Tuesday, 13 September 2011

What could Chinese expansion into Africa mean for the African creative economy?

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.’[1]

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.’[2] 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?

[1] The creative industries and cultural arts in China, Daily Telegragh of 1 October 2009: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/6255561/The-creative-industries-and-cultural-arts-in-China.html (This article formed part of a sponsored supplement: the Chinese Embassy in the UK in association with The Daily Telegraph).

[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/chinese-copy-of-austrian-village-stirs-emotions-2299516.html


At 10 October 2011 at 11:54 , Blogger Ruth Simbao said...

Thanks for writing about this timely and important issue.

In response to your question, “Is [Chinese engagement in Africa] a new form of colonialism?” I would like to suggest that it is not. This does not mean that there are no power imbalances, but I think it is important to open up a nuanced discussion that does not perpetuate some of the biased hype that we see in the media. As Keenen (2009) points out, debates about China-Africa relations are often dichotomized as a “curse” or “cure” scenario, one that fails to allow for the multiplicity of engagement, especially engagement on the ground. While governments and multinational companies might drive media reports on the economic aspects of engagement, little attention is paid to human relationships and cultural understanding.

From the research I have conducted in Africa and China, I see that there are cultural misunderstandings on both sides, misunderstandings that are perpetuated by the faulty ways the Western world has tended to stereotype African and Chinese people. The creative arts open up enormous opportunities to work towards cultural understanding that can mitigate politically or economically driven antagonisms.

It is important to consider the fact that while there are Chinese people trying to make a living in various African countries, there are also Africans trying to make a living in China—the movement goes both ways. There are many African traders in Guangzhou, for example, just as there are many Chinese traders in Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Zambia. People on both sides are stereotyped, and people on both sides sometimes face discrimination; both Afrophobia and Sinophobia are alive. Artists, I believe, have the power to engage with and comment on human relationships in ways that economists and politicians simply can’t, and it is imperative, then, that we use the arts to learn about our respective cultures.

At Rhodes University’s Fine Art Department we recently discussed some of the cultural exchanges that have been taking place between South Africa and China. Artists Vusi Khumalo and Ayanda Mabulu, who were sent to China by the Chenshia Art Foundation, talked about their recent visits and about their work. (See http://www.ru.ac.za/latestnews/name,43612,en.html and www.research-africa-arts.com).

Chinese artist, Hua Jiming, recently took part in the Infecting the City performance festival in Cape Town, and Mduduzi Xakaza, Amos Letsoalo, Nyaniso Lindi and Lindelani Ngwenya are about to participate in an exhibition in Beijing. Further, artists Bill Kouélany and Goddy Leye have worked in China and have produced work that comments specifically on China-Africa relations. I believe that such exhibitions and exchanges are vitally important to the development of meaningful human contact that goes beyond stereotypes and misunderstandings. In the new journal JACANA: Journal of African Culture and New Approaches I wrote an article, “The Proximity of Distance: A topographic diary of Sino-African relations” (Simbao 2011), which suggests that positive China-Africa relations in the arts are critical to a reconsideration of the Euro-American dominance of the arts discourse. While we should not simplistically valorize the relationship between China and Africa (just as we should not simplistically demonize the role of the “West”), there is a rich area of research and artistic engagement before us, and it is imperative that artists and arts writers open up the relevant debates.

At 19 July 2014 at 21:08 , Blogger Philip Boafo said...

Ruth Simbao, its interesting how you reveal the enormous benefits that can be proffered from these engagements. It is absolutely true that there is the need for such engagements to be encouraged. I share in your thought and say in light of the current upsurge of interaction between China and Africa, one area that must be looked at is the Creative Arts. However, ithas been relegated to the background for fear of exploitation. Issues like trade, natural resources, infrastrutural resources take precedence over the Creative Arts and even in that only God knows. The problem of the Creative Arts being sidelined is that there will continue to be issues of mistrust, stereotypes, misunderstandings inter alia. It's therefore imperative for us to engage thoroughly on the field of the creative arts. I think that there is a plethoral of such relations laid in the strictures of West and East, Developed and Developing countries. It is eminent that we the table focusing on China and other African countries bearing in mind the positive and the negetive effects. If not for anything at all there will be some seconds move away from the concentrated Euro-American arts canons.
The engagements of China and Africa on the field of the creative arts has its own power inbalance but it opens new areas that need exploration. I am currently writing my thesis on Enhancing Sino-African Relation and Cooperation: the Role of the Creative Arts.
Do well to contact me at philipboafo69@yahoo.com


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