the institute is a Trojan horse at the frontline of China’s neocolonial project. 

At a glance, I welcomed his contribution in the belief that he was joining the debate on an important subject that I think deserves wider discussion. A closer reading of his article subsequently shows that debating by way of attacking the dissenter’s thoughts and demonstrating the weaknesses inherent in them was the least of Blatchford’s objectives. The University of Fort Hare academic was far more interested in discrediting me and rubbishing everything I say, have said or ever will say about China.

The style he uses to achieve his aims is to boldly state that I have not proven my case and to suggest ulterior motives (read: to support and advance the interests of my colonial educators), while at no point does he categorically affirm or state anything himself. Allowing his drivel to go unchallenged would leave readers uncertain about what my true affiliations are and the dynamics that underline China’s use of the Confucius Institutes to grow its cultural capital in Africa. So let us unpack his ad hominems on a case-by-case basis. Blatchford starts his reaction to my article with an acknowledgement of China’s vast power.

‘The People’s Republic of China is an extremely powerful nation; the largest national economy on the planet and a major military power, one which is deeply concerned with sustaining its access to the natural resources of Arabia, Africa and Oceania upon which it depends. Hence, its foreign activities need to be viewed with suspicion: Are they intended to foster some kind of imperial agenda, in the way that the foreign activities of other powerful nations do?’

Comment: why is Blatchford concerned about China’s quest for global dominance to warrant the inclusion of this paragraph as his opening lines? Why does he think ‘its foreign activities need to be viewed with suspicion’? What explains his lack of concern with China’s internal development? Is it because any ambition for global power or economic dominance is bad? If it is, why? If it is not bad, why? China has already shown that it can cripple. Italy has already fallen prey to the power of China. Sri Lanka has, too. At the heart of Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ nationalism is a struggle to stand up to the imperial aspirations of China, notwithstanding the power of the United States. Why then should we, the weak in Africa, cheer China’s activities on and roll the red carpet for the rising Eastern power? Blatchford offers no responses to these questions including his own. He is merely buying time and the attention of the reader before hitting his target.

Here is the University of Fort Hare teacher again: “In any country that has undergone colonial and imperial oppression, such as all African countries, ulterior motives are often suspected. Accusations of colonialism, in particular, are dangerously easy to make and therefore often made for the purposes of manipulation rather than genuine anti-colonialism. After all, colonialism was real, and neocolonialism is a clear and present danger, so it is tempting to make accusations on the grounds of ‘better safe than sorry’. Yet all too often, what is called “decolonisation” is simply exploitation of racial resentment, as in attacks on colonial symbols or attacks on white competitors by African aspirants to jobs.”

Comment: Here, notice how Blatchford easily sees ‘ulterior motives’ in the possible awareness and resistance efforts of the (would-be) subjects of colonial and imperial oppression, not in the objectives of the suitors. Somehow, ulterior motives have no space in China’s relationship with the continent. Why? Because a University of Fort Hare teacher has said so. As a result, African countries should welcome the new imperial suitor because she means well unlike those who previously colonised them. This is as ludicrous as telling a former slave that the person turning them into a slave today is far much better than the one who turned them into a slave before. Enslavement should not and should never be graded. As for the perils of colonialism, many Africans, who have had to endure centuries of domination, should know better than what Blatchford cares to tell them. For many of them, colonialism is neither the past nor a clear danger. It is a real and an everyday lived experience. The fact of my struggle to communicate with Blatchford in this language, for instance, provides enough evidence.

Blatchford presents ‘decolonisation’ that seeks to bring down historical statues of white supremacists and transfer jobs held by whites to black Africans as amounting to racism. To provide context to this: the University of Fort Hare teacher, in making the claim about colonial symbols, had South Africa in mind and the bringing down of Cecil John Rhodes’ statue at the University of Cape Town. Now, I think that the destruction of historic symbols that represent our dehumanised self is a tough question to crack: should we or should we not destroy these symbols? 

To argue that we must respect history no matter how bitter and painful this may be is also to ignore the most obvious fact: history is not neutral — it is always the story of the victors. That is why I insist that if we Africans must write our own history, it must be both in practice (defeating the forces that dehumanise us and destroying their symbols) and in the realm of ideas — capturing the centre stage as the subjects of history ourselves — by writing and singing about how we destroyed symbols of imperialism.

