China in Africa: An Image Makeover is Underway

Dr. Veda Vaidyanathan, Research Associate, Institute of Chinese Studies

It was late afternoon in Ethiopia, I scrambled onto a bus filled with University students and found a seat at the back, near the window. As the bus meandered through traffic in Addis Ababa, the noises of the city was drowned out by the loud Amharic music playing on the radio. A young girl wanted to know why Indian women wore bindi’s – when I handed her a few packets from my reserve gift collection – she asked me if I could give her Bollywood DVD’s instead. An hour or two into our drive, the bus slowed down, trudged uphill and finally stopped. Without a groan or complaint, people picked up their bags and began to alight. “We need to get off the bus and walk to the top of the hill”, someone explained as he walked past.

There we were- in the stunning Ethiopian countryside, a horde of people, some quiet others singing, making our way to the top of the hill. “Does this happen every time?” I asked the student accompanying me for the trip. “Oh yes, it’s a Chinese bus.” He replied matter-of-factly. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I prodded. “Oh its terrible quality, it has a weak engine, the chairs and the cushions will come off soon too” he replied grinning. I asked him why we did not take another bus, one which had a stronger engine perhaps, “but there aren’t any other buses” he responded.

As we reached the last hairpin bend, there were large Chinese characters painted on a granite wall. As I stopped to take a picture, they explained that the well-laid tar road was new and built by a Chinese company. It used to be a narrow, uneven dirt road, dangerous during the rains and it took a lot of time to reach the villages on the top.  As we spoke, a woman in a beautiful white habesha kemi walked beside us carrying a pot of water. That journey, I assume, from the water source at the bottom of the hill to the top, was made easier by the broad winding new road.

Many instances like these provided a glimpse into the layered and complicated perception of China in Africa today. As Chinese migrants and companies make their presence felt across the cityscapes and country sides, the African attitude about them is quietly evolving. While acknowledging that Chinese exports to Africa are of inferior quality or that working conditions in Chinese companies are harsh or frustration with Chinese bosses who don’t take into account local sensibilities- conversations with young Africans in Kenya, Ethiopia and beyond highlight a palpable unease. However despite a range of criticism levelled against Chinese firms and violence targeting Chinese managers, most often than not- China is viewed as a provider of options. Sure, the Chinese bus was sub-standard, but at least there was a road and a bus!

Afrobarometer- a pan African, nonpartisan research network conducted a survey in 2016 of 36 African countries about China in Africa and concluded that “Africans rank the United States and China No. 1 and 2, respectively, as development models for their own countries.” Interestingly, in three of five African regions, “China either matches or surpasses the United States in popularity as a development model.” Additionally, “In terms of their current influence, the two countries are outpaced only by Africa’s former colonial powers.”

This shift in perception is by no means abrupt; Africa has been on China’s foreign policy radar with a twenty eight year old tradition of the Chinese foreign minister visiting Africa, in addition to a range of senior officials regularly travelling to the continent. Development Reimagined, the first Kenyan wholly foreign owned enterprise in China, recently published their first infographic on Chinese leaders traveling to Africa. According to their study, the Chinese leadership has made 79 visits to 43 different African countries over the past 10 years and no other country can match this degree of diplomatic exchange with countries in the continent.

Beyond the Chinese ‘Charm Offensive’, data from the AidData dataset – curated by a research lab at the College of William & Mary – point out that seven of the top 10 recipients of Chinese Aid are in Africa. They also drew attention to the fact that contrary to popular perception, Chinese ODA generally goes to poorer countries and it does not appear to go disproportionately to authoritarian or corrupt regimes in the continent.

In addition to Aid, since 2009 China has been Africa’s largest trading partner and in 2016, bilateral trade between China and Africa was valued at USD149.1 billion, Chinese non-financial direct investment in the continent amounted to USD3 billion and the contractual value of newly signed contracted projects reached USD65.2 billion.

The language utilized by China while crafting its policies for Africa have strong moralistic undertones indicating selflessness and altruism. While some Chinese scholars agree with this premise, others insist that it is a mutually beneficial ‘win-win partnership’. African scholars remain divided with some viewing China as having increased their options, while others remain wary of their increasing influence.

Regardless of the motivations, fact remains that a new generation of Africans are becoming increasingly comfortable with a powerful China and the ‘China model’ of growth and development. Not only has China has become the most popular destination for Anglophone African students studying abroad, there are over 40 Confucius Institutes (CI) in Africa. A recent Quartz report mentioned that at a Mandarin speaking proficiency test conducted in Lusaka, a Zambian student was asked what her dream was, and she claimed “Wode mengxiang shi Zhongguo” (“My dream is China”). This acceptance of China and aspiration to be like China, the result of years of Beijing’s proactive engagement in the continent, could perhaps be one of the biggest successes for China in its contemporary foreign policy.

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