Watching African sea turtles

With the rapidly growing number of Africans getting PhDs in China, it will be interesting to understand their motivations and impact if they return home. (In China, such highly skilled returnees are called ‘sea turtles’ 海龟, a homophone of the expression ‘overseas returnee’.

In a recent issue of the weekly newsletter PKU African Tele-Info, Li Anshan, the scholar-official heading Peking University ‘s Centre for African Studies, reported that Uganda’s minister of finance, visiting Peking for a training, asked him about the possibility of pursuing her doctorate there. Now, she may have asked the same question in London — there is a time-honoured tradition of African dignitaries pocketing LSE degrees — but that she would even think about Peking is interesting.

A Congolese PhD student at the same centre, Antoine Roger Lokongo, recently published an article on Pambazuka analysing the South African, Libyan and Ivorian political situations and coming to the conclusion that all three are examples of Western political manipulation plus armed intervention. I was surprised by the promotion of former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo as a positive example of standing up for the national interest, and the article has too much of a conspiracy-theory flavour to it, but while it mounts some arguments in favour of Gaddhafi, Museveni, Mugabe, and the ANC Youth leader Julius Malema, it falls short of endorsing them fully. What is clear is that the author backs a mixture of nationalism and state control of capital with increased redistribution in the interests of social justice. China’s role in Africa is not discussed, but one can see that its form of government has many parallels with what Lokongo advocates.

Yet Lokongo clearly also locates himself on the Left, which in today’s China’s domestic politics can be associated with an oppositionist stance. So how will Lokongo and other intellectuals in similar positions view the practices of Chinese enterprises, many of them state-owned, in Africa? This is not a matter of whether their practices are good or bad. Rather, the fact is that their presence, even if it is based on government-to-government deals rather than the market, is nonetheless a corollary and a catalyst of the liberalisation of African markets, the polarization of social classes and the flexibilisation of labour practices, phenomena the African Left stands against.

Meanwhile, Mwesiga Baregu, a Tanzanian visiting professor at the Institute of African Studies at Zhejiang Normal University wrote his first column in The Citizen, a Dar-es-Salaam newspaper, of a series intended to cover his observations in China. He comes to the conclusion that the Communisty Party, “for better or for worse, is still one of the main drivers of change in China.” Another driver is accountability. He compares favourably “China’s zero tolerance of corruption in public service” and the disciplining of officials for negligence — such as in the case of transport disasters — to the situation in Tanzania.

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One Response to Watching African sea turtles

  1. […] Watching African sea turtles -Exporting China’s Development to the World 30/09/2011 With the rapidly growing number of Africans getting PhDs in China, it will be interesting to understand their motivations and impact if they return home. […]

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