China’s ‘Soft Power’ in Africa Has Hard Edges

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Senegal’s President Macky Sall talk as they enter the stadium during the opening ceremony for the Arene Nationale du Lutte, the Arene Nationale du Senegal, in Dakar, Senegal July 22, 2018. (Mikal McAllister/Reuters)
African nations shouldn’t be fooled: China’s intentions on the continent are malicious.

China’s Xi Jinping recently told Chinese Communist Party officials to fashion a kinder, gentler image for China. Given the nation’s cratering global public-opinion ratings, his concerns make sense. “We must focus on setting the tone right, be open and confident but also modest and humble, and strive to create a credible, lovable and respectable image of China,” Xi said, as reported by state-run news service Xinhua. Xi may want to project “soft power,” but that could be impossible for a totalitarian state in which all initiatives and messaging are centrally orchestrated.

Africa has become a testing ground for China’s soft-power projections, especially with China’s recent vaccine diplomacy, including the donation of hundreds of types of medical supplies to African countries. Amid the criticism that China is pursuing an exploitative strategy on the continent, propaganda efforts have intensified to portray China as a positive, benign development partner and alleviate suspicions around its burgeoning relations with Africa. The increasing investments in media, the growing number of Confucius Institutes, the organization of grand cultural festivals, and the generous giving of scholarships have all been embraced to establish China’s strong foothold on the continent.

In Africa, Confucius Institutes have increased sharply in number, from one in 2005 to 53 in 2019. Though Confucius Institutes are officially places for learning language and culture, they have been revealed to be platforms for surveillance activities, censoring discussions on sensitive issues and projecting tightly controlled state propaganda. These institutions have not attracted much open criticism in Africa, mainly because African universities generally censor debates and discussions around sensitive issues. Alongside the mushrooming Confucius Institute expansion, Chinese-funded scholarships have also witnessed a massive surge, surpassing those from the United States and United Kingdom even among English-speaking African students. All this is part of China’s growing soft-power investments in the continent.

In an attempt to boost cultural diplomacy in Africa, the Chinese state often funds and organizes grand cultural festivals, such as the Youth and Spring Festival celebrations. It is difficult to understand the impact of these festivals on fostering genuine people-to-people interactions. At best, they are grandeur events aimed at creating positive media coverage rather than advancing real exchanges between ordinary people. Resentment amongst the African populace toward the Chinese diaspora on the continent has emerged, fueled by incidents such as the recent ill treatment of Africans in Guangzhou, and in the absence of strong linguistic and cultural affinities between the two, interactions between Chinese and Africans remain quite restricted.

On the other hand, Chinese media are gaining a deeper presence on the continent, at a time when Western media have largely retreated from the African landscape. In 2018, Xinhua established its foreign office in Nairobi. Meanwhile, Xinhua, China Global Television Network (CGTN), China Daily, and China Radio International all have outlets based in East Africa, outdoing the presence of other international broadcasters on the continent. In addition to this, privately owned Chinese television enterprise Star Times also has an extensive presence in different parts of Africa. Putting together one of the largest foreign-correspondent networks on the continent, Chinese media have become a powerful medium to inform and shape narratives in African countries. For instance, in November 2019 the Kenyan Broadcasting Corporation passed off a story about poverty-alleviation efforts in Xinjiang as locally generated content; in fact, a lot of Chinese-produced editorial content is published as if written by local journalists. As China’s economic heft and clout allow it to provide free technical assistance and buy media houses or finance them, the autonomy of African media is put into serious question. Besides this, the Chinese government regularly sponsors training trips to China for African journalists, and according to “Reporters without Borders,” after training, these journalists often incorporate Chinese propaganda terms in their writings.

China’s drive to gain control of Africa’s sports infrastructure
As revealed by Le Monde, Beijing has been actively pursuing its dream of gaining control over local sports markets and securing access to major sports events in Africa. CCP operatives have followed a systematic approach by first participating in athletic events, then winning international competitions, and finally gaining seats on international organizing committees of sports bodies to promote China’s agenda.

The initiative is aimed at both control and economic gains. The Chinese scheme involves advancing and flooding its own low-grade domestic products into local African markets to demonstrate its ability to match international brands (i.e. athletes and sports teams). At the same time, to nurture demand, Chinese authorities have been constructing sports facilities in many poor African countries that were severely lacking sports infrastructure, including stadiums and the requisite training facilities for sports. Alassane Quattara, president of the Ivory Coast, himself inaugurated a 60,000-seat  stadium in the capital, Abidjan, which he claimed was a “gift from China.” It is presumed to be the main stadium that would host the finale of the 2023 African Cup of Nations, a major international men’s-soccer competition on the continent, in which nearly 24 nations participate. After building the stadium in Abidjan, China is eyeing building two more stadiums in this small nation, at a total cost expected to be beyond 200 million euros. This reflects the typical Chinese tactic of enticing leaders with “gifts” and then building infrastructure worth millions that the country can very well do without, but when approved, places it in a cycle of unrepayable and continuously mounting debt.

In the past ten years, China has built or renovated more than 100 stadiums on the African continent. It is well on course to capture more such facilities, with the sole aim of strengthening its diplomatic relations with these African countries, which will later support its candidates for various international bodies of the United Nations. Beyond international diplomacy, as has been mentioned, these kinds of investments in infrastructure help Chinese companies gain access to African markets to promote their products and maintain demand. And they help China win the rights to broadcast major sporting events on the African continent on Star Times. Already, African countries with massive Chinese investments have been found rushing to sell their premium events’ rights to the Chinese broadcaster. Indeed, China has already “won” broadcasting rights for the African Cup of Nations 2023, which is likely to be organized in Chinese-built stadiums, including the one in Abidjan.

China’s sharp soft power
It is time that African nations, and those in other parts of the world, realize the Chinese method of debt-trap diplomacy, which, beyond hitting them economically, is capable of enslaving them in a neocolonial setup, this time with China at the helm. In reality, what China is deploying in Africa is not soft power but “sharp power,” a term coined by Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig of the National Endowment for Democracy in 2017. By “sharp power,” they referred to the use of manipulative, subversive methods by authoritarian regimes to gain influence in other countries, which describes China’s activities in Africa. As Joseph Nye explained, “soft power is not propaganda.”

In China’s efforts to win hearts and minds in Africa, aggressive propaganda can fail to produce effective soft power, as credibility lies mostly with free-flowing channels of information. To be sure, both independent media and an active civil society are essential in generating soft power, but in the case of China, the media work almost entirely under the heavy hand of state “guidelines.” Being an entirely state-driven project, China’s influence program is not a free-flowing process that rests on the initiatives of diverse participants such as businessmen, artists, innovators, civil society, media, etc. China’s power methods are strategic, top-down activities, heavily injected by the state institutions through aggressive propaganda efforts with sharp objectives: to establish a positive image for the state and to maintain and promote the legitimacy of the Communist Party of China, for the purpose of gaining, and maintaining, hegemonic control.

Jianli Yang is the founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China and the author of For Us, the Living: A Journey to Shine the Light on Truth.


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