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15 Jul 2013

The Red Threads of China’s Education and Training Cooperation with Africa

By Kenneth King, University of Edinburgh and NORRAG.


China_in_AfricaChina has an increasing role as an education collaborator with Africa, and this may be significant both economically and politically.


First some questions:


·         Why does China run one of the world’s largest short-term training programmes, with plans to bring 30,000 Africans to China between 2013 and 2015?


·         Why does it give generous support to more than 30 Confucius Institutes teaching Mandarin and Chinese culture at many of Africa’s top universities from the Cape to Cairo?


·         Why is China one of the very few countries to increase the number of full scholarships for Africans to study in its universities, with a total of 18,000 anticipated between 2013 and 2015?


China claims to have been involved for 60 years in South-South cooperation of mutual benefit to China and Africa. While its dramatic economic and trade impact, particularly on Africa, has caught global attention, little focus has yet been given to its role as an education collaborator- and especially to the critical role of China’s support for training and human resource development for Africans in China, and within Africa itself.


Some preliminary reactions and answers


China is not pursuing these training and education initiatives because of support to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) or the Education for All (EFA) goals. These and other goals were being discussed a great deal in the last few months with the meetings of the UN’s High Level Panel (HLP) on Post-2015, and the Dakar Global Consultation. But these debates are not yet so evident in China. Indeed, 2015 may be as much referred to as the date for the next meeting of the triennial Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) as for its connection to post-2015 agendas.


Nor is China providing these training resources to Africa in the manner of a traditional OECD donor. China, in fact, avoids as far as possible the language of donors and recipients, and shows no interest in becoming a member of the ‘club’ of OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC).


Instead, this provision of many different forms of training support is presented by China as South-South cooperation, or as elements in a new strategic partnership between China and Africa. At its simplest, it is seen as just an example of ‘win-win’ cooperation, or as an illustration of ‘common development’. In other words, it is claimed to be just one side of a process of mutual benefit: China is gaining something from Africa, and Africa from China.


This is not to say that cooperation is symmetrical – with Africa offering parallel training numbers to China as it is receiving. Rather, China currently sends 100,000 tourists to South Africa, and 1,000 students annually, but these are not aid projects, just private initiatives. There are similar examples of cooperation with many other countries in Africa.


Arguably, HRD cooperation is part of China’s soft power cooperation with Africa rather than the ‘hard power’ of infrastructure development, trade, or material resources. It is this soft power that Lu Shaye, Director General of African Affairs at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has recently commended as an ‘indispensable’ element in China’s diplomacy with Africa. Essentially, soft power means ‘strengthening the cultural exchanges between China and Africa’.


It is for this reason that training cooperation has been one of the ‘red threads’ of China’s engagement with Africa right back to 1956 when China entered diplomatic relations with Egypt. Equally, it has featured significantly in each of the five FOCAC summits between 2000 and 2012.


How different, if at all, is China’s provision of short-term and long-term training from that of the other big providers, such as Japan or Germany, or India? Surely, they are all part of cultural diplomacy or cultural cooperation. As such, they can be expected, in due course, to impact on trade and on technological cooperation, if the experience of training in China proves to be positive and valuable.


But this whole discussion about the exact purpose of China’s provision of training awards and of scholarships has been overtaken by the trainee and student numbers. In 2011, there were almost 300,000 foreign students in China, the very great majority of whom were actually self-supported. Exactly the same is true of African students in China; while the China scholarship numbers in 2011 were just over 6000, the self-supported students were more than double, at over 14000. In other words, China is evidently an attractive destination for international study, including by Africans, quite apart from its scholarship provision.


The same point could be made about China’s formal promotion of Mandarin and of Chinese culture and history via the Confucius Institutes (CIs) and Confucius Classrooms (CCs). This is possibly the largest language promotion project the world has ever seen, taking place in just nine years since the first Confucius Institute was opened in Seoul in November 2004. Yet it too is dwarfed by the sheer numbers of students worldwide who are deciding to learn Chinese, outside the framework of the CIs and CCs.


A last point about China-Africa training is even harder to calculate than the numbers of Mandarin language learners across the world: that is the number of Africans who are acquiring skills in Chinese firms, large and small, from Senegal to Ethiopia, and from Egypt to Zimbabwe. This too is very different from training in enterprises associated with other nations in Africa because of the presence of perhaps as many as a million Chinese ‘settlers’, traders and entrepreneurs, large and small, who have turned up in almost all the countries of the African continent over the last decade and more. Of course their main purpose is trade and not training Africans any more than that was the purpose of the Europeans and Indians who came to Africa in earlier decades. But there are many opportunities to learn on the job in Chinese firms and to use Mandarin.


Kenneth King is the Editor of NORRAG News. He is an Emeritus Professor at the School of Social and Political Studies, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, UK. Email:


This blog previously appeared as an article in the China Daily on 31st May 2012.


Blog editor’s note: For a further discussion of the many debates about China’s expanded presence in Africa, including those that relate directly to human resource development, see: King, K. (2013) China’s aid and soft power in Africa: The case of education. James Currey Publishers, Oxford.  


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