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.

Bring back the “Bandung Spirit” in China-Africa relationship

Chinese scholar Liu Haifang argues that China should re-discover its early embrace of Africa to build a new foundation for China-Africa solidarity.

By Liu Haifang

The racial discrimination controversy in Guangzhou’s Covid-19 response measures is a shrieking noise in China-Africa relationship, making many anxious that it could derail years of pragmatic, mutually beneficial cross-continental collaboration.

I was alerted to the events in Guangzhou by my African students in Peking University. For me, they were the “whistle blowers” on this incident. They asked me, shouldn’t governments on both sides and concerned citizens do something about it? Realizing how serious the situation was, I immediately passed the message on to my government contacts, even though it was late at night, hoping that they would take it seriously. As the Guangzhou incident quickly occupied global headlines, I received a great number of letters and messages from friends on both the Chinese and African sides. They were invariably filled with worry, anxiety and a deep sense of loss over the damaged China-Africa friendship. I was clearly not the only one concerned.

However, having witnessed these exchanges of goodwill, and more importantly, the actions of young volunteers in Guangzhou rising up in response to the situation, I am more convinced than ever of the exceptional connection between China and Africa. It manifests itself not just in the highly formal relationship between “sovereigns”, but also in the day-to-day experiences of ordinary people, who realize the potentials of their lives through the cross-continental exchanges that are no longer limited to the economic sphere. For many years, people have entrusted the China-Africa relationship with the ideal of achieving a truly equal and reciprocal international relationship. No one wants to see it distorted and destroyed.

Scholars have a responsibility to approach culture-centrism and racism from a critical, analytical point of view. Just as the coronavirus outbreak is fast becoming an opportunity for humankind to slow down and examine what is lost in our single-minded pursuit of globalization, so has the China-Africa relationship, after a period of smooth sailing development, reached a point where we can take a moment to reflect on how we view each other, our shared qualities and our differences. The Guangzhou incident highlights the huge gap of language, culture and values between China and Africa, a reality that everyone needs to face in pursuing a sustainable cross-continental relationship. Colleagues of mine who have participated in discussions at the Peking University Center for African Studies all agree that scholars and academic institutions have a key role to play in promoting mutual understanding and an exchange of hearts and minds.

In the 1990s, the University of Chicago Press published Africa and the Disciplines: the Contributions of Research in Africa to the Social Sciences and Humanities, a collection of papers edited by scholars Robert H. Bates, V. Y. Madimbe and Jean O’Barr. The papers illustrated the value of African studies to the modern university and argued that, rather than chasing university rankings and competitiveness, higher education institutions should focus on “refining students’ sensibilities”. Through the study and research of Africa, universities can become truly “internationalist” and vehicles for promoting global understanding and respectful behavior. As globalization reaches today’s stage of uncertainty, extreme nationalism/tribalism, selfishness and finger-pointing, this responsibility of higher education institutions is particularly relevant.

Africa University

Research on Africa in the People’s Republic of China began with seriousness after the 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia, the first large conference of newly independent Asian and African countries. Many scholars in the field recognize that China’s initial gaze on the African continent in the 1950s was different from that of the Western world. As Professor Zheng Jiaxin of Peking University, a renowned Chinese scholar of Africa once put it, “the People’s Republic shares the same outlook and destiny as its Third World peers and will always side with the Third World.” He paid particular attention to the agency of African people in his compilation of African history and advocated for placing people at the center of their history, a reversal of a century of imperial historical tradition that elevates “African colonial history” above “African History”. But have we, as Chinese African scholars, adhered to this people-centered principle?

In 2007, Professor Li Yangfan of Peking University’s School of International Studies, published an article titled “Asia-Africa-Latin America: the forgotten world”, which discussed his experience of being confronted by an African diplomat. “Why do you always invoke the United States in your talks? What about the Third World?” he asked Professor Li. Similarly, my Peking University colleague Professor Chen Pingyuan brought up his own experience of feeling “stung” by his Chinese students’ indifference to Africa in a 2016 article. When he excitedly described Africa’s first electrified railway, the Addis-Djibouti railway, in class, the reaction of the students was ignorance and a lack of interest. Professor Chen reminisced that when he was a college student back in the late 1970s, the world view of his whole generation was shaped by the idea that “the people of Asia, Africa and Latin America must be liberated.” He recognized that young people’s upbringing is always intertwined with the national and global power structures of his or her time.

