W.E.B. Du Bois’ China Africa Prophecy Part 1


“Come to China, Africa, and look around. Invite Africa to come, China, and see what you can teach just by pointing,” said W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois, a prolific scholar and tireless activist, was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. A pioneer in the field of American sociology, Du Bois was a brilliant social scientist who penned America’s first book on urban sociology, The Philadelphia Negro.

Amongst Du Bois’ many gifts was an interdisciplinary approach to the social sciences and the humanities long before the term was even used. We see the flowering of Du Bois’ artistry and genius in his most consequential and enduring book, The Souls of Black Folk. Even after one hundred years since its original publication date in 1903, The Souls of Black Folk remains the most eloquent testimony about the resisliance and dignity of African American history and culture.

Du Bois first visited China in 1936 a few years after he left the NAACP where he served as the founding editor-in-chief of The Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP and one of the most influential journals in African American history. His second and third visits to China were in 1959 and 1962, respectively. During his final visit to China, Du Bois attended the National Day Ceremony at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, which commemorates the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1st 1949. One year later, August 27th 1963, on the eve of the monumental March on Washington, Du Bois died in Accra, Ghana.



Du Bois made his suggestion for Chinese and African cooperation during a speech that he delivered at Peking University on February 23, 1959. On that occasion, Du Bois was honored with an official state banquet hosted by Premier Zhou Enlai where he celebrated his 91st birthday in China. Chairman Mao Zedong also hosted Du Bois at his summer villa. At the height of the Cold War, he and his wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, spent about 10 weeks touring the People’s Republic of China, which was only a decade old.

Through his eyes, China and Africa were natural allies in the struggle against imperialism and for peaceful development. Du Bois noted: “Africa does not ask alms from China nor from the Soviet Union nor from France, Britain, nor from the United States. It asks friendship and sympathy and no nation better than China can offer this to the Dark Continent. Let it be freely given and generously. Let Chinese visit Africa; send their scientists there and their artists and writers. Let Africa send its students to China and its seekers after knowledge. It will not find on earth a richer goal, a more promising mine of information.”

China, however, had extended the invitation to African students before Du Bois’ suggestion. In 1956, four students from Egypt were sent to China. 1956 also marked the year that Egypt and China established diplomatic relations. It should be noted that the year 1956 internationally was a moment in history which was characterized by intense political struggles. One of these flash points was the Suez Canal crisis, which was triggered when the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. The Suez Canal, built in the late nineteenth century to reduce the travel time from the Far East to Europe, was jointly controlled by Britain and France.

By 1960, the number of African students increased to approximately 95 students as the African independence explosion following World War II and the Bandung Conference gained momentum. This group had now included students from fourteen African nations that had just gained their independence. However, those numbers were drastically reduced during the years of the Cultural Revolution when Chinese universities were closed down from 1966 to 1976.


With the period of economic reforms and opening up ushered in by China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, those numbers increased dramatically. For example, in 2003, there were approximately 2,000 African students studying in China. And by 2016, there were over 61,594 African students studying various disciplines ranging from accounting to zoology.

According to a 2018 CNN report, China has replaced the United States as the second destination in the world for African students to acquire higher education. However, France still remains the number one destination for African students in pursuit of degrees. Approximately 95,000 Africans are seeking degrees from its universities.

Currently, Ghana is the African country that has the most students studying in China with over 7,000 studying across China’s 32 provinces. It is anticipated that these numbers will only increase as China’s President Xi Jinping announced at the 2018 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation that over the next three years, China will award scholarships to over 50,000 African students studying in China.

African students are studying all across China. Some are studying in large cosmopolitan cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Many others, however, are studying in smaller cities like Wuhan, Changsha and Wenzhou, amongst others. For example, in China’s smallest province Hainan, there are over 80 students from Ghana.

What is interesting about higher education in China is that a number of degree programs are in English. In some disciplines like medicine, however, students are required to gain Mandarin proficiency. These programs usually provide one year of full-time Mandarin instruction before the students can enroll in the degree courses. Other programs offer Mandarin courses concurrently with the degree courses.


Many programs like medicine, however, require that their graduates earn the HSK 3 level of Mandarin proficiency before graduation. This is because during their final year, medical students have to consult with patients daily, which means that they will have to be able to communicate in Mandarin.

The HSK exam is an internationally recognized standardized test, which evaluates Chinese proficiency for non-native speakers. The HSK exam is divided into six levels. Levels 1 and 2 are primary level; Levels 3 and 4 are intermediate; and Levels 5 and 6 are advanced. The HSK exam is administered several times a year in China as well as in other parts of the world.


One of the most intriguing observations about African students in China is how prophetic Du Bois’ words, “see what you can teach by pointing” have proved to be. For what African students experience in China are not just lectures, exams or laboratory experiments. Rather African students are also witnessing a society that is in the midst of a great transformation.

During various holidays, African students like their Chinese classmates are traveling across China via high-speed trains and paying for tickets and other expenses via We Chat or Ali Pay, all of which are made in China. These rapid developments in transportation, communications and infrastructure are having an impact on the consciousness of African students. Consequently this generation of Africans educated in China will probably gain a new set of reference points and this in turn can impact how they creatively use Africa’s untapped potential.

Indeed, African students are learning so much by just pointing in China. They can point to the Great Wall and they can also point to the high-speed train network, the largest in the world spanning over 25,000 kilometers (15,534 miles). African students can also learn even more by asking questions like: what enabled the Chinese people to develop their society so rapidly in the past seventy years? What lessons can African people learn from China’s struggle for development and modernization?

In “Du Bois’ China Africa Prophecy Part 2,” I will explore some of the reasons why African students want to study in China.