Covid-19 and Chinese Soft Power in Africa: Q&A with Ambassador David H. Shinn

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso shares his view on how recent events may reshape China-Africa relationship

Amb. David H. Shinn is a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia (1996-99) and Burkina Faso (1987-1990). A keen observer of African affairs, he is also co-author of China and Africa: A Century of Engagement (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), an encyclopedic book about China’s relation with each country on the African continent. Currently, he is an adjunct professor of international affairs at George Washington University in Washington D.C.

Panda Paw Dragon Claw has the opportunity to interview Amb. Shinn, who also runs his own Africa-watching blog, through email to get his take on recent developments in China-Africa relationship that has garnered international attention. His observations from across the Pacific offers a third-party perspective on China’s standing in Africa and the forces that are reshaping this important cross-continental relationship.

David Shinn
Ambassador David H. Shinn, Credit: Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society

Panda Paw Dragon Claw (PPDC): Observers have compared African response to President Trump’s 2018 “shithole” comment and to China’s recent maltreatment of African communities in Guangzhou and found a particular sense of betrayal in the latter. As a long time observer of China in Africa, do you think there is special “brotherhood” between China and African nations beyond economic and political ties?

Amb. David Shinn: There is some special attachment to China by many older African elites who were involved in their country’s struggle for independence or at least were alive at the time. But this has little resonance for younger Africans who were not alive during the independence struggle and are now primarily interested in finding employment. Younger Africans also obtain much of their information from social media, which does not face the same restrictions of government-controlled media in many countries. These social media are not easily accessible in China. As a result, Chinese officials initially did not fully appreciate the level of anger expressed by Africans.

The suggestion that there is a special “brotherhood” between China and African nations is, in my view, a stretch. African governments appreciate China’s financing, investment, development aid, military assistance, and political support, but I do not see this as constituting a special “brotherhood.” African governments are just being practical.

PPDC: How serious do you think the damage done by the Guangzhou incident is on China’s “soft power” in Africa? What areas of the relationship will it impact on?

Amb. David Shinn: I was surprised that several African leaders publicly criticized China for what happened in Guangzhou. This is highly unusual for African leaders and demonstrates the degree to which they were motivated by their own domestic audience, which is rare. African leaders, Nigeria’s House of Representatives excepted, subsequently went quiet on the issue, probably under pressure from Chinese embassies in Africa and perhaps even calls from Beijing. This did not surprise me. China is too important of an economic and political partner in most African countries and it does not take criticism lightly. At the level of African governments, I think the damage is short term and manageable.

The far more important question for China is Guangzhou’s impact on African publics and with people-to-people interaction. Guangzhou builds on a history of ill-advised Chinese advertisements and TV programs that played badly in Africa. Nor is there any guarantee Guangzhou is the last time something like this might happen. Consequently, at the level of the African public, I think serious damage has been done based on social media information and media coverage in the free press in some African countries.

This is, however, hard to measure until there are new scientific public opinion polls that ask about African perceptions of China and compare them with earlier polling data. The degree to which African students, even with a full scholarship, decide to study in China will be an indicator. The size of the African diaspora in China, whether it is rising or falling, is another gauge. On China’s side, the extent to which Chinese tourists feel comfortable choosing Africa as their destination post-coronavirus will shed some light on the China-Africa people-to-people relationship.

PPDC: China has a long history of providing medical assistance to Africa, which constitutes a major component of its “soft power.” The Covid-19 outbreak is supposed to be a moment when China demonstrates to Africa that it is a “friend in need.” How do you evaluate China’s overall Covid-19 response in relation to Africa this time?

Amb. David Shinn: I agree that China’s medical teams in Africa have been one of its most successful programs. The fact that they date back to 1963 in Algeria and today are found in nearly all African countries makes the case. In 2014, China also made a useful contribution to combatting Ebola in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. Covid-19 is different than Ebola, however, in that the former originated in China and the latter in Africa. This puts a different face on Covid-19 and, in the minds of some Africans, there may be a tendency, fair or not, to blame China. With Ebola, China could assist without concern about any connection with China. With Covid-19, Chinese assistance is a reminder of the origin of the virus. Nevertheless, China’s assistance, especially that from Alibaba founder Jack Ma, seems to have been well received in Africa.

PPDC: How do you assess China’s handling of the Guangzhou incident so far from a diplomatic point of view? Do you think statements and gestures coming out of the Chinese foreign policy apparatus are adequate? What does the Chinese government’s response to it tell us about China’s ability to wield soft power on the continent?

