“China’s appeal for me is that despite the advances of the West, today Chinese culture is extremely distinguishable,” says Joanna Olisa, a Nigerian student. “That’s something nonexistent in Nigeria. Local culture is dying off and is getting replaced by Western, religious or colonial ideals.” This sentiment comes from Olisa’s hatred of colonialism and fuels her desire to learn Mandarin and the Chinese way of life.
At the back of the University of Lagos, separated from the Lagos Lagoon by the Department of Business Administration and the University’s Law Department, is the Confucius Institute: A long green bungalow on a surprisingly spacious portion of land on the cramped university campus. Olisa and a growing congregation of students are in front of the institute, arguing over verbs—in Mandarin. Passers-by look in their general direction, shock on their faces. Because in Nigeria, Mandarin sounds nothing like any language spoken here.
In 2014, according to the Chinese embassy in Nigeria, there were some 65,000 Chinese nationals in Nigeria. China is a growing commercial presence across Nigeria; in Lagos particularly, the Lekki Free Trade Zone is almost a Chinese colony in West Africa. To meet the growing demand for Chinese interpreters and professionals answering to Chinese bosses and also create to global relevance following China’s incursion into Africa and recent rise as a world and economic power, the Confucius Institutes in Nigeria, as well as a few private universities, now offer courses teaching Mandarin to Nigerians.
A declining economy, terrible exchange rates and the growing unemployment rate have made Nigeria a haven for a certain type of investor. The availability and abundance of cheap land and cheap labour makes it a great location for all types of factories. But while China’s influence is growing here, the social atmosphere isn’t yet noticeably changed. Save for a few street signs with Mandarin inscriptions and property bearing Chinese signs, to the average Nigerian, China can’t be felt in Nigeria—not yet.
Olisa’s first interaction with China was through 1998’s Walt Disney animated musical action comedy-drama film, Mulan. It was the feminist story of Hua Mulan—a girl who served in the army in the stead of her ailing father. But beyond the film’s “girl power” message, “the visuals, General Shang, chopsticks, hairstyles and a collective national strength and bravery” endeared China to her. She pursued her interest in Chinese culture through bootlegged copies of Chinese movies on sale in Nigerian bus stops and video clubs, through Jackie Chan and Jet Li, and eventually through free Tai Chi classes taught at the sports center in the University of Lagos. “I saw a girl doing some kicks and I remembered Mulan. I always wanted to be Mulan growing up, I even got some injuries while trying,” Olisa says, even though Mulan is an American film displaying values of freedom and liberty totally different from the Chinese ideal. In her final year at the University where she was studying Mass Communications, Olisa noticed that some of her Tai Chi classmates spoke Mandarin. The then 19-year-old was directed to the Confucius Institute where she enrolled to learn Mandarin.
The Confucius Institute is something like an unofficial Chinese embassy in Nigeria. Established first at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University in 2007 and the University of Lagos in 2008, each branch churns out hundreds of Mandarin speakers every year. According to Prof. Yongjing Wang, the Director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Lagos, “We are here to help the Nigerian people get acclimatized with Chinese culture, especially as China’s influence extends through Africa and the world. A knowledge of Mandarin in today’s world will open up jobs at home and international opportunities for Nigerians.” The Confucius Institute is a center for training and taking the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) test, China’s only standardized test of Standard Chinese language proficiency for non-native speakers such as foreign students and overseas Chinese. The institute also organizes outreach activities like cultural events and competitions to help build a community of Nigerians in love with China. But the Confucius Institute offers more than language training. It also offers the opportunity for Nigerians to leave Nigeria—sometimes even permanently—an opportunity a lot of Nigerians are looking for.
“The allure of the Confucius Institute isn’t its teaching process. It’s the opportunity to get scholarships or to leave Nigeria for China and witness a country that’s working properly,” Olisa explains. The Institute teaches Mandarin in 4 – 5 month levels, ending with exams determining movement to the next level. On average it takes two and a half years to complete all six levels of Mandarin instruction offered in Nigeria. Classes were free in the early days of the institute, but that policy changed in the early 2010’s with a fee of 11,000 naira [$30] for university students, with a subsequent 10,000 naira fee per level, and exactly double that fee for non-students. In 2017, the fees were revised to 15,000 naira for students and 20,000 naira for non-students.
Ugochukwu Okpala’s motives for joining the institute were a little different. “My father was told that I could study in China if I learned Mandarin, so I didn’t take the JAMB examination to enter into a Nigerian university.” Okpala explains. 19-year-old Okpala was 16 when he joined the Institute, and was the youngest in the class. A constant motivation for him was the numerous scholarships the institute offered students to visit China on cultural exchange programs. In the early days, exemplary students from the second level were allowed to visit China for four weeks to six months. These days, however, as China’s influence increases in Nigeria and in Africa, the Institutes experience a high influx of students. Okpala’s favourite pastime is looking through Chinese university websites. “I want to study architecture in the University, and Nigeria is no longer an option for me.” he says. The educational system in Nigeria has been fraught with administrative problems and strikes that have gotten worse by the day, and local universities rank low in the global indexes. For a lot of Nigerians enrolled in the institute, China is a shot at a world-class education, especially for Nigerians looking to international opportunities for employment.
