I recently finished translating The Soul of Latin America: The Cultural and Political Tradition. This book fascinates me with its opening line, “Americans have a hard time understanding Latin America.” It continues, “The United States will do anything for Latin America except read about it.” Those words could apply equally well if one replaces “the United States” in the above sentence with “China,” and would perhaps be even more accurate.
Professor Howard J. Wiarda, the author of The Soul of Latin America, said he wrote the book to “help North Americans understand Latin America.” I translated it to help the Chinese with the same task. In the past two decades, China has become significantly closer to Latin America. There is, however, a big psychological gap, because “regarding Latin America, Chinese people still have more abstract concepts than specific knowledge, more vague impressions than exact experience,” as Li Shenzhi, former vice president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has said.
Ten years ago, China-Latin America relations began to warm up. Unfortunately, Chinese understanding of the region did not follow accordingly, despite China seemingly having made some specific efforts to accomplish this goal.
The beginning of the 21st century saw the rapid expansion of Spanish and Portuguese language courses in China. As of 2018, on the Chinese mainland, there were more than 100 universities that offered Spanish as a major, eight times as many as in 1999. The number of universities offering Portuguese rose from two to more than 40 during the same period. In addition, research centers focusing on Latin America flourished. In 2010, the Chinese Ministry of Education launched the Area and Country Studies Bases program; more importantly, the ministry established the Interim Measures for Building Area and Country Studies Bases in 2015. As a result, the centers dedicated to Latin America boomed in China. By 2018, China had 60 centers studying Latin America or its countries, of which 70% were founded in the past five years.
The new boom, however, lacks solid foundations. The Spanish and Portuguese courses offered in China disproportionately focus on literature or the languages, and fail to provide the social, historical and cultural context as an integral part of language learning. We may blame this unsatisfactory outcome on the traditional methods of teaching foreign languages, but more importantly, such courses often do not have teachers who have a well-rounded understanding of Spanish — and Portuguese — speaking countries. Therefore, the graduates in these courses often lack a thorough understanding of Latin American countries.
On the other hand, the 60 Latin American centers have not yet helped the Chinese get in touch with the “soul” of Latin America. Two reasons contribute to this: lack of capable researchers and imbalance of research fields.
Lack of research directly results from most of the research centers having no independent funding or management, since they are affiliated with either Spanish and Portuguese departments or international relations departments. The former hosting department usually has insufficient research capacity while the latter does not speak much of either two languages. Within any center, only a handful of people are enthusiastic and capable of carrying out Latin American studies. In extreme cases, some centers have produced no research for many years.
Latin American studies programs in China almost exclusively focus on three fields: politics, economics and diplomacy. This concentration occurs because most centers of study strive to become think tanks that are relevant to Chinese decision-makers. There is a belief that these practical areas of study are more relevant and urgent to this audience than “softer” subjects such as history, culture, law, society, race and communities, as well as the environment and labor — which would help provide a more profound vision of why Latin American politics and economics operate the way they do. Indeed, this imbalance in research is both the cause and symptom of China’s deficit in understanding the region.
China must be acutely aware that it needs a deep understanding of Latin America and, more importantly, a pathway to quickly channel that awareness into action. There is no doubt that China-Latin America relations will continue their rapid development from the last decade, but if both parties fail to appreciate the other’s code of conduct, they run the risk of causing friction or even conflict as they grow closer. In recent years, China has faced more and more challenges in Latin America involving the environment, labor and indigenous communities, among others.
These challenges are becoming increasingly pressing, and although they may be caused by external, objective factors, they demonstrate that China has a critical shortage of understanding of Latin America’s history, ideas, laws and cultural and political traditions. These deficits have prevented China from forming a deep understanding of Latin America, making it difficult to clarify the historical logic and laws that shape the dynamics and trends of Latin America today. Hence, the lack of cultural understanding will limit the sustainability of China-Latin America relations and pose a major challenge to China’s continued and stable presence in Latin America.
Moreover, the implication of a cultural understanding goes beyond practical considerations. It is more important for the Chinese to consciously empathize, to understand Latin America on its own terms, and to articulate the values in a common destiny. The demand for academics is that we must free ourselves from “pragmatic” research. Instead of focusing on studying Latin America’s failures to help China avoid “Latin Americanization” and middle-income traps, we must objectively analyze and work to understand diversities within the region. Our framework for collaboration should no longer be based on imagined stereotypes of the other side, but on a consensus reached through deep understanding.
Cunhai is the founder and director of the Community of Chinese and Latin American Studies as well as director of the Department of Social and Cultural Studies at the Institute of Latin American Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.