The AFRASO-Lecture Series started on the 7th of May 2013 with the first session on “Working and Living Together: Realities of Life for Africans in Asia and Asians in Africa”. This session gave some insight into the everyday life perspectives of the thousands of Africans and Asians living on each other’s continent. It became clear that, besides the questions of economics and trade, a bottom-up perspective can show how everyday encounters can create and foster identities and stereotypes.
The first presentation by Katy Lam from the University of Lausanne focused on the difficulties and adaption strategies of Chinese businessmen in Africa. Lam underlined that the typical perspective of Chinese in Africa is that China is the intruder and constructs Africans as being rather powerless and passive; which results in stereotypes such as Chinese only bring their own workers to African countries, or, if they’re working with locals, don not treat them correctly. According to Lam, in reality these stereotypes are often not true, but Chinese face other difficulties. In Benin, local retailers felt threatened by the import of Chinese fabric and the government was forced to react and installed a protectionist policy that allows foreign retailers only to do wholesales. This lead to the absurd situation that Chinese textiles are still everywhere, but not the shops of the Chinese businessmen. In Ghana, Chinese face problems with their own ‘trust and risk’-system: as Chinese businessmen allow customers they know to buy on credit, people are taking advantage of this and don not pay these credits back. This shows that there is a significant role of African agency in China-Africa-relations and the making of stereotypes is created on the micro-level.
Heidi Østbø Haugen from the University of Oslo focused on African students going to universities in China. In the 1970s most foreign students in China were from developing countries and, as they were on government scholarships, not fee-paying. The restructuring of the educational sector in China then started in the 1980s, with the goal to attract more foreign students, because they are paying higher fees. Today the numbers are clear: there are over 200,000 foreign students in China, 9 out of 10 are fee-paying and 5% are from African countries, which are mostly from the middle-class. But there is not a high level of satisfaction among students from Africa. This depends for example on the fact that the teaching system in China is not appreciated, as there is no criticism or questioning of the contents allowed. There is a low level of identification with the educational system which leads to a general disappointment with China that undermines the recruitment of African students.
The presentations gave some useful insight into the realities of living together. The question of stereotypes became also evident in the discussion with the audience. As the AFRASO-Lecture Series will commence on the 21st of May with the session “China’s Economic Cooperation and its Role for Economic Transition in Africa,” more interesting and lively discussions will arise.