Op-Ed Series– Vol.1 Issue: 2
April 15, 2020
COVID-19 and The Conundrum of China-Africa Relations
Dr. Barney Walsh and Hubert Kinkoh
- Notwithstanding some scepticism around the narrative of success China has presented in tackling the crisis at home, Africa seems to be very open to receiving support from Chinese government and private enterprises.
- More Africans have expressed pessimism on social media about Chinese assistance to Africa in the fight against COVID-19.
- China and Asia’s seemingly superior capacity and effectiveness in halting the spread of COVID-19 versus the struggles by Western (Euro-American) Democracies, appears to resonate with African governments.
- The pandemic will likely strengthen China’s relations with African states and ruling elite on the one hand, but deepen the fissures between African citizens and their leaders on the other.
Will the COVID-19 pandemic impact China’s relations with Africa? If yes, how? Is it likely to strengthen official ties or expose and deepen the skepticism held by many African citizens towards China and their perceived collaboration with African ruling elites? Or will COVID-19 impact China-Africa relations in puzzling ways that are unimaginable and indiscernible at present? At the minimum, two things are clear at this stage: there are many twists and turns ahead in terms of COVID-19 and Africa; and how it eventually plays out in Africa will matter for China-Africa relations. Likewise, the global context of COVID-19 is bound to impact Africa and could well mean a new chapter in China-Africa relations.
When the history of China-Africa relations is finally written, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to be regarded as one of the key historical junctures that further cemented ties between African state elites and China, despite the ongoing skepticism and hostility towards China by many Africans. China-Africa relations have a long history, but China’s recent rise in global power and politics marks a sharp shift in relations.
Most Africans today have a view on China through their interaction with Chinese citizens, use of their products and involvement with their projects. COVID-19 will now form a key part of that engagement and expedite trends already underway. Africa’s fragile health systems are at risk of being overwhelmed if the virus is not contained early and swiftly. Notwithstanding some scepticism around the narrative of success China has presented in tackling the crisis at home, Africa seems to be very open to receiving support from Chinese government and private enterprises. The Jack Ma and Alibaba Foundations respectively sent 1.1 million testing kits, 6 million masks and 60,000 protective suits to African states, with more on the way. Other examples include: private enterprise China Star donated medical supplies to Rwanda; the Chinese business community in Zimbabwe, alongside the Chinese embassy, raised USD 500,000 to upgrade Zimbabwe's main COVID-19 isolation and treatment centre; the 1,000 Chinese medical workers already in Africa have conducted more than 250 COVID-19 training sessions for more than 10,000 African health workers; etc. There are many other similar stories and initiatives emerging across Africa.
The COVID-19 crisis is bound to play a role in reshaping and most likely strengthening, relations between Africa and the so-called ‘civilization-state’. However, Africa at the level of China-Africa engagement hardly equates its citizens. A striking feature of China-Africa relations is the divergent perceptions of China held by state elites on the one hand, and a great many ordinary African citizens on the other. This is likely to be exacerbated. China engages the ‘pillars of statehood’ in Africa through interactions and exchanges with government officials and parliaments, political parties, and military and police training and equipment supply programs. Beijing’s accompanying ‘non-interference’ principle has been embraced with open arms by Africa’s governing elites who see China as a model of transformative state-led development and as a crucial supplier of development assistance and the mega-infrastructure Africa needs.
African citizens, meanwhile, whilst also embracing Chinese goods and opportunities, express some skepticism of a creeping major power cozying up to the leaders they often fear and mistrust, seeing the relationship as largely a tool to protect elite interests. Hostility against Chinese immigrants (local market traders in Africa) and anger about the lack of employment opportunities has been fairly widespread. Similar levels of anger exist over accusations of mistreatment of African employees on Chinese projects and general racist behavior by Chinese living on the continent against African citizens.
COVID-19 is most likely to sharpen and deepen the divide and difference of opinions between African citizens and elites on China and Chinese. In fact, African citizens’ reaction to COVID-19 and their view of China as the purveyor of the pandemic, contrast sharply with those of their state leaders. Beijing’s opaque handling of the early stages of the virus and African citizens’ lack of faith in their own leaders make for a ‘China-Phobia’ and a parallel response by African civil society groups. In Kenya, for example, even before the country’s first confirmed COVID-19 case, a widely circulated social media video clip showed two Asians being bullied by a large crowd in a low-income area of Nairobi. Weeks later, pressure from civil society groups forced the Kenyan government to back down and halt flights from China. In Nigeria, civil society groups pressured the government to ‘close its borders to countries with high cases of COVID-19’, and the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) expressed its opposition to the invitation and arrival of a Chinese medical team to the country. Ghanaians took to social media through the “#CloseBordersNow” campaign as soon as their first two cases were confirmed.
