• Title: Travelling with Big Brother: A Reporter’s Junket in China
  • Author: Solomon Elusoji
  • Publisher: Question Marker
  • Number of pages: 158
  • Year of publication: 2019
  • Category: Travel/Nonfiction

A lot of Nigerians encountered China through its movies and low-grade products which enabled them to acquire utilities that would normally cost an arm and a leg. The Orwellian model of China is usually lost on many Nigerians. We are further exposed to China by the Western world, which transferred its skepticism about China to us in order to foster its own cultural hegemony. Solomon Elusoji’s Travelling with Big Brother: A Reporter’s Junket in China offers us an alternative glimpse into China.

In 2006, former President Olusegun Obasanjo gave an address to the former president of China, Hu Jintuo, which informs us of the economic power and international relations between China and Africa and the recognition of the exponential growth of China in the global economy. China is a great power in Asia, and a longstanding impenetrable fortress against outside culture. As Solomon Elusoji relates in his book, China’s closed-door policy led to the brief rise of Japan. Now, China has opened herself to the rest of the world in business, trade, technology transfer, in a nature that can be best described as an enclave. It aggressively protects Chinese culture and communist ideals, and has involved the rest of the world with China only as a matter of international necessity – on trade, technology, and hegemonic tourism.

Solomon Elusoji takes on this seemingly impenetrable fortress in Travelling with Big Brother, which is both a travelogue and a commentary on China-Africa Relations. It is a robustly engaging book on the history of China and the outstanding civilization restored and managed by the Communist government of China. Elusoji visits Hainan, Hubei, Wuhan, Yibin, Zuhai, Shenzhen, Zhonglio Village, Guangzhou,  Shanghai, Beijing, taking in the sights and sounds, the unique culture, and the socioeconomic transformation of these cities. Elusoji comes in contact with the prolific grasp of the Chinese leaders to control, manage, close, blacken out cities – like they did in Wuhan, when faced with COVID-19 – and the capacity for its leaders to rejuvenate, revamp and create functional societies who cherish their unique identities and thrive in competitive growth. 

Elusoji is a freelance journalist in Nigeria, one of the brilliant displaced middle-class Nigerians who keeps holding his head high despite the vicissitudes of economy, social expectations and infrastructural decay.  Elusoji was freelancing for a newspaper at the time of this cultural diplomatic opportunity to travel to China to learn about its culture, its media, politics, and its governance through a Master’s Degree in Global Journalism at Renim University. This he relates to his friend, Elizabeth, in a part-diary, part-travelogue form, without shying away from the hard questions about the Chinese style of governance, the apparent silences of communism and the palpable fear of returning to a country that is unapologetically a ‘hell hole’ and a ‘home’.

When Elusoji reaches China, the migrant survivalist tendencies kick in. He begins a search for communities and people who come from Africa or Nigeria, friendship with Africans in the journalism programme. He engages the Nigerian embassy and locates himself within the music of his people, he attends church for social purposes and joins the internet community of Nigerians where braggadocio, unruly commentary and Nigerianness is evoked.

He also discovers a Nigerian restaurant and engages the owner, who declares his detachment from the homeland. This detachment is doublespeak because of the tightropes that still retain his soul in the country, leading to frustrations – but there remains the anger against a country that has failed its citizens. This disillusionment against Nigeria by Nigerians-in-diaspora is dangerous. It promotes and enables discrimination by her host, but it can only change when government becomes responsive and responsible, transparent and patriotic. There is no point demanding patriotism from your citizens when it is clear that the leaders are inept, corrupt, insensitive, inefficient, and have led us into the abyss of riveting strife, hunger, and poverty because they are not patriotic. As much as Elusoji notes that China’s racialism is ‘exotic’ and ‘curious’ of Africans (as in South Korea), it is important to note that an African may not be given a professional job when he is in competition with a white person, even if he may be more qualified than the white person. The Chinese outlook of Africans, from Elusoji’s scholarly explorations and interviews, suggests that the Chinese see Africans as hapless minions, cocooned in their nations to be helped and civilized by a superior culture.

China insists that it has always been fair to Africa and had liberated ‘the coloured peoples’ (as it referred to Africans and other non-white peoples, including the Chinese) from the whites through its subversiveness, Elusoji hints that China’s relations with Japan and Taiwan may not be palatable. A cursory look at the history of China is not complete without the engagement of China’s relations with its neighbors; Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Taiwan, Sri-Lanka, Mongolia, Vietnam, and Malaysia, amongst others. China usually has the upperhand. For African countries who are opening their borders, economy and heart to China, it is instructive to be observant — how a man treats his neighbours shows the true character of his personality.

