Deeply involved in Africa for 20 years, has China won the hearts of African people?

At a time when many countries in the Asia-Pacific, Europe and the United States have harshly condemned China for serious human rights violations in Xinjiang, some African governments have expressed support for China. Observers point out that China has been investing heavily in Africa for 20 years, and while it has gained official African support in international politics, it has not been very successful in terms of projecting results in terms of soft power, i.e., winning the hearts and minds of the African population and gaining the trust of Africans. Africans recognize more the American model of development and the Western culture. They also point out that in Africa, China’s soft power exports are usually associated with material benefits, which is not sustainable.

African Countries Support China’s Policies in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet

On May 14, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying exclaimed at a press conference, ” …… We do feel that China and Africa share strong resonance on many issues and are truly good friends and brothers.”

She was responding to a question from a domestic Chinese journalist about what he thought of an article published by Gerald Mbanda, founder of the Africa China Review website, “Why African Countries Support China and Oppose the West on Human Rights Issues. In the article, Mbanda pointed out that the allegations of “‘genocide’ and ‘forced labor’ in Xinjiang by the U.S. and other countries are big lies, and the real purpose is to attack China’s internal affairs and undermine its development “

Mbanda is a Rwandan journalist with deep ties to China. In addition to the media elite, African governments have aligned themselves with the Chinese government on the Xinjiang issue.

In March, at an event in Beijing titled “Xinjiang in the Eyes of African Ambassadors,” the ambassadors of Burkina Faso, the Republic of Congo and Sudan praised the Chinese authorities’ policies in Xinjiang, saying that China was improving the living standards of the people there. They also questioned the Western accusations against China as having ulterior motives.

In addition, in June 2020, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) held a vote in Geneva on the controversial Hong Kong state security law, in which 25 African countries supported the Chinese authorities. In October of the same year, not a single African country co-sponsored a joint statement in which Western countries participated, severely condemning China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet.

Africa’s “speculative embrace” and distrust of China

However, China’s heavy investment in Africa’s economy, culture, education and media, as opposed to its international political and geopolitical success, has not translated into trust among African populations, and in some countries, China’s presence has caused resistance and resentment.

Maria Repnikova, associate professor of political science at Georgia State University, recently told a seminar on China’s soft power projection in Africa at the Wilson Center for Scholars, a U.S. think tank, that if the measure of the effectiveness of China’s soft power projection in Africa is the votes China gets from African countries in international organizations, especially the United Nations, then China undoubtedly is successful. However, if the measure is genuine recognition of China by the African public, then China’s approach is not so effective.

If the measure is building a deep trust and intimacy with China, changing local perceptions of China, and bridging the gap between China’s economic rise and the negative image that comes with that rise, then these Chinese approaches are less effective,” she said. More often than not, it is ambiguous.”

In the last two decades, as China has increased its trade, investment and aid to Africa (in 2021, China has become the top direct investor in Africa), it has also increased its investment in Africa’s soft power, mainly in culture, education and training, and media investment.

During the 2018 Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, Chinese leader Xi Jinping pledged to set up 10 Luban workshops in Africa to provide vocational skills training to African youth; train 1,000 elite talents for Africa; and provide 50,000 Chinese government scholarships and 50,000 training and training places for Africa. The generous treatment given by China to African students has even caused resentment among Chinese students.

Culturally, China has established several Confucius Institutes in Africa. As of June 2019, China has set up 59 Confucius Institutes and 41 Confucius Classrooms in 44 African countries.

In addition, China’s state media has expanded its presence in Africa in order to tell the “China story”. As of 2018, China’s CCTV has 14 studios in Africa and Xinhua News Agency has more than 30 branch offices. In addition to this, China has invested directly in media in more than 30 African countries to train their journalists.

However, these Chinese efforts have not made ordinary Africans love China and trust it more. According to Georgia State University’s Lipnikova, China’s soft power projection has at best resulted in “speculative embrace” and more “isolation and mistrust. Lepnikova once specialized in China’s soft power projection in Ethiopia. Ethiopia, a large African country with a large population, is an important stop on China’s Belt and Road project. Lipnikova has interviewed Ethiopian government officials, elites and academics, including Ethiopians who have received short- or long-term training in China.

She said Ethiopians told her that the training and study programs China offers Africans in China not only give them a sense of the speed of China’s economic development, but also of the “sharp edges” of the Chinese system.

