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The sketch of China’s role in Africa

The presenter in The Chinese Are Coming has covered three continents ranging from Africa to Latin America and then North America, yet its focus and the main content of the series is the role China plays in Africa, which also leads to my analysis focusing more on this part. Because of this, it is necessary to introduce and sketch China-Africa relations as the documentary’s contextual background as the macro-discourse.

With China becoming an important player in economic, diplomatic and political issues, its influence penetrating regionally and globally becomes increasingly noticeable. While maintaining relations with Western countries, China particularly increases its engagements with developing countries and regions such as Africa, Latin America and so on. Due to these dynamic engagements, much of the image of China abroad is thus being increasingly represented through depictions of China’s external relations with these countries or areas. Such phenomena also catch the Western world’s attention as Financial Times correspondent Mure Dickie asserted in an interview in 2006: ‘w'e are in a middle of one of the big moments in human history where China attempts to join the Western dominated global mainstream’ (Zhang, 2010: 248).

In comparison to other developing countries or areas, China’s relations and cooperation with African countries are the most eye-catching phenomena. The increased levels of engagement and intensive cooperation between China and Africa are found in various fields, particularly in the economic activity reflected from both sides’ booming trade volumes. Statistics show' that trade volumes soared from $10 billion in the year 2000 to more than $160 billion in 2011 (He, 2012). China’s trade with African states has growm approximately tenfold in the last decade and such records continue to be broken annually. By the end of 2015, the total trade value reached $300 billion (The State Council of the People’s Republic of China, 2015). In 2017, Sun Jiw'en, the spokesman for China’s Ministry of Commerce, announced in a regular new's briefing in Beijing that China’s total trade with Africa had risen 16.8% to $38.8 billion in the first quarter, its first year-on-year increase since 2015 (Chen and Blanchard, 2017). China has thus undoubtedly become Africa’s largest trade partner.

How'ever, China-Africa relations go beyond the economic sphere, it has extended into a much deeper level including the government, culture and education. The introduction of the grand Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (known as FOCAC) has injected more pow'er into the pool and further strengthened the already existing intensive cooperation between China and Africa. From 2000 to 2016, six FOCACs have been held, three in Beijing, China, and three in African countries. Through FOCAC, Chinese government officials and those from African countries use the platform for exchanging ideas and ‘jointly meeting the challenges of economic globalisation and seeking common development’ (FOCAC, 2014). As for educational and cultural exchanges, Confucius Institutes are found scattered around the globe and all over the African continent, which are claimed by the Chinese government to ‘promote the Chinese culture and language’ (Chen, 2015) and ‘serve as the people-to-people bonds’ (Hanban, 2017). According to the statistics from the Hanban/Confucius Institute Headquarters’ official website, by May 2020, there was a total of ‘61 Confucius Institutes in 46 African countries, and 48 Confucius Classrooms in 9 African countries’ (Hanban, 2020).

Such cooperation between China and Africa undoubtedly attracts the world’s attention, particularly the Western world. However, the Western perspective toward this new alliance seems rather sceptical (Hofmann et al., 2007). AFP (2006) in The Economist argues that China’s ambition in Africa is nothing but wanting their ‘oil, ores and timber’, plus winning its ‘backing at the United Nations’ and ‘China knows what it wants from Africa and will probably get it. The converse isn’t true’ (p. 1).

Another example comes from Mawdsley’s article (2008) ‘Fu Manchu versus Dr. Livingstone in the Dark Continent? Representing China, Africa and the West in British broadsheet newspapers’. In this article, Mawdsley explored how UK broadsheet newspapers have represented China’s complex relations with Africa, and concludes that the Western representation of China still follows the Yellow Peril stereotype. Is that the case in the documentary series The Chinese Are Coming? What images of China are depicted and represented? Are these images echoes or contradictions of the existing discourse? Whether echoes or contradictions, how are the images depicted in this documentary? This chapter will explore and investigate these questions through the following analysis.

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