Another moment of reckoning came when Chen read about Ugandan scholar and public intellectual Mahmood Mamdani’s 2016 speech in Shanghai. Higher education institutions played pivotal roles in the independence and rebuilding of many African countries, and yet due to Chinese academia’s increasing focus on global ranking and a “snobbish worldview”, these institutions were almost invisible in China.

Drawing from these two personal experiences, Professor Chen reflected that academic excellence is only one aspect of a university’s mission. Its contribution to a nation’s political, societal and economic development goes far beyond published papers and patents. He raised the expectation that modern China’s study of Africa should be strengthened. And he emphasized that he was not talking about elitist “African Studies” (capital letters), but to incorporate Africa into the curriculum of liberal education in China and make it part of society’s shared knowledge.

Our study of Africa must step outside the small echo chambers of think tanks and the restrictive focus on China-Africa economic collaboration. We must respond to the Chinese public’s need for knowledge about the outside world, and show them Africa from an objective and equal perspective. It is an Africa with texture, rich in its history, culture and traditions and brimming with a youthful perspective.

Revisiting Historical Perspectives

150 years before Lord Macartney’s famous refusal to kowtow to Emperor Qianlong, Dutch emissaries reached the land of the Bakongo people (located between today’s Angola and Congo Brazzaville) in 1642 and kneeled in front of their king, in an effort to compete with the Portuguese who had traded with this prosperous kingdom since the 15th century.

Dutch Bakongo
Image provided by Prof. Liu Haifang

Europe’s early encounter with Africa was filled with such stories of admiration and fascination. Tragically, as the emergence of the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism irreversibly sank the continent into the abyss of exploitation, its image also suffered from continued alienation. Its lack of written history, much of it kept orally, was seen as a sign of backwardness. Hegel labelled Africa a continent “that is not a historical part of the world”, as he believed history only began with text-based records. Many forms of “rigorous”, “measurable raciology” banished Africans to the lowest in the hierarchy of human existence. Blackness was no longer a physical concept but an ideological one associated with being uncivilized. As British-Ghanaian thinker Kwame Appiah lamented, the entire African belief system, value system and knowledge system were demolished and discarded.

A Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) Chinese writer Zhao Rushi left an early record of Africa in his book The Record of Many Foreign Countries. When Yang Renbian (1903-1973), a pioneer of African Studies in China, compared Zhao’s accounts with French and English-language accounts (including those translated from Arabian sources) of the same period, he found that Zhao’s grasp of conditions on the African East Coast was way more advanced than the Europeans of his time. Later accounts by Wang Dayuan (14th century), Ma Huan (15th century) and Fei Xin (15th century) were simple but authentic products of seafaring experiences and first-hand records of visits to the continent. Only after the Qing Dynasty did China’s view of Africa show signs of distortion by its encounter with the Western world. The racist myth of Africans being “inferior” held by colonialists began to influence the Chinese mind. If we browse the literature of the Qing Dynasty, occasionally we can still find expressions of concern for the fate of Africa and Africans, but most were imported from publications by Western colonialists. Most Qing Dynasty writing about Africa was filled with Sinocentric biases. “They looked down upon the dark-skinned races, and claimed that Africans were black, ignorant and beasty beings, ”as scholar Peng Kunyuan put it.

It is regrettable that China, which had left colorful, first-hand accounts of Africa way earlier than the Europeans, reduced its conception of the continent to bigotry and discrimination through the Qing Dynasty’s unquestioning absorption of Western knowledge. Today’s China must return to the starting point of its embrace of Africa when it was a newly founded country on the international stage; It must pick up the “Bandung spirit” again in reaffirming the Afro-Asian identity that was established in 1955; It must also look at the continent with a refreshed pair of eyes, just like the curious Song and Yuan Dynasty seafarers. This is where the foundation of today’s Africa research in China should be laid upon.

This blog is translated from a Chinese version with permission from the author.

Liu Haifang (刘海方), PhD (History), Peking Uni., is an Associate Professor in School of International Studies, Peking University. She previously worked for the Institute of West Asian and African Studies (IWAAS), the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), and a visiting scholar at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague(2007-8). She serves as Director of the Center for African Studies, Peking Uni., and the Vice President of the Chinese Society of African Historical Studies as well. Liu ‘s current research topics are Racial, ethnic issues, political development in contemporary Africa, China-Africa relations and African sustainable development studies, China’s foreign aid from global perspective; South Africa, Angola country studies, etc. 

