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Editor’s Note: As the United States retreats from its traditional global leadership role, China is filling the void. Perhaps nowhere has China’s growing influence been more apparent than in Africa, where China’s economic and security clout is increasing steadily. Adam George of the International Republican Institute argues, however, that the COVID-19 crisis is creating the potential for a shift. China’s role in creating the crisis and other mistakes allow the United States and other democratic countries to reassert their leadership.
“Kenya and the rest of Africa feel deeply betrayed by China,” the editorial board of Kenya’s leading media outlet wrote on April 11. This sense of betrayal is not confined to Kenya nor to the information space. African citizens and governments are taking to social media and public fora to voice their concerns and misgivings about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Criticisms normally reserved for activists and journalists are now being deployed by African government officials.
The CCP’s approach to engagement on the continent through its investments in economic and information domains, as well as charm offensives to garner soft power, are pervasive and typically have been well received. Afrobarometer public opinion polls generally show approval for China’s engagement with countries throughout the continent. When negative information emerges regarding Chinese-financed debt in Africa or its poor treatment of African workers on infrastructure projects, Beijing has used its traditional forms of influence—information operations, economic dependency and its relationships with African elites—to quiet criticism and reshape the narrative to its advantage.
Over the past several months, the CCP has tried to use its standard playbook to use a charm offensive tied to the novel coronavirus pandemic to maintain and bolster its support from African populaces. Despite its best efforts, the projected wins for the CCP have not come to fruition. In fact, a few profound and visible blunders may have lost Beijing its space to add to the goodwill it has bought across the continent and opened up room for other states to exert new influence.
China’s Effort to Leverage COVID-19 for Strategic Gain
Beijing was quick to step in and serve as the largest donor of personal protective equipment (PPE), life-saving medical equipment and guidance on treatment. CCP donations were distributed throughout much of Africa and were particularly visible in Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Kenya, with CCP-linked entities serving as the main suppliers.
At first, the CCP’s “mask diplomacy” bought it goodwill with African leaders and citizens across the continent. This improved the China-Africa relationship, which particularly benefited China in the early days of the crisis. Coverage of the pandemic frequently featured accounts of Africans noting their anger toward China for its role as the country of origin for the virus and belated efforts to arrest its spread. Rwandan President Paul Kagame expressed support for China early, tweeting,
Thank you @JackMa and @foundation_ma for your generous donation of test kits delivered in Kigali today. This is a huge shot in the arm and a much needed contribution in our work to stop the spread of #Coronavirus. I know the people of Rwanda join me in the gratitude.
To counteract the initial negative press, Beijing used its extensive state-run propaganda machine to highlight itself as a global leader in the fight against the coronavirus, while also deflecting its own responsibility for the origin of the virus and downplaying the internal mismanagement of its response. Through the same outlets, the CCP swiftly pivoted from a defensive posture and initiated a no-holds-barred public relations offensive against the United States. Beijing was quick to leverage its reputation as a global humanitarian leader in the crisis and contrast its aid programs the United States’s piecemeal global leadership during the pandemic. Chinese diplomats and media also rallied global leaders to reject the labeling of the coronavirus as the “Wuhan Virus” or “Chinese Virus.”
China’s early narrative started to gain traction. Djibouti’s ambassador to the African Union, Mohammed Idris Farah, told a Chinese state-owned media outlet, “It is not the ‘China Virus’ and we need to follow China’s authority on the issue,” noting China’s decisive action to “stop the virus.”
China’s engagement with many African countries dates back decades but became more concerted following the announcement of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. In subsequent years, Beijing’s influence was consolidated around the pillars of the BRI—economic leverage, information manipulation, elite capture and cultural soft power. In many African countries, such as Djibouti, the BRI is linked with pervasive, opaque and expensive changes to politics and the economy.
Beijing has also used the influence it has established through the BRI for political gain unrelated to specific BRI projects—usually to support Beijing’s maneuvers on the global stage. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted how the CCP will leverage this cultivated influence to pressure African partners to echo the party narrative and act according to the CCP-manufactured reality.
