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Leveraging China-Africa relations starts with communication

Leveraging China-Africa relations starts with communication


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In the context of a ‘normalising’ Chinese economy, that seeks to move from a manufacturing-centred economy to one driven by consumption and services, there are obviously concerns about the impact on Africa through a decrease in commodity exports (and income) to China. Yet such shifts also signal opportunity and perhaps changes in China’s approach towards the continent, to include ‘softer’ issues - like closer public interaction.

2015 is a significant year for China-Africa relations. The 6th iteration of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) will be held this week in Johannesburg, South Africa. Discussions building up to the summit have focussed on how to upgrade relations beyond trade figures. Additional considerations are the inclusion of synergies with the AU 2063 development agenda, and connecting Africa’s capitals through railway, highways and aviation (which China will help build), to accelerate industrialisation.


Since the last FOCAC in 2012, China has engaged the African Union by establishing a permanent mission in Addis Ababa - signalling interest in a multilateral approach towards the continent. This is further cemented by its involvement in continental peace and security issues, as reflected by the recent announcement of China’s contribution of 8000 troops to the UN’s peacekeeping force.

Most significantly and in contrast to emphasis on official or business links is increased interest in public engagement. This is reflected in China’s active global public diplomacy drive (the strategic diplomatic interaction with global and domestic publics), which started in the mid-2000’s. This aspect of people-centred relations has also featured as an element in official FOCAC documentation.


China’s current engagement in South Africa has expanded to include the subset cultural diplomacy, a term described by the US State department as the ‘linchpin of public diplomacy’ that reveals the soul of a nation. Observers of bilateral relations will have noticed the increasing reference to the ‘China Year in South Africa’. The initiative kicked off when China’s president Xi Jinping visited South Africa in 2013, in recognition for the need to increase people-to-people engagement between both sides.

Subsequently, South Africa hosted its year in China through a range of promotional events in China, including a Nelson Mandela exhibition in the trendy 798 Art Zone in Beijing in 2014. In 2015, China hosted a series of similar events in South Africa.

China recognises that in an information age, it is important to communicate its interest in becoming a responsible, rising power. China is launching alternatives to the contemporary ‘North-South’ dominated trading system, embodied in President Xi Jinping’s ‘one belt, one road’ initiative. This is inspired by the historical network of overland trade routes known as the Silk Road, which now includes a maritime component across the Indian Ocean. The awareness that the success of such a drive requires public support is stated in a white paper published on the initiative in March. This is not merely about trade or commodities but also opportunities for cultural interaction. Indeed, winning such support provides an enabling environment for China’s global ascendancy.

Better public communication and interaction between China and South Africa allows for stronger business links and broader collaboration across a range of issues. Since relations were established in 1998, official and business relations have advanced further than a real understanding of values, culture and people. Of course beyond simply recognition of such gaps, is starting to build a relationship of trust. This is achieved by addressing the very details in these gaps.

Certain realities exist. China has the capacity, unlike South Africa, to run far-reaching and ambitious initiatives, such as setting-up Confucius Institutes and media agencies abroad to promote China’s culture and global perspective. In addition, it engages in expansive country-specific engagements. For instance China’s year in South Africa coincides with China’s year of cultural exchange with the UK. Of course it can be argued that public outreach is not unique to China. Countries like France have honoured particular countries through ‘cultural seasons’ since 1985 as an integral element of France’s policy. Still it remains particularly pertinent for China to develop such targeted programmes, as the largest trading partner on the continent.

An important start for South Africa is to recognise the complexities within its society. One example linked to China is the 2014-2015 debate over the introduction of Mandarin in selected South African schools. The public response has ranged between criticisms that lesser attention and care has been given to the country’s 11 local languages, whilst others have emphasised the strategic importance of speaking a language spoken by 1 in 5 people in the world. Both arguments have their merits.

At the same time, in recent discussions with a Zimbabwean policymaker on engaging China, the observation was made that: China always brings its most qualified and suited negotiators to the table. Is South Africa doing the same? Negotiating with China requires looking beyond language differences (and the politics thereof) and embracing a global perspective. This requires beginning to understand China’s culture and way of thinking. China’s biggest global competitors, such as the United States, have long-standing China studies programmes that move beyond viewing one another through traditional prisms like calligraphy or other aspects of cultural heritage. Moreover it is necessary to advance from general perceptions to recognise that China is modernising, changing and is made of contradictions, much like any other society. The same can be said about South Africa, where there exists disagreement over the particular use of culture as a foreign policy instrument but which is also home to the largest, mixed Chinese community, historically an important, informal conduit between local and Chinese culture.

How can the broader FOCAC platform upgrade people relations between China and Africa? Government motivation and capital to fund exchanges and spaces for debate are necessary between people who have had a limited interaction with one another. Still the most meaningful relations are those that are serendipitously shaped. Perhaps as China’s approach towards Africa adjusts over time to include ‘new’ aspects, so will there be an inevitable interaction between the official and informal aspects of relations, which has been previously absent.

This issue raises a defining contradiction of the current so-called ‘global village’ that we live in. There exists closer physical proximity to all corners of the earth and people, like never before, yet it appears that the meeting of minds are worlds apart.

Written by Yu-Shan Wu, researcher for the Foreign Policy programme, SAIIA


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