After Guangzhou, 3 things will shape China-Africa “brotherhood”

A quick take on the aftermath of the diplomatic crisis triggered by Guangzhou’s Covid-19 measures targeting African communities

By Ma Tianjie

If “people to people connection” was really one of the five pillars of the Belt and Road Initiative, it has been seriously damaged over the past week. The disturbing images and video clips of shelterless Africans roaming the streets of Guangzhou, as the result of evictions, rattled the cyberspace of the African continent and started a diplomatic crisis rare in the history of China-Africa relationship.

The incident was one of the unintended consequences of China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, now in its 5th month since the first reported cases emerged in Wuhan, Hubei province in December 2019. As domestic spread of the virus is more or less brought under control and situations in other parts of the world became more serious in recent months, the frontline of the response effort began to shift: emphasis was put more on stemming the import of cases from overseas. Chinese and foreigners returning from international hotspots of outbreak were subject to quarantine and testing measures that had gradually evolved in China with sophistication and force. And Guangzhou’s African community, the largest in Asia, began to feel the heat, as landlords and hotels began evicting black tenants out of both panic and prejudice. The resultant scene created an ugly spectacle and a cross-continental outcry.

By the end of Apr 15, the issue had been declared “sorted out” by African leaders, who, days earlier had made open and unprecedented protests about the situation to Chinese diplomats and officials. There are signs that African governments are now ready to move on and return the relationship to normalcy after receiving assurance from the Chinese government of “equal treatment of foreigners” and “zero tolerance for discrimination”.

But as Nigerian journalist Solomon Elusoji wrote in a latest China-Africa Project analysis, “while the current controversy might only linger for a while and soon be forgotten in the long, winding cabinets of history, Beijing must realize these are the incidents that tarnish its positive relationship with African countries and create deep distrust of China and its intentions among the more than a billion people living on the continent.”

The impact of the incident, on the hearts and minds of the African public and on the long-term prospect of China’s presence on the continent, will likely be long-lasting regardless of the intention of political elites on both sides. Here is a quick take on how the situation is going to continue to playout in the near future, based on information available to us from public sources.

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A Weibo video showing Guangzhou residents distributing food and supplies to Africans who lost shelter in the city’s Covid-19 containment campaign

1. Tensions between Chinese authorities and African communities will likely continue

When Zhao Lijian, spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, spoke of “equal treatment” and “zero discrimination”, he was talking in code language that only those familiar with dynamics of the country’s Covid-19 response in the past months could fully comprehend

Racial discrimination against black people, manifested both online and offline, is not uncommon in China. Elusoji, a guest of the Chinese government in a 2018 tour in China, experienced it firsthand. But another side of the story, that is often lost in international conversations about the situation, is the issue of perceived “preferential treatment” of foreign citizens within China, which has intensified tensions amid the implementation of confining Covid-19 control measures across the country.

Before the Guangzhou situation flared up, Chinese internet has witnessed multiple controversies of foreign residents in China being “taken better care of” than Chinese citizens under the coronavirus control regime. In some situations, this translated directly into more lenient quarantine measures for foreign nationals than for Chinese citizens. This created huge resentment online and began to challenge the credibility of the government’s pandemic fighting measures for the citizenry. Exceptional cases of assault on nurse by a Nigerian Covid-19 patient and group infection of 5 Nigerian residents of Guangzhou only made things worse.

It was in this context that on Mar 9, Beijing city had to make an explicit statement about “bringing all foreign nationals under the same coronavirus prevention regime as Chinese citizens.” It is also the subtext of Zhao Lijian’s “equal treatment” reference. It can mean equal treatment with respect. It can also mean equal treatment of coercion (as Chinese citizens know well).

The Guangzhou incident is possibly a mixture of over-correction on “equal treatment” and terrible under-performance on cultural and racial sensitivity. There were complaints that African people were subject to an extra 14-day quarantine on top of the existing quarantine rules applied to everyone in Guangzhou. If controlling the pandemic is the final goal, then racial profiling, targeting people based on skin color rather than epidemiologically relevant factors such as travel and contact history, which China has proved effective at tracking via mobile apps and QR codes during the epidemic period, does not make sense.

