China’s ‘soft power’ bolsters Africa’s new assertive diplomacy

What you need to know:

  • Continent gets a voice after Beijing’s meteoric rise as global power tightens hold on multi-polar world order

Africa’s leaders have become more assertive in global affairs than ever before.

This assertiveness is impelled by China’s meteoric rise as a global power, concretising the multi-polar world order.

A recent survey shows that China is rapidly replacing the US and Britain as the top source of inspiration for many Africans, with 34 per cent of Kenyans looking up to Beijing as a role model and destination for business opportunities, technology and infrastructure development.

This has elicited palpable fear of China’s rise by America and its Western allies, heralding a degree of uncertainty. But the West has reason to fret over China’s rise.

Policy pundits and scholars are touting China as the “second superpower” on course to be at par with or overtake the US in less than a decade.

According to a newly released report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, China, whose economy could expand by 8.5 per cent this year and by 8.9 per cent in 2014, is on track to overtake America as the world’s biggest economy in 2016.

A ten-day circuit of China coupled with meetings and seminars between 1 and 10 June 2013 as part of a delegation of African academics, heads of civil society institutions and senior journalists has helped crystallise my thoughts on Sino-Africa relations.

China remains assertive. But Beijing is also fretting over what it views as a looming “Greek tragedy” scenario. Its political class and thinkers are deeply wary that China’s rise to global power status could foster misconceptions that it is a threat to the established global order.

At the recent Summit with American President Barack Obama in Sunnylands, California between June 7 and 8, Chinese President Xi Jinping stunned his delegation when he invoked Greek history, pointing out that it was Sparta’s fear of the growing power of Athens that made inevitable the war that tore Greece apart more than 2000 years ago.

A hundred years ago, Europe was equally torn apart by its failure to manage the rise of Germany, precipitating two tragic world wars.

Peaceful Rise

China’s foreign policy wonks believe that the “Greek” and “European” scenarios can be avoided. They affirm that China wants a “peaceful rise”.

Discernibly, Beijing has mooted a two-pronged strategy to undergird its “peaceful rise”. First is ‘soft power’—a concept coined two decades ago by the Harvard Professor and former Chairman of America’s National Intelligence Council and senior Pentagon Official, Joseph Nye, to describe the ability to get what you want through attraction and persuasion rather than coercion.

Second is a variant of ‘soft power’ known as “people-to-people” diplomacy spearheaded by China’s burgeoning Non-governmental Organisations such as the Chinese People’s Association on Peace and Disarmament to mitigate hostile interstate relations.

In Africa, the people-to-people diplomacy seeks to blunt an ideological offensive that casts China as a ‘neo-imperial’ power pitted against the West in an epic “21st Century Scramble” for Africa’s wealth of natural resources and energy— turning Africa into a new frontier of superpower rivalry, competition and conflict.

China is drawing from the deep wellspring of its 5,000-year history to refute the ‘new scramble’ thesis by providing scientific proof of amity and harmonious Sino-Africa relations long before the first European entered the African scene.

Within Africa, China has funded a $2.4 million project at the Kenyan coast led by Peking University Professor, Qin Daxu, and involving Kenyan archaeologists to excavate new evidence to build up on titbits of information on Chinese seafarers who came some 600 years.

China’s policy thinkers have recruited the famous 6th Century BC military strategist, Sun Tzu, to the course of calming the world that its economic progress and growing military power mean no harm.

The 6,259-kilometre Great Wall of China, the only work of human hands on the globe visible from the moon, is interpreted as a proof of the innately defensive trait of Chinese culture.

“Chinese people love peace. That is why they built this wall to avoid war,” said an official of the Chinese Peoples Association for Peace and Disarmament.

The “Forbidden City”

An excursion through the “Forbidden City”, an ancient imperial palace built between 1406 and 1420 as the ceremonial and political centre of Chinese government and which now houses the Palace Museum in Beijing, reveals the historical antecedents of China’s ‘soft power’.

Peace, stability and harmony served as the wellheads of ancient Chinese political thought.

“When we handle matters properly and harmoniously without leaning to either side, all things on earth will flourish,” reads a plaque outside the “Hall of Central Harmony,” one of the 980 buildings in the complex.

In Shaoshan City, Hunan Province, the birthplace of Mao Zedong (1893–1976), a stately Museum immortalises the founder of modern China as a thinker and champion of global peace and harmony.

Hanging on the Museum’s wall is a picture of Mao and Zambia’s former President, Kenneth Kaunda, the first African Head of State to visit China in June 1967. Next to it is one of Mao and US President, Richard Nixon, who visited China in February 1972. Also preserved are Mao’s writings and an antic chair on which he sat when he brokered peace.

China’s thinkers still cling steadfastly to Mao’s “three Worlds theory”—the ‘First World’ of the superpowers (America and Russia); the ‘Second World’ of the allies of superpowers and the ‘Third World’ of the nations of the Non-Aligned Movement. They insist that China is still a “developing country,” arguably to tap into the solidarity of developing regions.

Lessons of Devolution

China’s experience in the devolution of authority and resources from has valuable lessons for countries like Kenya that are grappling with the teething problems of implementing devolution.

Notably, the Chinese central government is still in charge of nationwide services. China’s High-Speed Rail (HSR), the World’s longest, has helped integrate far-flung provinces.

At the core of China’s decentralisation is specialisation, with each of its 34 regions/provinces honing in on a flagship project(s) based on the region’s comparative advantage.

For example, Hunan is in the front-line of research and commercial production of hybrid rice in the world. This is steered by the China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Centre and the Human Hybrid Rice Research Centre.

In Changzou City, Jiangsu Province, the Dong Feng Group specialises in agricultural machinery such as tractors.
Provinces have also turned historical sites, shrines and personalities into major pivots of the economy.

Black Hands, White Palms

Chinese officials and NGOs depict China as free of racism, stressing the Mao-era Third Worldist solidarity with the peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Because of limited contacts with Africans, in many parts of China, curiosity and admiration have replaced the usual racism against blacks elsewhere.
Dr He Wenping, an expert in China-Africa relations, believes tensions and conflict are likely to increase as contacts grow.

Chinese are coming to Africa in ever greater numbers as tourists, workers and traders. Africa has an estimated 1million Chinese residents with South Africa having the lion’s share of about 300,000 Chinese nationals.

Inversely, the city of Guangzhou has at least 100,000 Africans, including around 10,000 Nigerians. This has led to sporadic racial tensions.

In June last year, the death of a Nigerian man, reportedly in a police custody sparked protests by somewhere between 100 and 500 Africans.

In Africa, the proliferation of Chinese traders in low-end markets has posed competition and created fear and resentments by African traders. But the ‘soft power’ and ‘people-to-people’ strategies are gaining ground as Africa warms up to China.

Zambia’s President, Michael Sata, was a bitter critic of China as an opposition leader. Once in office, he has changed tune, sending his vice-president to Beijing to discuss links between his Patriotic Front and the Chinese Communist Party.

Professor Peter Kagwanja is the CEO of the Africa Policy Institute.


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