The Chinese governance structure, Elusoji writes, is a dictatorial circus that presents itself as transparent and accountable. Its legislature does not have ample autonomy and the people have only limited political voice in the municipalities. China realizes that it needs to put up a diplomatic front that enables exchanges with other countries despite its implicit haughtiness, and its racialism borne of its superiority complex. Elusoji brings us closer to the fact that at the core of China’s expansion and cosmopolitan development is cultural preservation and cultural pride. He describes how in the spirit of cultural diplomacy, China has also set up the Confucius Institute to help engage a growing African middle class, its intellectuals, scholars and artists in the same ways some western powers have:

‘In 2004, the first Confucius Institute appeared in Seoul, South Korea. The Institute’s stated goal is to promote language and culture, support local Chinese teaching internationally, and facilitate exchanges like the UK’s British Council, France’s Alliance Francais and German’s Goethe-Institute, it was another sign that China was ready to embrace the world, in a bear hug. As of December 2017, there were 525 Confucius Institutes and 1,113 Confucius Classrooms in 146 countries and territories around the world. At least three are in Nigeria’ (p 102-103)

However, China’s imperialism is a conversation with Africa’s leaders. It is not the 1885 balkanisation of Africa’s territories by the West; it is a contract borne out of interactions such as the China-Africa Consultative Forum, which has been buoyant since 2000. The responsibility of African governments, leaders and technocrats is to make sure that Africans are not led into another era of the IMF Structural Adjustment Programme, which led to the devaluation of our currencies, gross poverty and underdevelopment of our peoples, and deficits in systems and infrastructure that undermine strong sovereign nations. The question of transparency, accountability and patriotism is put forward in Elusoji’s explication of Africa’s embrace of China’s loans and grants.

Nostalgia is a strong trope of Elusoji’s narrative, as with most travel narratives, and it leads him to compare the infrastructural developments of China to that of Nigeria. He questions the validity of human rights freedoms enjoyed by Nigerians in a faux-democracy while comparing the wealth, long-life and happiness enjoyed by the majority of the Chinese in the hands of iron-fisted communist control. He eventually submits that democracy in whatever shape or colouration was better than any shade of authoritarian rule.

This engagement of a one-party state system and the growth of China led him to interview Nigerians such as Chris Okeke, founder of the Conscious Africa Network, who is sold to China’s political and social systems, and is fast becoming a middleman for Chinese expansionist ideas. Most Nigerians in China are there because they are disappointed by Nigeria and Nigeria’s governance. They are unable to create a future in the corruption, nepotism and injustice that has besmirched Nigeria for many years. In an attempt to live in a better socioeconomic condition, many have come to embrace the authoritarian prowess of China as a beacon to emulate in Africa, lending a voice to the fact that people do not need to rely heavily on the national cake when the enabling environment is created for businesses to thrive. China has the fastest growing e-commerce, the biggest functional hydroelectric power infrastructure by harnessing the Yangtze river, China’s investment in effective public-private partnerships has taken millions of Chinese locals out of poverty, it has rebuilt environmental ecosystems to foster tourism and has invested in education; all these are backed up by statistics in Elusoji’s observations. There is a lot our leaders can learn from China, far more than dragging generations of Africans into indebtedness that may remain unpaid due to corrupt habits. It is up to our leaders to negotiate with China for Africa’s growth, sovereignty and prosperity or to sell Africa to China for long-term peanuts.

It was a learning curve for Solomon Elusoji who has come close to observing the workings of power, the cultivation of the people’s trust through education, models, proofs and national pride. Elusoji looks back at his country and his continent and delivers to generations forewarnings about the tendencies of Chinese imperialism without shying away from the fact of China’s beauty, infrastructure development necessitated by consistent, philosophic and rounded governance policies. As the reader vicariously travels with Elusoji as his guide, one is also tempted to pack his bag and opt for the tragedy of silence in order to embrace prosperity.

Finally, it should be noted Elusoji’s journalism interferes with the narration, leaving no room for suspense. He often provides a phase of a narration that is brought to a close within the immediate pages and needlessly interjects with statistical reports. The absence of the anticipatory element that drives storytelling takes the ease of reading off the book. Nevertheless, this is cushioned with his eye for details, dry humour, and penchant to explicate thoughtful observations about China and life in China. Elusoji also understands the tools of language: his metaphors are brilliant,  his introductory sentences keep you turning the pages. Elusoji’s tenacity to document, research and tell stories needs to be lauded; it is the passion for the craft and bravery that makes one harvest stories and attempt to tell the truth when one is funded and pampered by the agencies of the communist state.

Femi Morgan is a writer, editor, curator, and media professional. He earned his Master’s Degree in African-Diaspora and Transnational Studies from the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan. He is the author of Renegade, Whispers, and three other books of poetry. He is the founder and curatorial director of Artmosphere Nigeria, arts, culture, and social conversation event, and curatorial advisor at Griots and Bards, a spoken word, visual arts, and social conversation monthly event. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria.

Cover photo credit: Faisal Aljunied