China’s Soft Power in Africa: A Critique I

Published on 25th October 2011

During my visit to Morocco and Mali between March and July this year, I contacted some Chinese, including a medical team’s doctors in a peripheral city of Morocco, agricultural experts attending the “South-South Cooperation” program in Mali, and teachers at Confucius Institute in the University of Mohammed V (Agdal). They represent the Chinese government, part of the international cooperation and China’s globalized culture. Their enterprises have shown Chinese thought and assistance to Africa. They are not economic and military forces, but “soft power.”

I would like to talk about the construction of China’s soft power in Africa. I will survey the following aspects: First, the definition of “soft power” and China’s soft power in Africa; Second, the challenges encountered by Chinese medical teams, agricultural cooperation projects and Confucius Institutes or Classes both in China, Africa and even in the world. Third, the link between “soft power” and “hard power.” As small goods are distributed and big constructions made widely in Africa, they are an influential “hard power” to enhance “soft power.” Finally, some points of view based on the cases visited and my own experience will be proposed to the construction of China’s soft power perspective in Africa.

Definition of “soft power” and China’s soft power in Africa

Water is fluid, soft, and yielding but as Laozi observes in Moral Intelligence (Chapter 78) water will wear away a rigid and unyielding rock. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. Here is another paradox: what is soft is strong.

According to Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard University in Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power,1990;Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, 2004.,“Soft power” is “an ability of getting what the country wants others to obey its goals by its attraction and convincing.” He believes that a country’s soft power mainly interacts with three kinds of resources: cultural ability to attract other countries; practical political values; legal and moral authority of a foreign policy.

While Laozi considers “soft power” to be like water, Joseph Nye’s definition is fairly utilitarian. Living in different time and cultural background, the difference in their definition is unavoidable, yet they have similar content. With the current world getting more and more utilitarian, Professor Nye’s definition is popularly and widely accepted. I use Professor Nye’s definition of “soft power,” that is, a practicable and influential culture, values, and public opinion, which is relative to the economic and military strength. The latter is often called “hard power.”   

“Soft power” is an important part of a comprehensive national strength. Like “hard power,” its construction and improvement ought to have a clear objective. We would like to know the goal of building China’s soft power in Africa. If the goal is clear, it is helpful to make steps and take measures to build the soft power in Africa.

China’s development of "soft power" is, to a certain extent, a passive response to the challenge of Western public opinion. For example, in 2009, President Hu Jintao visited four African countries, including Mali and Tanzania. The Chinese government attributed the visit to traditional friendship rather than the quest for economic resources, because these two countries do not have valuable and scarce resources. Most training courses for African countries carried out by China’s  Ministry of Commerce mostly focus on those in power (that is "official" rather than talented people) yet there is no overall coordination strategy.

Soft power is difficult to build if the objective of developing it is not clear. China’s soft power in Africa includes the Chinese Medical Teams (CMTs), the agricultural cooperation projects, and Confucius Institutes (Classes). Moreover, China has a coherent political discourse, that is, “respect for sovereignty, non interference in internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit.” The country’s other policies and practices include the exchange of high official visits, mutual trust, a top-down mechanism for the development of relations with Africa (especially the Forum on China-African Cooperation or FOCAC), similar historical experiences and the heritage of supporting African independence. All of these have contributed to China-Africa friendships.

Based on the importance of China-Africa relations, President Jiang Zemin put forward a “new partnership of long-term stability, equality and mutual benefit” on the First Ministerial Conference (2000), while President Hu Jintao and African leaders agreed to establish and develop a “new strategic partnership of political equality, mutual trust, economic win win, cultural exchange and mutual learning” in the Beijing summit of 2006. (See Yang Jiechi, Fruitful ten-year FOCAC and writing news spectrum of Sino-African Relations, Xinhua net, October 11, 2010.)

While China is the largest developing country, Africa is the continent with most developing countries. China-Africa relations are crucial from the perspective of interdependence of the world and regional development. The goal of China’s soft power in Africa is to win the hearts and minds of Africans, and together with them, reform the unreasonable political and economic order in the world. China’s soft power is not out to respond to the Western public opinion only, but more important, it is to maintain and develop China-Africa strategic partnership.

The challenges of China’s soft power in Africa

Chinese Medical Team (CMT)

Since the first CMT was dispatched to Algeria on April 6, 1963 till 2010, CMT has covered 47 African countries. Fourty of its doctors have died in Africa. CMT has about 1,000 doctors and nurses’ working in more than 100 African hospitals to save African lives. For over 48 years, the CMT, which is widely praised by the African people, is still an important part of Chinese assistance to Africa.

In Er-Rashidia, a city located in the far South-east of Morocco, there is a CMT with 11 specific doctors, one interpreter and cooks. Most of the team members come from the Center Hospital of Changning District, Shanghai and have senior experience. This is the largest team among 8 CMTs in Morocco. Although the team faces difficult living conditions compared to life in Shanghai, they are anchor men at the Center Hospital of the city. Among 20 specialists in total, more than half are supported by the Chinese government. Each of them does not get any money from the local hospital for two years. Many patients come from far and hope to return home the same day. Chinese doctors can carry out an operation rapidly and successfully hence they are liked by local people. Every Chinese specialist except internal medicine specialist can operate.