Learning Mandarin can also provide short-term benefits. There is a growing demand for Mandarin-to-English translators and Mandarin-speaking professionals in Lagos. Put against the Nigerian minimum wage of 18,000 naira monthly [$50], translators on average earn between 120,000 to 150,000 naira monthly [$330-420]. The various infrastructure development agreements between the governments of Nigeria and China as well as a steady increase in the number of Chinese-owned industries have made Chinese businesses a source of relatively high-paying employment in Nigeria.
According to Professor Wang, “The Confucius Institute was established on the request of the University of Lagos looking to establish a Chinese language program.” Funding, however, appears to come directly from Beijing through Hanban, the Chinese abbreviation for the Office of Chinese Language Council International, the state-controlled sponsors and operators of Confucius Institutes, of which there are now several hundred branches worldwide. Beijing’s autocratic party control of potentially damaging information apparently carries over into language instruction; sensitive topics such as the Dalai Lama, Tiananman Square, and Taiwanese independence are not permitted in Confucius Institute classrooms.
Concerns regarding censorship and the curtailment of academic freedom led to a big backlash against Confucius Institutes in 2014, prompting the University of Chicago, Penn State, McMaster University, Stockholm University and others to cut ties with the program. James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, did not mince words. “Simply put, Confucius Institutes are owned and operated by an authoritarian government and beholden to its politics.”
China’s surging presence in Africa can be seen as an attempt to recreate the old Silk Road routes. Through loans, especially for infrastructure, China is establishing new trading partners in African nations. The Chinese One Belt, One Road initiative has seen China’s influence grow in a lot of African nations. However, China’s incursion into Africa has met with criticism from both citizens and experts.
On the cultural front, there is the argument that black/African languages and culture will always be perceived as subservient to Chinese, European or American culture. In Lekki, a highbrow location in Lagos, a good number of street signs have Mandarin inscriptions directing people to the Lekki Free Trade Zone, an obvious sign of China’s cultural spread in Africa. For Israel Afolabi, a filmmaker born and bred in Lagos, there is a subtle desensitization going on in Sub-saharan Africa against local African languages. “While looking for investment and inflow of funds into the country, it is the duty of the government to maintain our Nigerian heritage.” This sentiment is also shared by Kola Tubosun, a linguist and writer based in Lagos. “African languages are going extinct… UNESCO believes that about a dozen languages are already extinct, and many more are endangered and many more will be soon.”
But a loss of local languages is not the only thing at stake. Arguments have been made that China is looking to ‘colonize’ African nations. In 2017, a visit by the Dalai Lama to Botswana met with controversy, with the Chinese government threatening to recall their embassy from the diamond-rich country. A few months before the Botswana debacle, after getting a $40 billion pledge from China, the Nigerian government ordered Taiwan’s unofficial embassy to move out of its capital city.
From a policy point of view, Omosefe Oyekanmi, a Ph.D. candidate of Political Science at the University of Ibadan, does not believe that Chinese generosity is in the best interests of the country. “China’s aim is to collapse the power of the dollar. By helping countries subsidize development, they are seen as helpers, but there is still a technological deficit. Projects are taken to develop infrastructure, but there is no exchange of education, leaving a long term reliance on China for that technology to keep running. But this is not all: over time, English will lose its appeal in the country.” she says.
Furthermore, emigration to China still presents a risk. China has a history of expelling migrants from cities to inconvenient and uncomfortable areas. With the financial and political power that China wields, the country does not need to answer to anyone calling out its human rights shortcomings. At this moment, Muslims are being taken to “re-education camps” to unlearn Islam; since 2017, the Chinese government has arrested and placed hundreds of thousands of Muslims in camps where they are made to eat pork and drink alcohol. In 2016, a report in Quartz chronicled the racism suffered by a Gambian emigrant to China, Lamin Ceesay, who is now advising other Gambians not to go.
The Nigerian community in China is tightly knit, acting as a support system for members experiencing overt or subtle racism. “It’s funny how we all learned Mandarin to get here because we wanted better lives, but we all communicate in pidgin. Life here is more difficult compared to Nigeria. We are confronted by our blackness almost on a daily basis, but we will overcome,” one emigrant explains.
For Olisa and Okpala, China is not the final destination, it’s just a route. After conversations about the racism faced by African students in Chinese universities, it emerges that the plan is simple—get an international degree, and then cross over to Europe or America. “I’m not expecting a smooth ride in life, but I will do my best to get to the top, then I can rest,” Olisa says.