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China-Africa Relations and the Moral Politics of Geopolitical Imaginaries

China-Africa Relations and the Moral Politics of Geopolitical Imaginaries

Derek Sheridan, Institute of Ethnology Academic Sinica

This project takes Sino-African relations as an opportunity to critically reflect on the theoretical categories of “empire” and world order. In the “China-Africa” discourse, the term “neo-colonialism” is not only used by critics of “China’s rise,” but is often invoked in opposition by China-Africa scholars as a “Western” narrative deserving critique. The narrative of “neo-colonialism” is in fact often over-simplified and uncritical in its application, concealing an unmarked Euro-American-centrism and “yellow peril” narrative structure. The institutionalization of China-Africa studies, in turn, has been premised on the assumption that powerful “myths” have obscured a empirical/ethnographic “real story” which can be revealed through the methods of positivist social science. One of the corollaries has been a focus on “African agency,” from the perspective of development studies and migration studies, European and American scholars have increasingly resonated with African and Chinese thinkers in challenging the narrative of “neo-colonialism” and emphasizing “African agency,” particularly African state governance. However, if “neo-colonialism” and “empire” are manifestly problematic characterizations for China-Africa relations, this also has implications for their meanings in critical theory. What appropriate critical vocabularies are available for understanding South-South relations? What are people actually saying when claiming or disavowing the “colonial” character of Chinese investment and trade? Does (anti)-colonialism, empire and related categories in African discourse mean the same as those corresponding terms in Chinese discourse? What is the relationship between South-South cooperation, neoliberal globalization, late American hegemony, and the worldbuilding imaginaries of the Bandung moment? And what are commensurabilities and incommensurabilities between critical discourses of (anti-)empire and the vernacular categories of ordinary people? How do ordinary Chinese and Africans moving between China and African countries reproduce or challenge theories of world order? Based on seventeen months of ethnographic fieldwork in Tanzania, a country with a longstanding relationship with China, this project examines how the life projects of Chinese migrants and ordinary Tanzanians have become interdependent within the context of Chinese investment in the country. It examines the contexts in which different social actors evaluate their comparative privileges, vulnerabilities, and agency and produce everyday forms of global knowledge. In so doing, it aims to recast the anthropology of world order through an ethnography of the interpersonal ethics of global inequality.