My problem with the Rhodes Statue is not so much that it should or should not have been destroyed. Rather it is that black South Africans are attacking symbols of their dehumanisation without simultaneously working to destroy the white supremacist economic and social structures, which press them down. This is the problem. The tree must not simply be shaken. Its roots, in my view, must be uprooted and thrown away. For without major disruptions to these entrenched supremacist structures, the oppression, domination and dispossession of black South Africans, their war for freedom, for full human emancipation, is incomplete. 

The past in South Africa is still the present and, in this context, those who benefit from the status quo do not expect black Africans to write their own history and erect their own symbols. Nor, for that matter, does it make sense, to such beneficiaries for black South Africans to start to pull down the symbols of their dispossessors, oppressors and dominators. Blatchford seems to agree that colonialism is bad. If it is, why, then, is fighting it not good? Does the Fort Hare teacher really believe what he is writing?

The jibe about jobs, whose context is again South Africa, where a minority dominates in superior occupational positions, demonstrates Blatchford’s attempt to conceal racial prejudices and superiority, and his possible failure to come to terms with the changing reality of seeing yesterday’s messengers and toilet cleaners as today’s university deans and property owners. There is nothing wrong with aspiring for any job if one has the requisite qualifications and competencies for it.

Let us get the next quote from the University of Fort Hare teacher:

‘Another source of ulterior motive is the actual colonial power, the United States and its satellites. For several years now, the US has been waging an undeclared war against China, and a large part of this war is embodied in propaganda. Anyone officially associated with Western ideology, or trained up through Western institutions, is liable to be contaminated with the sinophobia that Western media and its associated intelligentsia promotes. This tendency is particularly marked in countries that have little or no indigenous ideological structures, or where the local structures have been penetrated or supplanted by neocolonial structures.’

Comment: It is under this paragraph where Blatchford’s blatant contempt for Africa, its structures, ideological apparatus or lack of them, and for those Africans who were partly educated in Europe or the United States comes to the fore. In it, he sets me up as a target. If the bio placed at the end of my article easily confirmed my Zambian nationality, a simple search of my name on Google must have told Blatchford that the University of Oxford was the site of my postgraduate studies. He then proceeded to focus on the individual making the argument, not the substance of the argument. Blatchford’s earlier assertion about my so-called ‘ulterior motives’ should be seen in this context: as a basis for inviting readers to be suspicious of anything said by anyone educated in a Western institution. To him and those of his ilk, Africans who were partly ‘trained up through Western institutions’, like I was, are spokespersons of Western interests with no mind of their own. We lack the legitimacy to ‘attack the Chinese’, as per the title of his opinion piece, because, as graduates of Western imperialism, we are permanently indoctrinated.

To attack the Chinese would be to commit the reprehensible ‘sin’ of arming or making the West stronger against China. Presumably, we can only acquire the right to question China’s actions in Africa if we had studied in China or non-Western countries. Since I was educated in the West, I should shut up because I am probably infected with the virus of ‘Sinophobia that Western media and its associated intelligentsia promotes’. Blatchford does not imagine that Africans trained in Western institutions are capable of formulating independent thought. To him, our training can only enable us to know the narrow confines of imperial knowledge — and to see with imperial eyes alone. This is the highest degree of cultural prejudice.

The idea that indoctrination is particularly rife in African countries that have no ‘indigenous ideological structures, or where the local structures have been penetrated or supplanted by neocolonial structures’ demonstrates precisely why Africa needs its own ideological schools for building capacity in so many areas where it has a deficit. It is the surest way of depriving Blatchford and his type the ammunition they need to disparage the continent. Until we have set up our own ideological schools, those of us from the colonial world, especially from impoverished countries with no ‘indigenous ideological structures’, cannot, in the judgement of Blatchford, have an independent position; we can only adopt the position of our former colonisers. If we are against China, then we are for America or Western imperialism. This is a scare and psychological tactic meant to silence affected Africans who may wish to join this discussion. If we speak, the assumption is that it is not because we are rational, informed and outraged. It is because we must have a motive, and not a genuine one but ulterior, driven primarily by the fact that we were once enslaved, educated in the West and our impoverished countries are ideology-free. As a result, we probably are just angry, but even our anger itself must be examined because it may turn out that we are just afraid. This is not rational debate. It is something else.

