China?s African propaganda offensive

A new propaganda offensive by China on its activities in Africa provides an opening for the West. We should use this to persuade China to take responsibility for its impact in Africa.

Maligned in the media, victimised by NGOs and now boycotted by Nobel laureates and the Hollywood establishment; China has taken a battering over its role in Africa, particularly Sudan. But now it’s fighting back with a propaganda offensive to “correct misunderstandings” of its activities in Africa. The EU and US need to use this opening to engage China on Africa, and to persuade it that simply not being mercenary or a colonial power is not enough – China needs to take responsibility for its impact in Africa and to help solve problems there (whether it causes them or not). 

The two senior Chinese officials that descended on London at the end of February were a new departure for Chinese diplomacy. Du Qiwen, Vice-Minister of the Central Foreign Affairs Office of the Chinese Communist Party, and Liu Guijin, China’s Special Representative for Africa and Darfur, came to put China’s case on Africa and Darfur direct to its critics (or as the Embassy said “correct misunderstandings”).

Since the “genocide Olympics” campaign by the Save Darfur Coalition, China has shifted its position to support Security Council resolutions on Sudan/Darfur (albeit much weakened and delayed). It has also, finally, agreed to dialogues with the EU, UK and France on Africa. But it appears as though China’s leaders have now decided to supplement this with a more public approach. This is a dangerous tactic for China – once it engages openly with the media and Western politicians it risks having to answer difficult questions on issues it would rather keep private.

Du and Liu were an impressive double act. Du argued that China was a “staunch force for peace and stability in the region and the world”. He explained how China had been amongst the first countries to cancel African debt. Liu reminded us that China was responsible for only 8% of arms sold to Sudan and that the US sold 10 times as many arms than China did to the developing world; that Chinese companies had built 20 power generation plants and 46 wells in Darfur; and that no Western country had offered any of the 24 desperately needed helicopters in Darfur.

But China’s approach in Africa was well summed up by something else Du and Liu said: that China would never seek benefits for itself at the expense of others or become a colonial or imperialist power.

There is no doubt that China does much good in Africa. It is responsible for driving African growth in recent years, invests millions in infrastructure and can share a huge amount of development experience. But China’s rhetoric reveals that it sees its responsibilities stopping at not causing deliberate harm in Africa or repeating our historical mistakes.

No one expects China to turn into a 19th century colonial power or deliberately ferment genocide. But we do expect China to be responsible for its impact in Africa and use what power it has to solve problems and crises.

Liu also said in London that China had “never exerted pressure on the Sudanese Government” and that with all foreign relationships “China followed two principles: treating others as equals and pursuing win-win cooperation”. Partners are often not equal and win-win for governments often does not equal win-win for their people. Investment and trade of the size China is responsible for falls into the hands of corrupt officials, props up murderous regimes, causes environmental degradation, and fundamentally changes countries. It also gives you pressure you can apply on governments turning a blind eye to genocide.

China’s propaganda offensive gives EU and US Governments, NGOs and the media an opening, and we should exploit it.

We should press Liu and Du to publicly account for their Government’s lack of oversight of Chinese activities in Africa and for all of the negative impacts they cause (whilst praising the positive ones). We could ask China to submit to peer reviews of its Africa programmes, perhaps under OECD auspices. We could also ask China to fund the work of the Africa Progress Panel, chaired by Kofi Annan, which monitors commitments made by African governments.

The EU, UK and France should hold China to its commitments on Africa with tough demands in their bilateral dialogues. These need to extend beyond Dafur to potential collapse of peace operations through Ethiopia-Eritrea, Somalia and maybe South Sudan (to say nothing of Chad). And we need to continue to make the case to China for it to apply pressure to governments like Sudan because it will never be using its power responsibly until it does.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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