China dives deep for African roots
By Antoaneta Becker
LONDON - Irked by accusations that it is the new colonizer of Africa, China is
looking to use soft power and historical evidence of its ancient links to the
continent to justify its economic embrace of Africa.
Chinese archaeologists have been sent to hunt for a long-lost shipwreck off the
Kenyan coast to support claims that China beat white explorers in discovering
Africa. Meanwhile, Beijing is preparing to fund more research on the continent
to aid its companies and banks' quest for expansion there.
Last month saw the launch of the new China-Africa Research
Center under the Ministry of Commerce. The center's aim is to "provide a
theoretical basis for the Chinese government's Africa-related
decision-makings", Huo Jianguo, president of the Chinese Academy of
International Trade and Economic Cooperation under the ministry said at the
opening. It will also provide consultation services for companies with plans to
expand their businesses to Africa, he added.
"For a long time our Africa strategy resembled our strategy for economic
development - 'crossing the river by feeling the stones', says He Wenping,
director of African Studies under the Institute of Western Asian and African
Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "We were not well prepared
to go to Africa and had to pay a high price, learning from our mistakes. But
now we are consolidating our strategy and there will be a new focus on learning
about Africa and speaking for ourselves."
Much hope is being placed on the treasure hunt conducted by Chinese and African
archaeologists in Kenya. They are searching for an ancient shipwreck and other
evidence of commerce between Africa and China dating back to the early 15th
century. The sunken ship is believed to have been part of an armada commanded
by Admiral Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch from the Ming Dynasty who the Chinese
claim reached East Africa 80 years before the Portuguese seafarer Vasco da
The three-year exploration project was launched in July and it is symbolic of
China's intensified efforts to present its modern-day conquest of Africa as a
continuation of Zheng He's "journey of peace and friendship" in the ancient
Chinese records speak of Zheng He's fleet of 300 ships and thousands of sailors
that sailed the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Starting in 1405, Zheng He made
seven journeys to Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
He is said to have reached the coast of Kenya as early as 1418 loaded with
goods and gifts from the Chinese emperor. The sunken ship archaeologists hope
to find is believed to have been shipwrecked as it returned to China carrying
among all a giraffe handed by the Sultan of Malindi as a present to the Chinese
"His trip is truly symbolic of what China's intentions towards Africa were then
and what they are now," insists He. "The Chinese that reached Africa did not
colonize, they went as traders and explorers."
China is the leading importer of raw mineral resources from Africa. Its foray
into African countries has been portrayed by some critics as "plundering",
drawing anger at home. The archaeological project highlights China's desire to
publicize that its blossoming relationship with Africa has a much longer
history than originally believed and it is not just about business but about a
historical legacy too.
Until a few years ago Chinese officials liked stressing China's support for
African liberation movements in their fight for independence and their common
anti-colonial ideological heritage. But the 60-year history of contemporary
relations with Africa is now regarded by academics at home as no match for the
West's presence in Africa since the 15th century.
Many Chinese scholars have pointed out that China lacks the wealth of knowledge
about Africa that Western countries have accumulated over the centuries.
Without the shared religious background that links African with European
countries, China has had to tap ancient history in its efforts to justify its
expansion into Africa.
Aware of the need to present its own view of history and development between
the two continents, Beijing has been mulling the setting up of a China-Africa
Research Fund that could support institutions and individuals in African
studies. Much of the current African research undertaken by Chinese scholars is
funded by international institutions and Western countries' grants.
African students are also seen as a factor that will play a role in shaping the
new China discourse on Africa. In recent years, the Chinese government has
encouraged more African students to study in the country, offering thousands of
scholarships. In 2009, China had 120,000 students from Africa, 10 times more
than it did in 2000. Cultivated as the future government elites, these students
are being taught not only Chinese but trained also in engineering, science and
All this has not gone unnoticed in Europe, which China claims still regards
Africa as its "backyard". A recent report by Chatham House in London said
resources and expertise on Africa had been allowed to wither in Western
governments, academia and the news media.
"Beneath the rhetoric of the importance of Africa, diplomatic and trade
resources devoted to it are still being cut in many Western capitals, leading
to a downward spiral of ignorance and thus marginalization in strategic
awareness," wrote the writer of the report Tom Cargill.
If left unchecked, the report warned, this trend would wipe out Western
countries' comparative advantage over China in policy and academic
understanding of Africa.