Pure Swahili culture, World Heritage and a Chinese port

January 14, 2010

An 11 January article by Jeffrey Gettleman in The New York Times (“Future Kenya Port Could Mar Pristine Land”) is such a textbook case of China-in-Africa discourse that it merits its own entry. All the ingredients are there: heritage, nature and (minority) culture versus the greedy Chinese, with the usual vagueness.

The article states that Lamu, an island on the Kenyan coast and “one the last outposts of pure Swahili culture” whose old town centre has been registered as World Heritage. According to a local politician,

Lamu has been marginalized for decades (…) because
the people here are Muslim and coastal, while Kenya, since its
independence in 1963, has been ruled by Christian politicians from the
highlands. (… T)ourists started flocking here in substantial numbers in the 1990s, precisely
because the area was so underdeveloped and environmentally and culturally
pristine. The villages around the island are studies in poverty. There is
no electricity and no running water. The houses are built from mud, sticks
and string. Malaria is rampant. Many of the children sitting idle in their
homes or clutching saggy soccer balls on the beach have their feet chewed
up by chigoes, the tiny fleas that lay eggs under people’s toenails.

On the positive side,

the omnipresent smells of donkey dung and sweetly rotting fruit and the
crescent-sailed dhows plying the sea make the island feel like a glass
museum case — one with a living culture inside.

But all that may be about to change

because “the Chinese government, one of the most aggressive investors in Africa, is
backing the” Kenyan government’s project to build “the biggest port in East Africa here.”

The biggest worry is the environment. (…) Lamu fishermen fear that the planned dredging of the port will ruin fish breeding grounds.

“They will break the rocks where the fish hide,” said one angler, Mohamed
Shabwana. “They will destroy everything.”

As it turns out at the very end of the article, the proposed site for the port is a actually

a few miles away from Lamu island on a desolate stretch of the mainland. But residents of Lamu town fear that the blast radius of the port — the crime, the pollution and the overall
seediness — will reach them. Kenyan government officials admit, when
pressed, that Lamu and its traditional Muslim culture will be affected.

Well, maybe. But the conclusion seems cavalier. And nothing is said about the Chinese plans apart from the fact that Chinese companies are “studying” the site. Still, the Chinese element gives the article a sinister touch.

Nigerians clash with police in Canton

July 17, 2009

On this blog we tend to write about the link between Chinese migration and development projects, but there is also migration from poorer countries to China: brides from North Korea, Vietnam, and Burma, entertainers and businessmen from Central Asia, and traders from Africa. This is an underresearched subject, but there are at least two ongoing research projects on the African trading community in China: by Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong in Hong Kong, and by Michal Lyons and Alison Brown in England.

A few days ago, Chinese media reported that about 300 Africans clashed with police at a police station in Canton. They were protesting the restrictions police sweeps on foreigners ahead of the 1 October anniversary celebrations of the 60s anniversary of the founding of the PRC, which combined with visa restrictions introduced ahead of the Olympics (resulting in African citizens being unable to get PRC visas in Hong Kong) meant that many traders became not only illegal migrants but also subject to deportation. In particular, the demonstrators were incensed about the death of a Nigerian, described as an illegal money changer, who fell from a building while trying to escape a police raid. According to the report, authorities in Canton are concerned because the man was a Muslim, and his death came just after the clashes between Uyghurs and Hans in Urumqi (also reportedly triggered by the death of two Uyghur Muslims in a fight in Guangdong).

There are several remarkable aspects about this report. First, the fact that it was allowed to appear: this probably reflects growing government confidence that readers would side with the police against ethnic groups they see as troublemakers (Tibetans, Uyghurs, Africans).

Second, even though the tightening of checks on foreigners ahead of the celebrations seems appeared to target political dissenters (say, human rights of Falungong activists), it was in fact used for an entirely different purpose, one that was much more in line with the practices of Western states. The report alleged that although officially Canton has 20 thousand African (mostly Nigerian, Ghanaian, Cameroonian and Liberian) residents, unofficial estimates are as high as 200 thousand, the population grows by 30-40% every year, and the two trading centers where Africans concentrated have been identified by police as areas of drug dealing. Such reports associating Africans with crime and illegal immigration are very similar to the portrayal of Chinese traders in Eastern European and African media, and having to hide from police sweeps is a familiar experience for businesspeople in Eastern Europe’s Chinese markets. In other words, what first appeared to be a party-state crackdown on dissent turned out to be more a “security” measure that victimizes economically or culturally undesirable foreigners from poor countries and makes China look more, rather than less, like the West.

Third, the fear that the conflict may escalate because the victim was Muslim is again similar to paranoid reactions of Western governments, but also shows sensitivity to the possible repercussions of the incident for China in Muslim countries. Indeed, as our Jakarta correspondent Johanes Herlijanto reports, while China has gone a long way bolstering its image as a source of Islam-friendly modernization in Indonesia, demonstrations were planned in front of the Chinese embassy today to protest the government’s treatment of Uyghurs. (They were cancelled after the firebombing of the Ritz-Carlton and the Marriott this morning.)

Clashes with Africans are not an entirely new phenomenon in China. In 1989, Chinese students in Nanjing demonstrated in protest against Africans students’ alleged harassment of Chinese girls in an incident that, according to some, was one of the triggers of the protests that later went down in history as the democracy movement.

Kong Yuanzhi on Zheng He and Islam in Southeast Asia

January 10, 2009

One of Johanes’ lines of research has been the assertion by Indonesian Chinese Muslim leaders and some non-Chinese Indonesian Muslim intellectuals that it was Zheng He who brought Islam to Indonesia, and the way these claims may be used to legitimize the view of China as a friendly power that is promoting both Islam and modernization in the region. (This discourse has interesting parallels to the Chinese evangelical Christian discourse of China’s “civilizing mission.”) Peking University professor Kong Yuanzhi recently published a new article on Zheng He and Southeast Asian Islam in the Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia.