This Is How China Can Influence Africa’s Negative Chinese Perspective

By Amodani Gariba

Chinese girl and African people smiling in front of airplane
Credit: Quartz

As Eric Olander, editor of the China Africa Project, usually puts it, ‘one could get a tonne of positive Chinese engagement in Africa to talk about. Same holds true for the negatives.’ There are many Africans thinking China is the worst thing that has happened to Africa. Others also think that Africa has become a better place by virtue of China’s presence. China’s relation with Africa is complicated. However, my overall assessment of it is positive. For many Africans, their view on China reflects from the lenses of others. This presents a challenge since what these Africans may express may not be a true reflection of their unique experience with Chinese. However, to make progress in Sino-African relations, it is important that views expressed by Africans emanate from their unique interaction with China. It is for this purpose that this article discusses the role of China in making this happen. 

Why Do The Chinese Seem Unpopular In Many African Countries

A few years ago, both Africans and Chinese learnt of each other through the lenses of Western media. China has made progress, whereas, in Africa, Western media still set the agenda when it comes to the discourse on China. Africa’s media currently do not have the capacity to cover global issues; they largely rely on the Western press for that purpose. The power struggle between the West and China somehow influences the reportage of Western media. Therefore, Africans relying on Western media have come to buy the biases of the West. 

In addition, the presence of Chinese has ignited economic and cultural tensions. Africans who ply their trade in the wholesale and retail sector are not happy that the Chinese are here in their numbers. Previously, these Africans traveled to China to buy manufactured wares at a cheap price and sold them in Africa at higher prices to earn a profit. This is no longer the case. Chinese traders have cut out their African intermediaries by establishing sales outlets in Africa, where they do business directly with African consumers. It is understandable that Africans are not happy with the Chinese for this, because many have lost their source of livelihood. 

Chinese disregard for African regulations has also become a trouble spot. In Ghana, the involvement of Chinese in illegal mining known as ‘Galamsey’ has made the Chinese very unpopular. In eastern and elsewhere in Africa, Chinese involvement in illicit trade in rosewood ivory and poaching has caused them great disaffection. African employees in many Chinese factories work under unsanitary and sometimes dangerous conditions. They are often overworked and underpaid. 

China Is Trying To Change The Narrative

The Chinese are not oblivious to public perceptions about them. Recent developments in China’s media space indicates that China is actively seeking to change the narrative. Chinese state media are increasingly becoming proliferated on the continent. Chinese content through media platforms like CGTN, China Radio International (CRI), and China Daily are increasingly becoming accessible in Africa. Star-Times, the Chinese digital TV Company, which has become popular in Sub-Saharan Africa, is an avenue through which African consumers can access Chinese content. Africans living in 10,000 villages across the continent have access to contents free

China also gives full funding to thousands of African students to study in Chinese universities every year. Last year, according to UNESCO, China announced that it would give scholarships to 12,000 African students in 2020. In fact, China by far is the leading destination for Africans seeking scholarships abroad. China also holds capacity-building programs for African professionals, which usually include two weeks or more, travel to China. Lina Benabdellah, Assistant Professor at Wake Forest University, characterizes this kind of engagements as soft infrastructure. In her new book “Shaping the Future of Power”, she argues that in analyzing China’s foreign policy in Africa, we focus often exclusively on the bridges, roads, stadia, etc. She writes that we miss a lot by ignoring the intangible aspects of China’s engagement in Africa such as soft infrastructure. But the question we need to ask is whether this strategy is working. 

China’s Strategy Is Not Working, At Least Not Yet

Apparently, the target group for Chinese media incursion into Africa is internet users. This strategy, while ignoring the vast majority of Africa’s population, is not only largely ineffective but failing as well. More access does not equate to more consumption of Chinese media. Dani Madrid-Moralez and Herman Wasserman in a survey revealed that less than 7% of respondents from Kenyans, 8% from Nigeria, and 2% from South Africa rely on CGTN for their news. The percentages for China daily and CRI were even lower.  

Amidst the pandemic, African social media became the bastion of criticism against China. Evidently, China’s strategy either has failed or is failing.  About 40% of the estimated 1.3 billion people on the continent have access to some form of internet. However, in 2016, only 9% of all Africans were using social media. Despite increasing mobile penetration on the continent, it is noteworthy that data costs are prohibitively high. For instance, Ghanaians pay seven times more what Indians pay for a gigabyte of data. In Zimbabwe and others, data prices are even higher.  Therefore, higher mobile penetration in Africa does not necessarily mean more internet connectivity. 

What Could Be Done

Africa has had centuries-old of a continuous relationship with the West, starting with the period of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, through colonialism to now. Neither slavery nor colonialism was a pleasant experience. The West, despite the uncomfortable history, has managed to stay popular on the continent. Maybe Stockholm syndrome could explain. Maybe not. 

On the other side, China’s continuous relation with the continent is only half a century old. The interaction was more diplomatic and formal, and less of grass root. At project sites in Africa, of course, Chinese expat workers and their African counterparts interacted. However, the language barrier to interaction seems to be very huge. Although many Chinese are keen on learning English, not many Africans are willing to study Mandarin. The fact that CGTN, CRI, China Daily, and Xinhua have English, French Portuguese versions is an indication of this.

Chinese scholarship is good, but it is unidirectional. There are hundreds of millions of Africa university students, however, only some few thousands earn the opportunity to study in China. Upon their return to the continent, not many of these beneficiaries actively propagate their experiences in China. Everything learned at worst, stays with them alone, and at best, is shared amongst close circles

The Chinese government must organize and promote what I term ‘Study in Africa’ program for Chinese students. Several thousands of Chinese students, through this program, will come to Africa to interact with millions of their African counterparts, leaving a lasting impression on them. This program will be unique, in the sense that, Africans will be interacting exclusively with a new group of Chinese citizens, who are neither interested in business nor politics. It is with this group of Chinese that the zenith of cultural exchange and understanding between Africans and Chinese could be attained.   

The West did not only become popular on the continent, through the tentacles of its powerful media. It had a network of NGOs who have now carved out a niche for themselves through grass-root people-to-people engagements. Absolutely nothing prevents China from adapting to this strategy. Not many Chinese NGOs operate in Africa. This has to change going forward. The solutions to many problems in Africa do not even require the active participation of the state. Therein lies growth opportunity for Chinese NGOs in Africa. They must step in. 

Using the media as a strategy for changing the narrative in Africa could work in the future, but over-reliance on it is counterintuitive. Encouraging the movement of Chinese students and NGOs to Africa is one sure way of achieving grass-root understanding and cooperation between Africans and Chinese. It also holds the key to shaping the perspective of Africans on Sino-African relations in the future. 

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