|The Discourse of Empire as Moral Critique: Unpacking a Controversial Theoretical Object in China-Africa Studies
|2022.01.07 (Fri.) 15:00
Scholars who study China-Africa relations inevitably find themselves asked whether China-Africa relations are a form of “(neo)-colonialism” and/or “imperialism.” However, many China-Africa scholars question these categories’ intellectual usefulness.
At most, “imperialism” is situated in opposition to “South-South cooperation” as one of two grand narratives to be acknowledged, but ultimately set aside in the name of “objective” empirical research. In the context of popular and polarized narratives, this “myth-busting” stance is largely unavoidable. On the other hand, within China-Africa studies, disavowing the term “imperialism” has arguably become a legitimating gesture for establishing a new form of area studies expertise. In this paper, I examine what the intellectual hesitation (as well as insistence) over the use of “imperialism” to describe China-Africa relations reveals about not just China-Africa relations, but also the status of “empire” as a theoretical object for understanding the contemporary world. What are people actually talking about when they use or reject such terms? Is everyone using the same definitions? Based on a critical review of China-Africa scholarship informed by ethnographic fieldwork among Chinese migrant entrepreneurs and their African interlocutors in Tanzania, I examine how “empire,” or “colonialism” are selectively defined to articulate specific claims about power, inequality, (inter)-dependence, and the capacity to be recognized as moral agents.
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