China inspiring Africans: Isn’t that soft power in a nutshell?
Education is not, of course, China’s only concern in Africa. According to Aid Data, China has committed $74 billion to African projects since 2000, and has delivered $49 billion so far. Fifty out of 54 African states have benefited. Grandiose gestures include the $200 million African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa (one of many African cities which China has helped modernize and reshape). China also pays Africa the kind of high-level diplomatic attention that it seldom attracts from elsewhere. “Chinese leaders are a bit like swallows,” observes King, “they set off for Africa at the start of every year.” Sure enough, Xi Jinping visited three African states in March right after becoming president. “He even went to Congo-Brazzaville,” notes King. “Who else goes to Congo-Brazzaville?”
China’s growing influence is inevitably causing some discomfort in Africa itself, with Lamido Sanusi, the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, recently arguing that China’s “win-win” approach now involves too much “win” for the Chinese, and too much “lose” for the Africans. However, even Sanusi’s critique acknowledged China’s enduring soft power. “A romantic view of China is quite common among African imaginations,” he observed, adding that “this African love of China is founded on a vision of the country as a saviour, a partner, a model.” Sanusi’s message was that Chinese soft power in Africa will evaporate if China pursues a hard-power path along which it simply buys influence and resources without benefitting the Africans themselves – but that for the time being it still has formidable soft-power reserves.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The patchiness of Chinese power
Africa is not the only place from which China looks appealing. Its soft power also draws people in Latin America, Eastern Europe and parts of Asia, where the popular impression of China might contrast favorably with the general perception of the West, or where Beijing might be seen as a welcome partner in tough financial times, or as a trusted long-time ally.
Western commentators tend to overlook this, noticing only China’s lack of soft power in North America, Western Europe and those parts of Asia that fear or dislike China. In these places, the bad news about China – everything from its smoggy air, to its venal politics, to its repression of dissidents, to its apparent strangeness – drowns out any soft-power messages that Beijing might be trying to send. But elsewhere the good news drowns out the bad.
So Nye’s criticisms are half-right. In many states, China probably is wasting its time and resources when it tries to get people to watch CCTV, piles newsstands with English versions of China Daily, or part-funds its Confucius Institutes. These initiatives are doomed to fail in certain contexts. But these same activities can work beautifully elsewhere.
Even in the China-bashing West, China’s marketing messages are finding an audience. The U.S., for example, hosts more Confucius Institutes than any other country (70 at the latest count). If they convince even a few Americans that China is somehow likeable, respectable, trustworthy or admirable, then Beijing’s efforts won’t have gone entirely to waste.