But coronavirus also exposed the deep-rooted issue of managing foreign nationals in Guangzhou. For China’s brand of pandemic-fighting measures to work, which has now evolved into an ultra-sophisticated system of mandatory hotel quarantine, home quarantine, neighborhood watch, travel history tracking and massive testing, it has to have a confident grasp of the movement of people living in China. While Chinese citizens can be more easily brought under such a society-wide system of control through all kinds of surveillance and administrative measures, foreign nationals are more challenging to incorporate. Different visa types, people working on incorrect visas, multiple nationalities and the diplomatic issues that entails, as well as various language and cultural factors all make it more difficult to monitor and control this diverse group of residents.

As Yangcheng Wanbao, Guangzhou’s influential local newspaper, pointed out in an Apr 9 Weibo post, Guangzhou’s African community management was a “black hole” (without racial connotation) in the middle of the city. Authorities there genuinely have a hard time keeping track of the African population, which for many years has taken root in the southern China city known for its highly active international trade sector. At a “normal” time, such undocumented presence might not pose too much a problem other than occasional need for order keeping. But Covid-19 will likely force the hand of the authorities to fundamentally change the status quo and eliminate grey areas that have so far shaped the existence of the African community there.

Regardless of this contextualizing of the Guangzhou incident in the past and in light of the pressure of Chinese public sentiment and pandemic-fighting measures, new cases of profiling and arbitrary treatment may well emerge and further test the strength of so-called “China-Africa brotherhood.”

2. Chinese social media will be slightly tamed for racial contents

To further complicate things, throughout the Guangzhou incident, Chinese social media (Weibo and WeChat) became hotbeds for racist comments against the African community. The Chinese internet actively censors any information that is considered politically sensitive, but racially inflammatory comments, including the N-word, did not seem to qualify for that category. This is beginning to change.

On Apr 15, Weibo suspended and permanently shutdown 180 user accounts for “publishing information about foreign countries” and “promoting community discrimination.” As most of the accounts and contents in question are now deleted, it is impossible to find out what exactly triggered the crackdown. But given the timing, it is reasonable to assume that recent events have prompted Chinese authorities to take a hard look at racial discrimination on social media.

Even though Chinese internet users inhabit a cyberspace separated from the rest of the world by the Great Firewall, the Guangzhou incident shows that what’s being said inside the wall can still penetrate the double barriers of language and technology and cause outcry outside of China’s borders. Over the last few weeks, a great number of African social media users (many of whom speak and read Chinese after studying or working in China) screenshotted and translated Weibo utterances of racism on Weibo and posted them on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

In some cases, Chinese internet users jumped over the fence (using VPNs) to pick fights with netizens in other countries over what they considered cultural and political offenses, actively bringing insults to the cyberspace of other countries. From the information released by Weibo, at least one user was suspended for participating in the online quarrel with Thai users over perceived offenses. An episode (unrelated to the Guangzhou incident) that became a spectacle on Twitter and created new vocabulary in the Urban Dictionary.

Chinese social media’s agitating role in racial and foreign affairs has been made clear by incidents in Guangzhou and beyond. This will likely bring more regulatory (i.e. censoring) attention to such content in the near future. Whether this will actually contain its destructive force in the China-Africa relationship is yet to see. If the root cause of tension is unaddressed, social media is but one place where grievance, bigotry and outright hatred bubble up.

3. True people to people connection is taking place

As people stare into the bleak future of China-Africa connections at the civilian level, severely tarnished by the latest incident, one may find some hope in the grassroots efforts trying to build bridges and tend to the wounds.

As some Chinese web users indulged themselves with racial slurs, others alarmed concerned compatriots that “if we don’t do something about racism in China, everyone will pay for the downward spiral of hatred between Chinese and Africans.”

Motivated Chinese netizens pressured McDonald’s for an explanation and apology for a “no black” notice at one of its stores in Guangzhou. And a group of volunteers self-organized to provide support to Africans who have lost shelter in the city.

VolunteerGuangzhou
A notice circulating online recruiting volunteers to support Africans in Guangzhou

One impact of the coronavirus outbreak in China is a rekindled sense of civic duty among many of its citizens. The crisis that almost brought Wuhan to its knees in Jan and Feb mobilized people to donate and volunteer for their fellow countrymen. Now that sense of civic duty is being extended to Africans in Guangzhou.

Such efforts are not without costs. Paranoid Guangzhou residents reported the volunteers to the police, claiming that they were undermining pandemic control measures. It highlights the stubbornness of anti-black sentiments but also the preciousness of citizens standing up to such prejudice.

