China enjoys warm bilateral relations with all African countries with which it has diplomatic relations. It also enjoys similar relations with the African Union. Such relations are anchored on economic, trade, commercial, investment and people to people exchanges. In essence, government to government relations are cordial and strong. However, this cannot be said about the people to people relations. According to Pew Research Center, around the world, people are divided in their opinions of China. However, views of China across Africa are generally positive, with four countries surveyed in 2018 averaging 62 percent favorability. The country’s most favorable ratings came from Kenya, Nigeria and Tunisia. Chinese investments and Chinese-funded infrastructure across the continent might in part account for this generally positive opinion, especially since the establishment of the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2000. Equally of note is the signing on to the signature project of President Xi Jinping, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by many African countries and the promised deliverables.
Notwithstanding the generally positive image in parts of Africa, however, worrying signs for China’s image have emerged elsewhere as the favorability rates are now dropping in countries across Africa. According to Pew, both Egypt and Algeria have been the target of considerable investment from China, yet both countries have lower than 40 percent favorability toward China. The reasons behind these dips are actually complex. While some are attributing this to disinformation and propaganda coming from the West, some researchers have cited lack of employment opportunities among the local population as a result of Chinese’ investments in retail activities. Others are however, referring to alleged debt burden on African countries. Let me be clear, I am not worried about the level of African countries’ indebtedness to China, which is now about US $150 Billion, and actually less than 20 percent of the continent’s total indebtedness. In any case, the level of indebtedness actually varies across the countries in Africa, with Angola accounting for half of the total obligations to China.
Remarkably, the situation of Africans in China is also working against the country’s overall image in Africa with implications for people to people relations. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic brought to the fore the uneasy calm in the way and manner the Chinese authorities relate with the African population. In the various attempts at containing the pandemic especially in Guangdong province, the area with more than 90 percent of Africans in China, the Chinese authorities took a number of measures which had impacts on the African community that was already in distress. Many African governments reacted to the situation. In fact, the Chairman of the African Union and President of the Republic of South Africa was so concerned about the situation that he had to issue a statement against the alleged maltreatment of Africans in the country. While the imbroglio could be attributed to a perceived misunderstanding and lack of communication between the local authorities and the representatives of some African governments in Guangzhou, it is imperative to note that some of the issues predated the embarrassment of April 2020.
Notably, there have been instances of serious disconnect between the pronouncements of the Chinese government in Beijing and the actions of the local authorities in many of the provinces in the recent past. A practical demonstration of this was in July 2018 when citizens from five African countries including Nigerian nationals were singled out for denial of hotel accommodation and this confusion was only resolved after the intervention of Beijing when the consulates in Guangzhou protested the discriminatory practices. It is pertinent to state this fact because of how the policies of local authorities viz a viz Africans in China can influence the reactions of their governments. Ghana is an example of such reaction, where favorability of China reduced since Pew research conducted the survey in 2015 and 2018.
Let me put this in a proper context. I am aware that China has been able to lift 750 million people out of poverty and is on the way to achieving the elimination of absolute poverty by the end of 2020. This is a remarkable achievement. I am also aware that 17 million children were born in 2018 in China, perhaps the result of the abolition of the one-child policy. Moreover, 8 million students graduated from college in 2019. With a population of 1.4 billion people, serious challenge on how to continue to provide employment opportunities for the teeming population in and out of the country will arise. This has implications for Africans on the continent and in China. Evidence abound of Chinese nationals with long residency and are engaged in retail trading in many African cities, the supposedly exclusive preserve of Africans, whereas Africans do not have such opportunities in China.
Of concern to me as an individual however, is the fate of African Chinese in China, and the number is growing daily. Some are unable to go to school because they have no birth certificates and cannot be inserted in their mothers’ hokku papers. What happens to them in a situation where China does not allow for dual nationality and some of their parents do not have the money to pay the fine to obtain exit visa to leave China is better imagined. Although these issues militating against people to people relations predated Covid-19, the outbreak of the pandemic has compounded these problems and thus increase the difficulty of the situation of Africans in China with implications for probable backlash against Chinese nationals in Africa. There is therefore the need for a holistic solution to this problem post Covid-19.
Meanwhile, reactions to the outbreak of the pandemic on the continent has not been without its drama so to say, from the serious to the ridiculous. In Nigeria, a group of lawyers have filed a petition against Chinese authorities and are demanding the sum of $200 billion in damages for the loss of lives, economic strangulation, trauma and hardship. This is unprecedented in the history of China relations with Africa. Visas have been stopped from China and Africa, and may not resume soon. These have implications for small and medium enterprises that have not been able to restock their goods and may therefore shut down, thus creating unemployment. Some have lost money trying to source goods through the alternative means of e-ecommerce. Prices of goods produced in China have hit the roof.
Thus at the end of the day, it is no longer a win-win situation from Africa’s perspective. While the state of affairs of people to people relations post Covid-19, whenever that will be, may or may not necessarily improve, it may be the opportunity that African governments need to walk the talk so to say. This is by boosting their import-substitution industries in order to create a successful African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). It is therefore safe to say that the Chinese-African People’s Friendship Association on the continent and in China already have their work cut out for them post Covid-19 and must step up efforts at improving China-Africa people to people relations. Establishment of Confucius Institute in many parts of Africa may not be enough.
Public Policy Analyst