德里之行 1 -Hibiscus Project

When I heard of the Hibiscus project in the first time, James Bond’s tagline, deep voice came across my mind,

“I am Peng, Jacky Peng, from Hibiscus.”

I have read many Chinese spy stories when I was small. In the stories, those Chinese secret projects were usually code-named with flower names.The Hibiscus project, 芙蓉计划 in Chinese, sounds like a James Bond’s secret task to me.

Akwe Amosu introduced me this project few months ago. I was excited about it not just because its sexy name. As Daudi Were pointed out in this Delhi meeting,

“…A lot of the info we get about China comes from the West, and a lot of the info they talk about us comes from the West as well,”

There is a huge gap between both sides. Hibiscus is designed to create an on-line community for Chinese and African, facilitating conversations between both sides. That is something I love to participate and something my little bridge is meant to do.

Ethan and Imnakoya have some great summaries about the meeting. Here are some of my notes and thoughts on Hibiscus.

On Africa in Chinese blogsphere, my experience with the Chinese-African blog, in fact, is very much close to John’s summary in the meeting. I have just put them into three groups.

  1. Group 1: the governmental news agencies and the big portal sites which closely follow the Chinese government media guideline.

    As part of China’s global strategy, Chinese government has been encouraging Chinese companies to invest in Africa, especially when many Chinese big companies has gained the abilities to go out in the recent years. There are lots of information about Africa on these sites,

    Daqi.com, CRI online, Sina.com, Xinhua New Agency, People.com, Sohu.com

    Some of these sites even have a dedicated Africa section.

    “China helps Africa, Africa likes China; Chinese and African are brothers.” is the major message comes out from these sites.

    They invite some businesspersons or journalists to blog/write about the local life in Africa. From those posts, “Africans are friendly to Chinese; Africa has a lot business opportunities.” is the impression I have.

    Other than that, you can find many interesting things about the animals and tribe people in Africa, which is similar to Jennifer Brea‘s observation of this year’s China-Africa Submit,

    “…I was also struck during the conference that all the propaganda posters were all about lions and giraffes and scantily clad women in traditional garb; perpetuating the images that already exist; even though the submit create a lot of excitement; it wasn’t necessarily making people more enlightened about Africa. “

    You can find more about her experience at here and here.

  2. Group 2: some small, private Africa-focused aggregators such as,

    Africa Windows, Chinese in Africa, AFTour.com, Africa Club on Sina Blog

    These sites are run by some non-governmental groups or individuals. The authors on these sites usually are Chinese who have traveled, worked, or lived in Africa. Some of the them are posting from Africa. Also many Chinese who want to start a new venture or work in Africa are very active on these sites.

    You can find posts on these sites are more down to the earth, more close to the daily life in Africa. Most of the conversations there are about the daily life and business of Africa, such as Visa application, dealing with local officials and workers, business etiquette in Africa, penetration rate of particular product and so on.

    Some interesting posts: a Disco in Congo, a commercial fair in Togo, a lawsuit in Zambiaa traffic accident in Nigeriaunderground banking in Africa, an encounter of looting during Nigeria 2003 election, a Chinese girl’s monthly expense in Africa.

  3. Group 3: random posts scattered in different BBSs.

    Though Rebecca has an excellent survey shows that

    Blogs are somewhat more useful to foreign correspondents than BBS and chatrooms,

    many Chinese still feel BBSs is safer or easier places to post and comment. The BBSs are more influential than the blogsphere in China at present.

    Tianya.cn, KDNet.net, Baidu Post, club.china.com

    Such sites attract huge traffic every day.

    Once in a while, you can find some Africa-specific posts on these BBSs which generate discussions. And I have seen increasing number of posts about traveling in Africa on these BBSs in the recent years.

Overall, there are still very few active Africa-focused bloggers. I did not see any public discussion about the negative impacts of the China’s presence in Africa. Even when such news is able to reach Chinese public, on the group 1 sites, people usually will just find some statements accusing some evil western media which have secret agenda and try to discredit China. For people interested in group 2 sites, unless things happen in their cities or neighborhoods, such news seems too big or far to concern. More and more Chinese are interested in Africa for various reasons, but to the majority of Chinese, Africa is still a wild, exotic land for travel.

