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People Power
Africa's diaspora is its most influential cultural envoy, building bridges between the continent and China
By Sudeshna Sarkar | ChinAfrica December 2015

Chinese football clubs have begun to catch world attention after signing up African players


Dr. Adams Bodomo dislikes the phrase "Sino-African." "It's a question of symmetry and focus," the professor of African Studies at the University of Vienna explained carefully from his office in Austria. "I accept the Chinese saying that because it is natural for them to put their country first. Some Western scholars also say that because they think China is more prominent than Africa. But I am an African and I look at the relationship from the viewpoint of Africa. I have made a commitment to always focus on Africa. And I would be very happy if some day people start saying Afro-Chinese, putting Africa first."

The Ghanaian, who founded the African studies program at the University of Hong Kong, is spreading African languages and culture - Africa's "soft power" - across the globe. Since he spent almost 15 years teaching in Hong Kong, much of his work is on Africans with jobs, studying or running businesses in six major Chinese cities - Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Yiwu and Macao. His book Africans in China  (2012) explores why Africans go to China, how they fare and the local reaction. "African soft power in China," his paper this year in the African East-Asian Affairs  journal of Center for Chinese Studies, Stellenbosch University in South Africa, focuses on the overlooked aspect of the diaspora's impact on Chinese society.

Bodomo says people mostly talk of China's soft power in Africa. But few are aware of Africa's soft power in China, exerted through African migrants whose activities are "recognized as outstanding by the Chinese and widely reported in the Chinese and international media."

His view is echoed by Robert Castillo, a Mexican researcher who has blogged extensively about Africans in China. Castillo, who came to Beijing in 2006 to learn Chinese, will soon have his doctoral dissertation, Africans in Guangzhou: a cultural analysis of transnationality amongst Africans on the move , published as a book.

African "soft power," Castillo told ChinAfrica , would emerge from a grassroots effort and through people-to-people encounters and exchanges. "In other words, African soft power in China wouldn't be a major political project deployed by a particular African country, but rather an activity undertaken by Africans who have individually and independently decided to live in China," he said. "I'm talking about students, diplomats, traders, musicians living in China who could disseminate a more positive image of Africa and thus change Chinese perceptions about Africa and Africanness."

Castillo cited the growing African community in Guangzhou in south China as an example of Africa's soft power in China: "At the local level, this presence is perceived as beneficial to several economic processes. Africans activate local economies in China that otherwise would be decreasing. So, in the eyes of many, their presence is good in economic terms."

Besides trading activities, Castillo said Africans in China create "cultural spaces that could also foster soft power" - such as restaurants, nightclubs, religious and sporting activities.

Football diplomacy

Football is a national passion in China with ardent fans following every match the Premier League or Serie A or even the German Bundesliga plays. However, Chinese football did not grab the same attention abroad until African footballers began wearing Chinese jerseys.

Gambian midfielder Bubacarr Trawally is one of the pioneers who joined Chinese team Hangzhou Greentown from his local club Real de Banjul in January, bringing a lot of reflected glory for the Chinese club. Then there was Zambian striker Jacob Mulenga, who left Turkey for China's Shijiazhuang Yongchang, followed by Senegal's Demba Ba and Mali's Mohammed Sissoko. Ghanaian striker Asamoah Gyan created a huge global splash when he signed up with Shanghai Shenhua, becoming one of the highest paid footballers in the world. The Afrika United Football Club in China with its motto Hakuna matata  - No worries - inspired a documentary, African Boots of Beijing , by American filmmaker Luke Mines.

"Some of the best ambassadors of African football have plied and are plying their trade in China," said Bodomo. "Besides, in Guangzhou and Beijing, there are burgeoning African football teams at the community level. These teams have a lot of impact on not just the Chinese teammates involved but on ordinary people who watch these teams and do business with them."

Soul to soul

African music is another considerable influence. Bodomo says when he observed the night clubs of Guangzhou, he noticed young Chinese heading for establishments with African DJs. "It struck me as an interesting bit of cultural influence," he said. "African music, whether played in night clubs or on the airwaves, has always fascinated Chinese, especially young ones."

Some say Uwechue Emmanuel, a Nigerian engineer, was disowned by his father for pursuing a career in country music. He came to China on a friend's invitation, sang in bars and hotels, and was discovered by a well-known music producer. Now Emmanuel, who also sings Chinese songs, is a celebrity. He has a Chinese name, Hao Ge, and appears on China Central Television.

The African influence has also permeated Chinese electronic media. China Radio International (CRI) has regular programs in Swahili and Arabic, two major African languages. Last year, China hosted a series of events to celebrate the Year of South Africa in China, and this year, South Africa returned the compliment with the Year of China in South Africa. To mark the collaboration, CRI produced South Africans in China , a 12-part documentary series profiling a dozen prominent South Africans living in China.

"I think the series is an acknowledgment of the growing importance of South Africans in China," said Ricardo Afonso, a British filmmaker who had worked on the documentary. "Every candidate we filmed was so surprised by how many other South Africans were actually living and working in China! I think more South Africans will continue to come to China to learn about Chinese culture and bring some of their own culture along with them."

Afonso himself ended up becoming a connoisseur of boerewors, the sausage that is synonymous with South Africa. "I didn't know much about South African cuisine before we filmed the show," he told ChinAfrica  candidly. "Almost all of our candidates were kind enough to share some of their cuisine with the crew and boerewors kept ending up on our plates."

When they filmed Byron Jacobs, a wushu practitioner, it was his Chinese wife Li Hua who prepared a South African dish - including boerewors.

Intermarriages between Africans and Chinese are becoming common in both Africa and China. "There is a growing population of Afro-Chinese children from these mixed marriages," Bodomo said. "The Chinese immigration and citizenship system is still finding ways to fully accommodate these children. As their numbers grow into hundreds and maybe even thousands, you are going to get a pressure group of Chinese with African ancestry demanding citizenship rights. This would have consequences on most aspects of Chinese society. The earlier the Chinese citizenship laws accommodate them the better."

FOCAC's role

When the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was established in 2000, it focused on government-to-government and economic exchanges. In the second and subsequent decades, with more than 2 million Chinese in Africa and half a million Africans in China, Bodomo says FOCAC must involve the African and Chinese diasporas.

His recommendations for the Second FOCAC Summit in Johannesburg: There should be a clear focus on people-to-people relations. Besides, funds should be set aside to promote cultural meetings. Award programs should be instituted to encourage African and Chinese diaspora associations to promote Africa-China relations.

His vision for Afro-Chinese relations remains the same as he described in an earlier interview, "I predict that in 20, 30, 50, 100 years' time black Africans will play for China's national sports teams, will be professors at Chinese universities, will be parliamentarians and even top-level government officials of China."

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