China In Africa: How China is Exporting Culture to Influence Africa

China In Africa

At least six dozen children stand at attention as the Buddhist bell rings. In sync they chant, eyes fixed on the Mandarin-inscribed lyric sheet. Barefooted, they then bow to the three large gold-plated statues on the temple altar.

It’s the opening scene in “Buddha of Africa”, an in-progress documentary film about a Chinese Buddhist orphanage in Malawi. Located far south in the city of Blantyre, the most populous region in the country is home to the continent’s first such orphanage. Two decades ago, Buddhist clergy Venerable Master Hui Li arrived from Taiwan and established the Amitofo Care Centers (ACC). From Burkina Faso to Zimbabwe, the ACC now has more than a dozen schools spread across the continent. Every aspect of life there, even mealtime, unravels another piece of China. Forks are replaced by chopsticks, playtime activities by the ancient art of kung-fu. Their young minds are nurtured too, through Qigong, an age-old Chinese form of meditation.


ACC’s impact extends beyond the centers. In Malawi, the organization assists more than half a dozen community-based organizations, by providing food and clothing—efforts that have reached more than 1,300 orphaned and vulnerable children.

ACC has however had its share of controversy. In 2006, Malawi’s Human Rights Commission accused the home of “brainwashing children into joining Buddhism against their will” and ordered them to remove the Buddha statues from the dormitories. But as a statue goes down, a building goes up. The Asian power has already started work on a university of science and technology in the Southern African country. The foundation was laid in early 2011, with the promise that it would be completed in less than two years.

China’s ODI grows nearly 30-fold in five years

China In Africa

It’s just another reminder of close Sino-African relations. China has long had an appetite for Africa’s abundant natural resources. In return they’ve invested billions of dollars, most notably during the past decade.

According to China’s Commerce Ministry, the country’s outward direct investment in Africa rose from $317 million in 2004 to more than half a billion dollars in 2006. By the end of last year, it reached $14.7 billion. At the same time, trade soared, and China surpassed the United States to become the continent’s largest trading partner—less than five years ago, trade between the two was valued at $73 billion, and it’s now said to be worth over $160 billion. Standard Bank (SB) Group Ltd predicts it could double by 2015. Its foreign trade with South Africa for one, was estimated at $45 billion in 2011 (according to China’s customs authorities), up by nearly 80 percent from the previous year.

South Africa’s 12th official language?

In September 2007, then-South African Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka was in Beijing to attend the third Bi-National Commission (BNC) with China. A number of agreements were signed between the two countries, including a commitment by the Chinese government to invest nearly $2 million in educational programs. Also discussed was the possibility of introducing Mandarin as an examinable subject in South African schools. The Basic Education Department’s Granville Whittle says that while there has been a number of meetings since the 2007 BNC, less than 30 of the country’s Grade 12 pupils take Mandarin as a subject in public schools.

There are those learning the language outside the classroom. Thirty-nine year old Melanie Grant lives in the fishing village of Kalk Bay in Cape Town, with her husband and four children. She says she was struck by the rate of Chinese development across the continent, and decided she wanted her children to learn Mandarin. They’ve tried various methods from watching YouTube videos and CCTV (China Central TV), to enlisting the help of a Chinese tutor. “It goes beyond language”, she says. Chinese cuisine is not unfamiliar in the home, nor the sight of Mandarin books. “It’s an important investment for our children, I’m thinking about their future”.

Hard on soft power

That’s exactly what Dr. Daouda Cissé says he’s been looking out for. The Senegalese-born academic is a research fellow at the Center for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University. He joined the department soon after returning from China where he spent nearly five years after receiving a scholarship. He returns to Senegal as often as he can, and says it’s hard to miss the increase in Chinese immigrants, especially in the capital city, Dakar. Back in South Africa, his office is just a short walk away from the Confucius Institute. There are now more than 400 spread across the globe. Like its namesake, Chinese political figure and social philosopher Confucius (K’ung-fu-tzu)—who believed that reform can come through education—the Institute’s mission is to educate others about Chinese language and culture. As millions celebrated the Year of the Dragon earlier this year, Stellenbosch students held their own festivities, eating Chinese food, listening to Chinese music, and playing Chinese games. It’s a sight that, like the Buddhist temple in the foothills of Malawi, might once have seemed a little out of place. But it’s likely to become more and more common across the continent.


Yolaan Begbie
Yolaan is a South African journalist and Content Strategist at She is a former on-air news reporter for eNCA, South Africa's first 24-hour tv news station. Ms Begbie is a masters graduate from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York, and a honours graduate from Stellenbosch University in South Africa.