Chinese Dreams and the African Renaissance

What does Fuse ODG, the Ghanaian British hip-hop artist, have in common with Xi Jinping, the President of the People’s Republic of China? It might not be immediately obvious, but they both hold an unshakeable belief in the rebirth of Africa and China, respectively. Both are leaders with new visions for the emerging multipolar world order, where China and Africa each have a more important role to play in international affairs. But is it realistic to think that Africa and China can prosper together? Can the dream of an ‘African Renaissance’ be reconciled with the ‘Chinese Dream’ of building a Chinese superpower in the next century?

Fuse ODG. Credit: Fuse ODG.

Fuse ODG. Credit: Fuse ODG.

Fuse ODG raised eyebrows in November last year when he pulled out of recording the Band Aid 30 charity single with Bob Geldof because he disagreed with the vision of Africa depicted in Geldof’s lyrics. The recording, organised by Geldof to support victims of the Ebola crisis, featured the lines “Where a kiss of love can kill you and there’s death in every tear”, and “There is no peace and joy in west Africa this Christmas”.

In an interview with the Guardian[1], Fuse explained that his refusal to participate in the recording was based on his opposition to the constant negative portrayal of Africa in the West:

“In truth, my objection to the project goes beyond the offensive lyrics. I, like many others, am sick of the whole concept of Africa – a resource-rich continent with unbridled potential – always being seen as diseased, infested and poverty-stricken […] that image of poverty and famine is extremely powerful psychologically. With decades of such imagery being pumped out, the average westerner is likely to donate £2 a month or buy a charity single that gives them a nice warm fuzzy feeling; but they are much less likely to want to go on holiday to, or invest in, Africa. If you are reading this and haven’t been to Africa, ask yourself why.”

Fuse ODG. Credit: Fuse ODG.

Fuse ODG. Credit: Fuse ODG.

Instead of joining Geldof’s Band Aid 30 project, Fuse ODG launched his own chart-topping single ‘T.I.N.A.’ (This is New Africa), whose whimsical but uplifting lyrics have become the soundtrack of a broader movement, confident in its African heritage and optimistic about Africa’s future. Indeed, with five of the top 12 fastest economies in the world[2] and an average growth rate of 5.2%, compared to 2.5% in North America and 1.1% in Europe, there are real grounds for optimism about Africa’s future. Drawing on the theme of an ‘African Renaissance’, today’s users of the #TINA hashtag see a new and confident Africa emerging from the shadows of poverty onto the world stage. Julian Roberts, the Chief Executive of Old Mutual Group captured the message of the #TINA movement at the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos with the following statement:

“We wouldn’t be investing as much in the rest of Africa if we didn’t believe Africa will be the success story in the next decades…Africa is on the move and it is moving forward”[3].

But what exactly are the aspirations represented by the #TINA slogan and, given China’s repeated emphasis on ‘win-win’ cooperation for ‘mutual development’, to what extent do these aspirations align with China’s vision for its own future? While African leaders might speak of an ‘African Renaissance’, their Chinese counterparts are propounding a ‘Chinese Dream’ that sees China overcoming its ‘Century of Humiliation’ to reprise its ancient position as the world’s true superpower. To understand these two visions of the future, we need to look to the country that, to some extent, inspired them both: the United States of America, and its powerful ‘American Dream’.

Although the American Dream has its roots in the history of the modern American nation, it was perhaps first clearly articulated in Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address when he described America as “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Since then, the American Dream has crystallised into the national ethos of the United States, promising equal opportunity for all people, irrespective of race or social class. It offers to all the chance to achieve prosperity and success through hard work. In practical terms, the American Dream represents the democracy of consumerism, placing an ever growing abundance of consumer goods within reach of anyone with enough ambition to strive for them. With its glorification of the self-made man, American culture has challenged the classist and socially immobile societies of the rest of the world, spreading ‘the American way of life’ through soft diplomacy, and sometimes through military force.

