China’s soft power offensive in Africa

13 May

The Chinese attempts to win the battle for soft power have in recent years centred around an ongoing ‘charm offensive’ that is being undertaken in Africa. In the past decade China has spent $75 Billion on aid and development projects in the continent, second only to the US in terms of expenditure. Of course, such a development has polarised opinion amongst commentators and critics alike.

On the one hand, data exists detailing how China has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in health, educational and cultural projects, whilst many are also of the opinion that their presence is a welcome change to the traditional European and American domination of the region. Examples of these ‘good will gestures’ which Beijing has made include the financing of malaria prevention centres in Mozambique and the installation of solar traffic lights in Liberia. Their prolonged presence in recent years has been greeted with particular enthusiasm by governments across the continent, who are reliant on generous loans to develop badly needed basic infrastructure and expand agriculture. Moreover, having suffered decades of political instability and corruption, which many African leaders have tended to blame on the West’s implementation of liberal democratic policies, the Chinese model of a strong government with an emphasis on economic growth is eminently appealing. The expansion of the Chinese media presence within Africa has helped further spread the Chinese message, in an effort to win the hearts and minds of the populace. Whilst the Western powers are cutting back spending on international broadcasting in the wake of the economic crisis, the Chinese news agency Xiuhua had, by 2011, spread its operations to forty seven African countries.

Yet, at a grassroots level, the increased Chinese influence is not necessarily being welcomed. As activity in Africa has expanded recently, so too has the stream of Chinese migrants entering the continent in search of work. Worryingly, the Chinese companies tasked with building the infrastructure needed to fuel Africa’s development are importing labour rather than employing the local population. Whilst western companies actively seek to provide opportunities to the local workforce, surveys have discovered that Chinese firms typically bring between 70% and 80% of their labour force with them. Furthermore, the competition for jobs is not the only source of grievance. Accusations have arisen regarding the environmental damage caused by Chinese oil companies. For example, in 2009 local villagers attacked Chinese workers, having grown frustrated at the apparent poisoning of their land. With this being the case, it has become evident that relationships at a local level will have to be improved if China wishes to improve its international image in the future.



2 Responses to “China’s soft power offensive in Africa”

  1. iw4g11iw4g11 May 14, 2013 at 10:59 am #

    I think there are two activities going on here. As you stated the implementation of “soft power” through medical aid and media broadcasts. This provides returns in the form of future positive attitudes to Chinese commerce and interactions. The Chinese companies which brought their own labour are actions with intent that differ from the soft power activities. These are simply moves to satisfy China’s growing resource appetite. There has been some lack of transparency of the aid that is provided to Africa so with a degree of uncertainty of the destination of the aid raises the question of the intent. To act as points of leverage in bargaining with respect to commercial contracts over resources?

    On the point of a compatible political model that some African nations may emulate is possibly a risky notion. In my opinion the Chinese political model is not a model that can be applied anywhere I think it would need a “cultural fit”. With civil unrest not uncommon in parts of Africa an authoritarian regime that China may export compared to the political and economically liberal model the west has tried to export would seem much more appealing to African nation leaders. With news of political scandal China’s censorship expertise would be of interest to troublesome leaders. This type of power structure in Africa is a move in the wrong direction.

  2. ja11g12 May 14, 2013 at 11:00 pm #

    China’s activities may seem as though they are trying to increase their soft power within Africa but part of it is for access to the natural resources within Africa. China’s economic growth has been so rapid and created such a large bubble in their economy that extraction of natural resources can not meet the need met by the economy. Any stutter in growth could prove to be disastrous. China’s activities in Africa began as a means to access these resources and to provide the African nations with a reason for China to be operating within their borders.

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