The Lakeview Hotel in Beijing is beautiful. Owned by the ‘number one university of China’, as many members of staff from Peking University start to say when they shake hands with me, its grandeur and beauty shows China’s self-confidence. Smog levels take away some of the sight of the Lake (students use their apps to check the levels: ‘O, it is only 184; no mouth piece needed’; in Paris there was panic when it was close to 150 in mid-March). Two things that are very much related: high growth and high pollution.
I was in Beijing last week with a delegation from Leiden’s African Studies Centre to attend an international workshop organised together with Peking University’s Center for African Studies. ASC researchers Benjamin Soares, Mayke Kaag and visiting fellow Romain Dittgen participated, together with invitees from the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague (Meine Pieter van Dijk and Ward Warmerdam), the University of Amsterdam (Sarah Hardus) and our African partner CODESRIA in Senegal (Carlos Cardoso). The Chinese main organiser Liu Haifang had invited many of her Africanist colleagues in China and a considerable number of African guests, including journalists from Africa who happened to be in Beijing for a training. The conference was called ‘International Development Cooperation: Exploring Sino-Dutch Complementarity in African Studies and Policies’.
The conference came at a very appropriate time. The recent visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the Netherlands had made the headlines in China and had created an atmosphere that can be summarised by: ‘Europe is important for us, but the Netherlands is now our friend’. Many Chinese observers had noted with surprise that President Xi had been invited with more ‘honour’ than President Obama. So now our Chinese hosts were very willing to explore possibilities for trilateral collaboration with us in the Netherlands with regard to Africa, even if some of the speakers noted that the Netherlands could hardly be noticed on a world map. The conference dealt with four major topics: a comparison of African Studies in China and the Netherlands, a comparison of experiences with aid, trade and investment relationships with Africa, experiences with and ideas about peacekeeping, and observations about capacity development. Let me highlight some conclusions about ‘African Studies’.
China has an interesting history of African Studies; it would be useful to write that history in English and compare it with the history of African Studies elsewhere, for instance in Leiden. There are no differences of opinion about what African Studies should be: African Studies as area studies is broad, multi-disciplinary, and connects insights from fields of study as diverse as sociology, cultural studies, economic and business studies, political science, legal studies, geography and agricultural studies. Some participants noted that some centres of African Studies now put a lot of emphasis on economics. But African Studies should not be reduced to purposes related to immediate economic diplomacy or immediate policy relevance. It has much more to offer and should maintain its independence from policy and business circles. If it engages with policy and business circles it should do so with a critical, independent attitude.
Area studies like African Studies (should) play a role in teaching new generations of scholars. Examples like the courses taught in Beijing and in Leiden show the importance of a broad curriculum. It was suggested that we exchange curriculum experiences. We could even develop online exchange mechanisms, also involving African partner institutes and African Studies centres from other countries in Europe (AEGIS) and elsewhere. We could work towards the development of e.g. chat rooms where African, Chinese and European students and staff can communicate and talk about their research. Or we could develop summer schools in Africa, where Chinese, European and African PhD students could meet for intensive seminars or follow master classes given by prominent Africanists from the three regions.
There are many possibilities for joint tripartite research activities, including applications for funding, fieldwork, publications, outreach activities and even evaluation of aid/trade/investment impact. A more formal commitment for collaboration between Peking University and Leiden University might be useful. This could go beyond African Studies proper and for instance also support the establishment of Asian Studies and European Studies in Africa as trilateral ventures. In Leiden the newly formed Leiden Global could be a useful tool for that.
Changing the image of Africa
Many participants noted that African Studies centres should play a role in changing the image about Africa in journalism and in school teaching: away from the image of a ‘sick continent’. It would be good to compare the various experiences in Beijing and in Leiden: the use of public media, art forms (plays), websites and social media. African Studies centres can also play a role in connecting to the African diaspora around them: on campus and beyond. The same is true for the maintenance of contacts with alumni originating from Africa.
At the end of the conference Yan Lihua, the ‘Grand old lady’ of African Studies in China who had been listening carefully to what went on, asked me to greet a few of our researchers back home that had visited Beijing fifteen years before. She had later been in Leiden as a visiting scholar for a month. She hoped that this time all the ideas for collaboration would materialise better than they had done a decade ago, she told me. I think she will not be disappointed. The time is ripe now.