China is no stranger to borrowing socio-economic concepts from other societies; for instance adapting Soviet Marxism-Leninism to produce the Chinese Communist Party’s official ideology of ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’. Borrowing from the American precedent, Xi Jinping coined the term ‘Chinese Dream’ shortly after becoming party chief in late 2012, describing it as a dream of “national rejuvenation, improvement of people’s livelihoods, prosperity, construction of a better society and military strengthening.” He has encouraged China’s youth to “dare to dream, work assiduously to fulfil the dreams and contribute to the revitalisation of the nation”. Specifically, Xi intends for the Chinese Dream to drive progress towards the “two 100s”: China becoming a “moderately well-off society” by the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2021, and China becoming a “fully developed nation” by the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic in 2049.

Xi-Jinping-pointing-the-way-www.scmp_.com_

Xi Jinping guides China. Credit: SCMP

Like the American Dream, the Chinese Dream encourages aspiration. However, the Chinese Dream specifically glorifies the generation of self-made men and women who have dragged themselves out of poverty and made China the economic superpower that it is today. In this sense, the Communist Party’s deployment of the Chinese Dream ideology can be interpreted as an attempt to distil the collective consciousness of post-reform China into a coherent vision. This is a generation whose grandparents were born before the founding of the PRC in 1949, and whose parents lived through the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. This is the only generation to have grown up in the new China, a period of extraordinary economic growth but also of extraordinary new challenges, like China’s rapid urbanisation and its choking pollution.

Xi’s Chinese Dream represents a development on the theme of self-improvement and opportunity expressed by American Dream, but incorporating the concerns of the new generation and the nationalistic goal of the “great revival of the Chinese nation.” The Chinese Dream is Xi’s flagship policy and his use of the term has set the tone for decisions under his administration in the same way that ‘Scientific Development’ was a hallmark of Hu Jintao and ‘The Three Represents’ a hallmark of Jiang Zemin. Xi’s goals are to build a ‘Strong China’ that plays a leading role in geopolitics and the global economy; a ‘Civilised China’, proud of its rich culture and urbane citizenry; a ‘Harmonious China’, free from political and religious dissidence, and a ‘Beautiful China’, without the problems of rampant pollution and environmental degradation.

Chinese Dream

Chinese Dream. Credit: Quartz.

While the Chinese Dream can be identified with China’s national interests, and more specifically the political interests of the Chinese leadership, the concept of a ‘New Africa’ or an ‘African Renaissance’ is more diffuse. It has its roots in the concept of ‘Négritude’, developed in the early twentieth century by black francophone intellectuals such future Senegalese President Léopold Sédar Senghor, Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, and the Guianan Léon Damas. These writers proposed a common black identity that rejected the concept of white racial supremacy and sought to emphasise Africa’s pre-colonial heritage. They also shared a belief that Africa would one day rise from the ashes of colonialism and dependence on the West, to realise its potential as a continent endowed with phenomenal natural wealth.

The theme of African optimism expressed by the ‘Négritude’ writers was taken up in post-Apartheid South Africa and re-cast by then Deputy-president Thabo Mbeki, in his famous ‘I am an African’ speech. During the address, which marked South Africa’s adoption of its new constitution on the 8th of May 1996, Mbeki made the following statement:

“I am an African. […] The dismal shame of poverty, suffering and human degradation of my continent is a blight that we share […] Africa reaffirms that she is continuing her rise from the ashes […] Whatever the setbacks of the moment, nothing can stop us now! Whatever the difficulties, Africa shall be at peace! However improbable it may sound to the sceptics, Africa will prosper! […] Whoever we may be, whatever our immediate interest, however much we carry baggage from our past, however much we have been caught by the fashion of cynicism and loss of faith in the capacity of the people, let us err today and say – nothing can stop us now!

With these words, Mbeki unveiled his dream of an ‘African Renaissance’, a vision of a new Africa, throwing off the shackles of poverty and rediscovering its common heritage to become a continent of developed and prosperous nations. The African Renaissance movement encourages all Africans to unite to end violence, corruption and poverty on the continent, and to work towards the goals of peace, prosperity and cultural rebirth. Today, with huge inward investment from both the West and the East, and per capita incomes double what they were in 2000[4], there are those who believe that the African Renaissance is finally at hand. But with China becoming increasingly assertive and playing an increasingly important role in many African economies, can the African Renaissance be achieved in the context of the Chinese rise?

