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Society & Culture

Chinese Cultural Soft Power in Africa: Is it Really Soft Power

Nov 08, 2019
  • Tom Harper

    Doctoral researcher, University of Surrey

Cultural soft power has been one of the most prominent tools in China’s diplomatic arsenal, symbolised by the global push of its Confucius Institutes. “Soft power,” coined by Joseph Nye, is the idea that a country can persuade other entities without the use of force. The bid to promote China’s image through soft power has been somewhat limited in the developed world, with the rise of the ‘China threat’ motif and the current state of Sino-American relations having an adverse effect on China’s attempts to build its soft power. But in developing countries, it has enjoyed a degree of success.

This has been most notable in African states, where China has been an integral part of the African economic landscape.  It is these gains that have raised the issue of whether China’s soft power policies can truly be considered soft power, as it deviates from the original understanding of the concept outlined by Nye. 

Soft Power with Chinese Characteristics

China’s soft power beginnings can be found in the developments of 1989, when some Chinese policymakers saw democratic values as wielding pragmatic advantage, rather than standing as a moral virtue. This was furthered by the success of the soft power of the United States, with American popular culture enjoying a global appeal, alongside the limited utility of hard power in achieving foreign policy objectives.  Chinese strategists were also influenced by Nye’s treatise on soft power, which defined a nation’s governance, popular culture and foreign policy as being the determinants of its’ attractiveness to others.

While Chinese soft power policies were initially inspired by Nye, it has increasingly deviated from the original conception of soft power.  Culture and soft power became synonymous for Chinese policymakers, with China’s traditional culture playing a role in shaping these policies.  This coincided with the shift in China’s identity to a more ‘civilizational’ and cultural state, with China’s traditional culture and past achievements replacing the pursuit of ideological objectives as the core ethos of China’s identity.  It is this image that Chinese policies have sought to promote. 

Education in Africa 

While the current state of Chinese soft power is rooted in the post-Cold War era, the African states saw an earlier form of this concept.  This came in the form of the promotion of the Maoist doctrine during the Cold War.  Alongside China’s soft power push, these experiences played a role in furthering Chinese objectives in the African states.

One of the major facets of Chinese soft power in Africa has been education.  While the Confucius Institute has been subject to suspicion in parts of the developed world, it has been widespread throughout the African continent, with the African states hosting over 50 branches.  Alongside the institute’s projects, Mandarin Chinese has become increasingly important, regularly becoming part of the curriculum in South African schools.  China’s cultural footprint has also been deepened with the country becoming the most popular study destination for students from Anglophone Africa.  It is this aspect that illustrates the growth of Chinese influence in the African states, as well as the gains made by Chinese soft power initiatives.

By promoting China’s language and traditional culture, Chinese soft power initiatives have taken on a more discursive character.  This has sought to promote the Chinese perception of China’s role and identity as well as seeking to ‘tell China’s story’.  By doing so, these policies promote the Chinese narrative, which deviates from the established notions of soft power. 

Economic Soft Power 

The other facet of China’s soft power offensive in Africa has come in the form of Chinese economic and developmental assistance.  This has seen the provision of Chinese aid and infrastructure, with the latter coming as part of China’s Belt and the Road Initiative.  As a result, Beijing has been able to capitalise on the apparent reluctance of other external actors to provide similar assistance, which has enabled China to become the continent’s largest economic partner

As well as providing developmental assistance, one of the most integral aspects of Chinese economic soft power has been in its’ vision for the continent’s development.  This has invoked China’s experiences of economic development, which has enhanced China’s attractiveness to the African states.  The results of this have been seen in Djibouti, with Chinese investment plans of $15 billion seeking to open the country up to Chinese trade. This has played a role in winning over the country’s elite, in contrast to French plans, which were derided as having ‘no money and no strategy’ for the country’s development.  China’s economic soft power has ensured that Beijing has both. 

The China Model 

Possibly the most successful and the most controversial aspect of China’s soft power push has been China’s model of economic development.  As a result of China’s rapid economic development, its model of ‘Neo-Confucian state capitalism’ has attracted the attention of Africa’s elites, who have become the biggest advocates of this model, rather than China itself.  While Beijing has been sceptical about whether the China Model can be replicated outside of China, the elites of the developing world have cited the China Model as an example for their nations to follow in light of the perceived limitations of the Washington Consensus.  The most recent example of this was South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa’s claim that South Africa can learn from China’s development, a claim that illustrates the attractiveness of China to the developing world.

The most controversial aspect of this model is in how it has enabled China to achieve economic development without adopting democracy. This challenges the assumption that development can only be achieved with democratic values—an assumption that has been a core tenet of the Post- Cold War international order.  In addition, the appeal of the Chinese model has also seen the more normative dimensions of Chinese soft power, with this model promoting Chinese norms under the guise of economic development.

Beyond Soft Power

While China’s soft power offensive in Africa has enabled it to make gains that have largely eluded it in the developed world, it cannot be considered soft power in the traditional sense.  Beijing has sought to alter the established image of China, as well as the promotion of the Chinese narrative and norms, to shape the reactions of other nations towards China to a form more favourable to Beijing.  By doing so, these policies are more in keeping with normative rather than soft power, and it is these policies that have been instrumental in cementing China’s influence in Africa.             

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