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The study of Latin American politics, history, society and cultures has long shifted from being dominated by North American and European scholars to one defined by scholars from the region itself. Now a new trend may be emerging: over the past five years, centers for the study of Latin America have shot out of the ground at over sixty universities and colleges across the People’s Republic of China. China’s institutions of higher education also have a growing number of Latin American students. By 2017, there were 2,200 Latin Americans studying in Chinese universities, accounting for roughly 1.5% of all international students in the country. Though there’s much progress to be made in terms of Sino-Latin American educational exchange—many of these fledgling departments amount to no more than a single Chinese (or, in some cases, foreign) scholar teaching introductory classes and conducting some research—growing Chinese interest in the region and a variety of funding sources make it likely that the growing Chinese academic interest in the region will continue.
In September 2017, the newly-founded Center for Latin American Studies at Shanghai University, led by veteran scholar Jiang Shixue, brought together many of the sixty-five centers nationwide for an exchange of ideas in Shanghai. The CECLA group (Comunidad de Estudios Chinos y Latinoamericanos), spearheaded by the spirited Guo Cunhai, put together a similar event in Changzhou in mid-November. And on October 30th and 31st, Shanghai University along with the Shanghai Academy hosted a symposium on the “Belt and Road Initiative and China-Latin American Relations” at the University’s Baoshan Campus.
The list of over fifty participants included a string of Chinese researchers with a significant publications record such as Chen Yuanting, Guo Cunhai, Li Renfang, Lu Guozheng, Niu Haibin, Wang Ping, Xie Wenze, Xu Shicheng and Yang Zhimin, to name but a few. From outside China, panelists included Carlos Aquino (Peru), Benjamin Creutzfeldt (Colombia & US), Nicolas Damin (Argentina & China), Enrique Dussel Peters (Mexico), Bernardo Guillamon (IDB), Won-ho Kim (South Korea), Yun-Tso Lee (Chile), José Luís León Manríquez (Mexico), Eduardo Pastrana (Colombia) and Esteban Zottele (Mexico & China), to name only a few. Discussions were held in English and Chinese with simultaneous translation offered, in recognition of the fact that only a negligible number of scholars are proficient in each others’ language, a point sorely noted by a representative of the Venezuelan consulate in the audience.
Five large panels addressed a range of themes. On the topic of policy coordination, there was a wide divergence of views as to the success of coordination: while some emphasized that bilateral high-level dialogues have led to improved institutional relations, many of the international relations scholars insisted that regional bodies such as the China-CELAC Forum need to be formalized or updated to improve bilateral relations.
As for infrastructure connectivity, there was unanimous recognition of the overwhelming deficiencies in Latin America, but also an awareness that the Asian experience will not be replicated in a hurry, due to fundamental structural differences and the political pressure within Latin America to use local labor, which tends to increase time and cost of projects, as well as heightening the risk of corruption and embezzlement. Specifically, the panel agreed that neither the Nicaragua Canal project nor the Transcontinental Railroad through Brazil and Peru are likely to be realized this century.
Trade facilitation is the most well-trodden theme and the discussion on Sino-Latin American economic relations held few surprises, though the Chinese scholars present tended to be more in favor of Free Trade Agreements and less averse to the continued emphasis on resource extraction than their Latin American colleagues. Kim Won-ho of Korea pointed out that 80% of Chinese investment in Latin America is carried out by State-Owned Enterprises, and argued that as a result China is uniquely positioned to push investment in non-primary sectors in order to redress the overall trade imbalance.
The fourth theme, financial cooperation, exposed divergent definitions as to the scope implied, but was nonetheless viewed as the most positive and dynamic area of recent developments—especially visible in Chile. Observers often lament the lack of investment flows from Latin America into China, but this was a notion Li Fusheng pointedly rejected: Latin Americans, he argued, have no culture of saving and with smaller economies their capacity cannot be compared to that of China.
The closing panel on people-to-people exchange generated the liveliest debate. The panelists put forward many proposals to build on bilateral exchange programs, citing it as widely perceived as the most effective manner of improving relations between China and the region. Shanghai University will produce an edited volume based on the panel contributions, for publication in early 2018.
The growth of Latin America study centers at Chinese universities is driven by the country’s Department of Education, supported academically by the Institute of Latin American Studies in Beijing and financially by several provincial governments, and there are efforts underway to coordinate research efforts across the country. Hopefully, this will encourage growing numbers of Latin American scholars of all specialties to join the transpacific exchange and build meaningful dialogue with Chinese universities. If there is such a thing as a knowledge imbalance between countries, this one is fast tipping in favor of China. The intent is that education ministries across Latin America will see the value of higher learning on Pacific Asia, and lean more heavily on the Colegio de Mexico and others to build comparable initiatives across the region.
Benjamin Creutzfeldt is Resident Postdoctoral Fellow on Sino-Latin American-U.S. Affairs at the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University.