Blackboard cooperation: China’s role in educating Africa

3rd July 2012 By: In On Africa IOA

Usually referred to as the ‘China-Africa education cooperation’, the cooperative relations between China and African countries in education are not symmetric. In fact, this cooperation is one of the most important components of Chinese international aid. Among all states and international organisations, China, which also happens to be the largest developing country with 27% of its population living in poverty, plays a special role in the international aid that is sent to Africa.(2) It is unusual for a developing country to emerge as one of the most important non-Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) donors, especially given that it still is one of the largest recipients of official development assistance (ODA).(3) The largest portion of this aid flows directly into the African continent. But one must question, how did China become both a recipient and ODA donor? Why does it provide such large amounts of aid, especially in the sector of education, to Africa when it suffers domestic poverty itself? How is this aid presented and what is the difference between Chinese aid versus that from other sources? This CAI paper discusses the policy of cooperation between China and the states of Africa by looking to past and present practices, investigating the different types of cooperation, comparing involvement of China in Africa’s education to that of other states and finally discussing the influence and effectiveness of this China-Africa cooperation.

Background—China’s Foreign Aid to Africa

As declared in China’s Africa policy in 2006, the friendship between China and Africa is embedded in a long history of interchange.(4) In 1956, when China began providing international aid to Africa, the Chinese foreign policy was primarily guided by ideology. As a communist country, China believed its priority, second only to its own survival, was to assist the world in revolution. Considering that most African countries had shared a similar colonial history, China saw itself as their natural ally. It was then that Mao Zedong issued the order to his countrymen to tighten their belts to support their African brothers. Over the next 20 years, China’s foreign aid increased dramatically. In 1973, foreign aid was responsible for as much as 7.2% of the Chinese Government’s total expenditure – a figure which exceeded that of most developed states in the world at the time. In the years that followed, China’s foreign aid returned to rationing but the tradition of providing assistance to developing states was preserved, especially when it came to Africa.

This aid also fed back to China in many ways. The most prominent example would be China’s membership to the United Nations (UN) in 1971, which came about as a result of the votes of African states at a UN general conference. In addition, China and African countries have since been known to cooperate in a number of fields, most of which have benefited both sides significantly. Quoting from a Chinese Government statement, “China and Africa have all along sympathized with and supported each other in the struggle for national liberation and forged a profound friendship,”(5) and international aid has played an important role in the establishing and maintaining of this friendship.

A history of education cooperation

The development of the China-Africa education cooperation can be divided into three phases: the initial phase from 1956 to 1970s; the expansion phase which took place between the 1980s and 2000; and the comprehensive cooperation phase which ran from 2000 to the present day. China first established diplomatic relations with Egypt. In 1956, Egypt, together with other African countries like Cameroon, Kenya and Uganda, sent 24 exchange students to China, who reciprocated by sending their own exchange students and staff to these African countries to investigate the education system in the receiving country. Gradually the number of exchange students and staff increased until the trend was interrupted by the Chinese Cultural Revolution and not reinstated until the 1980s. During this period, student exchange was the main form in which the cooperation took place. The overall goal of the exchange was to observe and understand the situations on either side and to focus on the study of language. The cooperation was limited both in scale and depth, but this was the result of state conditions in China and Africa at that time. The countries involved lacked experience in modern education, and their financial capacity, especially in some African countries, prohibited the sending and receiving of foreign students on a large scale. This combined with the armed conflicts in Africa and the political unrest in China as a result of the Cultural Revolution, made any institutionalised education cooperation impossible. However, even with these limits, the exchange activities laid the foundation for later cooperation in education.

The second phase commenced with the implementation of Chinese policy reform in the early 1980s. Both China and African states provided more scholarships, and the number of exchange students, especially those sent to China, increased significantly. According to an official document released by the Chinese Government, a total of 4,570 African exchange students had studied in China by the end of 1996.(6) Not only did the student exchange resume, but so did other forms of cooperation. As Chinese academic research and economic capacities improved, more kinds of cooperation became possible. One can say that the real education aid to Africa began around this time, with the previous period being more of a mutual observation. China began providing educational equipment to numerous states in Africa and establishing dozens of research laboratories, as well as dispatching university lecturers and professors to assist with research and education.(7) It was during this time that the focus of the cooperation turned to knowledge rather than just language.

