Written by Abdul-Gafar Tobi Oshodi.

Image credit: 中共援非因何称〝不附带条件〞?真没政治条件?by 禁书 网/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Universities are important institutions. Based on their functionality, universities can be conceptualised from two broad perspectives of the thin and the thick. The thin conceptualisation visualises universities as arenas for teaching, research, and community service (TRC). Universities, of course, do more than just TRC. The thick conceptualisation locates them as arenas to shape discourses, project power and circulate ideologies to its audience. Universities can represent arenas for conversations and contestations within and among societies. This could, for instance, be in terms of their perspectives as represented in the Ibadan, Dar es Salaam or Chicago Schools. Universities can also split when contestations are internal and unresolved, as was the breakup of Leuven into the Dutch and the French universities in the late 1960s. Universities can also become entangled in inter-state relations as represented in the Oxford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) suspension of collaboration with Chinese telecoms giant Huawei and ZTE Corp in 2019. Universities therefore represent a lens through which stories are told or acted. Acknowledging this thick conceptualisation, I explore their utility to explain inter-state collaborations and encourage cooperation among the people of different countries. Although this approach to studying inter-state relations has attracted only little interest, it nonetheless offers a useful path to understand the growing influence of China in Africa (see Kenneth King’s China’s Aid & Soft Power in Africa: The Case of Education and Training). Specifically, I seek to draw attention to some manifestations of China in African universities and attempt to tease out what this means for Taiwan.

If Taiwan was recognised by more African countries it too would likely increase collaboration with the continent’s universities

The Dragon on Campus

China has positioned itself among many African leaders as the most strategic player on the continent; a leading development partner. As the former Senegalese President, Abdoulaye Wade, bluntly put it: a one hour meeting with former Chinese President Hu Jintao in the executive suite of his hotel in Berlin was more useful than the G8 meeting “where African leaders were told little more than that G8 nations would respect existing commitments.” One way China is securing its long term interests in Africa is by focusing on the next generation of leaders. China’s footprint is noticeable in many of the top African universities as seen in the establishment of about 28 Confucius Institutes (CI) between 2005 and 2018. Beyond serving as a means to promote Chinese language and culture on campus, CIs represent a means to boost collaborations between the African university and universities in China.

China also offers many students scholarships to public and private universities. Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE also offer scholarships and other supports to students and staff. Far more prominent than others, Huawei has also initiated ICT programmes to promote ICT in African universities. The Huawei Authorised Information and Network Academy (HAINA) is now a popular initiative in many universities on the continent. A combination of these and other factors have contributed to making China a popular destination for African students, surpassing the United States and UK in 2014. France is still ahead of China, but even France does not seem to enjoy China’s visibility in the provision of infrastructure in African universities. From the US$40 million library at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, the about US$60 million Phase II construction project (after the Phase I was completed by China in 2015) at the University of Health and Allied Sciences in Ghana, to the Senate block, Faculty of Management Annex, and what is arguably one of the biggest libraries in Nigeria at the Lagos State University, Chinese construction is noticeable on many campuses.

China’s rising influence amid Taiwan’s decline in Africa has also generated responses in African universities. Some have established centres and initiated projects to deepen knowledge of China in Africa. For instance, while Stellenbosch established the Centre for Chinese Studies, Witwatersrand hosts the Africa-China Reporting Project, which among other things aims to “improve the quality of reporting on Africa-China issues by providing facilitation and capacity building for journalists via reporting grants, workshops and other opportunities.” Other universities have introduced or expanded their courses to reflect the growing presence of China, and conferences have also been held on China. But what does all these mean for Taiwan?

Is Taiwan Down and Out in African Universities?

On what China’s growing presence in African universities means for Taiwan, two points are noteworthy. First, China’s presence in many African universities further demonstrates the dwindling influence of Taiwan in Africa. If Taiwan was recognised by more African countries it too would likely increase collaboration with the continent’s universities. Take the case of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), currently Taiwan’s only ally in Africa. The University of Eswatini signed a 2011 Memorandum of Understanding with five Taiwanese universities, one of which is also affiliated to the Southern Africa Nazarene University in Eswatini. Eswatini students are also offered scholarships to study in Taiwan. But Eswatini is a small country and it may only be a question of time before it too decamps. Like China, Taiwan also plays university diplomacy relative to the number of countries that currently supports it in Africa.

The second point: the foregoing does not necessarily imply that Taiwan as a country or an issue is eliminated from African universities. Although China’s positive contributions and dominant soft power projection on campus is not in doubt, it hasn’t erased Taiwan from African universities. The extent to which China’s university diplomacy permeates the views of stakeholders in African universities is very much open to further interrogation and research. It is not clear how the relationship between China and Taiwan is captured in the curriculum (i.e. the Teaching of China in Africa – TeChA). Meanwhile, some universities have demonstrated an ability to swim against the tide. For instance, though many of the Asian partner universities of Stellenbosch are Chinese, the university also accommodates the National Taiwan University. This suggests that regardless of whom is officially recognised as the representative of the Chinese people, the possibility of Taiwanese universities collaborating with their African counterpart remains open. Yet, given the dwindling influence of Taiwan in Africa, the incentive for the country to encourage this people-to-people collaboration is in doubt. For China however, promoting people-to-people encounters in universities is another strategic layer in Beijing’s soft power in Africa.

Abdul-Gafar Tobi Oshodi is affiliated to the Department of Political Science, Lagos State University and the Centre for Research on Peace and Development (CRPD) at KU Leuven. He tweets at @TobiOshodi


This article is part of the special issue on Taiwans foreign relations, as featured in Taiwan Insight.

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