The Silent China: Toward an Anti-Essentialism Approach for South–South Encounters

Weidi Zheng


China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has encountered much backlash locally and internationally and had different, conflicting versions of media reality. While China-led mass-mediated efforts overseas have gained much scholarly attention, this article examines the on-the-ground meaning-making process of China’s presence in Africa by using the 2016–2017 Maasai attacks against a Chinese construction site in Kenya, part of a BRI project, as an ethnographic example. It is found that, although “China–Africa,” “predator–partner,” and “hegemon–subaltern” binaries appear dominant in academic and media representation, Maasai demonstrators articulated China’s activities into Kenya’s dominant discourses of ethnicity, indigenous rights, and the political-economic complex. Whether aware of these complicities or not, Chinese, Kenyan, and international media are each seeking the China–Africa “reality” within their own “regime of truth” uncritically, which fosters mutual skepticism. An anti-essentialism approach is proposed to capture the fluid, uncertain subjective positions, and power dynamics within South–South encounters.


China–Africa, BRI, South–South communications, media, journalism, labor, ethnicity, Standard Gauge Railway

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