Is China’s drive for soft power finally paying off in Africa?

China has been investing massively in efforts to improve how it is perceived by the rest of the world. Although generally still regarded with suspicion in the West, its drive for soft power appears to be gaining traction in Africa.

As the world’s second-largest economy, and with the second-largest military budget, China has long been slated to become as big as, if not bigger, than the US. However, if China wishes to become as influential as the US, military and economic capabilities are not the only means to success in international politics.

Soft power, as defined by Joseph Nye, is the ability to persuade others without the use of coercion or force. 

When spoken to, Associate Professor Heng Yee Kuang, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, illustrated further that soft power is about the power of attraction and it emphasises three things: cultural appeal; political values and norms; foreign policy.

The US has dominated the soft power game in recent decades, due to its technologies, educational institutions, global humanitarian work and cultural exports ranging from movies to fast-food chains. Countries in Asia, such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore, have also recently realised that increasing soft power by promoting their cultural attractions, educational systems and government policies can greatly boost the economy and improve its diplomatic ties with others.

Ten years ago, former Chinese President Hu Jintao recognised the need to establish soft power and announced that Chinese culture would be publicised to enhance its influence. His successor, Xi Jinping, has continued efforts to reconstruct China’s image overseas, with the government spending up to US$10 billion to do so.

Despite the ubiquitous ‘Made in China’ labels which constantly remind us of China’s extensive reach into consumer markets, it still has difficulty in selling itself as a brand. Why is this so?

China’s image problem

China’s attempts to establish its soft power have taken various different forms. Its foremost means of spreading influence has been through the global expansion of its media, such as the Xinhua news agency and the China Global Television Network (formerly CCTV). President Xi has made it clear that these networks should tell China’s stories well. On the popular culture front, Chinese firms such as Dalian Wanda have collaborated with American film studios, and even acquired production houses such as Legendary Media.

One of the reasons that Western pop culture, media outlets and educational institutions tend to be more dominant is because they have invested more in soft power initiatives in the form of educational and cultural agencies such as the United Kingdom’s British Council, France’s Alliance Francaise and Germany’s Goethe Institute. China has in recent times set up their own equivalent of such organisations in the form of Confucius Institutes (CIs). CIs offer Mandarin language classes, cooking classes and hold celebrations of Chinese holidays, and currently number at approximately 500 worldwide.

However, China’s tight control over its media and their narratives is seen as an authoritarian attempt to spread propaganda. Websites such as Twitter and Facebook are banned, and political commentary is heavily censored. The government also allegedly floods the internet with pro-regime propaganda in order to inundate the population with positive news about the country.

CIs are also increasingly viewed as problematic. In the US, investigations revealed that campuses made too many concessions in return for funding from CIs. As the institutes are directly administered by Beijing within existing campuses, there is a fear that they are extensions of the state, offering funding to cash-strapped educational institutions in return for promoting a carefully-controlled narrative of China.

Additionally, China’s human rights track record is often criticised. Many human rights lawyers and activists have been detained, with little access to recourse or information about the length of their detainment. Nobel Prize-winning activist Liu Xiaobo died of terminal cancer this year whilst under custody, and his wife remains under police watch.

Though China has attempted to craft an image of itself, it has had limited success in increasing its appeal to the rest of the world due to the incongruity between its actions and how it wants to be perceived. However, it appears that attitudes towards China may finally be changing in Africa.

China’s growing influence in Africa

In 2016, China was Africa’s biggest trading partner, with trade flow hitting US$150 billion. China has also invested in African oil and mining sectors in return for lucrative trade deals, and Chinese companies there have diversified their business pursuits in infrastructure, manufacturing, telecommunications and agriculture.

China is also the largest non-traditional provider of aid to Sub-Saharan African countries, and has provided the continent with billions of dollars in debt relief. Most aid funding goes towards the transport, energy and communications sectors for infrastructure development, which ultimately benefits locals in the long run.

Public attitude surveys by Afrobarometer, a pan-African, non-partisan research network reveal the changing attitudes towards the economic giant. On average, 63% of Africans view China’s political and economic influence as somewhat or very positive, with countries such as Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Ghana having some of the most positive views of China’s influence. The most frequently cited factor for a positive image of China was its investment in infrastructure or development.

CIs have also been received differently in Africa. The learning opportunities and scholarships they offer to students provide much motivation to those who would not be able to afford tuition fees otherwise. The number of African students studying in China – both those on scholarship and those through their own means – rose from a mere 2000 in 2003, to almost 50,000 in 2015. The increasing learning of Mandarin instead of English is a testament to growing Chinese soft power in Africa.

However, it is well-known that China’s presence in Africa has not been without itsfair share of problems, with accusations of exploitative behaviour, unfair labour practices and a lack of effort to ensure environmental and animal protection. Despite the progress in changing public perception, China is still often met with the suspicion that they are attempting to extend their control into developing countries to gain access to their natural resources and increase political power in the region.

Despite this, African leaders themselves are quick to show their support for China, stating that Chinese development projects get completed in record time compared to those of the World Bank, for example. China has also surpassed other foreign investors as the top job creator in Africa, with more than 60% of Chinese companies offering formal training programmes on skills and safety for local staff.

The key takeaway from China’s experience in Africa is that the Chinese image is better than many Westerners care to believe and its soft power is certainly escalating. However, though the tide appears to be turning in China’s favour, it still has some ways to go in increasing its appeal to the rest of the world.

Clamping down on civil liberties not only perpetuates negative impressions, but heavy regulations and the blocking of Facebook, Twitter, and other Western imports only maintains the divide between itself and other countries. If China wants the world to welcome its soft power, it first also needs to do the same at home.

This piece was written by Prethika Nair.