What could Chinese expansion into Africa mean for the African creative economy?
By Florence Mukanga
The views expressed in this article are entirely of the author
China is one of the BRICS countries alongside Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa. These countries are grouped together because while they are not yet economic powerhouses, they have the potential to become the world’s most dominant economies in the next few decades. They also account for almost three billion people, or just under half of the total population of the world. In recent times, the BRICS have also contributed to the majority of world GDP growth. My article will focus on the effects of the Chinese expansion into Africa on African creative economy.
China’s arts and culture budget has considerably grown over the years. According to the Daily Telegraph, ‘its cultural budget was 444 million RMB in 1978; 1.074 billion RMB in 1986; 1.728 billion RMB in 1991; 5.078 billion RMB in 1998; and 24.804 billion RMB in 2008. State support is likely to continue to grow above the national GDP growth in the future as China makes headway in developing a knowledge economy as well as an industrial economy: in recent years, the annual growth rate of the creative industries across China is more than 17%, 6-8% above concurrent GDP growth rates.’
Its creative arts and crafts continue to increase in terms of quantity as well as quality, benefitting from the subsidies and creative platforms that the Ministry of Culture is committed to provide to further foster cultural growth.
The Chinese have made effort to encourage the acquisition of Chinese languages and culture in Africa through Confucius Institutes. In 2009 there were about 19 Confucius institutes in Africa. Numerous cultural agreements have been signed between the Chinese government and governments of African countries such as Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Egypt and South Africa among many others.
In order to strengthen its position in Africa, China established close ties with South Africa. This was done through inviting South Africa to join the BRIC in 2011. This move has triggered a lot of debate among economists with many of them arguing that South Africa does not quite belong to the group because it has a very small economy. According to O’Neill South Africa’s economy is only a quarter of the size of Russia’s, the next-smallest of the group. South Africa also has a relatively small population of about 50 million, an economy worth $286 billion and growth of only about 3 percent in 2010.
This move was more about forging strong political connections with the African continent, with South Africa as its most valuable trading partner and an increasingly important political ally. Given that South Africa plays a major role in the African creative economy it is interesting to explore how its relationship with China will ultimately affect the African creative economy.
Recently I had an opportunity to listen to a heated debate on the relationship between Chinese artists and Zimbabwean artists. One visual artist raised an issue that really striked my mind. Chinese people come to Zimbabwe and buy our artworks for close to nothing but when they go back to China they make fortunes out of those artworks. The proceeds are not channeled back to the Artists in Zimbabwe who continue to drown in poverty.
Another artist noted that the Chinese people come and buy one quality artistic product (such as stone sculptures) from Zimbabwe and go back to China where they produce a lot of pirated copies of that product and make a lot of money selling those artworks.
Whether or not these allegations are true is food for our thoughts. Of course the Chinese have reputation of making fake products and copying! The Independent (Europe) of 18 June 2011carried an article entitled: ‘Chinese copy of Austrian village stirs emotions.’ The article captures a story of Chinese architects who are planning to rebuild the Upper Austrian town of Hallstatt in one of their provinces.
As I read and write about all these moves by the Chinese the major questions that I ask myself are:
Is this a new form of colonialism? If it is new colonialism will it not awaken a new scramble for Africa and with what results? How many African countries can afford to implement the terms of cultural agreements between themselves and the Chinese? What will be the impact of these cultural ties with Africa on the individual cultures of African countries?