China, Africa and Cultural Understanding

Photo: Professor Adams Bodomo. His bio is found at the bottom.

China Daily published on 15 March 2013 an interesting piece titled “Culture Key to Understanding” based on a discussion with Adams Bodomo, a native of Ghana and director of the African Studies Program at the University of Hong Kong.

Bodomo said there are nearly a half million Africans living in China and that better understanding of each others culture is the key to stronger Chinese-African relations. He called for the establishment of more African cultural institutions in China such as China has done in Africa with Confucius Institutes.

Prof Bodomo says there needs to be more African institutions in China. China has taken a deeper interest in Africa and will be offering Amharic language courses at the Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU).


China, Africa and Cultural Understanding

By Li Lianxing (China Daily)

Frequent interpersonal interactions can help reduce misunderstandings between nations, says expert on African affairs

Frequent interaction, rather than unilateral steps, especially in the field of culture, are the best tools for strengthening bilateral relations between China and Africa, says Adams Bodomo, an expert on African affairs.

Bodomo, a native of Ghana and the director of African Studies Programme at the University of Hong Kong since 2008, says economic and political considerations, rather than culture, often get the most attention in bilateral relationships.

“Cultural understanding is not a panacea to solve all the people-to-people fracases that we hear of, but it is something that does go a long way in promoting friendship and peaceful interactions between nations,” he says.

Though globalization has helped blur the boundaries between nations, it has also brought with it challenges in understanding the different communities and finding solutions to their problems. Frequent cultural exchanges will make this task much more easier, Bodomo says.

With a growing number of Africans flocking to China and vice-versa, Bodomo says more efforts should be put into people-to-people cultural exchanges.

“I am not at all happy with the current quality of interaction between Africans and Chinese, both in Africa and in China. There are far too many problems and far too many misunderstandings. Every now and then we hear reports that Africans in China are misunderstood and maltreated, and similarly on how Chinese in Africa are misunderstood and mistrusted.”

The best way to tackle this problem, Bodomo says, is by setting up more African cultural institutions in China. “This calls for concerted action by African governments and private citizens, on the lines of what China has been doing with its Confucius Institutes across the world.”

But for that to happen, it is also important to address the differences that exist between Africa and China. “Though China can set up cultural institutions in Africa, it is not easy for African cultural institutions to be set up in China,” he says.

“It is important for Africa and China to use the aegis of the Forum for Africa-China Cooperation to open up research programs in language, music, arts, and other cultural institutions of Africa and China.”

At the same time educational institutions should also take more steps to promote educational programs focusing on Africa, he says. In this regard, he cites the example of the African Studies Programme at Hong Kong University that he has spearheaded since 2008.

Bodomo’s links with China go back to 1998 when he joined Hong Kong University as an assistant professor of linguistics with special focus on Africa’s linguistic and cultural parallels with China.

“When we started the ASP, it was the only program of its kind in all of southern China and it still remains the only program in Hong Kong. It is a small but unique and high-quality program that draws on interdisciplinary insights from many fields such as linguistics, literature, fine arts, history, musicology, history, sociology, and international relations,” he says.

“It was not easy to convince the university authorities of the need for such a program. But I am happy that they finally gave the green light for the program,” he says.

Doubts about the program were often the likes of whether African studies were necessary in Hong Kong and whether there was any real interest for such courses.

“The answer that I gave then has not lost its relevance even now. The growing importance of Africa for Hong Kong and the mainland, and the fact that young people in the era of globalization are curious about all parts of the world was my defense,” Bodomo says.

One of the reasons why his plea for strengthening cultural ties assumes importance is the practical implications it has for a country like China, which has limited experience in dealing with expatriate populations. According to current estimates, there are nearly half a million Africans in China, with as many as 200,000 of them in Guangzhou.

Bodomo says that he and his team have over a three-year period analyzed this immigrant population and come up with several findings on why the Africans have come to China, how they have been treated in China and finally what is it like to be an African in China.

There are several interesting aspects also, he says.

“We found that Africans are present in all the major Chinese cities and are mostly traders, students, English language teachers, artists, sportsmen and several other professions,” he says.

“We also found that these Africans are constantly interacting with the Chinese communities and also constitute a vital link between Africa and China at political, economic and cultural levels.”

Bodomo has recently published a book titled Africans in China about what he has learned over the years. Many experts consider the book a ready reckoner for Chinese companies planning investments in Africa.

“I believe that even African researchers, with little field training, find it difficult to talk to Africans. Chinese scholars, on the other hand, with good training will be able to talk to Africans, who are, by nature, mostly easy-going people, except of course when they are busy shopping in the markets of Guangzhou and Yiwu,” he says.

“I think the key to success in researching Africans in China is good training as a field research scholar and the ability to gain the trust of African community members.”

To overcome these challenges he says it is important for scholars to hire African and Chinese research assistants. Africans often give different answers to the same questions depending on who is interviewing them and depending on the context in which they are interviewed, he says.

Though many experts consider him the pioneer on Africa-China migratory and diaspora studies in China, Bodomo remains modest about his achievements.

“Of course, the main point of all these is not in being the first, but of having been (as an African) in the right place (Hong Kong) at the right time (the turn of the millennium). I seized the moment and my passion has always been to bring some deeper understanding about the interactions between China and Africa,” Bodomo says.

“I always believe that people-to-people interactions are the key to government-to-government relations.”

Fifty-three Chinese students enrolled in his course on Foundations in African Studies in its first year, while the course on African Experiences has attracted more than 120 students and is considered to be one of the most popular courses at HKU.

But there is still a lot to be done, he says.

“We hope that more staff and resources will be allocated to this program so that it can develop into a postgraduate program, offering courses at both the masters and doctoral studies levels.

“One thing that is common among all the best universities in the world like Peking University in Asia, Stanford University in America and Vienna University in Europe is that they have excellent, well-funded programs in African Studies. No university can claim to be a world-class university without a well-funded African studies program,” he says.

Source: China Daily