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Philosophies show China, S. Africa have so much in common

By Bob Wekesa | China Daily Africa | Updated: 2017-04-30 14:26

International relations in the 21st century aremarkedly different from what they were in earlier years. In the past, most aspects of international relations were the preserve of states and officials. These days, however, people of all ranks and from all walks of life have become part of the way states and regions engage. Relations between Africa and China are no exception. This was evident recently as Chinese Vice-Premier Liu Yandong led a delegation to South Africa.

In the spirit of getting everyday people involved in international statecraft, the concept of public diplomacy is increasingly becoming an area of great interest for foreign policy academics and practitioners. At its very basic level, public diplomacy is the engagement of state and nonstate actors in one country or regionwith those in another. The understanding is that ignoring citizens in the international relations arena fails to acknowledge the basic fact that it is for themthat officials negotiate and reach agreements. Public diplomacy has been underway between Africa and China in educational, business, media, cultural and scientific exchanges.

Notably, Liu arrived in Pretoriawith a large delegation comprising not just high-level officials but also retired officials, members of civil and business organizations and academics. Correspondingly, the South African side was represented not just by Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana Mashabane and other state officials, but also by a broad base of civil society and academic representatives.

An example of public diplomacy at play is the South Africa-China High-Level Seminar on Thoughts Exchange and Dialogue, which was convened in Pretoria on April 25. Discussing the theme of "resonance between the concept of a community of shared future for mankind and the philosophy of Ubuntu in international relations", the forum saw presentations by non-state officials followed by open discussions. Instructively, the forum was organized by the China Public Diplomacy Association and South Africa's Department of International Relations and Cooperation.

Research indicates that South Africa is the only African country that has a public diplomacy mechanism within its foreign policy. It is therefore relatively easy for China and South Africa to find common ground for discussion of the philosophical underpinnings that can drive people-to-people relationships. Other African countries could follow this lead and establish public diplomacy systems that can serve as mechanisms to bring about people-to-people engagements, not just with China but the rest of the world as well.

Thanks to the convening of the forum, knowledge of the key and dominant philosophies that underlie life in China and Africawas exchanged. In a nutshell, the Ubuntu philosophy - common tomost Africans - states that a person is a person because of other people. This resonates with the Chinese philosophy of Confucianism, which equally places people at the heart of human endeavors. Both Ubuntu and Confucianismare comprehensive philosophies that have an impact on just about every aspect of life in Africa and China in subtle aswell as explicit ways. For instance, the common adage in Africa that highlights Ubuntuism is that a child does not belong to his or her parents but to the community. Similarly in China, the idea of "family" - as seen in the practice of children taking care of their elderly parents, for instance - is taken quite seriously.

A key commonality is that both philosophies are seen as focused on the welfare of communities, in contrast to Western values that place the individual above communal welfare. Despite the rise of Western individualistic worldviews in Africa and China, the common ground between Ubuntuism and Confucianism has remained resilient. They are defining value systems around which society is organized. The two philosophies have found their way into foreign policy.

The African Union's call to continental solidarity is in essence Ubuntu philosophy in practice. The rallying call for an "African Renaissance" - led by thinkers such as former South African president Thabo Mbeki - has spurred the Ubuntu spirit around the continent. The spread of Confucius Institutes globally is, in essence, a case of Chinese philosophy being presented to the world as a proposal on how countries can relate without schisms.

In view of the staying power of Ubuntuism and Confucianism, itmakes sense that these philosophies be explored as ameans of building foundations for Africa-China engagement. It is quite intriguing that two philosophies in two parts of the world should have somany similarities.

The call for incisive studies of the histories and current dynamics of Africa and China can benefit fromthe study of these philosophies. Such studies can form the basis for people-to-people engagements across business, culture and international relations. The South Africa-China dialogue on these philosophies and their implications for public diplomacy is a step in the right direction. Indeed, a study of the convergences (and perhaps divergences) of Ubuntu and Confucianismcan contribute to and enrich the study and practice of global international relations.

The author is a postdoctoral fellow at University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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