On the other hand, the Chinese public have little idea of the complexities of Africa’s economic development and politics. Few Chinese know what is happening in Africa now, not to mention about the context, background, and history of things like Darfur crisis or “Zimbabwean hostile against Chinese textile dumping.” If China’s net users can get better informed, many of them will love to join such discussions. The intensive dialogue carried on Chippla’s China-Africa Submit post shows us a bit how such discussions look like when they involve China’s net users. However, most Chinese, including me, are not able to join such dialogue in English so freely and confidently as Yang Hui did. If such informed dialogue is exposed to China’s net users in Chinese language, surely it can spark more ideas and discussions from the China side. I believe that this is where Hibiscus can play a role.

Inevitably, this will bring in the problem of translation, imaging the need of multi-way translations at least for English, Chinese, and France. In particular, how to constantly find and engage voluntary translators is the biggest challenge I can see.

Addressing such problems, SJ gave some really valuable advices,

… allocating resources — to the extent it’s worth funding some sort of stability, … constantly engaging translators is a core problem. … finding a constant supply of translators is a problem, but offering them a constant supply is an even bigger one. Making sure there is someone available to respond to each 5-minute input, so people know they are being listened to and their input used, is key to supporting such a community.

… people who want to translate a [new or old] article they come across don’t have somewhere to do it; once you open up that channel, you may find there are thousands of readers who want to help out in that way.

These are some enlightening advices for building an active voluntary translation community. They are helpful and important to the possible Hibiscus translation section.

Hibiscus can also spark discussions on many China’s preexisting issues.

For example, when Rebecca talked about Chinese racism towards Africans, I remembered some Chinese BBSs posts ranted about being scammed by some black guys and accused black people on the whole. However, you can find Chinese treat their own people worse than that.

On the Chinese BBSs, there are full of stereotyping jokes about Cantonese, Shanghainese, Beijingnese and etc. Not long before, a news about “Rooms for rent. No Henanese!” spurred some big arguments across the country.

(Cantonese, Shanghainese, Beijingnese are people from different regions of China. Henanese are people from Henan, a province of the central China. )

Alice Backer said,

… if it’s a permanent or transient community (of expats) — you can have xenophobia if no permanent commmuniyt, without [true] racism.

I would say Chinese views on African are very dynamic. Or just as Blaise pointed out,

Often one thing you do is use appearance to class people as poor, who don’t have a lot.

In general, my experience is that most Chinese treat foreigners as aliens, with curiosity. It’s not uncommon that a foreigner, black or white, can get a free drink/meal/accommodation by saying some Chinese and talking something link to the local culture. If Ndesanjo learns such tricks from Preetam before he goes to China, I am sure he will get more fun.

When the African bloggers around the table talked about the China in African blogsphere, I could see a strong skepticism toward the China’s presence in Africa.

Imnakoya asked,

For such a huge amount of money to come in, what percentage of people employed will be local? How do you transfer some of this to the indigenous people? China will bring everyone in; what will we get out of it?

Many Chinese attribute such skepticism to the evil western media’s propaganda. I do not agree with that. Such skepticism looks familiar to me. These questions actually reminds me those big country-wide debates 20 years back when China was opening up and getting foreign investment in. These were exactly some questions many Chinese asked at that time, with different subject being questioned, of cause. It was in responding those questions that Deng Xiaoping quoted this saying known to every Chinese, “Touching the stones to cross the river.” Nevertheless, similar debates have never ended in China. They came up when China was joining WTO few years ago and turned up again when the profit of the automobile industry, an industry considered using market to exchange technology, has been declining recently.

Oiwan mentioned an interesting story,

… the dam issue in Africa, similar in China – same construction company, using the same model for two things; big dams, displacing millions.

China is a developing country, though it is now investing some big money in Africa. It has lots of problems in its on-going development too. I believe the conversations between China and Africa can not only offer African some Chinese hard-earned experiences in development, but also help Chinese to know more about the diversified world and make a better plan for the future.

Well, I think I have talked too much about the big issues in which I am not an expert. Back to the basic, I believe the most important thing Hibiscus can do is to help both sides to know and understand one another better. And that is the thing I am most interested in. I am always fascinated with such cross-cultural communications.

Talking about cross-cultural communication, Rachel Rawlins‘s idea of using photograph to bridge the gap and Ethan‘s idea of making an Africa survival guide for Chinese are something relatively easy to do, but can go a long, long way to build up the trust and engage conversations from both sides.

Look forward to Hibiscus, and hope I can further contribute to this project.

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