Viola Rothschild is a research associate in Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The revelation that a foreign nation is actively spying on a government building is usually a big deal. Yet in January 2018 when a Le Monde investigation exposed that the Chinese-financed and constructed African Union building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia had been bugged by Beijing, the outcry was muted. Microphones were found hidden in desks and walls, and data from the AU computer network was transferred back to Shanghai servers nightly for over five years, since the building’s opening in 2012. But no international scandal ensued—there were no high-level accusations or condemnations, no threats or denunciations from AU leaders or African officials. Instead, the Chinese government swiftly and adamantly denied the allegations, and African leaders stood by them. During a recent visit to Beijing in a joint statement with China’s Foreign Minister, the Chairman of the AU Commission dismissed the report as “totally false.” Despite this show of solidarity, however, there are currents swelling inside of Africa that suggest that Chinese influence on the continent may be starting to encounter resistance.
Over the last three decades, Beijing has made significant inroads on the continent, emerging as a major (and growing) source of “unconditional” aid and investment, supplanting the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009, establishing its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017, funding infrastructure projects in numerous countries, and establishing extensive educational and cultural exchange programs. Meanwhile, Africa seems to have fallen off the face of the United States’ foreign policy agenda. The Obama administration’s ambitious initiatives to improve governance, increase access to electricity, and build economic capacities on the continent took a backseat to the Asia Rebalance and quelling unrest in the Middle East. At present, President Donald J. Trump has offered no coherent Africa policy, wants to ban citizens from three African countries from entering the United States, and recently referred to African nations as “shithole countries.” Many analysts have argued that this evolving dynamic will naturally push African countries closer to Beijing. So why then are perceptions of China growing progressively negative in some African states?
In Kenya, home of the $4 billion Beijing-built Standard Gauge Railroad and myriad other Chinese-funded projects, China’s popularity rating has dipped dramatically in recent years. In 2013, the percentage of Kenyans that had a “favorable” view of China was 78 percent. In 2016, that number had decreased to 57 percent, and in 2017 it slipped further to 54 percent. In Ghana, positive perceptions of China tumbled from 80 percent in 2015 to 49 percent in 2017. Similar declines have also occurred in Egypt, Senegal, and Tanzania. There are a number of potential reasons for the negative perceptions: low-price, low-quality Chinese goods flooding African markets, illegal extraction practices, accusations of corrupt African officials taking Chinese money, the Chinese import of labor and materials for infrastructure projects across the continent, the outsourcing of pollution to African countries, or perhaps the realization that China’s “altruism” may mean crippling future debt. Granted, on average African countries still have some of the highest approval ratings of China globally, but in many countries at least, it appears that hard-won goodwill is eroding quickly. Despite opportunity, will, and means, Beijing’s efforts are often stymied by its own heavy-handed policies: aggressive and clumsily-executed campaigns are turning Africans off to Chinese leadership.
Just in recent months, the China-Africa relationship has hit a few high-profile snags. Though the official response to the AU bugging revelation was muted, immediate actions were taken to strengthen the building’s cybersecurity and replace all microphones, servers, and other technologies installed by the Chinese. The AU also quietly declined an offer from the Chinese to help configure their new servers. African media and commentators were less forgiving however, opining that “nothing is really truly free,” and calling the move “an invisible security threat…of utmost concern” and an “act of soft diplomacy [that] proved to be a rather self-serving maneuver.”
In February, Africans and people of African descent around the world were outraged by the racist and ugly portrayal of the Sino-African friendship during the Annual Spring Festival Gala, broadcast to 800 million viewers. In an ill-conceived skit, an “African woman” (actually a Chinese woman in blackface with grotesquely enlarged buttocks balancing a fruit basket on her head) was trotted out onto a safari-themed set leading a monkey (played by an African actor) to repeatedly proclaim, “I love Chinese people! I love China!” In a WeChat group of African students and entrepreneurs living in China that I am part of, the prevailing sentiments were anger, followed by growing impatience and disbelief “How could they let this happen? They want to show off the Sino-African relationship, and this is what they come up with??” Another member of the group commented that no matter how many stadiums are built and exchange programs are organized, the Chinese “just don’t get it.”
Notably, this portrayal of the clean-cut, sophisticated Han Chinese bringing civilization to the backwards natives, grateful for Beijing’s assistance, is not new. In fact, the skit utilized the same imagery that has been used for decades to represent China’s paternalistic relationship with ethnic minorities within its own borders. For a country that seeks to present itself as global leader in a new era, in some respects, it appears as though little progress has been made. Indeed, depicting Africans as a homogenous group of colorful tribesmen grateful for Chinese handouts doesn't play well in the post-Black Panther era of ascendant Afrofuturism, cultural pride, and self-determination.
In the wake of these incidents, the Chinese government failed to take any responsibility. Instead, authorities stifled discussions on the web and attacked those who raised it, labeling them as conspirators seeking to sabotage the China-Africa friendship. Adhering to tried and true—if transparent—tactics of deflection and re-assigning blame, in response to the New Year’s skit, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson remarked: “Recently many media, especially Western media, have reported on and commented on this matter…I want to say that if there are people who want to seize on an incident to exaggerate matters, and sow discord in China’s relations with African countries, this is a doomed futile effort.” Lashing out and refusing to recognize hardwired cultural biases and engage in constructive discourse is not how the continent’s “most reliable and firm strategic partner” should conduct itself.
The current political climate has gifted China with an unprecedented opportunity to assume a greater role on the world stage. But for a country that is hyper image-conscious, Chinese leaders can also be shockingly obtuse. Pouring money into top-down soft power campaigns is one thing, but if China wants to prove to Africa—and the world—that it is ready and able to lead, Beijing needs to develop a savvier diplomatic touch becoming of an empathetic and responsible world power.