Mainstream media frequently report on China’s PR problem in Africa and imply that the estimated 1-2m Chinese people who call Africa ‘home’ are not welcome. The truth is that the multi-faceted relationship is complicated, and the overall perception is more positive than negative.
A Pew Research Centre survey found that 70% of Nigerians (beaten only by the Russians) and 58% of Kenyans who participated in the research, viewed China favourably compared to 14% and 28% of respondents in Japan and the US, respectively. China, the country, is increasingly viewed positively as a strategic partner that is supporting infrastructure development. Chinese migrants, on the other hand, have been viewed negatively when they are seen to be taking local jobs in countries such as Lesotho, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
What distinguishes the Chinese from other migrants in Africa is their willingness to assimilate within the local community by living like locals, sending children to local schools and learning local languages. The ease with which they grasp African culture is down to the many similarities between African and Chinese culture. Here are eight examples:
#1 Family is the heartbeat of society
Definition of family
African and Chinese culture have a similar take on the concept of family which extends beyond the Western definition of a nuclear family (parents and children) bound together by physical, legal and financial ties. In Africa, a family is made up of individuals bound together by blood, marriage or kinship who share collective responsibility for each other. These families could be made of single or multiple households and tend to be fairly large. In China, families are defined by blood and it is not uncommon for three generations of the same family (grandparents, parents and children) to live together in the same household.
In both African and Chinese culture, getting married is the ultimate goal and a dowry is paid by the man to the woman’s family. In Africa, that price is arbitrarily determined by the bride’s family and the money is shared by the extended family. In China, every province has a price that serves as a guide for family negotiations. The money is initially given to the woman’s parents who would typically pass it on to the bride.
#2 Respect for elders
Those who respect the elderly pave their own road towards success – African proverb
In both cultures, the utmost respect and kindness is reserved for elders who are the custodians of customs and traditions. In Africa, this respect comes from the traditional leadership role that elders play in managing their affairs of their community and from religious beliefs.
A similar concept of filial piety exists in Confucian, Chinese Buddhist and Taoist ethics in China. It refers to the respect for one’s parents, elders, and ancestors and is shown to them in life and death. In traditional China, the sixtieth birthday was of great significance and celebrated with a big party – birthdays prior to that did not receive any special attention.
#3 Politics and the culture of the ‘Big Man’
While many African countries have embraced the principles of democracy such as term limits, the continent accounts for six out of the top 10 longest serving non-royal leaders in the world: Paul Biya (Cameroon, elected in 1975), Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo (Equatorial Guinea, elected in 1979), Denis Sassou Nguesso (Republic of Congo, first elected in 1979), Yoweri Museveni (Uganda, elected in 1986), Idriss Déby (Chad, elected in 1990) and Isaias Afwerki (Eritrea, elected in 1993).
This trend of staying till death do you part was started by Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda who declared himself the “Life” President of Malawi in 1971. Kamuzu Banda was sent packing in a democratic sweep after thirty years of authoritarian rule in 1994.
In China, President Xi Jingping has changed the rules from two five-year presidential terms to for as long as he likes thus cementing his place in the history books alongside Chairman Mao Zedong, who remains one of the most influential leaders in China’s history.
#4 Cars are the status symbol
China is now the biggest car market in the world, which is remarkable given that bicycles were the dominant form of transportation until the 1990s. Cars are the status symbol and signal a person’s standing in society:
- Audis: government officials and the elite
- BMWs: symbol for corruption
- Mercedes: retired and old
- Minivans: business executives (Vellfire and Alphard are my personal fave)
- Ferraris/ Lamborghinis: usually driven by the Princelings – the children of China’s uber rich and powerful
Cars are also seen as a status symbol in Africa though the correlation between a person’s wealth and their vehicle of choice is not as clear-cut as it is in China. It is not uncommon for a financially broke person to drive a Range Rover or a rich person to drive an old pickup truck. In fact, the best-selling car in Africa is the Toyota Hilux which is durable and able to withstand the bad roads.
The perception of Mercedes is the same in Africa (old money or older drivers) while BMW is viewed more favourably than in China and is preferred by young professionals and male drivers. Politicians and business executives are driven in luxury SUVs such as Toyota Land Cruiser and Nissan Patrol. The nouveau riche and tenderpreneurs are driving the popularity of Range Rovers and other luxury cars.
#5 Relationships are forged over meals
Business and personal relationships are established over a shared meal in both Africa and China unlike the West where the golf course and the pub are preferred.
Dinner parties and banquets are hosted frequently for visiting family, friends, business partners and even enemies. In both cultures, the food is served in an informal style and placed at the centre of the table for small gatherings and buffet style for large gatherings.
The difference in China is that the tables used are usually round and the guest of honour usually sits with their backs to the wall while the hosts sit with their backs to the door. According to China A to Z authors, May-Lee Chai and Winberg Chai, this practice started after a king invited a guest to a peace-making banquet that ended with an assassin stabbing the guest to death.
#6 Traditional medicine
Traditional healers are an important part of the healthcare system in Africa and often compensate for the lack of Western medical practitioners in rural areas. In South Africa, where traditional healers are regulated, it is estimated that 80% of the population visit healers who are both affordable and accessible.
Traditional healers can solve medical and other problems (relationship, career, money, etc). A consultation involves the throwing of bones and other unusual items onto a mat and then waiting for ancestral spirits to tell the healer what is wrong with the patient. Treatment involves herbal medicines made from leaves, roots and other materials.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is used by 32% of Chinese patients. TCM has been around for more than 2,500 years and is based on the principle of balancing the body and mind by treating the whole person and not just the illness. A consultation usually involves a reading of the patient’s pulse, a check of the tongue and a 360-degree verbal assessment of a person’s lifestyle, habits and the symptoms that have brought them to the doctor. Treatment includes herbal medicine, acupuncture, cupping and other ancient treatments.
#7 Saving face
In China, saving face simply means maintaining dignity and respect towards others in public. It is culturally unacceptable to publicly humiliate someone whether intentionally (by yelling or pointing out mistakes) or unintentionally (telling someone they have something between there is worse than keeping quiet). Brutal honesty is seen as a virtue in the West but is a faux pas in Chinese culture. Instead, praise and compliments are the way to give face.
Likewise, positive communication is a key African cultural value – smiles, praise and positivity is preferred to any negativity. Dirty laundry is not aired in public and when it does, people have use the Ostrich algorithm to cope: pretend it didn’t happen and move on. Yelling in public is frowned upon and swearing in some countries could land you in jail.
#8 Zero boundaries
For two cultures that are all about saving face, both are notorious for ignoring the concept of personal space! From standing too close in public to asking questions that would be deemed as inappropriate in the West, it is easy to get confused about the contradiction between points #7 and #8.
Conversations with complete strangers and family alike may seem like interrogations. When you’re single, they ask when you will get married. Married – when will you have babies. One baby? When is the next? People will also have something to say about your weight. Chinese people are less shy about asking questions about money. How much do you spend on rent or how much did pay for your house? Nothing is out of bounds. Just smile and drink your cha(i).
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