Africans Look at Mandarin Language Lessons With Suspicion

By Charles Pensulo
Charles Pensulo
Charles Pensulo
July 9, 2019 Updated: July 10, 2019

BLANTYRE, Malawi—Nineteen-year-old Chancy Malata has few kind words to say about his former Chinese bosses.

He worked for a construction company in Blantyre, the commercial center of Malawi, for a wage of $2.50 a day; his job involved mixing concrete for builders, among other tasks.

“It’s not so much the work and pay that I was concerned with, it was the language and the conditions of the work,” he told The Epoch Times in an interview at his parents’ house in Blantyre, where he lived.

Since Malawi entered into a diplomatic relationship with China, Chinese companies have undertaken massive construction projects in the country. But language has been a point of contention between the Chinese bosses and the Malawians who make up the majority of construction laborers.

While most Malawians are able to understand English, very few know Chinese. And in contrast with business owners who are Indian, some of whom have even managed to learn the local language—Chichewa—to communicate with employees, few Chinese communicate in English.

Confucius Institutes

Conversely, it seems that it’s the Chinese who want the locals to learn their language, as Chinese officials have increased their efforts to establish their controversial Confucius Institutes (CI) in the southeast African country.

At the opening of the CI at the University of Malawi in 2016, China’s ambassador to Malawi, Shing Ting Wang, said the status of China as the world’s second-largest economy has increased the number of people who want to learn the Chinese language and know about the culture, the Nyasa Times reported.

The international expansion of CIs, though, has been the subject of criticism, mostly because of links to the Chinese Communist Party.

CIs, which are funded by the Chinese regime, are said in intelligence circles to be a way for China to advance its influence in the host countries, or to be used for espionage purposes by Beijing. A number of these education centers have been closed in North America and Europe, as concern about their ties to Beijing grows.

In Africa alone, more than 50 such institutes teaching Mandarin Chinese have been established, prompting interest from students eager to land a job with Chinese companies.

An official from the CI in Malawi—which collaborates with local universities to provide lessons—declined to be interviewed, at first stating he needed to seek authorization from the Chinese Embassy before commenting, but later saying, “We can’t accept the interview.”

The South African government in 2015 announced plans to integrate Mandarin Chinese into its public school curriculum. In 2018, Uganda also announced that Mandarin would become a compulsory high school subject.

“This new government policy will see African languages bumped even further down the educational pecking order,” five linguistics professors wrote in The Conversation, at the time South Africa announced its plans. They described the Chinese lessons as another “slap in the face” for African languages.

A New Form of Colonization?

Political commentator Emily Kamanga said Malawi must take care in how it deals with China, noting that by the time people identify any concerns, it might be too late.

“This can be described as a form of colonization, looking at the way China is doing things in the country. When they come, they come in full force,” she said.

Contrary to Western countries, which fund projects but still give the recipient countries control over them, the Chinese are moving in permanently, raising questions about the nature of the help provided, Kamanga said.

“We appreciate their help, but they should go back after the completion of the projects,” she said.

Kamanga lamented the increase in the number of Chinese who are running small-scale businesses in the country, citing the selling of secondhand clothing in rural areas as an example.

“They are taking over things in the country,” she said. “Their businesses are cheaper, and before we know, it we might end up in their control.”

While Malawi’s elites might be able to take advantage of the opportunity to learn Mandarin—which could level the playing field in the future when dealing with the Chinese—for workers like Malata, this isn’t easily possible, and will continue to create challenges when working with the Chinese on projects.

Charles Pensulo
Charles Pensulo