The CMT reflects China’s selfless policy of assistance to Africa. Due to its hard work, wherever I was in Morocco, the local people excitedly asked me: “Are you a Chinese doctor?” 

My old colleague in Mali says that when the CMT drew back from Sikasso to the south of Mali, many local people walked down street and demonstrated against this move. The number of CMTs in Africa is however declining. There were 12 CMTs in Morocco in 2009, compared to 8 now. Free assistance, especially grand scale projects funded by China government alone is confronting the challenges.     

International Agricultural Cooperation Project

In Bamako, I encountered a leader of Chinese agricultural experts dispatched by the Ministry of Agriculture. When he invited me to dinner, I read two volumes of the group’s pamphlets, from which I learnt the experts group’s activities under the “South-South cooperation project.”

The project is implemented for “food security” and consists of China, Mali and FAO experts. Chinese experts come from the Institute of Agricultural Studies in Anhui province. There are 5 experts and 12 technicians, 17 in total. Their budget is quite limited: US$1,500 per month for an expert and US$900 for a technician. The payment is decided by FAO. Chinese agricultural experts have to cater for their own accommodation and food expenses and cannot return home for two years. Most of the information above is from the group’s pamphlets, edited by Hu Wang, the leader of the experts group  

When they arrived in Bamako on April 1, they encountered many difficulties. While the project belongs to the foreign cooperation of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Department of economy and business of China Embassy in Mali does not demonstrate responsibility for the project. Worse still, the Malian government does not pay attention it. Our agricultural experts have thus had little to do since their arrival in Mali. The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Anhui Institute of Agricultural Studies were not familiar with the situation in Mali, though the Agricultural Institute of Anhui was lucky to get such a great project.

Despite the fact that everything was difficult in the beginning, the team is now better organized. They are divided into 4 groups and dispatched in 4 cities: Bamako, Koulikoro, Mopti and Segou. They are responsible for maize, sorghum, millet, rice, aquaculture, and water management. The fact that they had arrived in Mali for 4 months but had done nothing in the cooperation project shows that the cooperation has faults that need improvement. The survey and planning of the project, negotiation of the agreement, selection of experts before the implementation of the project, management, welfare of dispatched of experts and guarantee of their rights need close attention.
Confucius Institute (Class)

Africa hosts 22 of 322 Confucius Institutes and 4 of 369 Confucius Classes of the world. While the Confucius Institute is installed at a university, the Confucius Class is installed in a high school. Confucius Institutes and classes have been launched in the world since 2004. The first Institute in Africa was installed at Nairobi University in 2005. The objective of the Confucius Institute and class is to expand Chinese language teaching and provide materials on learning Chinese. It is a typical “soft power.” However, comparing the number of the Confucius Institutes and Classes in Africa with that in other continents, the “soft power” of Chinese culture is fairly weak or unbalanced in Africa.  

The Confucius Institute is located at the Faculty of Literature and Human Sciences, Mohammed University V (Agdal). It was set up by Beijing International Studies University (BISU) in 2009. It has one head and two teachers, one a volunteer, who understands and speaks Arabic. The institution has about 150 students who pay 200 dirham (about 150CNY) per year, while people from outside university enrolment pay 1,500 dirham (about 1,140 CNY) per year.

The Confucius Institute organizes some free activities every weekend and sends students to learn Chinese at BISU during summer holidays. Some students such as Li Shan (Chinese name, his Moroccan name is Hicham ERFIKI), who has finished a Masters Degree and continues to do a PhD, directed by professor Li Anshan at the School of International Studies, Peking University in 2011 look forward to learning in China through the Confucius Institute. This reveals an attractiveness of Chinese culture to Africa.         

The Confucius Class is located at Asykia High School in Bamako. Its tuition fee is 7,500 CFAC (about 100 CNY) per month, two-thirds of a year’s registration at Moroccan Confucius Institute. The Per capita income of Morocco is close to that of China but Mali is one of the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC). The registration fee in Africa is obviously an obstacle to the enrolment to the course. Although many Africans still want to learn Chinese and even come to China at their own expense, their objective is to find the opportunity of making money. They come to China not because of its cultural attraction, but of its economic success.    

Furthermore, since 2009, the fourth FOCAC (Sham el Sheikh, Egypt) initiated to develop “China-Africa think-tank exchange,” the Ministry of Education has launched a “China-Africa Cooperation Program of Universities 20+20” focus on the “soft power” construction. This involves selecting 20 Chinese universities and 20 African universities and pairing them with each other thus strengthening their exchange and cooperation each other. Many Confucius Institutes have applied for the “20+20” project, but they have not changed their model and ideas. Together with the limits of language (many teachers do not understand local language, including African official language), they do not play a role in the think-tank exchange. 

In short, under the impact of globalized market economy, Chinese long-term assistance to Africa such as the CMTs, the newly global policy of improving the soft power as Confucius Institutes, and the agricultural assistance project, cooperated by FAO in African countries are facing challenges. 

To be continued 

By PAN Huaqiong
Department of History, Peking University.

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