The Newsletter 81 Autumn 2018

African Studies in China

Cheryl M. Schmitz

A few years ago, I sat in on a graduate seminar on ethics and globalization at a major university in Beijing. The course was taught by a Chinese professor who had done extensive fieldwork in locations ranging from Angola to Ethiopia. More than half of the students in the classroom had also lived in various African countries. They had spent years working at construction companies, charity organizations, or diplomatic offices, and they were now being trained as a new generation of area studies experts.

The beginning of the twenty-first century saw an explosion in popular and academic publications on connections and reconnections between China and the African continent. What has attracted less attention, however, is how Chinese academic interest in African Studies has grown alongside diplomatic relations and commercial ties. Africanists in China are building unique academic programs, often based on fieldwork or other on-the-ground experience and in collaboration with African scholars and institutions. Programmatic emphases are often explicitly contrasted against Western traditions of studying Africa, said to have been closely linked to colonial or neo-colonial projects.

In China, the first academic institutions devoted to the study of Africa or of Afro-Asian connections were set up in the 1960s, with the official aim of supporting anti-colonial liberation movements. Recent years have seen the opening of a number of new African Studies centers and institutes, amounting to at least twenty, with over half established within the past two decades. These centers host meetings for scholarly exchange and facilitate the dissemination of written publications and visual media related to Africa and Africans. The Belt and Road Initiative has been accompanied by government support for the study of the Global South, opening up resources for collaborations with African universities and new possibilities for overseas fieldwork by Chinese researchers.

The contributions to this issue of China Connections provide a range of perspectives on recent developments in African Studies in China. The authors highlight some themes that distinguish Chinese Africanism, such as Chinese business and migration networks in Africa or African commercial activity in China. They also raise important political and theoretical questions about the future of the field. Indeed, contemporary Chinese connections to Africa can no longer be thought of as restricted to the economic sphere. Scholars based in China continue to actively produce knowledge about the African continent, and it will be important to consider the implications of this intellectual work.

Cheryl M. Schmitz (潘美婷), Global Perspectives on Society Teaching Fellow, New York University Shanghai