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My journey to the East

SEP . 17 2020

Peking University, September 17, 2020: “I think the rise of China is one of the great events of all economic and human history, and I think this will be overwhelmingly a positive thing for the region and the world.” These words by Paul Keating, the former Prime Minister of Australia, struck me hard and influenced my decision to study in China in the Fall of 2019.

Over the last few months of my studies here in China, I have come to see for myself and to appreciate the meaning of Keating’s statement. The more I learn about the rich history, culture and development trajectory of this place and its people, the more fascinated I become. Like the ancient Chinese proverb which reads ‘Pearls do not lie on the seashore. If you want one, you must dive for it’, I find myself wanting to dive deeper to learn the mechanisms propelling this civilization and its unprecedented stature on the world stage.

Lucky for me, these fascinations have metamorphosed into a research interest. As a Yenching Academy of Peking University scholar, I focus on understanding China’s political and economic development, and the fledgeling China-Africa ties. I am intrigued by the lessons African nations can learn from the Chinese system and growth model, and how Chinese investments in Africa impacts on the continent’s human development index (HDI).

In search of clues to comprehend these, I have been on trips, researched materials and held discussions with my professors and colleagues. The most memorable moments have those experienced on my trips with other fellow fifth cohort Yenching Academy scholars in Beijing and Chengdu, and with my girlfriend in Dalian and Harbin. I found an impressive balance between the traditional and modern; the past and the present. From skyscrapers, high-speed trains, 5G network and the internet of things to the site of the old Summer Palace in Beijing, Terracotta Army museum in Xi’an, the Boya Pagoda, hutongs, and religious temples. These architectures, just like many others like them, continue to thrive while serving as lucrative tourist destinations.

For instance, in Chengdu, I was at a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Dujiangyan Irrigation System, an over 2000 years old engineering wonder constructed to control flooding from the Minjiang River and to irrigate the Chengdu Plain. Also, I was at the Sanxingdui Museum, which showcases precious cultural relics about the ancient Chinese kingdom of Shu like the grotesque bronze face masks, trees and standing statues. Moving away from the cultural sites, Chengdu’s international railway systems and the industrial parks like the Chengdu High Tech Industrial Development Zone (CDHT) stood out. I sensed a commitment by the Chinese government to push for the human and capital development of the nation through mutual public-private partnerships and bilateral relations with other parts of the world, especially Euroasia. By creating trade networks with over 200 cities, Chengdu’s efficient, frequent, and low-cost intercontinental railway systems are a logistics feat poised to make freight by road, air and the ocean less sought after. It struck me then that the city was much more than hotpot and pandas.

This blend of different periods is a unique trait of China. One could argue that it enables the Chinese to define their ‘Chineseness’; what it means to be Chinese. Little wonder there are statements like ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ or ‘Chinese Capitalism’. This conviction means that a step forward for Africa is that Africans must determine what makes us African (our unique selling point) beyond the colour of our skin.

China is indeed captivating, and every experience here has given me different memories and connected me with different people from different cultural, linguistic and national backgrounds, perhaps, for future engagements. I perceive an incredible feeling of togetherness and energy throughout the country. It is always an appealing sight to find Chinese, young and old, dancing and playing in public parks. Likewise, seeing families wearing matching outfits reminds me of similar uniform dressing patterns in Nigeria. The matching outfits, popularly called ‘Asoebi’, which directly translates from Nigeria’s Yoruba language to English as ‘family clothe’, indicate solidarity, and families wear them during traditional festivities. What is more, I have received excellent support and warmth from several Chinese colleagues, friends, and professors. The hospitality makes me feel at home.

More so, I see a political system that provides the dividends of development to its people. The mere thought that China, which was a struggling nation barely forty years ago, has grown to be the world’s second-largest economy and contests with the United States of America, is itself mind-blowing.

Despite these, it is evident that the government needs to work harder to bridge existing gaps in the area of facilitating people-to-people engagements, especially between Chinese and Africans. The China-Africa relationship is relatively recent, and this means that both regions may be lacking in an in-depth understanding of themselves. So, it is a welcomed development to find the government work to increase the number of Africans in China through scholarships and other incentives. It is also essential that institutes, like the Peking University Centre for African Studies, have been organizing events like the BOYA Forum to improve China-Africa-related discussions and exchange of ideas.

My journey to the East has been worthwhile. I do miss home, but my mission here keeps me focused. Since China is in perpetual flux and so too are ideas about it, I am excited to be studying here at this time in its development, and in world history.

About the author

Dickson David Agbaji is Nigerian and scholar of the 5th cohort of the Yenching Academy of Peking University. He enjoys writing and researching, and he has co-authored several published journal articles. As a Yenching Scholar, Dickson is learning Mandarin and majors in Politics and International Relations.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Peking University.

Written by: Dickson David Agbaji