It has been noted for years that the Chinese government does not like to use the term “aid” and prefers to speak of “cooperation” or investment. It has been routinely accused by Western commentators of deliberately obscuring the difference between aid and for-profit investment, either downplaying its subsidies or, on the contrary, inflating them and not providing transparent accounting. To the extent that China has always rejected the idea that it was providing aid, and been explicit about its own benefits from the “cooperation,” the accusation that it was passing off investment as aid has been rather unfair.
Ironically, just as more Western commentators are coming around to see this point, and as the development industry is becoming more favourable to investment-aid coupling, Chinese media are beginning to talk more about aid (yuanzhu). Indeed, they have been celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of Chinese aid to Africa.
An article in the Chinese-language version of Feizhou (Africa) magazine, produced in several languages, is probably representative of this official discourse. The article, entitled “China’s Aid to Africa Puts Accent on Teaching People How to Fish,” focuses entirelyof what is called “skill transfer,” for the lack of which Chinese infrastructural aid projects are usually criticized — although here this is described as an ancient Chinese wisdom. The infrastructure projects themselves are entirely omitted.
The skills transfer (or as the article calls it: “getting the scriptures,” qu jing, from China), however, has certain twists to it. The article focuses on trainings for officials, doctors, and school principals. Since 1998, the Ministry of Trade has organised 150 trainings for African officials on subjects such as foreign investment facilitation. 26 ministers and vice-ministers from Mozambique alone have taken part. The State Council’s Office has provided trainings, among others, to government spokesmen, while the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television has trained news officials. The head of SARFT’s training centre is quoted as saying that manyof them have expressed a desire for Chinese-African media cooperation in order to reduce Western media influence and “strengthen discursive power.”
A Zambian spokesman told the magazine that the training — which invariably includes visits to special economic zones — convinced opposition politicians to agree to the establishment of such zones. A major trope in the article is the changing of minds: how officials who had had a negative image of China turned around and, as a Sierra Leone government spokesman said, would now “cut out any information or programme that does not correspond to the real China.”
One official is described as having postponed his wedding in order to “get the scriptures,” and another, Egyptian, refers to Muhammad’s admonition to “get learning even if it takes you as far as China,” a quote that, according to Johanes Herlijanto’s research, is often used among Indonesian Muslims supporting cooperation with China. The irony is that the original Chinese phrase refers to the monk Xuanzang traveling to the West to obtain the Buddhist scriptures.