Lepnikova said that an Ethiopian who had trained in China told her that she had been suspected by the Chinese organizers of being from the United States when she asked them how to deal with the pollution that Chinese factories were causing to Ethiopia’s environment. After he repeatedly emphasized that he was from Ethiopia, the organizers chose to ignore his question. Lepnikova said she was told by many Ethiopians that when the topic was about human rights, the environment and pollution, the Chinese response was to avoid it.

Lepnikova said China’s response has made many Ethiopians fear that the “win-win” situation China has promised Ethiopia may not be equal or reciprocal. When it comes to relations with China, she said, the main theme of concern for Ethiopians is that China’s relationship with Ethiopia is not equal and needs to be renegotiated to better terms.

Lepnikova said the democracy and freedom that China preaches is also confusing to Ethiopians studying in China. She said Ethiopians privately ask, “To what extent is China more open than Ethiopia? Some, especially in the media, sympathize with their counterparts in China who are not free.

According to Lipnikova, China’s Confucius Institute in Ethiopia best illustrates Africa’s “opportunistic embrace” of China. Many Ethiopians are drawn to Confucius Institutes not because of the appeal of Chinese culture, she says, but because learning the language leads to better-paying jobs.

The language and cultural exchange at Confucius Institutes is rooted more in strategic interests than in cultural immersion,” she said. The deans of Ethiopian universities, who have accepted the cooperation of Confucius Institutes because of their economic prospects, have also been outspoken in saying that if the material benefits dry up, these institutes will be closed down soon.”

She argues that this linkage to material benefits, rather than to culture and values, leaves China’s soft power projection lacking in follow-through. Indeed, when it comes to aid to Africa or other countries, Chinese officials are fond of the “China Opportunity Theory,” which emphasizes the material benefits that can come from ties with China.

In terms of media investment, although China’s official media has increased its investment, China Central Television and China Daily have a limited audience in Africa. Some African media outlets also use content provided by Chinese media, but in other countries, including South Africa and Kenya, where Chinese media presence is high, media professionals are generally skeptical of the credibility of Chinese media and prefer to accept Western media narratives.

Reports about Chinese policy in Xinjiang also differ from the official Chinese narrative in some African countries. For example, on May 5, the Senegalese newspaper Nanfang Daily reprinted a similarly titled BBC article, “Why African Countries Support China Against the West on Human Rights”. According to the article, African countries do so because of their dependence on China for trade, investment and aid. The article was reprinted and the Chinese embassy in Senegal was infuriated, immediately rebutting it with an article in the same newspaper titled “This is why African countries support China on human rights”.

At the beginning of the year, Jeune Afrique Media Group’s Africa Report website predicted that in 2021, as China’s relations with other regions deteriorate, African countries will be used as “pawns” by China The website of Jeune Afrique Media Group’s Africa Report predicted at the beginning of the year that in 2021, as China’s relations with other regions deteriorate, African countries will be used as “pawns” by China to support its controversial positions on Xinjiang, Taiwan, Tibet and the South China Sea.

Africa wants to copy the Chinese experience? The Chinese model is not the first choice for young people

When it comes to China’s influence in Africa, the official Chinese propaganda is that African countries want to replicate China’s development experience. To advance the Chinese model, China also teaches political parties in Africa about China’s experience in economic development and political management through political party training programs.

China invites Africans to classes at Chinese educational or training institutions, takes them on field trips to local governments to gain first-hand experience, and talks with local officials, farmers and entrepreneurs; as well as cultural training programs that familiarize participants with traditional Chinese culture. In addition to this, China has included future African political leaders. Young African elites receive special attention and funding for training from the Chinese government.

However, the younger generation in Africa is not impressed by China. According to a study released in November 2020 by Afrobarometer, an African polling organization, young Africans (between the ages of 18 and 35) prefer the United States and its development model. Around the question of which country’s development model is preferred, 32% of African respondents chose the United States, 23% chose China, 11% chose the former suzerain countries (UK, France, Portugal) and 11% chose South Africa.

Comparing the U.S. and Chinese development models, the U.S. is more popular in 13 of the 18 African countries studied, with the widest gap especially in these countries: in Sierra Leone, 55 percent prefer the U.S. model and only 13 percent prefer China, a difference of 42 percentage points; in Cape Verde, this gap is 29 percentage points; Angola, 27 percentage points; Kenya; 20 percentage points in Ghana, 18 points, Uganda, 18 points, and Ethiopia, 16 points; the Chinese development model is only more popular in three countries: Mali, Burkina Faso, and Botswana.

The survey also found that 77% of people know that loans from China have to be repaid. 58% of the population believes the government borrows too much from China. Seventy-one percent said English is the most important international language young people must learn, while 2 percent said Chinese is important.