As the world continues its struggle against the coronavirus and experiences the cracks in the international order that are emerging and widening, the events in Guangzhou in the spring of 2020 will forever form part of the covid-19 experience for both China and Africa. Communities on both sides can choose to go along with the downward spiral or turn it into the beginning of a difficult yet necessary conversation. Doing the latter would take agency, wisdom, and time.

Belt and Road actors brace for coronavirus shock

The epidemic is already disrupting some BRI operations but SOEs are getting prepared for more long lasting impacts

By Ma Tianjie and Tom Baxter

Up to the point of writing, the entire country of China has been at war with a disastrous outbreak of a novel coronavirus (2019-nCov) for three weeks, with no end in sight. The epidemic has infected more than 35000 people and killed more than 900. The virus has already claimed more lives than SARS, and the numbers are still growing rapidly.

The immense disruption to all aspects of life in China is clear for anyone to see. Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak and a city of 11 million, is in total lockdown, as its hospitals are overwhelmed by patients seeking medical attention. The rest of the country is half-paralyzed by travel restrictions and neighborhood seal-offs that keep most of its citizens confined at home. Schools are holding classes online and businesses are struggling to keep themselves afloat.

China’s overseas operations, from power plants to railway constructions, are also not immune to what’s going on at home. According to a tally kept by the Chinese National Immigration Agency (NIA), 128 countries have installed border control measures against Chinese citizens or people who have visited China. These measures range from Indonesia and Singapore’s strict ban on entry or transit of non-nationals or non-residents who have been in China within the last 14 days to the milder measures of the UK, where direct flights from Wuhan are to be checked. The disruption to the international movement of both people and goods is already sending shuddering shockwaves to China’s expansive presence across the globe.

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A quarantine space at a Power China overseas camp. Image: Power China

Scrambling SOEs

The outbreak derailed what would otherwise look like a brilliant start to 2020 for the Belt and Road Initiative. From January 17-18, President Xi Jinping made a state visit to Myanmar. His handshake with State Counsellor Daw Ang Sang Suu Kyi delivered a basket of key outcomes for the BRI that some media claimed would “remake the country”. Among them, the signing of the Letter of Intent for Yangon New City and the handover of Feasibility Study Reports of Mandalay-Tigyaing-Muse Expressway & Kyaukpyu-Naypyitaw Highway Projects are important progress for China Communications Construction (CCCC), one of the largest state owned enterprises (SOE) operating on the Belt and Road, specializing in building ports and roads.

Two days after the celebratory meeting between the leaders, on Jan 20, the coronavirus situation in Wuhan escalated into a national emergency, when top Chinese experts alarmed the country of human-to-human transmission and infected medical workers. And a national response was required. By Jan 29, CCCC was in a war posture to combat the outbreak, with units across the company’s massive organizational chart all mobilized to “win the war against the epidemic”. The company’s public records were not without worries. At a Feb 5 meeting, top executives instructed that the company should “minimize the impact of the outbreak” and come up with concrete counter measures to protect overseas projects with national strategic importance.

CCCC is not the only SOE scrambling to respond to the sudden deterioration of the situation. Power China, a major contractor for constructing power plants globally, provides a snapshot of the virus’s impact. The company immediately implemented traffic controls at its overseas bases, freezing holiday plans of all staff members on site while running health checks on anyone who had travelled to China two weeks before. Quarantine spaces were created and safety supplies such as facial masks were distributed at the bases. Moreover, the company also mobilized its overseas teams to source safety gears in their respective countries and ship them back home. In some cases, such as Bangladesh, the company worked closely with the Chinese embassy and the local authorities to collect and report the whereabouts of staff members and follow quarantine procedures. In other cases, such as Cambodia, the company went further to help communities living near its base camp to implement basic prevention measures such as sterilizing public spaces.

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Power China staff helping Cambodia neighborhood to disinfect door handles Image: Power China

Contract worries

The SOEs’ concerns go beyond just inconvenience at their overseas bases. The severe chokehold on the movement of personnel, goods and supplies is already threatening to delay project progress and trigger non-compliance clauses in project contracts.

In more than one case, SOEs referred to such risk in their instructions to staff. Power China reminded its legal departments to study local laws and contract terms to “get prepared for ensuing compensation claims.” CEEC, another big energy infrastructure contractor, asked its Philippines project company to start initial communications about potential compensation claims.