The University of Fort Hare teacher again: “Sishuwa says that Chinese cultural imperialism is a threat to Africa’s indigenous culture. This claim is based on the Zambian government’s decision to make Mandarin compulsory for all schoolchildren. Unfortunately, there is no such decision; the government has decided to make Mandarin an optional second language at all Zambian schools, a decision sponsored by the Chinese government. Thus, Sishuwa’s article is founded on a misrepresentation of the situation, which would not be necessary if he had a good case.”

Comment:  Blatchford dismisses my point that Mandarin is to be offered on a compulsory basis to all secondary schoolchildren in Zambia as ‘a misrepresentation of the situation’. His assertion that Chinese is to be offered as an optional subject is not based on any alternative evidence. The reader must believe Blatchford because he has said it. What kind of arrogance is this? What will Blatchford do when Mandarin is rolled out on a compulsory basis in Zambia’s secondary schools — withdraw his article?

Blatchford again: “Apart from this misrepresentation, however, Sishuwa has no case at all. No evidence is presented that the People’s Republic of China’s undoubted efforts to promote Chinese culture and the Mandarin language in Zambia pose any kind of threat to Zambian independence or cultural integrity. Actually, no evidence at all is presented that the People’s Republic of China is behaving in a colonial or imperialist way in Zambia. Perhaps it is, but if Sishuwa wishes to convince a sceptical reader that China is a menace to Zambian autonomy, he ought at least to provide examples.”

Comment: Did the Fort Hare teacher really read my article? Had he done so, he would have noted that I started the discussion by saying that the Confucius Institute building is situated right at the entrance to the main university. I talked about what this symbolism means and how the university’s principal administrators wanted suddenly to abandon their crumbling offices and stampede into the majestic Red Dragon building. It took another imperial power, one that only recently also constructed a lecture theatre near the same site, to stop them. Does Blatchford understand the implications of all this? How is it possible that Zambia’s main university is now the site of ideological rivalries between competing world powers that are using buildings to mark their territory on its landscape in a visible and symbolic show of their influence and presence? What does it say when the gatekeepers seek to flee from run-down buildings owned and operated by themselves in order to seek shelter in a new building owned and operated by a foreign power – only for a rival power to frustrate their escape with threats to withdraw funding to the university? If the educated Zambians can behave that way, with the Zambian government clapping them on, how about an ordinary Zambian? This is the substance: how these buildings subtly communicate and embody power.

I then proceeded to discuss the fact that the whole country would be teaching Mandarin at secondary, not university, school level. The fact that the government has succumbed to this decision reflects poorly on Zambia’s public leaders and also demonstrates the imperial power of China, which is sponsoring the teaching of Mandarin. In a country that is very backward in science and mathematics, where was it decided that Mandarin was the missing priority? In fact, if there is one thing that Zambia’s school curriculum is presently not missing, it is Mandarin. Blatchford deletes and makes disappear the substance of what I am debating and demands the very ‘examples’ I provided.

The Fort Hare teacher again: “But China hasn’t invaded Africa, doesn’t appear to be involved in political destabilisation, and is probably less economically manipulative than, say, the European Union or Brazil. Hence, China’s cultural imperialism is not obviously linked to anything sinister — unless, like the “Yellow Peril” propagandists of the last century, one believes that the existence of Chinese people is, ipso facto, sinister. (One photograph accompanying the article showed Chinese people being flagrantly Chinese in Africa, which suggests that this is as much a crime as “driving while black” is in the US.)”

Comment: What exactly does Blatchford understand as invasion? Physical occupation of another country complete with an invading army? China is not invading Africa using its military power similar to the one that accompanied the imposition of European colonialism in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Neither is Beijing doing so using the Bible or colonial handmaidens in form of missionaries like David Livingstone. China is using both economic and soft power to establish its conquest of the continent. The fact that the Chinese are not using the lethal force the European powers did when establishing colonial rule in Africa does not mean we are not being invaded. We are being invaded at our weakest point – a time of impoverishment coupled with the willingness of what is effectively a gangster lender to trap us using money as bait. If Zambia is prepared to offer its educational system as a platform for a major power to smooth its self-initiated passage into vassalage in exchange for a loan, why would such a power use bullets in this instance?

I had no say in the choice of images that accompanied my article. They were obviously editorial decisions made by the Mail & Guardian but such was Blatchford’s readiness to latch onto straw-men that he could not resist taking a cheap shot at me.

