The effective use of China’s soft power in Africa
Africa’s natural resources have long provided allure for China. On the back of large infrastructure investments, concessional loans and grants, China has developed strong trade partnerships with many African countries. In order to deepen ties further and to make its attractiveness less dependent upon its deep pockets, China has sought in recent years to expand its “soft power” in Africa. China’s growing focus on soft power in the region suggests that it is mindful of how these platforms could help to nurture geopolitical allies, export its economic model and values and, perhaps most importantly, make African countries pay heed to China because they want to, and not only because they want to secure funds for their next big infrastructure project.
Primarily, the soft power of any country relies on the appeal of its culture, social and political values and economic model. In combination, these concepts must prove attractive to others in order for influence without coercion to occur. The US, lacking the colonial baggage of many European powers, has often been held in high regard in Africa. Indeed, the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project suggested in 2013 that China still lags behind the US in terms of soft power on the continent. However, the view of China among Africans is largely positive, particularly among younger generations, who admire China’s impressive economic advancements in recent decades and its prowess in scientific and technological fields.
China much more popular in Africa than elsewhere
Africans’ favourable sentiment towards China is particularly evident when compared with the view in other regions of the world. In Europe only 28% of Germans and Italians share a favourable view of China, and in the US an estimated 37% of the population view China in a positive way, according to Pew Research. The unfavourable views of China in Europe and the US have probably been spurred by a number of issues, including unease about the country as a commercial competitor and its protectionist measures, as well as frustration over its non-interference policy in foreign affairs and weak respect for human rights.
In contrast, 72% of Africans view China favourably, with many seeing China’s economic trajectory over the past two decades as an example to follow. The poll shows that large majorities of respondents in Senegal (78%), Kenya (77%), Nigeria (71%) and Ghana (70%) view China as a partner rather than an enemy—much higher than in most other countries. In economic terms, this result proves unsurprising, as China is the second leading trading partner with Ghana and Kenya, the fourth leading partner with Nigeria and the fifth with Senegal. China has also provided significant support for infrastructure projects in those countries, underlining that its attractiveness rests primarily on its economic muscles.
Look and learn
However, China is moving beyond its focus on trade and investment. The development of Chinese media outlets in the region is one such example. The expansion of China’s state media in Africa began in earnest in 2009, when Xinhua—the country’s official news agency—increased its number of news bureaus on the continent to more than 20. In 2008 the news agency also launched its China African News Service to increase reporting on issues of mutual interest, and Xinhua is now an important source of information in many African countries. In 2012 the state-run broadcaster, Chinese Central Television (CCTV), founded CCTV Africa and selected Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, as its first broadcast hub outside its headquarters in Beijing, illustrating its commitment to expanding television coverage on the continent.
Together with the African edition of the state-run English-language newspaper, China Daily, these media outlets have challenged the discourse of long established Western media outlets, which are viewed within China as preserving a monopoly in the region and endorsing negative narratives regarding local Chinese economic motivations. China’s media expansion comes at a time when many Western outlets are scaling down their media presence on the continent. China hopes that the growing reach of Chinese media in Africa will further nurture favourable views of the country and generate less bad press than it has become used to.
Alongside news broadcasting, the airing of Chinese soap operas has become a popular medium through which contemporary Chinese life is publicised. The show Doudou and Her Mothers-in-Law is dubbed in Swahili and has been broadcast across East Africa since 2011, gaining widespread public appeal. Such broadcasts have the ability to serve as a platform to help China to promote its values and culture.
Despite these advances, however, only around one-third of Africans have a positive view of Chinese music, films and television. This is in stark contrast to science and technology—an area in which nearly three-quarters of Africans have a positive view of China, supported by its technological leaps over the past two decades. This seems to be changing amongst younger generations, however; more than 50% of those aged 18-29 in Nigeria and Ghana enjoy Chinese music, television and films, according to Pew Research, suggesting that younger Africans are more open than older generations to what Chinese culture has to offer.
Come and learn
Reinforcing the push behind enhanced Sino-African relations are China’s education and training campaigns in Africa. The development of more than 30 Confucius Institutes across Africa, teaching Mandarin and Chinese culture, lends support to China’s long-term strategy of maintaining the positive attitudes of young Africans towards China. Towards the end of 2013 more than 35,000 African students were studying in China, of which the majority were beneficiaries of a Chinese government scholarship scheme that aims to support African students throughout their education in China. In Ghana the number of students offered scholarships approximately doubled to 111 for the 2013/14 academic year, and up to 15,000 trainees from the continent have been funded since 2007.
The scholarships have lately extended their remit past a focus on language and culture to include scientific and technological fields. By 2013 China had doled out more than 500 scholarships to Rwandan students in the disciplines of engineering, finance, information and communications technology, medicine and agriculture. The African Talents Program was launched in 2012, creating one of the world’s largest short-term training programmes. Its aims are to train an estimated 30,000 African professionals in China between 2013 and 2015 and to speed up the transfer of technology to African countries. Furthermore, up to 18,000 African trainees will profit from full scholarships to study at Chinese universities under the arrangement.
However, while these schemes are presented as signs of China’s generosity, their creation is likely to have been spurred by growing criticism of the country’s poor record on employing locals on its investment projects on the continent. There have been numerous examples of African workers protesting against the treatment they have received from Chinese companies, including low wages, inadequate safety equipment, a lack of training and a ban on union activities, raising fears that China is exporting its own poor labour and employment standards.
Paying for favours
Africa has also become the main recipient of Chinese foreign aid. In July 2014 the country’s second White Paper on foreign aid was released. It reported that aid from China during 2010-12 amounted to an estimated US$14.4bn, of which 51.8% went to African countries. In addition, China has granted debt relief worth hundreds of millions of dollars to African countries. China’s levels of aid are still relatively low in comparison to OECD countries, but many EU countries are now allocating a declining proportion of their aid budgets to African countries. France, for example, which has traditionally been one of the largest donors in Africa, allocated just under 39% of its total bilateral aid budget in 2011-12 to Africa, down from more than 50% in the early 1990s, according to OECD figures.
There are few signs of Chinese aid inflows to the continent waning. This hints at the current limits to China’s soft power in Africa; China’s attractiveness still rests primarily on government-backed multi-billion-dollar schemes. In contrast, the US—which also has large aid programmes in many countries on the continent—is generally seen as an attractive role model regardless of what its government does.
China’s soft power strategy is still young—Hu Jintao, the former Chinese prime minister, identified it as a policy priority in 2007—and its education programmes and media expansion efforts are likely to boost its popularity. Moreover, its presence will continue to be welcomed as a counterbalance to the often paternalistic attitudes of Western aid agencies.
However, anti-Chinese sentiments are brewing across the continent: small-scale traders in Malawi complain that Chinese businessmen are undercutting the businesses; youths in Cameroon lament that Chinese-funded projects employ locals only for the most low-skilled tasks; authorities in Ghana have cracked down on illegal Chinese gold miners; Niger, previously keen to move away from its dependence on France, is now worrying about its growing reliance on China; Zambian workers have complained about exploitation by Chinese employers; activists are criticising Chinese companies’ opaque methods. The list could go on. These examples highlight that as China continues to pursue economic opportunities in Africa, its appeal as a soft power risks fading.
**First appeared in The Economist.