People-to-People Relations

Program Manager: Dr. Emmanuel Matambo


Relations between China and Africa have claimed a lot of attention because of their exponential increase and the trepidation that the West has regarding a developing China and its spreading influence the world over. The alacrity with which Africa has welcomed China’s overtures is steeped in history. China’s role in the African crusade against colonial and settler rule has engendered an enduring sense of gratitude in Africa. However, China’s identity as a kindred spirit of the Third World, and Africa in particular, is not shared by Western players. To the West, China’s identity is less savoury because of ideological divergences. From whatever perspective one chooses to appraise China-Africa relations, much analysis tends to be state-centric. Frequent visits between Chinese and African politicians and China’s investment in Africa are often the main centres of academic attention.

During the Cold War, China’s presence in Africa was mainly characterised by Chinese diplomats and workers in state-owned enterprises. However, latterly there has been an increasing presence of non-state-actor Chinese citizens in Africa. Thus, the face of China in Africa is assuming a new dimension. No longer perceived as a unidimensional object, China evokes different images in Africa depending on who is appraising it. The People-to-People programme will suss out the perceptions of non-state actors on the growing Africa-China nexus. Sources of information will be trade unions, civil society organisations, the working class and ordinary citizens. Data will be collected from China, South Africa and Zambia. This scope might increase because scholars and writers from other countries will also be invited to weigh in on this research. The programme will not preclude state-centric analyses: contributors are merely urged not to be oblivious to the fact that the most important stakeholder in the China-Africa relationship is the ordinary citizen, and hence the views of that fraction of society ought to enjoy more attention than has been the case hitherto.

In South Africa and Zambia, state actors are more prone to heed the sentiments of non-state actors. This is because the governments of the two countries serve at the invitation of their citizens. Because of South Africa’s economic size and the diverse nature of its population, China has not featured as the cynosure of political debate. Zambia’s case is different because China’s presence, aid and investment has become intrinsic to Zambia’s political discourse and economy. The government has had to defend China’s presence in Zambia against Zambian citizens whose behaviour towards Chinese nationals has occasionally been described as xenophobic. The dissonance between the perceptions of the Zambian government and that of non-state actors is that they each define a different China in accordance to their political standing. The Zambian government relates with China as a state, and the rhetoric that is exchanged at that level is consonant with the appealing picture of China that the Zambian government paints. However, non-state actors in Zambia relate with non-state actors from China. Unlike government players, non-state actors do not have to conform to the expectations of international diplomacy. People-to-People relations will thus play a crucial role in scaling the different contours of China’s identity in Africa. The expected outcomes of this programmes will likely turn up issues of race, economic competition, the spectre of colonialism, expediency and resignation. However, there is also an upside to China’s identity in Africa, especially for those to whom China is a source of affordable wares and employment.