China in Africa’s Looking Glass: Perceptions and Realities

President Cyril Ramaphosa and President Xi Jinping co-chairing Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. Courtesy of GovernmentZA/Flickr

While the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the declining influence of Western countries like Canada, Australia and the UK in Africa, China has intentionally kept Africa high on its agenda. But the perception of China in Africa remains complex and multifaceted.

Part of the complexity is the multiplicity of Chinese players with different agendas. For instance, the Chinese government has a specific agenda to gain global influence, while Chinese state-owned enterprises remain closely aligned with the state but aim to maximise profit.

Entrepreneurs, philanthropists and individual citizens all contribute to different views of China in Africa.

Contextualising China–Africa Relations

China has had a longstanding relationship with Africa. China supported countries during their liberation struggles in the 1960s and 1970s, and helped build much-needed regional infrastructure and technical capacity. However, over the past 50 years, the perception of China’s engagement in Africa became increasingly polarised, with the image of China as an investor and partner on the one hand, and a neo-colonial power on the other.

The reality is that China needs Africa as much as Africa needs China, especially as China tries to increase its soft power globally. China’s slowing economy, decline in value-added manufacturing, industrial overcapacity, rising labour costs and rapidly aging population are some of the key reasons behind China’s increased investment in Africa over the past two decades. China is also dependent on African countries’ support in the international political arena, especially as it faces a hostile external environment. This is evidenced by the support of many African countries for China’s Xinjiang policy in the UN Human Rights Council. Furthermore, China and the US are descending into a new type of cold war, the tensions between China and India are escalating, and China faces mounting international pressure over the security law it imposed on Hong Kong. China will require more political support from African countries. 

China uses a multi-pronged engagement strategy as a risk mitigator, as not all of its activities are positively regarded. Its rapid economic growth and reduction of poverty over the past four decades provides African countries with a development model to emulate. According to the World Bank, more than 850 million Chinese people have been lifted out of extreme poverty, accounting for more than 70% of global poverty reduction since the 1980s. Since China’s development challenges were similar to Africa’s, China’s engagement is strongly focused on sharing development lessons and capacity building. However, this strategy alone is not always successful. For instance, an Afrobarometer survey found that while China’s development model was respected in countries such as Tunisia, it was perceived to have less influence than the US or France.  

Public perception is based on experience and media reports rather than on rigorous research. Furthermore, Western media is more widespread and influential in Africa than outlets from other continents. However, Western media generally depicts a negative picture of Chinese activities in Africa, often choosing to repeat the narrative of China as a neo-colonial power challenging democracy and exploiting resources in Africa. As Cambridge scholar Emma Mawdsley highlights, Western media has a tendency to refer to the ‘Chinese’ or ‘China’, as if the various Chinese actors all shared the same interest and a decided preference for focusing on China’s negative impacts on the continent. The result has been an oversimplification of the very diverse activities and dimensions of the China–Africa relationship. That is why the African narrative of China’s broad engagement as a source of ‘deep transformation’ is important. 

China’s engagement in Africa has not been only positive. There have been isolated incidents of Chinese non-compliance with local laws across the continent that tarnish its image. For instance, with respect to labour laws, there have been cases in different countries of mistreatment of local workers, harsh working conditions, and more. The Chinese have also been accused of discriminating against Africans at Chinese-owned businesses, such as hotels and restaurants.  Needless to say, most foreign investors struggle to understand and comply with local laws.  Responsibility for such actions should be taken. However, an argument can be made that the Chinese receive higher levels of media attention and political intervention than other foreigners conducting similar activities, because the latter do not get similar reports.   

While China is generally viewed as a good ally who furthers Africa’s development agenda, Chinese immigrants are perceived more negatively. For instance, according to scholars, Chinese migrants residing in Africa are commonly viewed unfavourably in Lesotho,  Zimbabwe and Zambia. In several countries, there is a perception that Chinese people are taking local jobs, especially in the construction sector. Some Chinese citizens have been accused of engaging in exclusionary behavior, both socially and within business, which also hurts perceptions.

The coronavirus pandemic has also highlighted the fragility of the social contract, revealing the lack of understanding and mistrust between ordinary Chinese and Africans. For instance, many Africans in China reported routine discrimination due to people’s fears that Africans would infect Chinese people. The social and diplomatic backlash was immense, and the impact on long-term relations remains unclear.

The Forces Shaping the Perceptions of China in Africa

Despite these flaws, China continues to use the following to shape the perception of its engagement in Africa:

Skills Development, Training and Scholarships

The Chinese government has spent millions of dollars and countless resources on professional training, skills development and scholarship for Africans. Around 10,000 African officials are trained in China each year at China’s universities, state bureaus and companies. In addition, China plans to offer 12,000 scholarships to African students for the next academic year, more than all Western countries combined. These have developed into a systematic campaign to promote China’s development achievements and the related model, and create opportunities for bilateral cooperation.

Through frequently organised and sophisticated training activities, and by providing scholarships and exchange opportunities for African politicians, journalists, intellectuals, business elites and military attachés, China continues to try to win African hearts and minds and convert them into political and social capital.

High-Level Political Commitments to Friendship and Solidarity 

Many African leaders see their relationship with China as crucial. For example, in 2018, twice as many African presidents attended the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation in Beijing as did the UN General Assembly in New York.

Political engagement at the highest level of Chinese government persists. For instance, on 17 June 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping and many African presidents attended the Extraordinary China–Africa Summit On Solidarity Against Covid-19, where Xi was calling for more efforts to mobilise necessary resources and stick together. He also promised to write off some loans to Africa. Although interest-free loans comprise just a fraction of the debt that Africa owes China, such high-level political commitments show that China is willing to continue to support Africa even while dealing with coronavirus itself.  

Reshaping Development Finance in Africa

In the past two decades, China has acquired more global financial influence with the highest amount of reserves at $3.1 trillion, the Belt and Road Initiative costing about $1.3 trillion by 2027 and the creation of institutions such as the New Development Bank, in part to finance its ‘going out’ policy. China has also shifted its engagement with Africa from development assistance to development finance through its own domestic institutions (namely, the China Development Bank, China Export–Import Bank and the China–Africa Fund for Industrial Cooperation). The China–Africa Development Fund, for example, has invested more than $4.6 billion in 92 projects in 36 African countries

China’s funds continue to fill a gap in the need for financing of Africa’s infrastructure, and provide a much-needed alternative to traditional development and commercial financing options.


China’s reputation in Africa generally remains positive. Although there are issues that emerge from time to time that could strain China’s reputation, solutions are expeditiously found. That said, to sustain a positive image, China needs to trickle down positive engagement with more unified intention. Coronavirus has demonstrated that China will continue to weather storms with Africa. However, commentators argue that the pandemic could actually have the opposite effect and end what has been a strong engagement. What is clear is that the bargaining power of African leaders is increasing. They are trying to find more African solutions to African problems. 

African countries are seeking to play a greater role in multilateral efforts without becoming a pawn in China–US wrangles. It is therefore important for China to continue to consolidate its engagement strategy while focusing on long-term results.

Hangwei Li is an award-winning journalist and a PhD candidate in Politics and International Studies at SOAS, University of London. She was also a visiting scholar at Harvard Kennedy School and a researcher at the Global Development Policy Center.

Jacqueline Muna Musiitwa Esq is the Founder and Managing Partner at Hoja Law Group, and a researcher on China–Africa relations and African political economy. In 2019, she was appointed to the UN Committee for Development Policy. She is also a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Explore our related content