More Africans have expressed pessimism on social media about Chinese assistance to Africa in the fight against COVID-19. For example, many claimed Jack Ma’s medical equipment were defective and others said they were the means to transport the virus from China to Africa. Some cautioned that governance gaps in Africa will make it difficult for the poor to benefit from the assistance. Therefore, the COVID-19 crisis, similar to concerns over China’s role in the Ivory Trade in Africa, has become another context for expressing serious reservations, scepticism and fear of China. This trend furthered in April when the forced evictions and maltreatment of Africans (stigmatized as potential new sources of COVID-19) living in China was reported. African citizens responded through the “#ChinaMustExplain” campaign on social media, calling for the closure of Chinese embassies and the deportation of Chinese nationals from Africa and for African governments to recall their Ambassadors from China.
Nonetheless, as the COVID-19 crisis unfolds gradually across Africa, a further strengthening of state relations and African governments’ engagement with China is taking place and perhaps deepening. The support and advice proffered by China has been embraced by African leaders. The Chairperson of the African Union publicly thanked the Jack Ma Foundation and the Alibaba Foundation for their generous donation to the continent. Various other leaders have expressed praise and adulation for China, wrapped in the usual ‘mutual-support’ and ‘win-win’ language that has been the hallmark of modern public relations. Meanwhile, China’s President Xi, in a phone call to Namibia’s President Hage Geingob, was reported to say that the only way to defeat the pandemic was for countries to ‘pull together and fight in solidarity’.
At the time of writing, it is unclear how African leaders will react to the “#ChinaMustExplain” campaign noted above. The intense anger from African citizens already prompted a twitter statement from the AU Commission, and various African ambassadors have written to China’s Foreign Ministry expressing concerns. Despite talk of a rupture in relations, however, it seems unlikely that African Presidents will publicly criticize or condemn China over the issue in the immediate term at least, or that the fundamentals of the elite-level relationship will be significantly altered.
African states are also taking a cue from China in terms of response strategies to COVID-19. China and Asia’s seemingly superior capacity and effectiveness in halting the spread of COVID-19 versus the struggles by Western (Euro-American) Democracies, appears to resonate with African governments. China’s swift and stringent lock-down and curfew measures, including the deployment of security forces, have been emulated in many African states. President Museveni in Uganda implemented a lock-down effective from April 1st, after 33 reported COVID-19 cases. In Kenya, following the imposition of a dusk-to-dawn curfew, police have tear-gassed people, a motorcycle taxi driver has died from a police beating, and a 13-year old boy was struck dead by a supposed ‘stray bullet’. There are also reports of deadly crackdowns on people who defied lockdown measures in Rwanda, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
It is currently unclear whether such responses will affect which ‘bloc’ of countries most African states will ultimately belong to: the Asian set, that seems at least initially to have halted the spread relatively quickly; or the Euro-American grouping that comparatively continues to struggle with arresting COVID-19. It is entirely possible that Africa could experience a new level of long-term affliction and suffering not yet seen elsewhere. Blame and recriminations will follow either way, across the globe and in Africa. Beijing is already attempting to control the narrative around its own role in the outbreak, as the US and UK in particular become more vocal about their dis-trust of China’s reporting and data on COVID-19. The burgeoning arguments and counterarguments may further influence African citizens’ views on China and its role in the outbreak and global spread of the COVID-19 crisis. Still, African leaders will likely continue to see China as a protector of their interests.
The COVID-19 pandemic is most likely to mark the coronation of China as a true global power, a Pax Chinese, as much as confirm the decline of Euro-American influence. The long-term consequences of this seismic shift in ‘World Order’ remain intensely uncertain for Africa and Africans, as do the implications for the relations between African citizens and their ruling elites. The pandemic will likely strengthen China’s relations with African states and ruling elite on the one hand, but deepen the fissures between African citizens and their leaders on the other. This conundrum may deepen if these fissures engender periodic or embedded bouts of xenophobic perceptions and attacks by African citizens against Chinese who are based in Africa.
Barney Walsh is a Lecturer in Security, Leadership and Development Education at the African Leadership Centre (ALC), King’s College London.
Hubert Kinkoh is a Research Associate and Fellowship Coordinator at the African Leadership Centre (ALC) in Nairobi.