It has been twenty years since the China-Africa Cooperation Forum was held. Another summit is planned for September 2021 in Dakar, Senegal. Meanwhile, Chinese and African officials review and reflection on it their relationship of two decades.
China’s growing involvement with Africa has had a positive, albeit unequal, effect on Africa’s economic growth, economic diversification, job creation and connectivity.
Relations between China and Africa are mostly organized by the government to the government. But the perceptions and well-being of ordinary people should also be better considered.
In 2016, the pan-African research institute Afrobarometer published his first study about what Africans think about their governments’ commitment to China.
The study found that 63% of citizens surveyed from 36 countries generally have positive feelings towards China’s aid. Some things that stood out were China’s infrastructure, development, and investment projects in Africa. On the other hand, perceptions about the quality of Chinese products have tarnished the country’s image.
In 2019/20, Afrobarometer conducted another wave of surveys. Data from 18 countries – collect face to face from a randomly selected sample of people in the language of the respondent’s choice – were collected before the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey questions addressed how Africans experience Chinese loans, debt repayments and Africa’s dependence on China for its development.
Preliminary findings shows that the majority of Africans still prefer the US over China as a development model, that China’s influence is still largely seen as positive for Africa, and that Africans who are aware of Chinese loans feel that their countries have borrowed too much.
This is important because – as both African and Chinese leaders reflect on their involvement – these findings should enable them to build a future-oriented relationship that better reflects citizens’ opinions and needs.
US versus China
The surveys found that Africans still prefer the American development model over Chinese. The Chinese development model depends on state-led policy planning, while the American model emphasizes the importance of the free market.
In the 18 countries surveyed, 32% prefer the US development model, while 23% prefer the Chinese model. Overall, it has not changed much since 2014/15, but there are some shifts at the country level.
In Lesotho and Namibia, the US surpassed China as a preferred development partner. In Burkina Faso and Botswana, China is elected. Angolans and Ethiopians, who were not included in the 2014/15 survey, are part of the American model. However, 57% of Ethiopians and 43% of Angolans believe that China’s influence has a positive effect on their countries.
Analysts argued that the Chinese development model is dynamic and versatile. It has changed over time depending on the context and period. African governments must decide what aspects of the Chinese model is best for their countries.
A closer look at the responses from the 2014/15 and 2019/20 surveys shows that perceptions in countries where China has mainly invested in infrastructure have become steady or more positive. This includes Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Guinea and Ivory Coast.
China’s popularity increases in Sahel
Perceptions of China have changed for the better in some countries in the United States Sahel region. Some of these countries are some of the most neglected and conflict-ridden in the world.
Strategically, China was deeply involved in security and development activities, infrastructure projects linked to the Belt and Road Initiative, and peace and security operations in the region.
In Burkina Faso, for example, the popularity of China’s development model has almost doubled, from 20% to 39%, in the five years since the previous survey.
In Guinea, where Chinese companies are mainly involved in mining projects, 80% of citizens view China’s economic and political influence as positive – four percentage points above five years ago. Overall, China’s growing involvement in the Sahel region appears to have had a strong impact on citizens’ views.
Economic fortune and debt repayment
A majority of African citizens say that China’s economic activities have a ‘or’ big ‘impact on their countries’ economies. But the perceived impact has decreased from 71% in 2014/15 to 56% in 2019/20 in the 16 countries surveyed in both rounds.
And although six out of ten Africans consider China’s influence on their country to be positive, this perception has declined in 65 countries from 65% to 60%. Instead, local African powers, regional and United Nations organizations, and Russia succeeded well in the positive influence they observed. 38% approved Russia.
This may be a reflection of Russia’s growth political, economic, en security involvement with Africa, as well as the role of Russian media such as Russia Today and Sputnik. A recent study on digital media content in the francophone West Africa has revealed how the digital content that these media houses produce is rapidly seeping into the African media spaces.
The Afrobarometer survey revealed that less than half (48%) of Afrikaans citizens are aware of Chinese loans or financial aid to their country.
Among those who said they were aware of Chinese aid, more than 77% were worried about repaying the loan. A majority (58%) thought their governments borrowed too much money from China.
In countries that received the most Chinese loans, citizens expressed their concern about debt. This included Kenya, Angola and Ethiopia. In those countries, 87%, 75% and 60% of citizens were concerned about the debt burden respectively.
The latest Afrobarometer data provides lessons for analysts of Sino-African relations and African leaders.
First, there is no monopoly or duopoly of influence in Africa. Outside of the United States and China, there is a mosaic of actors, both African and non-African, who view citizens as political and economic influences on their countries and their future. These actors include the United Nations, regional powers in Africa and Russia.
Findings from the survey show that although the Chinese influence in the eyes of the citizens remains strong and positive, it is less than it was five years ago. This decline can also be linked to the perception of loans and financial assistance, which is ‘debt trap’ story and allegations of Chinese seizure of assets.
Once fieldwork resumes, future Afrobarometer surveys in additional countries could shed light on ways in which the pandemic and China’s ‘corona diplomacy’, and media reports on the abuse of African citizens in Guangzhou, influenced the hearts and minds of African populations.
Folashade SouleSenior Research Fellow, University of Oxford and Edem E. Selormey, Director of Research, Center for Democratic Development Ghana