Amb. David Shinn: Again, it is important to distinguish China’s handling of this incident as it has impacted African governments and as it has impacted African publics. In the early days of the crisis, I think China’s lack of transparency in explaining the situation resulted in a poor response at both the governmental and public level. Subsequent messaging improved and largely ended any additional damage at the governmental level. It appears that Chinese embassies in Africa went all out to control the damage. China’s information effort has not, however, convinced African publics that this matter is finished and that it could not happen again. China’s governmental response tells me that it still has a lot to learn as it tries to wield soft power in Africa. It might start by paying more attention to what is being said by Africans about China on social media.

PPDC: African leaders appear to be willing to move on from the incident and restore cross-continental relations to a level of normalcy. What do you think are the strategic considerations behind this?    

Amb. David Shinn: I agree that China has generally restored the government-to-government relationship to normalcy. China has always emphasized the relationship with African governments. It is not surprising that is where it has devoted most of its effort.

From the African side, I suspect that reminders of continuing Chinese financing, investment, and political support were the primary strategic consideration. China’s financing and investment in Africa were declining, however, before Covid-19. As global economies, including China, face new stresses and challenges, it raises the question whether China will be able to meet African expectations over the next several years.

PPDC: What do you think are some of Africa’s priorities in relation to China post-Covid-19? To what extent will these priorities be affected/constrained by African public sentiments?

Amb. David Shinn: First on the list will be debt postponement or even cancellation. Ethiopia’s prime minister recently called for creditor nations and especially the Group of 20 to either postpone the debt of poorest countries until the Covid-19 health crisis is over or to cancel debt entirely. The next priority will be a request for assistance to rebuild African economies, which will almost certainly suffer significant damage. Covid-19 may provide opportunities for terrorist groups from northern Nigeria to the Sahel to the Horn of Africa to Mozambique to take advantage of preoccupied governments and deteriorating economies. This could lead to requests for additional assistance to combat these groups. Unfortunately, these requests will come at a time when the wealthier countries are experiencing significant damage to their own economies.

Traditionally, African publics have not played a major role in the decision-making of their governments except when they reach the point of large protest movements, especially those that take to the streets. When the situation reaches that point, there is either an overthrow of a government or severe repression of the protests by a government. Ideally, African governments would take more account of public opinion before it reaches that point.

PPDC: The US government and politicians have also responded to the Guangzhou incident by raising concerns about racism in China. The US-China rivalry in Africa is no secret these days, with Secretaries of State Tillerson and Pompeo’s warning of African nations about China reverberating in international media. In your opinion, will Covid-19 (the Guangzhou incident included) change anything in the US-China-Africa relationship? What are dynamics likely to be afterwards?

Amb. David Shinn: There is a saying dating back to 14th century English author Geoffrey Chaucer that “people who live in glass houses should not throw stones.”  Africans are perfectly capable of coming to their own conclusions about the implications of events in Guangzhou. They do not need any help from American officials. Most criticism of China for the situation in Guangzhou originated in Africa by Africans and not by the Western press or Western officials.

It is also not useful to deny the existence of racism in China or anywhere else. Racism of one kind or another is a global phenomenon. China is not immune. When official Chinese statements suggest otherwise, China just diminishes its credibility.

Covid-19 is impacting in a negative way the US-China relationship, but I doubt that it will change the US-China-Africa relationship. In a better world, there would be a joint effort by the United States and China to combat Covid-19 in Africa. While both countries are assisting Africa individually to counter the pandemic, the prospects for a cooperative approach in the current political environment are remote. This is unfortunate.

Author: TJMa

A blogger at large. My areas of interest include China's overseas footprint, environmental governance and online public opinion. Twitter: @TJMa_beijing

One thought on “Covid-19 and Chinese Soft Power in Africa: Q&A with Ambassador David H. Shinn”

  1. A good read but it still feels like an “American” perspective. the difference between western aid (IMF, World Bank et al) is that they tag horrendous loathsome and sickening – if not nauseating — demands with their rescue packages!!! it invariably comes at the cost of people’s livelihood, of which they don’t give a damn. I have experienced this first-hand during the Asian financial crisis in Southeast Asia in late 90s. the factory owners survived while labor was wiped out … China has of course no such qualms but there is a danger that it breeds corruption as the money stays among the elites! which one works better, i am not so sure but either way mostly mankind is damned…

    I would actually like to hear the perspectives from the Africans in Guangzhou/China as well as from the continent — they r the real indicators. it would be good to compare notes with what the African leaders/governments then have to say.

    I however agree with the diplomat when he says: Racism of one kind or another is a global phenomenon. China is not immune. When official Chinese statements suggest otherwise, China just diminishes its credibility.

    barring that there is not much other insights than what we don’t know already….

    Please continue the good work. best

Leave a Reply