Economics Versus Narrative in the China-Africa Relationship

By Cobus van Staden

Nigerian Foreign Minister Geofry Onyema meeting with Chinese ambassador Zhou Pingjian at the foreign ministry in Abuja. Photo via @GeoffreyOnyema Twitter. march 4, 2020

As the COVID-19 crisis drags on, we’re seeing the emergence of two contradictory trends.

On the one hand, the crisis has revealed the relative fragility of public diplomacy ties between China and Africa. While high-level government-to-government diplomacy continues, the Guangzhou crisis seems to have fed into long-term narratives about China among ordinary Africans. It appears to be revealing the limits of the sunny narrative of egalitarianism pushed by official Chinese media in Africa. 

At the same time, as China’s manufacturing sector slowly comes back online, its demand for African commodities is slowly waking up. This constitutes a lifeline for a number of national economies who depend on commodities trade for their economic survival. 

So even as commentators (like me) talk about Guangzhou as a singular crisis in Chinese public diplomacy, we have to acknowledge that the relationship depends more fundamentally on these trade and investment links, no matter how prominent the current negative optics. In addition, the public diplomacy crisis will have to worsen considerably before it starts to really disrupt the political cooperation between China and African governments in forums like the UN. 

That’s not to say that the Guangzhou crisis won’t reshape the China-Africa relationship. Rather, the reshaping might happen in the relationship between African leaders, who have clear incentives to keep working with Beijing, and African civil society, who have clear incentives to keep the pressure on their own governments.

At present we’re in the middle of a war of narratives, and the moment will reveal how much narratives matter in the face of a global economic crisis.

This article was originally published on THE CHINA AFRICA PROJECT 

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