Owei Lakemfa: Conversations In Beijing

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By Owei Lakemfa

We gathered at the Communication University (CUC) Beijing. We were media and Communication scholars from a dozen countries. Eleven from Africa and host China.

It was for frank discussions on how Africans and the Chinese perceive themselves and how to advance mutual interests. The gathering this Saturday, November 10, 2018 chaired by Professor Zhang Yanqiu, the CUC Director of African Communication Research Centre was not primarily concerned about the misinformation peddled by other countries and institutions worried about the growing cooperation between the African and Chinese people. These are expected.

However, some of the most outlandish campaigns came up for mention. One is the claim that China uses human flesh for corned-beef. Why would it, when cows are available and a thousand times cheaper? In any case, the cadaver scarcity for research, in research centres, globally, means that it will fetch far more money than waste it as meat.

Another is that the country is producing plastic rice when it is a thousand times cheaper, cultivating natural rice. One false story that trended on the Internet for long was that after the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, then Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe sent all his country’s athletes to prison for disgracing the country in China by not winning a medal.

Mengynan Zhang of the CAIXIN MEDIA, dismissed the campaign of China’s alleged “Debt Diplomacy” in Africa and concluded that: “People read what they want to read and believe what they want to believe.” Li Chunxia, Senior Producer at the China Global Television Network (CGTN) said of such stories: “We were less interested in the misrepresentation of China-Africa, but now, we are responding.”

It was the consensus that while such vile campaigns cannot be stopped, there is the need to invest in investigative journalism to, as much as possible, debunk them. As I said, the focus was on Africa and China, not the international do-gooders taking analgesics for Africa’s alleged headache.

A point discussed is the perception of some Chinese that African workers are lazy. This is premised on African employees working for eight hours daily as is internationally sanctioned while the Chinese are noted for longer work hours. This had been discussed at a previous session which concluded that if African workers are motivated like the Chinese or paid commensurate remunerations and overtime, they will put in more hours of work. In any case, the workers in the informal economy where over 85 percent Africans work, do not, like the Chinese, observe strict hours of work.

African journalist, Fadhili Mpunji, who has been working for 15 years at the China Radio International (CRI) Beijing, narrated some of his experiences. He said he once met a Chinese lady who asked him if they were to make a baby together, will the product be like a zebra? Another had agreed to go with him to Africa because she wants to wake up every morning to the sight of zebras and giraffe passing, as if Africa is a wildlife park.

But the perceptions are not limited to the Chinese. The Tanzania-born journalist said when he was coming out to work in China, his mother said she was told that Chinese ladies beat their husbands, so he should stay away from them. Fadhili who said he has not experienced racism, argued that:

“Some of the Chinese who go to work in Africa, might not be sufficiently educated and of good behaviour. A solitary Chinese misbehaves and it is said, ‘that is how the Chinese misbehave’. There was a time China was open to businessmen from Africa but some came, who were not businessmen, but people with other ideas.”

Ge Lijun of the monthly CHINA AFRICA MAGAZINE admitted she came to understand Africa only after visiting Senegal for collaborative reports. There is, of course, a perception amongst some Africans, that made in China goods are inferior. A discussant, Ebenezer Adebisi Olawuyi, Senior Lecturer, University of Ibadan, Nigeria, is actually examining the problematic, “China as a Faker and Maker, Staker and Taker”

So a challenge to the Chinese government is to ensure that goods manufactured in the country are of standard quality. Li Lianxing, former Chief Reporter of CHINA DAILY, in Africa, argued that over 98 percent of the Chinese people may never have contact with Africa, so it is the mass media that can influence their position.

Bob Wekesa, journalist and now, Researcher, at the University of Witwaterstrand, South Africa, argued that humanity is one, before they are African, Asian, European, or any other group and that all peoples, including the Chinese and the African, have negative and positive aspects. His hypothesis is that African-Chinese relations can be gleaned through the lens of “Pessimism, Optimism and Pragmatism”.

There was an understanding that the Chinese government has a narrative it wants to put forward to the African people, while the African people may not be so interested. So the challenge is how to enhance communication, overcome prejudices and work together in a mutually beneficial manner, especially in a globalised world where the poor suffer and the gap between the rich and the poor is widening.

The African discussants realised that China is in a far part of the world in relation to their continent. But they had come willingly because the fortunes of the African and Chinese people will be enhanced by close cooperation and joint projects. Didn’t an African proverb say it is the person you do not love, you complain his home is far away?

On the other hand, China is anxious to be understood. Like the China Intercontinental Communications Centre states, as its objective: “Let the World understand China and let China understand the World”

In the specific case of Africa, the Chinese I meet, even on the streets are quite friendly and warm. They do not display any sense of superiority. Although the distance between China and Africa is at least 8,793 kilometres, some Chinese still talk as if we are neighbours. Professor Li Shu, the CUC Dean, Institute of Communication Studies, had told participants that this is rooted in the Chinese saying that: “Two friends are like neigbours regardless of distance.”

Africa, which taught the old Greeks mathematics, philosophy, science and history, is like China, an ancient civilisation. Both were invaded and colonised by the same European powers, especially Britain and France. They are steeped in culture, dance, music and proverbs.

Both have limitless potentials, they had a similar fate in the past, are anxious for a better world today and hope for a bright universe, in future. Given these, the discussions in Beijing ended on the note that Africa and China should, together, tell their common story to the world; as the Chinese say, “A good memory, can’t beat a bad pen.”

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