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Chinese ‘Linguistic Coup’ in East Africa


As part of its goal to displace American influence, China is winning linguistic hearts in East Africa (a bloc of 300 million people), by publishing the Xi Jinping Thought propaganda book in the local Swahili language. Millions of Swahili speakers in East and Central Africa are sampling China’s ruler’s thoughts in their native language.

Xi’s Brain
“We love it, picking Chairman Xi’s brain in the Swahili language,” said Suleimani Konjo, coordinator of the Chinese–Tanzania Friendship Forum, an informal lobby group in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the region’s second-largest economy.

Swahili is a mass indigenous African dialect spoken by nearly 200 million people in the East African communities of countries that comprise Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, and Burundi. It is also the largest native language on the entire African continent. Colloquially called the Latin of Africa, Swahili mixes foreign Arabic words with African dialects. And China has set its sights on Swahili.

In mid-August, the Swahili-language version of The Governance of China was launched. This provides the reference basis for the propaganda book, the full title of which is Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.

“The publication of the book will 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,” explained a statement from the State Council Information Office, a ministry in the People’s Republic of China, in August.

Often called Xi Jinping Thought, the propaganda book is a mandatory read for China’s civil servants extolling the totalitarian system in China that Xi presides over. And it’s creeping into East Africa.

“We are excited that Chairman Xi’s thoughts will be distributed in the Swahili language here in Tanzania, and we will send the booklets to primary and secondary school children,” Benard Kamiru, an education secretary in Tanzania’s Ministry of Education, told Language Magazine.

Ahead of translation of Xi’s propaganda, the countries of Tanzania, Kenya, and Rwanda sent university language scholars to shadow the process in China so that any translation from Mandarin accurately matches the meaning in the African Swahili language, Kamiru says.

“Because of British, German, and French colonialism in East Africa, we were forced to read books by American and British presidents, authors, the Churchills, Roosevelts, Shakespeare—and they were never translated into Swahili language. We feel so honored and respected that a major power like the Chinese wants to put their president’s thoughts in our Swahili language,” said Dedan Winjoro, a diplomacy director in the Kenya Foreign Affairs ministry and a former diplomat of Kenya to China.

US–China Duel
East Africa—the Swahili-speaking bloc—is a region where the US is trailing China in public appeal and financial deals, and cultural resistance to English is growing.

China is the major financial aid giver to East African countries, and the China Road and Bridge Corporation has built gigantic infrastructure projects like the $3.8 billion railway line in Kenya. In East Africa’s leading economies like Kenya, China owns 70% of the countries’ debt, thus underlining Beijing’s march on the region. Apart from being located at the mouths of globally vital seaways like the Red Sea, East Africa is also home to some of the world’s most precious cobalt, graphite, and lithium rare earth metals, thus cementing the region as a key strategic point for Washington and Beijing.

“China is super smart and calculative,” Yasin Kakande, East Africa expert and author of Why We Are Coming, told Language Magazine. “Pushing Chairman Xi’s propaganda book to school-age children in East Africa in the Swahili language shows Beijing is out to shape attitudes not only among bureaucrats but ordinary people walking the streets. It’s a linguistic coup Beijing is attempting.” Deogracias Kalima

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