The Newsletter 81 Autumn 2018

African Studies with Chinese characteristics? A perspective and a vision

XU Liang

<p align=\"left\">African Studies in the United States gained momentum after the passing of the National Defense Education Act in 1958 (Title VI), followed by a substantial expansion of federal funding for area studies. Two years later, as the world celebrated ‘the Year of Africa’, the appointment of a Joint Committee on African Studies by the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies officially marked the coming of age of Africa as an area field in the US academy. This postwar burgeoning of area studies was in part prompted by the Cold War competition between the superpowers.</p>

African Studies in China is still in its infancy. While African Studies programs in China can be traced back to the early 1960s when the Institute of West-Asian and African Studies and the Institute of Asian and African Studies were established at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Peking University, respectively, research outputs and government support were modest until the end of the previous century. The rapid proliferation of African Studies programs over the last decade or so coincided with the rise of China on the global stage and, in particular, its increasing presence and influence in Africa since the beginning of the new millennium.

With the recently launched Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese government support to area studies centers will only continue to expand. However, the numerical growth of programs and centers does not necessarily bring about a genuine flourishing of scholarship. Often, it masks and belies a false blossoming of research. As the old Chinese idiom goes, "it takes ten years to grow a tree, but a hundred to nurture the people.” A good educational program takes time to develop and mature.

Looking forward, I am confident that the prospects of African Studies in China are bright. However, it should not become a replica of Euro-American African Studies. While much remains for Chinese Africanists to learn from their foreign colleagues, they could contribute more to the field if they approach Africa from a different standpoint and fully leverage the history and experience of the Chinese society. For example, urbanization in Africa bears similarities with Chinese urbanization in multiple dimensions. Job creation and the shortage of affordable housing are shared challenges facing numerous cities both in Africa and in China. There is a pronounced tendency amongst Chinese Africanists to believe that the experience of China's development over the last four decades offers a model for Africa as the continent aspires to develop and prosper.

In my view, issues such as post-conflict reconstruction, long-term rule of governing parties, religious and ethnic policies, the decline of marriage and family, and rapid industrialization provide an essential common ground for China and African countries to learn from each other. Although exploring these subjects in Africa does not produce an immediate solution to similar problems in China (or vice versa), it does help Chinese scholars and practitioners better appreciate and acknowledge such issues from a global and transnational perspective.

While it is legitimate for Chinese scholars and government officials to promote various merits of the China Model, it is equally critical for us to realize the invaluable experience that African countries offer to China. As a Chinese Africanist, I often say to myself as well as to my students: In many ways, Africa is a mirror, which forces us to stare at ourselves, bring the entire world into view, and build a shared moral conscience for all of humankind.

XU Liang, Ph.D. (History, Harvard), Assistant Professor of International Studies and Deputy Secretary-General of the Center for African Studies, Peking University,

The Peking University Centre for African Studies was founded in 1998 as a university-wide, interdisciplinary institution for comprehensive African research. It consists of faculty and research fellows from different departments and institutes, who specialize in African politics, economy, and cultures. Currently, the Center is collaborating with the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences to develop an African Studies certificate, the first of its kind in Chinese universities. This new curriculum program will enhance the education and research of Africa among Chinese university students. The Center’s two flagship publications are the PKU African Tele-Info (a weekly newsletter) and the Annual Review of African Studies in China.