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It’s Time For a More Nuanced Discussion About China

Journalists watch a screen showing China's President Xi Jinping delivering a speech during the opening of the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) Annual Conference 2021 in Boao, south China's Hainan province on April 20, 2021. STR / AFP

Recently, I caught up by phone with a long-time Chinese friend. The conversation started off friendly enough but soon veered into a heated debate after he accused me of turning from pro-China to anti-China. I met my Chinese friend while I was working at the Chinese embassy’s press section, where my job included literally speaking for China and driving Chinese media campaigns in Kenya for 6 years. Another four years spent living in China as a doctoral student of China’s public diplomacy exposed me to how China talks about itself and what the pro/anti-China divide looks like from the inside.

In the conversation with my friend, I found myself in a predicament facing a lot of scholars, analysts, and journalists who comment on China. The contemporary China discourse is dominated by an uncompromising binary view, frequently driven by vested interests on both sides, unafraid to mix real concerns with disinformation. This makes it very difficult to get unbiased views on China. This only serves to widen the perception gap and contribute to the hardening of attitudes on both sides. It is critical for countries in the Global South, particularly Africa, to move beyond this zero-sum discourse and chart their own course based on their personal experiences, to get what they want from both sides. However, the ambivalent reaction of many Africans on the issue reflects both their relative lack of power and the ways power has acted on them in the past.

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