Author: Huang Hongxiang
As a Chinese person who’s traveled around the world, including many parts of Africa, I can clearly see just how provincial most of my fellow Chinese are about the outside world. And, regrettably, that is partially to blame for many of the current difficulties we’re facing.
Regarding the recent well-documented instances of racism and discrimination against Africans in Guangzhou, a lot of people, especially in Africa, are still very angry that there’s been no official apology from China about what happened. But here in China, the reality is that very few people have a full understanding of what happened in Guangzhou, why people are so angry and why a formal apology would even be necessary. Most people don’t really spend that much time thinking about it and largely agree with the government’s sentiment that Africans and Chinese “are brothers.”
That’s especially true for those Chinese people who were seen on video engaging in discrimination. My guess is that the majority of them don’t understand the concept of racism and why the world is so upset about what they did. And it’s also almost certain that most of these people don’t speak English very well and can’t access the foreign social media sites to see the consequences of their actions.
The irony here is that those Chinese who are sensitive to these issues aren’t the ones who need to apologize as they’re generally far more open-minded and welcoming of other cultures, while the people who should apologize for engaging in racism towards Africans either don’t know or don’t care. What’s more, is that this issue is not discussed much at all on Chinese media, so there’s no domestic pressure on the government to issue any kind of apology or even just a mild statement of regret for what happened in Guangzhou.
So, it’s probably safe to assume that the apology so many people in Africa want from the Chinese government is probably not going to happen, even though it would have likely made a big difference in how all of this played over the past couple of months.
Money Doesn’t Buy Friends
China today is a rich and strong country now compared to what it was even just a couple of decades ago. But let’s be honest: all this new wealth hasn’t done much in terms of our popularity around the world. The reality is is that in many parts of the world, a lot of people don’t really like us that much. And now in the COVID-19 era, it seems that the situation is just going to get worse.
This is definitely an important challenge for China because just as we, as individuals, need friends, so does a country. While some people may incorrectly assume that the government either doesn’t know or maybe isn’t worried about its popularity abroad, that’s actually not true. “Telling a good China story to the world” is now a popular theme in China as part of an effort to show a more friendly, amiable side of the country.
However, to tell a good China story to the world, we first need to know about the world; to be liked by people, we first need to know people, as well as what they like, what they don’t and how they see us.
“Chinese people have to do more than just ‘go out’ (走出去) into the world, we also need ‘integrate into’ (走进去) the world as well.”
by Huang Hongxiang
To be sure, this is not a new phenomenon. When the senior Chinese diplomat Li Hongzhang visited the United States a century ago, he shocked his hosts when he spat in public, seemingly unaware of inappropriate behavior. Today, when Chinese tourists travel abroad, they’re often derided by local residents for being loud and even disrespectful at times. And, in Africa, Chinese business owners often refer to their local employees merely as “black people” and ask them to demeaning acts like doing “push-ups” without a clue as to how offensive this kind of behavior is.
While there’s no doubt that the actions of these people are despicable, and I certainly don’t want to condone anything that they’ve done, but I’d like to ask you to try and step back to look at it from a different perspective.
These are not bad people. Li Hongzhang was highly educated, it’s just that his education did not include any mention that spitting in public in other countries is unacceptable; Chinese tourists aren’t intentionally trying to be inconsiderate to other people, it is just that being noisy has never really been a problem before. And considering that many Chinese businessmen in Africa come from rather modest backgrounds, often without a lot of education and very little life experience in multicultural environments, they genuinely don’t understand racism’s painful history. All of this is compounded by the fact that most of these Chinese people, be they tourists or business people, don’t speak much English.
Now is the Time to Change
Now that China is becoming more integrated into the world, this situation needs to change. Once we’re all allowed to fly again, it’s quite likely that Chinese business and leisure travelers will head back out across the globe as they’ve been doing for much of the past decade. Similarly, when life eventually returns to normal, China too will welcome foreigners to live, travel and do business here.
But we have to change our attitude. If Chinese people don’t learn enough about the world and how to interact with foreigners, there will be more conflicts in the future.
Education is the Key
So-called “international education” is increasingly widespread in China, but it’s really not that sophisticated, mostly focusing on learning foreign languages and standardized test preparation. This has led to a lot of young Chinese learning how to speak English quite well and acing tests like TOEFL, IELTS, and so on. But none of these tests actually teach young people what they need to learn when it comes to better understand other countries and cultures.
And this is even a problem for many of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students who study overseas in places like Canada, the UK, the U.S., and Australia among other countries. Too often, they huddle together with fellow Chinese students, largely eat Chinese food and spend too much time on WeChat talking with their friends back home rather than making local acquaintances and taking advantage of the opportunity to really assimilate into the local culture.
So, in my view, I think it’s critical that we move beyond the current “international eduction” model that is not doing a good job preparing young Chinese people for the world we live in today and instead develop a new “global citizen” curriculum that is far more holistic:
- GLOBAL VALUES: Explore diverse beliefs and social norms in different countries around the world, and how to respect other peoples’ values and, most importantly, how to get along with people from other backgrounds. The idea here, for example, would be to prepare Chinese people when they go to places like Africa that their own values, which often prioritize economic development above all else, is not always seen the same by other people who place equal importance on issues like sustainability, wildlife conservation, and gender equality among other issues. And just because someone disagrees with the Chinese approach does not make that person some kind of pawn of “anti-China westerners.”
- GLOBAL KNOWLEDGE: What’s going on in the world today? What are the topics that people in other countries are talking about? How do foreigners see China, the Chinese in Africa, and so on? Here we would use reliable, high-quality information to help educate people about the current realities in places like Africa and shatter those old stereotypes that “Africa is a country”, “Africa is poor and dangerous.” We want to avoid replacing the “white savior complex” with the “Chinese savior complex” and not repeat the mistakes of U.S./EU “dead aid.”
- GLOBAL COMPETENCE: Once students and young people have learned about different cultural norms (Global Values) and improved their understanding of key issues (Global Knowledge), the last part of this new curriculum focuses on how to actually to apply what they’ve learned in the real world. This means learning the subtleties of learning how to communicate with people from different cultural backgrounds, both in real life (IRL) and online as well. The objective here is that instead of just “going out”（走出去）into the world we’d also “integrate into” (走进去) the world as well.
Over the past few years, our organization China House has been experimenting with promoting global citizen education in China through various courses and project-based learning programs. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not easy, but given the current challenges that China is facing today around the world, I passionately believe this new approach to educating the next generation of China’s global citizens is now important than ever.
Huang Hongxiang is a Chinese national and a Columbia University alumni. Since 2011, working with international organizations, he has been reporting and researching Chinese overseas business and social, environmental conflicts in Latin Americas, Africa and so on. Since 2014, he started China House (www.globalchinahouse.com) hoping to integrate China into global sustainable development through global citizenship education and youth engagement.