/ 22 April 2020

China’s African headache

China is using both economic and soft power to establish its conquest of the continent
With the US and China both competing for influence in Africa, it’s unclear whether their actions during the pandemic will change perceptions of either superpower on the continent. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP)


When the severity of the coronavirus pandemic became apparent in Nigeria, the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation offered a helping hand. The company, which is responsible for constructing railways across Nigeria, said it would import and pay for 1.3-million medical masks, more than 100 000 sets of personal protective equipment and 50 medical ventilators. It also promised to sponsor 18 medical specialists from China.

Nigeria’s government welcomed the company’s initiative with open arms. Nigerian doctors were not so keen.

In a statement in early April, the Nigerian Medical Association said although it welcomed the supplies donated by the Chinese company, it was “a thing of embarrassment” that the specialists were invited without due consultation, and linked a spike in cases in Italy to the arrival of Chinese doctors there.

This was a minor diplomatic incident, overshadowed by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma’s high-profile donations of medical equipment to African countries. Since then, however the headlines have been getting worse — at least as far as Beijing is concerned.

The Guangzhou videos

China’s relationship with Africa, so often regarded as the continent’s definitive foreign policy alliance of the past few years, ebbed to perhaps its lowest point in the public sphere after videos and images depicting the maltreatment of African citizens by Chinese security officials in the city of Guangzhou emerged on social media.

Amid China’s increased focus on a second wave of coronavirus cases being potentially imported from abroad, many African citizens in the southern city said they were racially profiled by security agents. There were reports of forced evictions, repeated testing without evidence of a travel history and being refused services in hotels and other establishments. 

Tony Mathias, an 24-year-old exchange student who was forced from his apartment, told AFP: “I’ve been sleeping under the bridge for four days with no food to eat … I cannot buy food anywhere, no shops or restaurants will serve me … We’re like beggars on the street.”

Guangzhou has long hosted the highest number of Africans in China, with an estimated 320 000 entering or leaving the country through the city. Accusations of racism towards Africans there are nothing new, says Ilaria Carrozza, project coordinator at Oslo’s Peace Research Institute who studies China-Africa relations. But the backlash against China was amplified due to African leaders raising their concerns “explicitly and bluntly”, she says.

Social media played a role in exacerbating the scandal. There has been a recent influx of Chinese government officials abroad who have joined social media, particularly Twitter, even as these mediums remain banned at home. Carrozza says this embrace of social media may have inadvertently prompted the quick rebuttal they faced from African leaders.

“The more the Chinese leadership diversifies the media platforms it utilises to push its official narrative, the more it will inevitably be exposed to more scrutiny, even from within countries that are typically more likely to express favourable views of the country,” said Carrozza.

African politicians in Nigeria, Uganda and the African Union’s Addis Ababa headquarters quickly called in Chinese ambassadors to explain themselves. And they made sure to document these visits for their citizens to see. There was even a video of Nigeria’s speaker of the lower house of Parliament, Femi Gbajabiamila, giving a stern talking-to to the Chinese ambassador in Abuja.

Eric Olander, managing editor of The China Africa Project website and co-host of the China in Africa podcast, says social media played a huge part in how African leaders reacted. “We saw the raw power of social media that forced African leaders into action much faster than they probably would have reacted before.”

And Judd Devermont, director of the Africa programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), believes: “African leaders are setting new boundaries with their Chinese counterparts … African rebukes of the Chinese are rarely as forceful or public. African ties to China will remain close, but it may presage some shifts in behavior and tone.”

Those close ties have come under increased scrutiny from African citizens in light of recent events. Many took to social media to demand the deportation of Chinese nationals on the continent and called for the untangling of the numerous economic relationships between China and African countries. But that is unlikely. “There are too many interests at stake in the China-Africa relationship for that to happen, being these economic or otherwise,” Carrozza said.

China’s African footprint

China has become influential on the continent over the past two decades and the influence has only deepened significantly since President Xi Jinping assumed office. His flagship Belt and Road Initiative has seen China loan money to African countries to build infrastructure projects like airports, stadiums and skyscrapers. More than $143-billion has been disbursed in loans since 2000, according to the John Hopkins SAIS China-Africa Research Initiative.

The influence is not limited to loans, as China continues to expand its cultural footprint through the spread of the Confucius Institute, a nonprofit organisation, promoting Chinese culture and language around the world. It has 48 centres in Africa; only France has more cultural institutes on the continent. Schools in Kenya, Uganda and South Africa are introducing Mandarin lessons for their pupils. 

While Africa is perhaps too deep in its relations with China to contemplate a pullback, Carrozza says this episode should make the continent’s leaders fight for better treatment of their citizens in China.

“This should be taken as an opportunity to be pursued especially by African leaders, to always demand fairer treatment for their citizens, rather than letting these concerns be exclusively driven by the events of the day,” she said.

Experts agree the flare-up in Guangzhou is highly unlikely to alter the course of China-Africa relations, but Olander says there has been a subtle shift in China’s priorities on the continent before the incident anyway. Most of what Africa sells to China such as timber, oil and minerals can be sourced elsewhere, he says, leading to a switch to a “political-military” approach in their dealings.

“Africa is invaluable as a political and diplomatic ally at the United Nations and to be part of a coalition that stands up to the United States on issues like Huawei, the WHO [World Health Organisation] and Xinjiang among other issues. So, going forward, Africa will remain a top priority for China just not necessarily in pure economic terms,” Olander said.

With the US and China both competing for influence in Africa, it’s unclear whether their actions during the pandemic will change perceptions of either superpower on the continent. There have been calls, led by Ghana’s minister of finance Ken Ofori-Atta, for China to provide debt relief for African countries.

The US, on its part, has focused its support to Africa on risk communication, water and sanitation activities, and strengthening laboratories and surveillance, says Devermont. The US embassy in South Africa recently announced a $1.8-million donation of funds to the country’s Covid-19 response efforts to raise their spending to $2.7-million in total.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, it is clear African leaders are now eager to draw a line under the Guangzhou fiasco, with Nigeria’s Gbajabiamila saying everything has been “sorted out”. This is because picking a sustained fight with China could “jeopardise other parts of their national agendas that depend on the Chinese for trade, fighting Covid-19 and debt relief,” Olander argues.

But he says, it is unclear if citizens in many of these countries are as keen to draw a line in the sand.

“This will probably blow over among the political elites but for a lot of their constituents across the continent who followed the drama on Facebook and Twitter, this whole experience left a bitter aftertaste.”