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African College Students are Packing Classrooms to Learn Mandarin Chinese

China’s cultural footprint in Africa has lagged far behind its surging economic engagement across the continent. Now, there are indications that may be beginning to change.
Chinese movies and TV shows are now easily accessible in dozens of countries thanks to the spectacular growth of Chinese-run digital TV provider StarTimes; freely-distributed Chinese-produced news content is now seamlessly embedded into countless African newspapers/TV programs and digital publications. All of this may help explain in part, why there appears to be a growing interest among African students to learn Mandarin.

Although studying Chinese has been quite popular among elites in the United States and Europe, it’s been slow to gain traction in Africa. A 2015 effort to include Mandarin as part of South Africa’s national curriculum prompted a passionate backlash, and elsewhere on the continent interest was essentially non-existent. Not so on college campuses, though, where demand for Chinese language classes is rising fast.

Students at 40 universities across the continent are filling classrooms for Mandarin language courses that are all underwritten by the Chinese government. The classes and course materials are all free and take place on campus at centers known as Confucius Institutes. These Confucius Institutes play a central role in China’s soft-power diplomacy push, not just in Africa, but in countries around the world.

With education budgets under strain in many countries, the opportunity to have a fully-paid Chinese language program seems irresistible to many school administrators. But there’s a catch. The curriculum at the Confucius Institutes is not set by the host university but instead reflects the priorities of the Chinese government. This has prompted concerns about academic freedom in the United States and in some European universities but, so far, not in Africa.

“China’s economic success is its most potent public diplomacy tool in Africa so Mandarin is seen as a fast track to success.” — Reporter Claire van den Heever from her Quartz story Confucius Institutes in Africa

London-based freelance journalist Ismail Einashe traveled to Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal earlier this year to report on the growing popularity of Mandarin education at Confucius Institutes. His story, recently published in the independent Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post newspaper, reveals widespread enthusiasm for Confucius Institute programs and none of the apprehensions that are more common on western university campuses.

Show Notes:

About Ismail Einashe:
Ismail Einashe is a freelance journalist based in London. He has written about the Sicilian mafia, the plight of migrants in Italy, radicalisation in Europe and human rights and conflict in Africa for publications including Prospect Magazine, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Atlantic, NPR, Haaretz, The Nation, Mail & Guardian, Index on Censorship, The International Business Times and The White Review. He’s also worked for BBC Radio Current Affairs and presented on BBC Radio. Ismail is also a 2017 Dart Center Ochberg Fellow at Columbia University Journalism School and an associate at the Cambridge University Migration Research Network

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