Blatchford: “There are several questions to ask about this, but the first is: Who does it objectively serve? Who gains from a sustained attempt to repackage Chinese attempts to expand its cultural influence as imperialism? If such an attempt succeeds, it must harm Chinese influence and, therefore, help those opposed to China — that is, the US and its satellites, Britain and France, who together make up the main imperialist and neocolonial force intervening in Africa.”

Comment: Here, the Fort Hare teacher returns to his core theme: we in the colonial world should automatically shut up. The debate must be between China and the West because when we open our mouths to complain, we are building the US, Britain and France. So China’s friends are Africa’s friends, its enemies Africa’s enemies. This does not make sense at all. No, we have the responsibility to complain, to blow the whistle and articulate our concerns, primarily for our own benefit. China and the US plus its Western allies are imperialist. If the US, Germany, United Kingdom and other Nato countries are on one side, China, Russia, Turkey and Iran are on the other. The competition between them is over resources and global dominance. Africa, like Syria and Venezuela, is simply one of their battlegrounds. It is in the interest of those on the receiving end to resist and defeat both.

The Fort Hare teacher: “Sishuwa claims that he wishes to see Africa develop its own cultural and political tropes (and, presumably, more substantive socioeconomic forces) to challenge this imperialism and neocolonialism. In practice his entire article, and most of what he has done elsewhere, suggests an agenda pandering both to crude Sinophobia and to subordination to the forces benefiting from it.” 

Comment: I invite Blatchford to re-read my piece with dispassionate eyes. Sometimes we see what we see not because that is what is there to be seen but because that is what we want to see. Jaundiced eyes make this falsification of reality possible. The key to my piece is right in the early paragraphs: I make it very clear that I am against Western imperialism. And the Confucius Institutes and its global reach is well captured factually in my piece, including the fact that it is the Chinese government that actually made the decision to have Mandarin taught in Zambian schools — a point that Blatchford does not dispute.  The phrase ‘most of what he has done elsewhere’ derives from his method: to impress on the reader my untrustworthiness now and in future, especially on all subjects Chinese. What is this other work that I have done elsewhere?

Blatchford concludes: “China is one of very few countries to break free of the colonial stranglehold. Rather than blindly attacking the Chinese, it might be sensible to try to learn from their example. One of the things that China did, for instance, was to pendulum between first Russia and then the US without ever being blindly subordinated to either, until it was strong enough to stand by itself. If this is the case, then it might actually be sensible to support Chinese influence in Africa to provide a counterbalance to Nato’s influence. It’s worth remembering that this was the stance of the old Non-Aligned Movement, upon which the Organisation of African Unity was founded. Perhaps, rather than shouting in chorus with the imperialists and the racists, such policies might be worth revisiting?”

Comment: The conclusion offers the only time that Blatchford tried to argue with evidence, but it is false evidence. The formation of the Organisation of African Unity was not founded on that basis that Blatchford alleges. When Kwame Nkrumah and his friends met in 1963, their goal was to create a united Africa. It was for the continent to gang up and create one army and one currency — in short, a united front that would be a force to reckon with and that would stand up against imperial machinations like those of China, the US, and its satellites in Europe. As for the idea that there was success in being non-aligned, it simply lacks empirical evidence. What did Africa actually benefit from that posturing? If anything, neither of the competing Cold War streams fully trusted the continent to properly incorporate it in their faction.

Yes, Africa must learn — from itself and its history, from China, the US, Europe, etc. But those lessons should never be the ones prescribed to us by China or its apologists, or by the imperial West. We must resist the subordination of our agendas and priorities to outside forces, be them Chinese or American, or European.  Instead, we must draw from the wealth of our distinct experiences to chart a clear course for ourselves. Africa should not return to non-aligned claptrap. The international context has changed drastically and the distribution of power that existed during the Cold War era has changed. China and Russia are no longer communist societies and Africa does not have its old ideological complexion. 

The thrust of neoliberalism has wiped out any ideological pretensions on the continent. We have to rebuild its resistance again. To do that, we must see the actual dangers posed by the US and China, in the same way that we should have seen the seemingly innocuous arrival of David Livingstone as a hazard. We now have the experience to learn and respond better. As we do so, we must remember Thabo Mbeki’s warning: “We must free ourselves of the ‘friends’ who populate our ranks, originating from the world of the rich, who come to us, perhaps dressed in jeans and T-shirts, as advisers and consultants, while we end up as the voice that gives popular legitimacy to decisions we neither made, nor intended to make, which our ‘friends’ made for us, taking advantage of an admission that perhaps we are not sufficiently educated.”



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