Education cooperation in the new century

The new millennium witnessed the beginning of a new phase of cooperation between China and the African continent. Marked by the first Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in October 2000, the cooperation became more institutionalised. It was during this summit that states jointly signed the Beijing Declaration of 2000, and issued the Programme for China-Africa Cooperation in Economic and Social Development.(8) Within this programme, ministers agreed to expand cooperation in education and human resources development,(9) while the Chinese pledged to send more scholarships and teachers to Africa as well as increase its financial contribution. Another significant development was that the two sides agreed to work out country-specific training plans through appropriate channels, identify specific cooperation projects and facilitate their implementation,(10) all of which laid the foundation for further cooperation. After FOCAC-1 in 2000, China set up the African Human Resources Development Fund, which was exclusively designed for African personnel training. At the second FOCAC summit in 2003, China further pledged to increase its financial contribution to the fund, with the aim of training up to 10,000 African personnel in different fields. Africa attached great importance to stronger cooperation with China in human resources development and in response initiated cooperation plans and provided logistic support for training programmes and cooperation projects.(11)

Another event which encouraged education-based cooperation between China and Africa was the Sino-African Education Minister Forum which took place in Beijing in 2005. Education ministers from 17 African countries participated in the summit, and after reviewing the previous cooperative institutions, declared that education cooperation among developing countries should focus on primary, as well as vocational and technical education. Cooperation at a higher learning level should not be overlooked, however, since it plays a crucial role in the substantial development for both China and Africa, but it should not be a main focus.(12) The success of the education minister forum gained high evaluation on the third FOCAC summit, whose conference declaration expressed the view that holding this forum (Education Minister Forum) on a regular basis would help promote both cooperation and dialogue in education.(13) As well as agreeing on expanding existing cooperative institutions, the Chinese Government committed to a number of concrete tasks, such as helping set up 100 rural schools in Africa in three years, increasing the number of Chinese Government scholarships to African students, and establishing Confucius Institutes in African countries.(14) Several new types of cooperation were introduced when China and Africa met for the fourth FOCAC summit in 2010. The 20+20 cooperation plan aimed to establish a new model of one-on-one inter-institutional cooperation between 20 Chinese universities or vocational colleges with 20 African counterparts.(15) In addition, China promised to help African countries train a further 1,500 school headmasters and teachers in the next three years.

Given the documents accepted at each of the four FOCAC summits, one can therefore infer that there are currently five types of cooperation between African states and their Chinese partners. These are:

1. Scholarships and exchange students
The earliest and most important form of education cooperation was scholarships and student exchanges. Different from previous phases, student exchange in the new millennium became a one-way agreement instead of mutual agreement when the Chinese Government stopped sending exchange students to Africa. In contrast, the number of scholarships provided by Chinese Government to the African students increased dramatically from a few hundred in 2000 to 1,200 per year in 2005. The FOCAC-2 summit introduced the goal to increase this number to 4,000 per year in 2009, while FOCAC-4 saw this number increase to 5500. These students have not only enhanced the mutual understanding between China and Africa, but also helped to establish and develop a friendly atmosphere.

2. Sending teachers to Africa
Since most educational institutions in China are state-owned, the Chinese Government maintains great power in allocating manpower. The selection process is semi-compulsory and selected staff can only turn down the dispatch, or deployment, at the risk of losing their current positions(16). Though the semi-mandatory dispatching is a little bit inhuman for selected teachers, quality is guaranteed and reassurances are made that only the best go to Africa. The majority of teachers are deployed over subject areas such as science, technology, agriculture and medicine, but after Confucius Institutes in Africa were set up in 2009, teachers who were able to teach Chinese as a foreign language were needed. Normally, the teachers are deployed to Africa for between one and two years. Awards and promotions are given when they return to China, depending on their performance. Until 2003, there were approximately 600 teachers who had been sent to Africa.(17) In more recent years, the Chinese Government has also lead voluntary projects for teachers who wished to go to Africa, but this exact number is difficult to calculate.(18)