China Unmakes Its Soft Power
Despite Beijing’s deft moves to repair the initial damage to its image in Africa due to the pandemic’s origins in China and its efforts to capitalize on its influence campaign in Africa, its subsequent actions undercut, if not entirely erased, those policies.
Soon after the CCP’s grandiose pledges began arriving in countries around the world, news outlets began reporting that donated PPE and testing kits were faulty. Many African countries, in the same position as much of the world, did not have a large domestic supply of PPE or capacity to produce it. Policymakers across the continent began to question whether their only source of external supplies was providing them with defective equipment.
Public opinion on Chinese aid soured. First, activists on the continent took to social media to express their outrage at the prospect of defective equipment. Prominent Kenyan activist Donald B Kipkorir, tweeted:
China normally sends it highest quality products to Europe & US then its inferior ones to Africa … The Covid-19 Test Kits it sent to Europe have been found 80% defective and Europe has returned them … So, what does it say about the kit Jack Ma gave us? 100% or 120% defective?
Subsequently, an influential civil society organization, the Nigerian Medical Association, suggested a link between the presence of Chinese doctors in Italy and an increase in confirmed cases. In Ghana, perhaps the starkest example of backlash to CCP aid, false rumors that a Chinese-made medication was causing deaths went viral.
China’s policies at home also undermined its goodwill in Africa. As the country reopened, the government implemented discriminatory policies against Africans living in Guangzhou. Viral videos and testimonies show Chinese authorities evicting Africans from their homes and apartments, forcing Africans to sleep on the ground without shelter and using physical force to compel Africans to adhere to government orders. Other non-African residents in Guangzhou’s Yuexiu district were not subject to the same requirements or abuse, however.
Responses were immediate and furious. Africans across the continent took to social media using the hashtag #ChinaMustExplain, and local news outlets highlighted the discriminatory acts. The upward pressure was so stark that it forced African leaders to take unprecedented actions and publicly condemn and even berate CCP officials. In an official letter to China’s foreign minister, several African ambassadors to China condemned the “stigmatization and discrimination” that Africans in China face. They also “immediately demand[ed] the cessation of forceful testing, quarantine and other inhuman treatments meted out to Africans.”
African leaders’ response to the discrimination was truly extraordinary in the context of modern Sino-African relations. Historically, African government officials have been reticent to publicly critique CCP actions or rhetoric. The swift and direct responses to China’s domestic and foreign aid policies in the midst of the crisis are a clear indication that a limit has been reached, revealing a fault line in China-Africa relations.
Africa’s Unified Response
In late March and early April, African leaders across the continent made unprecedented public calls for debt service relief from China. Ghana’s finance minister, Ken Ofori-Atta, told the Center for Global Development that “China has to come on stronger [on debt relief].” In one case, a Nigerian government official directly excluded a European donor from a relief request and called only on China for debt relief.
The CCP is the largest bilateral lender to African nations and holds roughly 20 percent of all African debt. It is extremely unusual, however, for African leaders to publicly acknowledge Chinese-financed debt and call for relief or changes to the terms of payment on an agreement. African leaders have generally remained silent on the issue, despite mounting frustration over the outsized role of Chinese credit to finance deals, the large number of deals over a relatively short period of time and the opacity surrounding the details of those deals.
The groundbreaking pace of changing norms surrounding African leaders’ official statements regarding Chinese policy in Africa is surprising. African leaders and their institutions have shifted quickly from their cautious approach to a more assertive one, in which they are critiquing Beijing more severely and more frequently than at any point in recent history. In a perfect storm of negative press for China, African leaders have responded with more than rhetoric, bucking their standard operating procedures for engaging with Beijing by taking bold, public actions. Indicating that the safeguards for China’s traditional approach to business on the continent may not remain in a post-coronavirus reality are instances such as the Nigerian House of Representatives’ censure on China or the arrest of two Chinese businessmen by Nigeria’s anti-graft agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), for bribing a zoning officer.
