In the first several months after the first case of the new coronavirus was confirmed in the city of Wuhan, some speculated that relations between China and Africa would be strained. Fears began that flows of people between cities across China and countries across Africa could result in the contagious virus causing large-scale illness and even death. This led many countries to ban direct flights to China. When Ethiopia allowed such flights to continue, many speculated that the several direct flights a day between Addis Ababa and cities across China could lead to epidemics across the continent. As many African countries began to record their index cases of COVID-19, it was clear that these fears were not accurate, as the vast majority of countries have traced their first cases to either North America or Europe.
In the months since, the pandemic has proven to be an opportunity for Beijing to cement its relations with African states. This is especially the case as the United States and Europe suffered from surges in confirmed cases and deaths. Meanwhile, China began a diplomatic and economic offensive across the continent, seeking to prove itself as a reliable partner during times of crisis and erase criticism of its initial handling of the virus. This can be seen in examining the response of the Chinese government, state-owned enterprises (SOEs), and Chinese private firms across the continent.
China sent its first offers of bilateral assistance to African states in the context of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in late March. Some assistance was given by the Chinese government while other donations were given by both Chinese companies and the Chinese diaspora, but facilitated by Chinese embassies in African capitals.
One of the first instances occurred on March 24, when the former Chinese Ambassador to South Africa Lin Songtian facilitated the donation of face masks, testing kits, and other medical equipment from the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. In a video that the embassy posted on Twitter, Lin thanked South Africa for the solidarity and support that it showed China during the early stages of the epidemic and said the assistance was indicative of the “brotherhood” between the two countries. The event was also attended by South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize who thanked China for its support and for sharing its experience in combating the virus.
The Embassy of China in Zimbabwe announced similar assistance at the end of March, when the embassy worked with the Chinese diaspora to raise the funds necessary to upgrade Wilkins Hospital, which was designated to be one of the main centers to treat COVID-19 cases in the country. Similar announcements were made by Chinese embassies across the continent and beyond. However, there were no public details on how such donations were doled out, keeping with the lack of transparency that often shrouds assistance given to African states by China. This is particularly pertinent in the case of Zimbabwe, where massive corruption was later revealed in the facilitation of COVID-19 related assistance to the country, resulting in the removal of the country’s health minister. While it is not confirmed that any of the assistance given by China to Zimbabwe at the early stages of the pandemic was siphoned off through corruption, the lack of transparency only fuels speculation.
Early in the pandemic, the Chinese government also began sending to African states teams of medical personnel from China who had experience treating cases of COVID-19. One of the first teams of medical personnel was sent to Algeria, which was the first African country to experience a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths after the virus arrived in the North African country from France and Italy. Another early country to receive teams of Chinese doctors was Nigeria, where the announcement created resentment among the Nigerian medical community who said Chinese doctors were not needed to respond to the pandemic. The Nigerian government insisted that the doctors were needed due to their experience treating cases of the virus. Despite the resistance from the Nigerian Medical Association, a team of 15 Chinese doctors arrived in Abuja in early April.
China has continued to send medical teams to African countries on a regular basis since March. For instance, a team of 10 Chinese doctors arrived in Zimbabwe at the end of September. As of June, at least 148 Chinese medical workers had been sent to 11 African states to respond to the pandemic according to the Chinese Foregin Ministry. That being said, the details of such medical deployments, the work that they are conducting, and the duration of their stays in any particular country are not clear.
Another means through which China has promised medical assistance to African countries is through the production and eventual distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine. This is especially important as many African states are worried that vaccine nationalism will prevent them from getting an ample supply of vaccines once one is produced. China currently has four vaccines in phase three trials and has been assertive that once one is approved African states will receive doses of it, saying that a vaccine would be considered a “global public good.”
China has worked bilaterally to ensure African states that they will be given a vaccine if one of the four candidates that China currently has in trial is approved. Recently, 50 African diplomats in China visited a vaccine factory operated by Sinopham, a major Chinese pharmaceutical company. During the tour, Sinopham Chairman Liu Jingzhen said “President Xi Jinping pointed out that after the COVID-19 vaccine is developed and put into use, it will take the lead in benefiting African countries.” Sinopham has been conducting portions of its phase three trial in Morocco and the North African kingdom has also agreed to help China produce a vaccine once one is approved.
China recently joined the Covax Alliance, which seeks to equitably distribute 2 billion doses of a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of 2021. Specifically, the Covax alliance seeks to vaccinate 20 percent of the high-risk population in each country once a vaccine is approved. China had initially missed the deadline to join the alliance of over 170 countries, many of which are located in Africa.
A major topic of contention since the outbreak of the global pandemic has been debt relief for African states, some of which are entering into a recession for the first time in decades. As the largest single-state creditor in Africa, a substantial amount of attention has been given to the actions that China is willing to take regarding debt relief.
