The Freedom to be Critical

I recently had the privilege of being able to attend an event which will undoubtedly mark one of the most prestigious high-level diplomatic visits by a foreign leader in recent years, especially as far as the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation is concerned. The event in question was the speech given by the visiting Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping, on the 18th of November, at the Sheraton Hotel in Pretoria, a mere stone’s throw from the Union buildings. The event was so important because it is said Mr. Jinping will soon become the premier of China, replacing Hu Jintao. This visit therefore marks deepening ties between China and South Africa, because no one would send the future president of one of the world most powerful nations to negotiate with the representatives of another nation if that nation was an inconsequential partner. The next day, the event continued when I then went to take part in the Seminar celebrating the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), held in the Sinosteel building in Sandton.

The thing that struck me through out these proceedings across two full days, particularly on the Chinese side, was the complete lack of critical engagement with the issues at hand. This was surprising in some ways because the Chinese contingent which included some very senior government officials and a large group of top academics who are supposed to be ‘experts on Africa’. The academics, in my opinion, were the most interesting component of the official proceedings for the very fact that this lack of objectivity is essentially counter to the very nature of being an academic. As a large portion of the Chinese academics present were social scientists, this was even more alarming, as if any group of academics are particularly renowned for their critical engagement with issues of the day, it’s social scientists.

However the Chinese government official’s role in the process was understandably limited, and to some extent can be, if not forgiven, at least understood. One really cannot expect too much from official speeches as they simply consist of the continuous act of ‘box ticking’, as I began to name the process of giving official speeches which seem to tick all the right boxes on some predetermined diplomatic checklist. This phenomenon of ‘box ticking’ characterised all of the activity surrounding the seminar over the following two days.

Basically what this entails is that certain issues have to be mentioned in a public environment, and that these points contain little or no real substance. They are largely diplomatic fluff. Examples of which were found in several continually repeated phrases, such as “win-win partnership”, “mutually beneficial”, “economic growth”, “cooperation”, “comprehensive strategic partnership” and “deeper understanding”. All the while the real diplomatic negotiations naturally are concluded behind closed doors. Naturally, this is to be expected. It is quite rare in a public address that a head of state or some other senior political figure will deal with complex or sensitive issues in a critical manner, or “speak truth to power”, as they say.

However before I continue any further I must remind readers that the following impressions are mine alone, based on the two plenary sessions I attended, as well as the general feeling I received from the panel discussions which all of the seminars in which the participants took part. I therefore must stress that these assertions are nothing other than my own, and as such are purely subjective.

That said, this is where things become interesting. In order to move beyond the act of ‘box ticking’, we need to increase academic involvement. More specifically, in this particular context we will need to get significant numbers of social scientists involved. Call me naive, but in my opinion, academics are supposed to be critical and inquisitive by the very nature of the work they are involved in. They are there to study the issues, consider multiple perspectives on what is happening in their sphere of interest and then engage critically with the issues that happen to emerge. Well, at least that is the way it is done in all the academic environments that I have found myself in. This includes my experiences at university, and the time I have spent in recent years as a junior researcher in two highly regarded independent South African think tanks.

Therefore the most shocking component of the two day engagement, was to hear multiple presentations by heads of Chinese Universities and ‘Chinese African experts’, which simply became an extension of the box ticking exercise. By the end of the second day, I wondered why I had even bothered attending. What was the point? Most of the speakers, as well as many of the other participants failed to engage in any form of rigourous debate.

Unfortunately on top of this, real issues which were identified by some of the attending African academics were largely side-stepped. This was particularly the case when the assertions reflected negatively on the great People’s Republic. I even got the impression that the African participants in the seminar were afraid to speak their minds, surrounded as they were by the edifice of Chinese might. They seemed to be wrapped up in the box ticking exercise, to a lesser extent than the Chinese participants, but unfortunately the end result was ultimately one of perpetual agreement with our gracious hosts. The sight of African academics, many of whom have fought long and hard to obtain a voice in many of their countries, acting so timidly and resisting the temptation to speak their minds for fear of offending the great and mighty Chinese, left me cold.

The irony of all this is that in the opening session of the conference both sides stated that they wished to make the seminar a forum for frank discussion, which would lay the foundation for future academic cooperation. Naturally, this was not lost on me.

The thought therefore occurred to me. Is there such a thing as a Chinese social scientist? And can any society ever really deal with the political, social and economic challenges it faces both at home and abroad, if they are lacking a basic freedom of expression? If the answer to these questions is ‘no’, do social scientists in these countries then simply become mannequins in the shop windows of the state, from which passers by can pick up on the latest trends in official propaganda?

In my opinion I would think that the answer to these questions would have to be ‘no’. It is not possible to engage with Chinese social scientists in any real way, at least not until significant improvements have been made in the Chinese domestic political environment. True academic rigor is dependant on the freedom to engage with any issue that might arise, without fear or favour. The implications of this are many. Without a genuine ability to examine issues of mutual concern, truly meaningful progress will unfortunately only remain as a distant hope. Until this situation is resolved, African social scientists and civil society groups are unfortunately going to have to continue going it alone.

Perhaps I am being unfair; some criticism was raised by Chinese participants, but often in a limited context and was of a nature that could be easily remedied. On the other hand, perhaps I am not being harsh enough? We Africans can not continue to engage with China at an academic level and hope to find solutions to the challenges that face us without first overcoming these issues. I would unfortunately have to say there is no pint to this, and by continuing to go through these motions, all it will end up doing is lend undeserved legitimacy to China and certain aspects of its activities in Africa

This therefore has important implications for all Africans. We must work towards ensuring that our society’s social scientists are given both the space and the support they need in order to be heard. If we fail to do so, policy agenda’s will continue to be set by big men, the way they always have been; behind closed doors. And we all know where that has got us in the past.

Actual negotiations by their very nature will continue to be conducted in private, but my point is that the substance of these negotiations often is determined by multiple inputs from external sources. If civil society and the academic community are pressuring their government to begin focusing on something they have identified as being important, the government will most likely include this in their negotiating agenda, and this needs to be encouraged. If social scientists allow themselves to be side stepped and distracted by the glamour of having a new developing donor in Africa, in the form of China, all that will likely result is that Africa will miss yet another opportunity to better itself. Therefore this is a call to both sides, not just to the Chinese. We need to do more at an academic level to genuinely assist one another. China may have further to go in this respect, but in the end of the day as long as we keep moving forward, it is better than not moving at all.

That’s just it; China will be the partner we let it be. If we fail to engage with one another critically, and accept the mediocre inputs of Chinese social scientists into the process of forging our future, we will almost certainly never secure lasting developmental gains. All that we can do is to keep working towards improving the situation, by being accommodating of China, but in a firm manner. Hopefully then I will be able to attend another FOCAC seminar in the future, and walk away feeling like it all meant something, and that the future path will be brighter, mutually beneficial and increasingly well defined.

  • Amy

    For the longest time, I refused to believe anything negative about China. I even tried to rationalize their efforts to control and censor the media. That perception has since changed. I can now appreciate a balanced article (such as this) even though it speaks negatively of a country I love. Thanks for taking the time to write it :) It’s really good.