Monday, September 27, 2010

Digging into the past to spin the present

China is the chief exporter of minerals from Africa. This fact has brought with it many accusations of China "colonizing" Africa and exporting the resources out for their own needs without giving much in return. To combat the accusations, Beijing has started a new arm of government that will find archeological evidence of an ancient relationship between Africa and China.

From IPS, Antoaneta Becker introduces us to the China-Africa Research Centre

Chinese archaeologists have been sent to hunt for a long-lost shipwreck off the Kenya coast to support claims that China beat white explorers in discovering Africa. Meanwhile Beijing is preparing to fund more research on the continent to aid its companies and banks' quest for expansion there.

Last month saw the launch of the new China-Africa Research Centre under the Ministry of Commerce. The centre's aim is to "provide a theoretical basis for the Chinese government's Africa-related decision-makings," Huo Jianguo, president of the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation under the ministry said at the opening. It will also provide consultation services for companies with plans to expand their businesses to Africa, he added.

"For a long time our Africa strategy resembled our strategy for economic development -- 'crossing the river by feeling the stones', says He Wenping, director of African Studies under the Institute of Western Asian and African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "We were not well prepared to go to Africa and had to pay a high price, learning from our mistakes. But now we are consolidating our strategy and there will be a new focus on learning about Africa and speaking for ourselves."

Much hope is being placed on the treasure hunt conducted by Chinese and African archaeologists in Kenya. They are searching for an ancient shipwreck and other evidence of commerce between Africa and China dating back to the early 15th century. The sunken ship is believed to have been part of an armada commanded by Admiral Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch from the Ming dynasty who the Chinese claim reached east Africa 80 years before the Portuguese seafarer Vasco da Gama.

The three-year exploration project was launched in July and it is symbolic of China's intensified efforts to present its modern-day conquest of Africa as a continuation of Zheng He's "journey of peace and friendship" in the ancient world.

Chinese records speak of Zheng He's fleet of 300 ships and thousands of sailors that sailed the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Starting in 1405, Zheng He made seven journeys to Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

He is said to have reached the coast of Kenya as early as 1418 loaded with goods and gifts from the Chinese emperor. The sunken ship archaeologists hope to find is believed to have been shipwrecked as it returned to China carrying among all a giraffe handed by the Sultan of Malindi as a present to the Chinese court.

"His trip is truly symbolic of what China's intentions towards Africa were then and what they are now," insists He. "The Chinese that reached Africa did not colonise, they went as traders and explorers."

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