The Hibiscus Project: How African and Chinese bloggers start to talk to one another

This year’s Global Voices meeting was a three-day event for many of us. We’d decided it made sense to break the main meeting into two days: one open to the press and the local community and the other a closed discussion just for members of the community. This was a response to one of the trickiest aspects of the London meeting last year – while we had terrific debates about what Global Voices should be, with a lot of voices critical of the ways we currently operate, we didn’t have enough time to talk about how we do what we’ve chosen to do more effectively. The last day of our conference this year was a great chance to have some of the nitty-gritty discussions that just don’t come up when you’re debating whether or not blogging really is an important activity in the developing world, or arguing whether GV should be more or less like Indymedia.

(Quinn Norton from Wired News was with us for the public day of the conference, and also spent a lot of time one on one with people in our community – she’s got an excellent article today talking about some of the highs and the lows of the meeting.)

Once you’re bringing together bloggers from around the world (at painful expense, I might add…), it’s worth having as many meetings as you can possibly stand. This helps explain one of the coolest aspects of this year’s conference, the first meeting of the Hibiscus Project.

Hibiscus is a project designed to create dialog about the relationship between China and Africa, specifically encouraging conversations between bloggers in both regions. It’s the brainchild of Akwe Amosu, a brilliant and passionate Afrophile who’s had distinguished careers as a journalist, development professional and advocate. While she currently works for Open Society Institute as a lobbyist on African issues, Hibiscus is a project she’s carrying out independently. Because we’re lucky enough to have Akwe as one of the advisors to Global Voices, she was good enough to hold her first meeting in Delhi “Day Zero” of our conference – this meant that a large number of our community members were able to be part of the discussions as well.

(Akwe took care to explain that this meeting was opportunistic – it took advantage of the fact that a large number of bloggers were already in New Delhi. Many of the bloggers she hopes to have around the table to discuss Hibiscus weren’t able to be there, either due to scheduling or funding reasons – she made it very clear that there will be a Hibiscus launch meeting at some point soon with a wider list of attendees and many more people represented around the table.)

Anyone who follows the African blogosphere knows that China’s expanding interest in the continent has been one of the main stories of the past year. Akwe points out that the recent Africa Summit in Beijing attracted more African leaders than most African Union meetings do. China has made it extremely clear that they consider aid and investment in Africa a top national priority. Akwe explains that Africa and China are having a major impact on each other, but that the relationship is assymetric. She suggests that this assymetry may not persist – colonialism taught us that these relationships have a tendency to reverse themselves over time.

The goal of Hibiscus is to start a dialog over these issues between Chinese and African bloggers, helping each side understand the other’s perspectives, concerns and hopes. The goal is to take advantage of the fact that people are already writing about these issues, and to use the fast, iterative nature of the blogosphere to hold these conversations, instead of publishing yet another magazine or journal.

As bloggers around the table begin answering the question, “What do people in your community think about the other community?” the complexities of this relationship become very clear. Some of the African perspectives are ones readers of this blog will be familiar with:

– China’s interest in Africa means that there’s another player on the continent – this may give African leaders leverage over existing players like the World Bank, the IFC, the EU and the US.

– A colonialist past – especially skepticism about France’s involvement with the continent – leads to a great deal of caution about the impact of China in Africa. Ndesanjo points out that African bloggers appear to be converging on a language to describe the situation: the “second scramble” for Africa, with implications of a recolonization taking place.

Daudi Were points out that his fellow Kenyans have learned to be suspicious of their leaders – he wonders what Kenya has been giving up in exchange for the economic concessions coming from China.

– Africans are conscious of the assymetry – Daudi points out that while Kenyans can now see English-language CCTV – which many welcome as an alternative to CNN – an application by a Kenyan radio station to broadcast in China was summarily rejected.

When the Chinese bloggers talk, the perspectives are less familiar to me.

Oiwan Lam notes that Africa gets used for ideological purposes in the Chinese media. On nationalistic shows like “The Rise of a Great Nation”, viewers are told that supporting poor, victimized Africa is part of China’s responsibility as a world power.

Jacky Peng sees a huge demand for information about everyday life in Africa for an unexpected reason: the Chinese government is encouraging people to take jobs in Africa and individuals who consider these jobs want to know what they’re getting into. Forums are filled with questions like “How much can I earn in Africa?” and “What’s it really like to live there?”

He also points out that the official information available on Africa is extremely uncritical – there’s certainly very little discussion of corruption in Africa in government-sanctioned news sources.

Portnoy Zheng points out that the view is very different from Taiwan than from mainland China – Taiwanese are most concerned about the few African nations that continue to recognize Taiwan, and are worried that China’s new initiatives will pull more nations onto the “other side”.

Jen Bréa, who was in Beijing for the summit, saw the posters as symbolic of how little information most Chinese had about Africa, and indeed, about other parts of the world like Latin America. She was shocked at the extent to which the images the Summit chose to feature were wild animals and “scantily dressed natives”, not the images of contemporary, modern Africa.

Rebecca MacKinnon jumped in to mention “the elephant in the room” – Chinese racism towards Africans. She reminds everyone of riots that took place in Nanjing in the 1980s when Chinese students dated African men. She argues that Chinese tend to regard all foreigners as alien and Africans as more so. This sparked some spirited responses around the table – Blaise pointed out that Beninoise had extensive impressions of the Chinese from their communist past, and that many of these impressions were unflattering: “Don’t those guys eat dogs?” Alice Backer argued that the issue on the table was xenophobia, not race, urging people not to automatically adopt the language and terminology we use in the US to talk about racial issues.

As the dialog opened, people got increasingly comfortable with the idea that there’s both a knowledge and perception gap between the African and Chinese blogging communities, interesting solutions were put on the table. Several suggestions focused on creating some sort of shared site, translating posts and comments so that people could participate in the dialog regardless of language – the translation model put forth by the Interlocals project was the one discussed most extensively, allowing anyone to translate any piece into any language. (Accuracy and bias is an obvious problem with this model…) Building these dialogs isn’t as easy as just translating, though – Jacky pointed out that Chinese bloggers are often reluctant to get into political discussion and that conversations about daily life might be more likely to get widespread Chinese participation.

It’s unsurprising that, at a face to face gathering, strong arguments were made for projects that brought African and Chinese bloggers together – Ndesanjo broke the ice by declaring, “I want to get to China!” Is the natural tendency of bloggers to want to talk with one another sufficient to get bloggers in China to open their homes to African bloggers, or vice versa? Would these journals from the road be useful as complements to the larger economic and political discussions already taking place, at least in the African blogosphere?

My guess is that Hibiscus won’t have a clear mandate or path forwards until there have been more meetings like this one. But I came away with a sense that there’s a fascinating constellation of issues here, and a real passion between people to have these conversations, one to one and many to many.


Imnakoya was at the gathering and has an excellent summary post of discussions. He’s asking everyone to use the Technorati tag when discussing this topic.

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6 Responses to The Hibiscus Project: How African and Chinese bloggers start to talk to one another

  1. There’s also, as I’m sure you know, a bit of African racism towards Chinese. I can’t tell you how many times I walked down streets in Senegal with a Singaporean friend and people (particularly kids, teens and younger) would run up to her and do mock kung fu moves and speak in fake Chinese.

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  6. Craig Hubley says:

    Anyone talking about using wikis for this cultural encounter purpose? It seems to be one of their main uses, to knit together multiple groups with too little contact with each other.

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