On 7 February, a Beijing law firm published an article outlining a few scenarios where the coronavirus outbreak may transform into legal risks to Chinese overseas projects. One obvious risk is the inability to send a large number of Chinese laborers overseas in the short term. The lawyer advised that Chinese companies should consider switching Chinese sub-contractors to local suppliers of services such as construction in order to avoid delaying project progress.

Some projects are already experiencing such difficulty. Bangladeshi media has reported that thousands of Chinese workers and engineers are now stuck at home after going back for Chinese New Year holiday, unable to return to work on a few priority projects such as the Padma Bridge and Payra Thermal Power Plant. The Bangladeshi government has already announced that this will lead to delays on a number of priority infrastructure projects, including postponement of the commissioning of the Payra coal power plant, which was supposed to begin commercial operations in early February. Similar situations have also been reported at Indonesian coal plants and nickel smelters with Chinese SOE involvement.

Another risk, according to the law firm, is “quarantine at anchorage” rules imposed by destination countries that may affect maritime routes. Such rules would not allow crew members to disembark before obtaining a quarantine officer’s permission. Malaysia is one of the countries that has implemented such measures. The risks of delayed or failed delivery of goods and equipment, and the ensuing costs at ports are something Chinese companies have to grapple with now.

A tricky aspect is that even “force majeure” clauses, already invoked in three contracts by CNOOC, according to a recent Reuters report, might not shield Chinese companies from legal liabilities unless such events as an epidemic outbreak have already been specified in contracts.

“Friend in need”

Commercial considerations aside, the outbreak appears to have become a litmus test of countries’ friendship with China, potentially redrawing the diplomatic friend/foe map across the globe.

In a telling episode, the BBC reported that China’s Ambassador Liu Xiaoming complained to Stanley Johnson, father of the UK’s Prime Minister, about his son not sending a personal message of condolence to President Xi.

With the government facing massive public discontent over its handling of the Wuhan situation at home, it is actively seeking international recognition and endorsement of its response to the epidemic to buttress its legitimacy. The effort has developed into an all-out diplomatic campaign that is two-pronged: 1) proactively seek messages of support from various levels of a foreign government; 2) scalding or threatening those who Beijing considers as “over reacting”.

The World Health Organization is an apparent target of such effort, with its Director General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, placing lavish praises on China’s efforts to contain the epidemic. China’s ambassadors across the globe are also, like Liu Xiaoming, working hard to secure more such messages of support. Ambassador to the Philippines, Huang Xilian, sent back a message from Davao City Mayor of being confident that China will prevail over the disease under the leadership of the Chinese government. Li Jiming, Ambassador to Bangladesh, passed back praises from Bangladeshi ministers, commending China’s “responsible and transparent stance over the issue.” Probably the most impressive of all, is the message delivered in person, by Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, who paid a visit to President Xi in Beijing and to the epicenter, Wuhan, on Feb 6.

Some countries, in contrast, are at the receiving end of China’s ire. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying’s lambasting the US for implementing travel bans got a lot of media coverage last week. Lesser noticed was the stern words of China’s Ambassador to Indonesia, Xiao Qian, to the Indonesian government on certain trade restrictions the country has introduced. Speaking of Indonesia’s potential import ban on Chinese food and beverage, the Ambassador warned publicly:

“This kind of overreaction will harm the two countries’ normal trade relations and possibly give rise to serious consequences that neither side would wish to see for the two countries’ relations and future cooperation.”

Indonesia has since backpedaled from the position, claiming that the proposed ban only applies to live animals. But given China’s past practice of using economic leverage to punish “unfriendly” behavior from another country, the scuffle’s impact on the future of China-Indonesia relations, particularly Belt and Road projects in Indonesia, is worth watching.

In its hour of greatest need, just how well did China’s Belt and Road allies show up? And how will they be judged on their performance?

So far there is still no clear sign that the epidemic is going to be under control very soon. Dr. Zhong Nanshan, China’s top expert advising the State Council on the coronavirus, told reporters on Feb 11 that a turning point “might be expected in late Feb” but “no one can be certain.” Facing mounting pressure to reignite the frozen economy, the central government is cautiously loosening some confinement measures in non-epicenter regions. But this creates new uncertainty over whether it could slow or negate some of the earlier gains of containing the disease. A black swan event of epic proportions, the coronavirus outbreak is affecting almost every corner of Chinese politics and economics in the first six weeks of 2020. In what shape will BRI come out of this situation depends on how prolonged China’s war against the epidemic will be and how countries realign themselves in this war.