3. Cooperation projects
China has in certain African countries developed cooperation projects which include not only training technological and scientific personnel, but also assisting these countries to develop their own scientific research capacities. China has set up numerous of these projects, and established advanced joint laboratories in disciplines like biology, microbiology, computer science, physics, analytical chemistry, food preservation and processing, material science, horticulture, civil engineering and measurement, the Chinese language and so forth.(19) These projects are seen as an appropriate form of education cooperation between China and Africa partly because they show agreement in the level of educational development. They also take both the superior specialties of Chinese institutions and the actual needs in Africa into consideration, and are warmly welcomed by African researchers and governments.

4. Professional seminars
In 2002, supported by the African Human Resources Development Fund, China began providing short-term training to African professionals in different disciplines through seminars. Using this method, China was able to train up to 10,000 African personnel between 2004 and 2006, with these numbers growing steadily during the next few years. Between the 2006 FOCAC-3 summit to the end of 2009, 15,000 African professionals attended various seminars, gaining not only professional knowledge, but also the opportunity to establish links with Chinese Universities which could lead to future cooperation.

5. Cooperation among universities
Bilateral cooperation between institutions of higher education between China and Africa first appeared in the 1980s, but was only recognized as an official type of education cooperation at FOCAC-4 in 2009. Through these inter-university connections, not only were Chinese professors dispatched to African institutions, but vice versa. The contact made at a university-level was more flexible than those made at the national level, which ultimately meant a closer cooperation which was better equipped to exploit the academic strengths of universities.

Characteristics of Sino-Africa education cooperation

The most prominent characteristic of Sino-African education cooperation is noted in the fact that this act is termed a cooperation, and not aid. From the source of funds to the contents of the cooperation, the interactions between China and African states would normally be referred to as ODA by an international society. As Kenneth King puts it, “Despite China’s hesitation about ‘aid’ and its preference for the language of mutual cooperation and exchange, it may be possible to sketch some elements of what may be seen, especially in the most recent summit, as elements of an aid policy.”(20) China’s reluctance to make use of the word ‘aid’ is the direct result of the so-called ‘eight principles of foreign aid’. Proposed in 1963 by Zhou Enlai, the first Prime Minister of People’s Republic of China, this method has been followed by the Chinese Government since. These principles indicate that the Chinese Government should always base itself on the principle of equality and mutual benefit when it comes to providing aid to other countries.(21) As a country who declared it would always remain in the Third World,(22) China has thus always valued the mutual support of other developing countries and has insisted on remaining equal. The influence of this creed is not limited to the title of the interaction only, but has been expanded into a concrete cooperation approach. Unlike aid from other sources, the China-Africa education cooperation places pressure on the responsibilities of African countries. That said, the over-reaching theme of the Sino-Africa summits is to exchange educational experience, explore cooperation and seek for common development — not to copy the Chinese experience to African countries. Many of the projects that are used to train African professionals have been specifically designed to give necessary knowledge to the local teachers, while helping African countries to develop their own manpower.

The second distinguishing feature of Sino-African education cooperation is that most collaboration is developed at state level and through Government channels. Since civil society in both China and most of Africa is underdeveloped, the non-governmental communication is minor. At the same time, most Chinese non-governmental organisations focus on domestic issues, and the outlying regions in China have absorbed most of their attention and funding. More importantly, because of historical traditions and the current political system in China, international communication is, to a great extent, monopolised by the central Government, resulting in the China-African exchange taking place mainly at state level.

Thirdly, the cooperation between China and African countries pays more attention to fundamental education and practical skills, but avoids cultural and value discussion. Until recently, the cooperation did not extent to the higher levels of education. Other than professional teachers, many of the technical personnel who were sent from China to Africa were livestock keepers or plumbers, who were sent to Africa to help develop local manpower. Sensitive disciplines like culture or politics were deliberately evaded in order to guarantee that China would not purposely spread its own political values. For example, while courses in politics are obligatory for all Chinese students, African exchange students are exempt.

Discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of Sino-Africa education cooperation

In view of the above characteristics, one can identify some advantages and disadvantages to the Sino-African education cooperation. Firstly, being a developing country itself, China has a deeper understanding of the needs of African countries. For this reason education cooperation has focused on practical skills, which are crucial for the improvement of both productivity and living standards of local people. For example, Chinese farmers tend to be more familiar with small-scale, non-mechanised cultivation, a practice which has almost disappeared entirely in industrialised countries but one that is widely used in the Global South. Secondly, despite the relatively low level of economic development, the immense scale of the Chinese economy and its massive population has made large scale cooperation with Africa possible. As such, the aid provided to Africa has not put a great burden on the national economy and or human resource supply in China. This thus allows China to provide a ’one stop’ effective and efficient service to African states which includes funding, construction of school buildings, providing of necessary equipment and training of teachers and staff. Lastly, unlike many civilian aid schemes, the implementation of Sino-Africa education cooperation is largely guaranteed by African countries themselves. Projects are well-planned, and the local administers provide convenience. In addition, the safety of most of the Chinese staff working in these projects in Africa is under protection of the local governments. However, a huge risk of Sino-Africa education cooperation is that the bureaucratic systems in both China and Africa can breed corruption and inefficiency. This risk is also amplified by the added dimension of diplomatic consideration, which leaves a vacuum of audit and as such, parties should ensure that preventative measures are taken.

Concluding remarks

The established and respected Sino-Africa education cooperation has throughout the last sixty years grown from a simple cooperation to a major international development and aid policy, one of which African states will forever be grateful. Through the use of scholarships and student exchanges, the relationship between China and Africa has developed a tradition of mutual benefit and support, which has extended to spheres far beyond that of only education. Expected to continue for many years to come, the prospects of this extraordinary system are bright, provided parties remain aware of potential risks, and ensure measures are taken to prevent any such incidents.

Written by Kaiyu Shao (1)


(1) Contact Kaiyu Shao through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Asia Dimension Unit, (
(2) ‘From Poor Areas to Poor People: China's Evolving Poverty Reduction Agenda—An Assessment of Poverty and Inequality in China’,World Bank, 5 March 2009,
(3) King, K., ‘China and Africa: New approaches to aid, trade and international cooperation’ General Meeting of
The Comparative Education Research Centre, Hong Kong University, 24 March 2006,
(4) ‘China's African Policy’, People’s Republic of China, 12 January 2006,
(5) Ibid.
(6) Gillespie, S., 2001. South-South Transfer: a study of Sino-African exchanges. Routledge, London.
(7) Gu, J., ‘The Emerging Education Sector in China’s Aid Policy to Africa’, Zhejiang Normal University, 25 January 2007,
(8) ‘Programme for China-Africa cooperation in economic and social development’, Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, October 2000,
(9) Ibid.
(10) Ibid.
(11) ‘Forum on China-Africa cooperation-Addis Ababa Action Plan (2004-2006)’, Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, 16 December 2003,
(12) ‘Sino-African Education Minister Forum issues Beijing Declaration’, Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, 29 November 2005,
(13) Ibid.
(14) ‘Forum on China-Africa Cooperation-Beijing Action Plan (2007-2009)’, Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, 16 November 2006,
(15) ‘Forum on China-Africa Cooperation-Sharm El Sheikh Action Plan (2010-2012)’, Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, 12 November 2009,
(16) Zhang, X., et al., 2004. Educational exchanges and cooperation between China and African countries. West Asia and Africa, 3, pp. 24-28.
(17) Ibid.
(18) Ibid.
(19) Ibid.
(20) King, K., ‘The New Implementation Implications of Aid to Education’, the Symposium of China-Africa Shared Development, 18-19 December 2006,
(21) Chinese Government official website,
(22) Deng, X., 1997. Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Volume II. People’s Publishing House: Beijing.