On 20 May 2020, CACS hosted a virtual seminar on people-to-people relations in the time of COVID-19 with a specific focus on Africa and China. Cases of alleged racial discrimination in China against people of colour made the seminar a necessary and timely initiative. This was underlined by the participation – about 80 people, some from as far afield as Nigeria, China, France and the United Kingdom, joined the seminar online.
The seminar was hosted by the CACS Research Director, Bhaso Ndzendze, and chaired by its Executive Director, Dr David Monyae. The speakers were Dr Siphamandla Zondi, Professor of Political Science at Pretoria University, and Chairperson of the South African BRICS Think Tank; Prof Qin Shengyong, Director of the International Office of the Zhongshan School of Medicine and a Senior Research Fellow at the One Belt One Road Institute at Sun Yatsen University; and Dr Cheng Ying, Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian and African Languages and Cultures at Peking University.
Prof Zondi provided the background to current Africa-China relations by noting the pioneering work done by scholars such as Ian Taylor and Garth Shelton. He then outlined political frameworks such as the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), and how this intersected with the the American-led Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).
According to Prof Zondi, political and economic synergy had fostered increased interaction among non-political actors from Africa and China, and the two parties had to be candid about the challenges that came with such interaction. Provocatively, he noted that many Africans infected by the coronavirus did not contract it from China, but rather from European countries, and asked what this signified about people-to-people interactions between Africa and China.
Dr Cheng suggested concrete ways of deepening Sino-African understanding and coexistence at the people-to-people level. Initiatives such as cultural exchanges and presentations could play significant role. Culture straddled a gamut of components from art, religion, music and poetry. Language also played a key role in gaining insight into another culture, and breaking through the boundaries of misunderstanding.
Professor Qin offered reassurances about the Chinese government and the high value it placed on its relationship with Africa.
Throughout the presentations, participants posted questions on the chat panel. Several centred on allegations that Africans in China are encountering discrimination, and that some have been prohibited from pursuing their professional activities, such as teaching. Others centred on the political dimension of what COVID-19 entails for future Africa-China relations.
The seminar underlined that the people-to-people component of Africa-China relations is still in its infancy, and that some uncomfortable realities should not be ignored. Specifically, the racial tensions that occasionally sully Sino-African synergy can only be resolved if their existence is acknowledged. Another caveat to emerge was that Africans in China and Chinese citizens in Africa have to adhere to the legislation of their host countries.
To conclude, the seminar outlined not only how far Africa-China relations have come, but how much still needs to be done to build a relationship that will help to shape both Africa’s and China’s futures.