Wanderlust Wendy

China in Africa in Oxford

About a month ago, one of the hundreds of emails that I get from the LSE had an interesting title: OUCAN Conference: Chinese Investment in Africa. I get these emails so frequently that I often pass up many very interesting conferences and talks. But this one, I opened it immediately and signed up with Jennifer, a fellow MPAer who shares this Sino-African interest.

The conference is held by OUCAN: Oxford University China-Africa Network. Ever since befriending my Chinese friends in Cameroon, whom more or less adopted me as a daughter, I have been deeply interested in this subject.

Due to the hectic end of the term, Jenn and I could only make Day 2 of this conference. We took a train from Paddington bright and early at 8:20 to get to Oxford. It was nice to get out of London. The sunny weather also helped to lift the mood! The conference wasn’t as full as I thought it would be, and had a surprisingly low number of students. There were more LSE students there than Oxford, which I thought was odd. Also, considering it’s a China-Africa conference, the proportion of Africans present were strangely low.

Nevertheless, it was one of the more stimulating conferences/talks that I have attended this year. Throughout the day, I heard practitioners from the World Bank/DFID, China’s IPRCC, a Senegalese economist, Spanish journalists in China, Angolan Embassy rep, etc. The lack of students actually allowed us plenty of opportunities to network and to exchange interesting ideas with these practitioners. Besides, I always love a chance to speak English, Chinese and French all within 45 minutes. I talked about Taiwan as a fun place to travel in Chinese while discussed lots of various things about Africa in French. Good to know I still got it!

Oxford OUCAN Conference

Anyhow, the debates were incredibly interesting as both extreme points of view were represented. On the one hand, there were those who applauded the Chinese efficiency in Africa in terms of infrastructure development. On the other, there were some who recognized the positive impact of China’s role in Africa, but criticized the lack of opportunities created for Africans, lack of accountability on the part of the Chinese government. I stand somewhere in the middle. Having personal ties with both the Africans and Chinese people on the ground, it’s hard for me to take one extreme position or another.

One thing that was repeatedly highlighted throughout the day was the resiliency of the Chinese people in Africa. One presenter described the way Chinese were doing business in Egypt – they recognized a need for larger Egyptian women to buy clothes without going to the market, where they may feel embarrassed. The Chinese walked around with a 25kg bag of different clothing goods and went door to door to sell them to Egyptian women. They did not speak a word of Arabic, yet were able to somehow make the sell. The presenter highlighted the sacrifices that the Chinese are willing to make, and I couldn’t help but think of my Chinese family in Cameroon.

While the Western world criticizes Chinese practices, not enough credit is given for these Chinese workers who are willing to be a world apart from their family, to live in a place where they do not speak the language, do not understand the culture, and do not have luxury conditions (especially compared to Western aid workers). Perhaps people would not be so quick to form judgment if they would just take the time to cultivate some connections and to understand the people – both the Africans and the Chinese.

I would love to take part in more of these conversations and see more Africans and Chinese become engaged. There is something about discussing development with an African in French that makes me feel very alive!

Definitely a wonderful day in Oxford! Jenn and I then finished out the day by eating at a delicious Chinese restaurant in Queensway upon returning to London. Who knew there were so many authentic Asian restaurants in this part of the town. Not to mention, the oriental version of Costcutter – it blew my mind!

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