China has published the official political doctrine often known as the Xi Jinping Thought, in Swahili. And the move may mean the millions of Swahili speakers in East and Central Africa could get the tale of China’s transformation into a language they know.
Yet the book itself may be an extension of Beijing’s cultural influence abroad. This week, officials from Kenya and the Chinese government gathered in Nairobi to launch the first portion of the book. Known formally as theXi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, it has been published in various editions.
It was originally available in Chinese from 2012 but has since been translated into 37 languages across the globe in 180 countries.
The volume in Swahili is from the first edition on the Governance of China by Chinese.
The Chinese Embassy in Nairobi indicated the translation is an important marker of China’s 60 years of diplomatic relations with Kenya and that it could help African readers understand the historical backgrounds and cultural roots of China's path of development, the governing philosophy of the Communist Party of China and the Chinese wisdom about building a better world.
Some observers say the translation helps deepen people-to-people exchanges.
“The Swahili version is a bold attempt to share with Africa, the great lessons from China’s recent modernisation,” argued Prof Peter Kagwanja, CEO of the Africa Policy Institute.
“This is at a time Africa is grappling with the ideals and challenges of a rebirth after centuries of slavery, slave trade, colonisation and lingering neo-colonialism.” According to him, Africans can learn one or two things about the concept of consensus building and harmony as a path to prosperity.
The Kenya Literature Bureau and the Chinese Foreign Languages Press jointly worked on the translation.
“It is more than a launch. It is a symposium of diplomacy,” Peninah Malonza, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Tourism, Wildlife and Heritage told guests at the launch at the University of Nairobi on August 14, 2023.
By teaching Swahili in their academic institutions, China paves the road to a cultural understanding, a road that leads to tourism, trade and the bridging of hearts across East Africa and China.” Among the audience was Mr Hu Heping Chinese Minister for Culture and Tourism, and also the Deputy Head of Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee.
But far from a cultural gesture, some experts say the Chinese government is tapping into a growing language to advance its influence abroad.
“It plays into the greater vision of China’s public diplomacy, especially to Swahili-speaking countries like Kenya. It also means the philosophy will be widely accessible to countries where China is seeking deep ties,” said Dr Cavince Adhere, a China-Africa analyst in Nairobi.
Dr Adhere says the idea of translating the book means China is keen to tell its story in languages people understand, as well as signal an appreciation of different cultures.
“In a way, it allows a normal reader to understand China’s development path. Many African leaders are dazzled by China’s transformation. Few go into details. The translation can change that,” he told Nation.Africa.
Swahili is the only African indigenous language that is also the official language at the African Union. It is spoken mostly in East and Central Africa, with at least 200 million people fluent in the language. But institutions across the world are now teaching it as a foreign language.
In China, the book is taught in schools and is often referred to in media commentary. Since 2018, it has been added to the Chinese Communist Party. It lists 14 guiding principles for the Chinese Nation, the Communist Party, and President Xi himself.
While Xi promises to elevate China’s prosperity, it is banked on the traditional Chinese socialist values which he argues will help rejuvenate China as a global power.
The Chinese often refuse the accusation translating the book is meant to export those Thoughts abroad or seek an international model that could favour China. So far, the Chinese have become the biggest bilateral trading partners in Africa. And in spite of debt criticism, the contribution of Beijing has generally been accepted as good for development in Africa.
“China plays an important role in the development of African countries’ infrastructure, and President Xi, in most cases, has put forward the concept of community with shared values, which to him, sees sharing development needs as a key component of many African countries’ achievements,” said Dr Daniel Oloo, a lecturer of Journalism and Mass Media at Mount Kenya University.
“African countries may tend to lean towards China for this kind of opportunity. One of Xi’s projects is the Belt and Road Initiative, a $1 trillion programme launched in 2013 and meant to build connecting infrastructure to help expand trade between China and its partners abroad. Some 44 African countries signed on it," he added.
Yet the Thought doesn’t depart from the Chinese ideology under the Communist Party. Instead, it is supposed to build on the previous party ideologies. China had initially been broadcasting certain programmes in Swahili, on China Radio International. And some Universities teach it as a foreign language.