Towards a greater understanding China Africa relations
Published 27 August 2014
"“There’s a real need for this research centre. China is huge in Africa, but many Africans know very little about it."
For a continent where China is having a huge influence, there is very little awareness in Africa of all the implications, says Ross Anthony.
He has just been appointed acting head of the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.
Ross  says there is very little in the way of independent research centres on China in Africa despite China’s growing presence on the continent. “There’s a real need for this. China is huge in Africa, but many Africans know very little about it."
Ross not only heads the centre and does his own research, building on his work on Xinjiang province while he was a Gates Cambridge Scholar, but teaches Chinese history and politics on other Stellenbosch courses.
In addition to his work on Xinjiang, Ross’ research examines the relationship between Chinese economic investments in Africa and geo-political security concerns, stretching from eastern and southern Africa to the adjacent maritime territories of the Indian Ocean and Antarctic region. He is also interested in the role the economy plays in determining political relations between China and Africa, recently fleshed out in a project focusing on the diplomacy of economic pragmatism in the triangular relationship between South Africa, China and Taiwan.
The centre publishes a journal which attracts articles from academics around the world and Ross hopes will get accredited by the end of the year. All the centre’s research is published online and is available through open access.
In addition, his role involves building up staff capacity, which he says is a big challenge. He has international lecturers on trade and border relations and is trying to expand into agriculture.
Ross also wants to eventually build up homegrown expertise on China ‘s relations with Africa. He is putting together an Asia Studies programme for masters and PhD students, including students from other parts of Africa who are funded by the Soros Open Society, and Stellenbosch has a memorandum of understanding with four Chinese universities. He would like to build South African expertise too. “We need to start teaching about China locally,” he says, including to undergraduates.
He is currently researching China’s role in Africa. “It likes using a narrative which suggests it is different to the imperialists of the past and that its involvement with Africa is a win win, but like them it is focused on building infrastructure in order to exploit the continent’s resources,” says Ross. “But it’s not China’s fault. It’s just the most populous country on the bandwagon. The problem is the entire market system.”
He is keen to stress that he is neutral with regard to China despite his experiences as a Gates Cambridge Scholar when his research on the Uyghurs was conducted in the aftermath of ethnic riots and brutal government repression.
Surprisingly, Ross only came to study China by accident. Born in Durban, South Africa, he graduated in Art History from the University of Natal in 1998 and was planning to spend a year in northern Pakistan on the border of western China. He had hoped to travel into Afghanistan, but could not get in because of Taliban operations so he travelled into the Xinjiang region of China instead. “I was amazed and soon became obsessed with China and spent all my time reading about it. Here was a civilisation that went back 1,000s of years and I knew nothing about it,” he says.
He returned to South Africa in 2001 to do a masters in English literature at the University of Cape Town, but planned to return to the Far East and eventually got a job teaching in Taiwan.
In 2005, he was accepted to do an MPhil in Social Anthropology at Cambridge focusing on China and deepened his research for his PhD.
He returned to Xinjiang, the largest province in China, to do his fieldwork. “It looks nothing like the China that you would imagine,” he says. “It has a heavily Central Asian influence. You see people with green eyes, blue eyes, blonde hair, red hair, they speak Turkic and Persian languages and write in Arabic scripts. Traditional oasis architecture is similar to that in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. We are not taught how multicultural China is. Xinjiang is a huge province, the largest in China, and, until recently, one seldom read about it in the west. I had heard very little about it before I travelled there. It opened up a massive avenue of inquiry for me.”
He was also fascinated by the impact of China’s rapid modernisation on an ancient culture. “The province seized me. It encapsulated my desire for adventure and my academic interest,” he says.
He talks too of the unrest which took place when he was doing his fieldwork in 2007/8. “There were a lot of fights in the street, a lot of tension. Many young Uyghur men who had come to Urumqi from the oases towns of the south, were unemployed and disenfranchised,” he says.
Ross had been planning to turn his thesis into a book and has written occasional papers on it, but in 2012 as soon as he finished his PhD he was offered a post at the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University.
It’s a big job so early on in his career, but one for which he has greatambitions and for which he sees a gaping need.
Picture credit: Wiki commons and Daderot.