The Future of China-Africa Relations
The implications of the global pandemic for Sino-African relations cannot be overstated. The unexpected and highly effective breakthrough in African pushback on CCP influence indicates that the pre-coronavirus dynamic is under pressure. Already, China is using its cultivated influence with elites to try to restore the status quo. Three factors will serve as key determinants to the future of African countries’ relationship with China.
First, the continued traction and efficacy of democratic movements in Africa will be an important counterweight to China’s influence campaign. It is no surprise that the African countries leading the charge for debt relief and equal treatment of African people abroad are the continent’s leading democracies. In these countries, citizen-led bottom-up mobilization and its resulting pressure on African leaders to speak up has been a defining factor in their responses to China’s coronavirus charm offensive. Ultimately, bottom-up forces were momentous enough to negate the CCP’s traditional top-down influence to minimize and prevent critical responses to its actions in African countries. In Nigeria, because of its robust civil society, local organizations were able to voice their concerns about China’s “donation diplomacy” and mandate that any personnel from China be subject to the same treatment as other visitors coming to the country, including a mandatory two-week self-isolation. Pressure from these groups also resulted in unprecedented actions and statements by government officials criticizing China for its mistreatment of Nigerians in Guangzhou. In Ghana, where there has been an emphasis on freedom of speech and expression, the peoples’ pleas with its government to mitigate the expected economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic prompted the finance minister to openly demand immediate and comprehensive debt relief.
Second, the CCP will double-down on its efforts to control the narrative through manipulation of African information spaces. Beijing relied heavily on its propaganda outlets to deny its liability for the pandemic, redirect blame toward the United States and amplify its message that it is a leading humanitarian power. While the results of this campaign have been mixed, it would not have been possible without the already-strong presence of CCP-run news outlets on the continent. To ensure a stronger foundation for positive perceptions of China, the CCP will likely invest more in building Chinese state-run news outlets and fusing them with organic local outlets. This has been the case in Kenya, where China has expanded access to televisions through the 10,000 Villages Project, and across the continent China has recruited and trained African journalists to further the party line. Likewise, the expansion into social media like Twitter should be monitored for increased CCP presence, as China attempts to reach more young Africans. China is already experimenting with the platform to shape the coronavirus narrative.
Chinese engagement with the continent is likely to undergo serious transformation in the aftermath of the coronavirus. With the CCP’s attempt to be seen as a provider of humanitarian aid equal to, or even greater than, traditional donors such as the United States, it would not be surprising to see continued medical relief efforts expand beyond the scope of coronavirus needs. China may consider its own version of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) or the large-scale implementation of efforts akin to that of democracy and good governance programs from democratic governments, such as election observations and political participation initiatives, but with a clear authoritarian twinge. Moreover, as Chinese domestic economic woes become more pronounced, its flexibility to serve as a global creditor may shrink. East African countries have already noticed a drop in Beijing’s appetite to fund infrastructure projects. Pursuing a humanitarian and governance-based engagement strategy is a less financially risky move to garner soft power.
Third and finally, the United States and other traditional democratic donors will determine what role China will play and what institutions will be fostered in Africa. These donors have a reputation as the largest financers of humanitarian assistance in many African countries thanks to programs such as PEPFAR, which has provided $90 billion in AIDS relief since its inception in 2003, or Australia’s $24 million in relief funding for humanitarian crises in Somalia and South Sudan in 2018. Now is no time for these countries to rest on their laurels. As African governments are increasingly the recipient of funds and attention from authoritarian governments around the world, it would be prudent for democratic donors to expand their funding to sectors other than humanitarian assistance and increase funding for democracy and good governance (D&G) support to African civil society organizations and reform governments. Historically, D&G initiatives on the continent have been extremely successful and the continent’s appetite to implement good governance projects has increased in recent years, even as global trends in democratic backsliding have taken root. Additionally, for democratic donors, diplomacy with African countries could become a top priority. For decades, the United States and other Western democracies have not prioritized their relationship with African countries, leaving space for illiberal governments to fill the void. If the world’s leading democracies ever want to reengage the world’s belief in the righteousness and efficacy of democratic principles, they will need to recommit to their relationships with African countries by deploying a full arsenal of diplomatic tools.