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Business Tips, Free Speech, Racism: A Nigerian Writer's China Diaries

The deepening ties between China and Africa are a hot topic, but the voices we hear are usually the same — white and Western. So what does China look like to an African? Nigerian journalist Solomon Elusoji is the best person to ask.

photo of a puddle and reflection of people walking in the rain

Elusoji was sent to China by his editor at Nigeria's daily newspaper, This Day, when he was just 23

Bai Rui

BEIJING — China's increasing trade links with Africa have become the most discussed bilateral relationships of the twenty-first century.

But the opinions we hear are usually white and Western. Solomon Elusoji, a Nigerian journalist, is in a unique position having spent extended periods of time in China. His perspective adds one that is oddly missing from a widely discussed topic — the voices of Africans.

In 2018, at the age of 23, Elusoji was sent to China by his editor at Nigeria's daily newspaper, This Day.

"I knew nothing about China at the time, besides the fact that it was a Communist regime, and a militarized country like North Korea," he says. "To me it is just a faraway country, where African merchants would go purchase cheap products and sell them back in Africa."

Traveling with Big Brother

Elusoji was sent to China by a program sponsored by the China-Africa Press Center, which was eventually funded by China's Foreign Ministry. Clearly, the initiative is part of China's grand diplomatic plan in Africa. Elusoji was given the instructions "to help African journalists understand Chinese media, politics and society."

"When I began to understand China, I came to realize that there is such a different world out there, with realities that would completely not correspond with mine. Being at the edge of discovery, I wanted to know what it was like there.”

Inspired by adventure and the unknown, Elusoji went to China. The experience proved to be colorful as well as formative, while his understanding of China has been revolutionized as a result. After returning to Nigeria in 2019, he wrote about his experiences in a book, Traveling with Big Brother: A Reporter's Junket Across China.

A different perspective on China

After accepting the opportunity to report and study in Beijing, Elusoji did what any young journalist would do before a once-in-a-lifetime adventure: he wolfed down a huge amount of information about China.

"All the news and books I found about China were written by white males, and it was almost impossible to find anything written by Africans."

"I don't think a Westerner would be blown away by the infrastructure there when being in China, for example," Elusoji says.

The Western media's approach to China is too dominated by the U.S.–China confrontation.

But when Elusoji arrived in 2018, he was astounded by the urban landscapes when he disembarked his plane in Beijing. "It's a bit like magic... skyscrapers piercing the night sky. The wide roads, the finely intricate flyovers, the almost sacred grandeur of the city... my view of China has been reset." Indeed, this is one of the main points of China's projection of soft power in the developing world – ambitious infrastructure projects that contain transformative power.

The lack of diversity in views of China in the English-speaking world can be very limiting, Elusoji commented. He said the Western media's approach to China is too dominated by the U.S.–China confrontation, which mostly pre-defines the role of individual countries and regions on the chessboard of power confrontation – such as the poverty and helplessness of Africa and the revisionist power of China as a rising power.

"This has no depth and obscures the real issues," he says.

One example Elusoji cites is Beijing's notion of the "right to development" as part of global politics and human rights, a concept that has been promoted almost shrilly over the past few years. For the most part, this has been dismissed by the Western media. It is often seen merely as a challenge to Western notions of human rights and political freedom. However, "for people from Africa, where most people are poor, the concept doesn't necessarily sound like a bad idea."

Elusoji is careful not to pick one side or the other. The issue is big, complex and intertwined with a past as a colony and a competing vision of the future. Perhaps, in any case, this dichotomy is wrong. "As a journalist, I probably put the most emphasis on political freedom... but at the same time I understand that economic freedom can be a powerful thing. The two can co-exist."

Elusoji uses Twitter to discuss China, human rights, development and other issues, and continues to work with Nigerian media to cover China-related stories

Solomon Elusoji's Twitter account

Thinking about Africa in Beijing

However, having lived in China, Elusoji was led to a clear conclusion. "Indeed, Africa has a lot to learn from China." In the book, Elusoji explores that on a deeper level. While staying in China, he found himself observing and "wondering what could have been done [in Africa]." There was a sense that China was doing something right, while too many African countries were on a path of wasted hope.

This often stems from poverty as well as corrupt politics. "Time and time again, African governments have failed their populations, choosing the latter between the people and power," says Elusoji. This is a problem that has deeply affected relations between China and Africa. Ultimately, according to Elusoji, the success or failure of this bilateral relationship will be determined by how African governments approach it. In other words, Sino-African relations need to be more grounded in the realities of African politics than is usually the case for it to work.

"Of course, China is good for Africa. China has the capacity to be useful for Africa's economic development... the issue of getting rid of distractions allows us to focus on the real issue, which is to give Africa control over its own destiny... what matters, really, is the way in which Africa should come to the fore?"

Are Chinese racists against Africans?

There is one issue that profoundly shakes relations between China and Africa — racism.

It is a complex issue, and Elusoji is somewhat resistant to using the term in the context of China's attitude to Africa. "The word 'racism' is closely associated with slavery and colonialism," he says, "and I would associate racism with whiteness and the West. For example, I find it hard to imagine a black man being racist against a white man, or a Chinese being racist against a black man. Racism exists in a very strong political and social context."

The Chinese government does show respect when it comes to Africa, far more than what Western countries have been doing all along. As Elusoji points out, African leaders visiting Beijing often enjoy a red carpet greeting. And China's engagement with Africa is not accompanied by demands on the latter's way of governing their countries. "There's a lot of talk about Chinese expansionism in Africa, but that's not the same thing [as the reality]," Elusoji concludes.

Noting that racism in China is "subtle, difficult to articulate and easy to ignore," he also points out that underneath the propaganda machine's insistence on equal brotherhood between China and Africa, there is an implicit narrative that China is "helping" Africa, a narrative that further contributes to the perception that Africans are poor and inferior.

However, Elusoji remains unclear on how to deal with this issue.

"Racism in China is a big problem, something that is very bad for many Africans living in China. But what can you do about it? What leverage do we have to deal with it? So many people just ignore it and go on with their normal lives."

Essentially, Elusoji believes that "African countries need to become better versions of themselves", which links to his argument that African countries need to "come to the fore" in China-Africa relations.

He believes that good governance and solid economies in Africa will be the antidote to the racist sentiments that linger in China, Europe and the world. At this level, bilateral relations between China and Africa offer an opportunity to overcome racism, provided that African governments manage the relationship properly and make the most of the opportunities available to strengthen Africa.

Returning to Lagos

Since returning to Nigeria's seaport and largest city, Lagos, in 2019, Elusoji has become increasingly active in the community of African journalists who are interested in or have spent time in China. He uses Twitter to discuss China, human rights, development and other issues, and continues to work with Nigerian media to cover China-related stories.

China will play a huge role in the world.

The reaction to his reporting and his new perspective on China received mixed reviews from across Nigeria. Many heartily appreciate the new perspective he projects on China, a country often considered mysterious and unknowable, while others see him as "some kind of Chinese agent".

"In general, I think a lot of Nigerians want to know more about China, but there are not enough reasons to make such an effort. For example, because of the language barrier," Elusoji says. "But ultimately, China will play a huge role in the world economy and politics in this century, especially as it relates to the development of African countries. For better or worse."

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