So far, media coverage of China’s involvement in Africa has mostly been about investment. Stories of Chinese engineers in hard hats standing by roads up mountains in Ethiopia. Stories of Chinese farmers moving to Zambia.
But, in a push to extent its economic reach, China is now making a very real effort to export its culture to the world’s poorest continent. Last year the Asian giant overtook the U.S. as Africa’s top trading partner, confirming to the West that it has a real battle on its hands to maintain its influence over African nations.
But, while China’s economic influence is now mighty and its cheap goods can be bought everywhere from Lagos to tiny tribal villages in remotest Ethiopia, Africans, especially young ones, still admire and try to copy U.S. culture.
Middle class teenagers in Nairobi dress like suburban kids from Atlanta, posters of Obama adorn minibus windows in Kinshasa, American hip-hop is everywhere.
China now seems to have realised this.
Here in Addis Ababa this week China and Ethiopia signed an agreement to work on a “cultural exchange program” from 2010 to 2013. Ethiopia’s state news agency said the countries will dispatch “art troupes, artists, writers and art exhibitions” to each other. It will be interesting to see how mutual the traffic is.
And it’s not just China trying to use culture to secure access to a continent overflowing with mineral resources and a largely untapped consumer market of nearly 1 billion people with more money in their pockets each year.
Addis Ababa is host to Chinese, Indian and even Turkish schools where Ethiopian children must sing the national anthems of those countries every morning, where they learn their languages, their dances, their songs, their particular set of manners. And where they learn a foreign history alongside their own.
Such schools and “cultural exchange programs” are mushrooming all over the continent as the war for influence over African countries heats up.
Similar schools from the European powers have, of course, existed for years, educating and, sometimes indoctrinating, Africa’s elite. But the British, the French, the Germans and the Spanish are losing ground to the world’s emerging powers.
So how will this all play out? What will the impact of these new cultural imports be on the individual cultures of African countries, arguably still the most unique and preserved in the world? Is this really just imperialism version 2.0?