Why China became more popular than US in Africa


 SGR under construction by the Chinese in 2016.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

A new Gallup poll indicates that China has outpaced the United States as the most influential power in Africa. Beijing’s approval among Africans rose by six percentage points from 52 per cent in 2022 to 58 per cent in 2023. Besides, Washington’s popularity fell from 59 per cent in 2022 to 56 per cent last year.

This reflects a growing trend affirmed by other credible pollsters, like Afrobarometer and Ichikowitz Family Foundation, which both rank China above the US in the popularity index.

This state of affairs is a complex phenomenon with multifaceted reasons spanning economic, political and cultural domains. It is a significant global development, reshaping geopolitical dynamics and altering the traditional power structures. And it isn’t an overnight act; it has been decades in the making.

Beijing’s diplomatic approach to the continent differs significantly from that of Western countries. China’s foreign policy emphasises respect for national sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs, resonating with African countries, which have a history of colonialism and intervention by Western powers.

By presenting itself as a partner—friend, actually—rather than hegemon, China has cultivated strong diplomatic ties with many African nations. Furthermore, Beijing’s diplomatic outreach in Africa is characterised by high-level visits, economic summits and cultural exchanges, reinforcing the perception of China as a reliable ally committed to mutual cooperation.

Political conditions

China’s economic engagement with Africa has been extensive and impactful. Unlike the US, which often links its assistance and investment to political conditions such as human rights or governance standards, China focuses solely on economic cooperation. This approach offers many African governments, and citizens, the opportunity to pursue development while retaining their political systems.

Development partnership between China and Africa encompasses various sectors, including infrastructure modernisation, natural resource development and trade. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched in 2013, is a prime example of China’s commitment to enhancing connectivity and trade links with Africa. Through BRI, the continent has constructed railways, ports and highways. This has bolstered its infrastructure, facilitating economic growth and regional integration.

In addition, China’s demand for African natural resources has driven substantial investment in the continent’s extractive industries. While critics argue that this leads to resource exploitation, many African governments see Chinese investment as a vital source of revenue and employment opportunities. In contrast, the West’s economic engagement with Africa has been less pronounced, often overshadowed by a focus on security issues or humanitarian aid.

Cultural exchanges

Chinese language courses, cultural exchanges and media initiatives have proliferated across the continent, fostering greater understanding and appreciation of Chinese culture. Chinese investments in educational institutions and scholarships for African students to study in China have also deepened people-to-people ties, cultivating a sense of goodwill towards China among African youth.

As the largest developing country that has overcome poverty and achieved rapid economic growth, China’s narrative inspires many Africans. By sharing its development experiences and providing technical assistance, China has become a key partner in Africa’s quest for prosperity, contrasting with the paternalistic narratives often associated with Western aid.

China’s increasing global influence in Africa underscores the need for the continent’s traditional partners to adopt a more nuanced international engagement approach.

Dr Adhere, PhD, is a scholar of international relations. @Cavinceworld