United Africa, 2010 Football World Cup. Credit: Shine 2010

In many respects, the Chinese Dream is compatible with an African Renaissance. The most obvious common theme between #TINA and the Chinese Dream is that both visions explicitly reject Western hegemony. Both agendas express optimism in a multipolar world order, where development is spread more evenly across the globe, and the rules of geopolitics are determined by more players than just Europe and the United States. To this extent, both models openly challenge traditionally ‘Western’ models, in particular the ‘Washington Consensus’ model of economic development. As both China and many African economies have demonstrated, Western-style democracy and good governance are not always pre-requisites of economic development.

Similarly, both visions seek to engineer a united future for a new generation, in the context of rapid economic development and increasing social instability. It’s no coincidence that Africa and China today suffer some of the world’s most extreme levels of socioeconomic inequality. In many of the world’s fastest developing economies, growth has not translated into improved livelihoods for all. Rather, industrialisation and rapid urbanisation have led to increased inequality and social instability. Increasingly, the rural poor are left behind by development, while a growing urban middle class grumbles about corrupt elites who capture and control their country’s growing wealth.

Both #TINA and the Chinese Dream seek to remedy this bubbling discontent by encouraging citizens to look to their common heritage. While the Chinese Dream glorifies China’s golden age by seeking to reimagine ancient cultural and economic structures such as the Silk Road, the #TINA movement encourages Africans to rediscover Africa’s heritage. The spirit of African Renaissance can be seen in the internationalisation of modern African art and music, as well as in the popular acceptance of polygamous leaders and the replacement of colonial place names with African ones.

Perhaps most importantly, both #TINA and the Chinese Dream are dreams of consumption. They both expect continued strong economic growth. They are both confident that personal incomes will continue to rise, putting ‘Western-style’ livelihoods within reach of the burgeoning middle classes. However, both visions have relied, at least initially, on a brutal form of industrialisation whose worst excesses have included the sweatshops of coastal China and the deforestation of central Africa. In the same way that the West achieved economic development through exploitation of cheap labour at the cost of severe environmental degradation, so too these Third World dreams demand an opportunity to develop their economies at any cost.

As the world’s second largest economy, China is already some way towards its goal of becoming a developed country in the near future. Much has been made of its investments in Africa, but this is arguably a small part of the wider internationalisation of Chinese firms, which includes longstanding investments in South East Asia and, increasingly, investments and takeovers in Europe and the US. To this extent, China’s involvement in Africa is part of a broader story of globalisation and does not necessarily represent a strategic form of neo-colonialism or a direct threat to the African Renaissance.

If anything, Chinese investment and access to Chinese markets have increased the options available to this generation of Africans. To be sure, to achieve the dream of a New Africa, Africans will need to use their agency to negotiate terms with China and other external powers in order to best serve their own interests. Development is not a zero-sum game, and Chinese and African economies do complement each other in many important respects. Similarly, their dreams share many important characteristics, such as a desire to rediscover precolonial heritage and bring balance to the global world order. Nonetheless, both dreams are still far from becoming reality, and the cynical observer would argue that dreams never come true for everyone. Current trends suggest that the most likely outcome is that new lines of power will be drawn on both sides, with some Africans and some Chinese living out their dreams more than others.

–     Views expressed are entirely the author’s own unless stated otherwise –

COVER IMAGE: African Renaissance Monument outside Dakar, Senegal. Credit: Jeff Attaway.

[1] The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/19/turn-down-band-aid-bob-geldof-africa-fuse-odg

[2] The Economist: http://www.economist.com/news/21589184-top-growers

[3] Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/sites/faraigundan/2014/01/28/top-quotes-about-africa-at-the-2014-world-economic-forum-in-davos/

[4] Charles Robertson: http://www.ted.com/talks/charles_robertson_africa_s_next_boom/transcript?language=en

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One response to “Chinese Dreams and the African Renaissance

  1. Pingback: [AUDIO] Chinese dreams and the African renaissance - The China Africa Project·

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