The first comment from the Chinese government regarding debt in Africa was made in mid-April as part of a G-20 effort to alleviate fiscal strains on lower income countries. At the meeting, all G-20 members including China, agreed to suspend both principal payments and interest payments on debts until the end of 2020. Forty countries in sub-Saharan Africa are eligible to receive such debt relief, although it is not clear how many Chinese loans qualify for it. The second mention came when Xi addressed the 73rd World Health Assembly in May, in which he largely built upon the previous pledges of China to assist in the global recovery from the pandemic. Specifically, he pledged $2 billion in economic assistance to developing countries.
Later that month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that China will work through both multilateral and bilateral channels to address the issue of debt relief. However, China continues to prefer bilateral channels, in keeping with the lack of transparency that accompanies many of its loan agreements over the last several decades.
During the Extraordinary China-Africa Summit on Solidarity Against COVID-19, Xi promised to cancel all interest-free loans that China has given to African states. However, this measure is largely symbolic as such loans only make up around 5 percent of debt owed to China by African states.
Role of State-Owned Enterprises
It is easy to assume that given the CCP’s centralized and authoritarian nature, commercial assistance would be conducted in a direct and straight-forward manner with a single actor espousing a single narrative. Looking deeper into the dynamics of China’s COVID-19 diplomacy, it is clear that it incorporates a variety of actors with differing motives. Among these actors are the Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs).
Chinese SOEs are usually thought of as an extension of the central government, although they do maintain independent agency, especially in the day-to-day running of their operations. This is especially the case abroad, where the distance and different regulations of the local country give SOEs more operational independence. Thus, it is not surprising to observe that their response to the COVID-19 crisis in Africa, albeit promoted by the Chinese government, has demonstrated its own independent mode and motivation.
This motivation can be classified as “contract-seeking,” in which donations are targeted toward specific agencies or provinces where existing business relationships are located or have the potential to be created. For instance, transport-focused SOE Jiangxi International Economic and Technical Cooperation Co. provided 10,000 masks to Ghana’s Ministry of Roads and Highways at the start of the pandemic, in an evident push to foster a closer economic partnership with the Ghanaian agency. Similarly, the Chinese Construction and Civil Engineering Company (CCCEC) donated cash, face masks, sanitizers, and rice to the Lagos state government in Nigeria. The words of CCCEC’s representative Kelvin Liu are quite emblematic of his motivations: “I hope the relationship between the company and the state government is further cemented by this epic fight against coronavirus.”
SOEs have also been offering donations to African SOEs and private companies. COSCO Shipping donated 10,000 medical masks and 200 bottles of hand wash gel to Transnet, South Africa’s national freight and logistics group to “support local port enterprises to fight against COVID-19.”
Role of the Private Sector
Another set of actors who have been using the COVID-19 pandemic to pursue their own motivations and interests are Chinese private companies. Private companies are able to maintain operational independence, enabling them to sponsor aid initiatives while promoting their own commercial interests.
An important differentiation must be made between the motivations of SOEs and private companies. SOEs tend to target institutions which they intend to do business with directly, while private companies aim their donations toward both central governments and consumers, with the goal of boosting the local economies on which their profits rely. The deputy director for the China Africa Business Council (CABC) explained this recently when asked what motivates private companies to donate: “And of course, the sooner Africa wins the battle against COVID-19, the sooner their (the companies’) business can be brought back on track. The longer African countries suffer, they will suffer too. So, the more they can help, the better.”
As early as March, the Chinese footwear manufacturer Huajian International had sent over 100,000 general protective masks to the Ethiopian government, receiving official appreciation from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Less than two months later, ICT giant Huawei doubled down by donating 10,000 surgical masks, 20 infrared thermometers, and 100 bottles of sanitizers to the Ethiopian Ministry of Science and Higher Education. These cases are highly representative, as both firms have a deeply established presence in the country.
Another interesting instance of a “market-seeking” donation from a Chinese private company comes from Nigeria. PalmPay, an Africa-focused mobile payment startup backed with funding from Transsion (a major Shenzhen-based cellphone maker), is planning to waive transfer fees and even give direct “cash” handouts to customers hit by COVID-19.
In examining China’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic across Africa, it is clear that a diverse array of actors are participating with a multitude of motives. These include geopolitical aims, an attempt to divert attention away from the origin of the virus within China, and seeking to lay the groundwork for commercial deals. Regardless of the differing intentions, all such assistance plays into the narrative being prompted by the Chinese Communist Party, which is that Beijing is assisting its partners during a global crisis that it successfully responded to while countries in the West face rising death tools and case numbers. While the United States and Europe have provided substantial assistance to African states during the pandemic, their efforts have not received nearly the amount of media coverage that the Chinese assistance has nor have they been able to coordinate it in the way that Beijing has because of its monopoly over the country’s markets.
Despite the fact that at the beginning of the pandemic some predicted that it would lead to a downturn in relations between China and Africa, it has now become clear that the CCP has attempted to use the pandemic as an opportunity to strengthen such ties. While public opinion polling shows this might not be successful, it is unquestionable that the CCP is trying.
R. Maxwell Bone is an MPhil Candidate in African Studies at the University of Cambridge, Jesus College. Follow him on Twitter @maxbone55
Ferdinando Cinotto is an MPhil Candidate in Development Studies at the University of Cambridge, Jesus College. His research focuses on Chinese investment policies in Africa.