Emmanuel Matambo, of the Center for China-Africa Studies at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, pointed out at a seminar at the Wilson Center for Scholars that some Africans and governments are not actively following China, but often it is African countries that do not have a choice. He stressed: “Culturally, we are more fascinated by the West than by China.

According to Georgia State University’s Lipnikova, such an Africa would be beneficial to the Biden administration. After the Biden administration took office, the governments of Nigeria and South Africa congratulated Biden “in advance” on his election and expressed their desire to strengthen cooperation with the new U.S. administration.

Official to Official, African People’s “Top Back” to China

Georgia State University’s Lipnikova stressed that when it comes to the effects of China’s soft power projection, it is also important to distinguish between the African elite and ordinary people. She says that while African elites may be critical of China in private, they are more accepting of China in public. But ordinary Africans are more critical of China’s presence in Africa. In African democracies, these criticisms are even more present in the public sphere, reflected in protests and media coverage.

Matambo, of the Center for China-Africa Studies at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa, says his home country of Zambia is a good example. In Zambia, a growing number of people are “pushing back” against China’s influence, and he believes such voices should not be underestimated.

There is a dissonance between what the elites want to sell and what the people feel,” he said. He said that although Zambia’s democracy has declined, as a democratically elected government, the Zambian government has to listen to the voice of its own people. Zambia’s huge debt to China is expected to be a topic of concern when the country votes in a presidential election in August this year.

Zambia, located in south-central Africa, is China’s first economic and trade cooperation zone in Africa and an important stop on China’s “One Belt, One Road” in Africa. In Zambia, the airport, hydropower station, highway and other infrastructure construction is China’s new “business card” in Zambia. Chinese digital TV and mobile network companies such as Huawei and Sida are also active in Zambia.

In a country where China has invested heavily, the Chinese presence has not been appreciated by the local population, which has instead become increasingly resistant and wary of China. In May 2020, three Chinese citizens were killed in Zambia.

Zambia’s major newspaper, the Lusaka Times, has repeatedly published articles saying that China is colonizing the Zambian economy. The Zambian government is selling out the country to China. The newspaper also called on the local population to rise up in protest or the country would perish.

Many Zambians have criticized the new stadiums in Lusaka and Ndola, the capital of the Copperbelt province, as “white elephant projects” (costly and impractical) and have said that the Chinese projects have contributed to corruption in Zambia. Matambo, of the Center for China-Africa Studies at the University of Johannesburg, noted that because the current Zambian government is increasingly authoritarian and because of China’s focus on official-to-official ties, China is sometimes pulled out as a “scapegoat” when the local government fails.

Kenya in eastern Africa has also had a negative view of China in recent years. Some Kenyans say this negativity should have started with China’s first loan to Kenya in 2013 for the construction of the standard gauge railroad from Mombasa to Nairobi (the Monterey Railway).

In June 2020, the Kenyan Court of Appeals ruled that the contract between the government and its national railroad company and China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) regarding the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) was illegal and unconstitutional. In Chinese media reports, the Monet Railway is seen by China as the flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative in Africa and a new symbol of friendship between China and Africa.

Also, Kenyans believe that the cultural and language exchanges at the Confucius Institute are just an extension of the Chinese empire.

Nigeria, in West Africa, is the largest economy in Africa. There, too, popular anti-Chinese sentiment is on the rise, especially after the discriminatory treatment of Nigerians in Guangzhou in 2020. The Speaker of the Nigerian House of Representatives, Gbajabiamila, immediately summoned the Chinese ambassador to Nigeria, Zhou Pingjian, and “reprimanded” him in public.

In April 2020, a group of Nigerian lawyers filed a class action lawsuit in court seeking $200 billion against China over the new coronavirus outbreak.

In late April, a group of Nigerian members of the House of Representatives moved to counteract the mistreatment of Nigerian citizens in Guangzhou, China. Later, Nigerian Congressman Ben Igbakpa (D-IL) initiated a motion in the House of Representatives to investigate Chinese investments in Nigeria after 2000, which was passed by the House.

In 2019, Tanzania called off a $10 billion Chinese-backed port complex construction project on the grounds of unfair conditions. Tanzanian President Magufuli accused China of offering “exploitative and embarrassing” financing terms for the project, and that the Chinese investor had set “harsh conditions that only a crazy person would accept.

While China hopes to change its diplomatic image with the vaccine, in many African countries, such as Nigeria and Zambia, their trust in the Chinese vaccine was only agreed to be considered after the World Health Organization approved the Chinese vaccine on its emergency use list.