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.

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.

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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.