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.