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Society & Culture

China’s Emerging Soft Power: The African Case

Jul 17, 2017
  • Robert I. Rotberg

    Founding Director of Program on Intrastate Conflict, Harvard Kennedy School

As the Trump administration in the United States largely turns it back on Africa, China has successfully extended its soft power across much of the continent.  For a decade or so, China has seeded critical parts of Africa with Confucius Institutes, where students and citizens alike can learn about China and Chinese culture. China has also supported one very accomplished research institute whose work focuses on China and Africa, offering Mandarin instruction to school children and adults in a number of countries, and effectively supplied news clips and whole programs to Kenyan television and other television and radio broadcasters across the African continent.

For a decade or more there has been an exodus of Africans to China: some to learn Mandarin and then to apply their skills in various professions or, more often, as workers in factories or in retail trades. One Zimbabwean woman became a presenter on a Beijing television station. Two years ago, Shenzhen was reliably rumored to host an African population, mostly from Nigeria, numbering 200,000 or more.

But all along, China has been supplying scholarships to aspirant Africans to attend universities and other tertiary institutions in China.  Although English speaking Africans have long sought to attend university in the United Kingdom and the United States and Francophone Africans have gravitated toward France, it has recently been revealed that China now hosts more African university students annually than the UK and the U.S. (about 40,000 each yearly), but fewer than France  (about 90,000 a year).

In 2003, only 2000 Africans were studying in Chinese institutions of higher learning.  By 2011, their numbers had increased to 20,000. Given the difficulties of English- and French-speakers learning Mandarin, it is remarkable that 50,000 or so Africans attended universities in China in 2015, meaning that about 13 percent of all international university students in China were Africans at that time. By the start of 2017, the total number of Africans may have reached 70,000.

At the 2015 Forum for China-Africa Cooperation, China officially promised 30,000 scholarships for Africa per year.  Those bursaries have done their job to extend China’s soft power throughout the parts of the continent from which the greatest number of African students arrive. 

Cameroon, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Morocco, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe seem to be the largest senders of students according to a sample taken at Tsinghua University that may be representative of all universities. Unfortunately, the Chinese Ministry of Education does not appear to maintain detailed statistics regarding the origins of its international student clientele.  Indeed, most of the raw numbers were only recently unearthed from obscure Ministry reports and analyzed by researchers at Michigan State University.

Why do Africans leave their home countries for China? Obviously, scholarships lure many but others appreciate that Chinese higher education is more affordable than European or American alternatives. An article in “The Conversation” blog also speculated that many go to China to seek out or develop business connections.  Still more may also want to learn the tonal language and understand the operations of a global power.

African students primarily enroll in engineering courses. Those courses tend to be taught in English, which makes the assimilation process much easier.

According to “The Conversation,” African students seem “generally satisfied” with the quality of their Chinese education, despite the language barrier.  Other reports and surveys suggest a mixed response, but the available data area is insufficiently fine-grained to allow conclusions about whether higher educational opportunities in China are really serving African needs adequately.

Nevertheless, the increasing numbers migrating to China for university training permit two conclusions: first, that Africans want what Chinese education has to offer, and second,  that for many Africans, their own home institutions of higher learning are either too pricey or too demanding.  Opportunity pulls Africans to China, reinforcing the increasingly effective projection of soft power by Beijing.

There is no way of knowing whether university training in China will produce a cadre of pro-Chinese intellectuals and professionals in Africa.  But great numbers of Africans are being exposed to China, and they will gain importance experience in dealing with all matters Chinese. Furthermore, because Chinese immigration policies make it much more difficult for Africans to remain permanently near their training locales than it would be in the West, there should be a correspondingly limited brain drain. Thus, Chinese education of Africans should be a “win-win” for both sides.

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