Written by Adams Bodomo.

Is there Chinese soft power in Africa, and how does this compare with American soft power? Most people often begin discussion on soft power with the definition first put forth by American scholar, Joseph Nye. For me, soft power comprises the positive socio-political and socio-cultural influences a polity and its citizens have on another polity and its citizens without the threat of gun-boat diplomacy or even outright blind violence.

Seen in this way, I want to compare the US and China, the two most prominent soft power brokers in the world. I will claim that the US used to have a strong soft power in Africa but it is waning while China is beginning to register a rising soft power in Africa.

Socio-politically, the American political system does not seem to inspire as many people in Africa as it used to do, say in the 1980s and 1990s, especially under Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Washington now appears to be supervising over a dysfunctional democracy. President Barack Obama, being someone of African origins, used to inspire Africans in the early years of his presidency but he has now become a man of sweet smelling but empty words as he has not been able to build on the hope that he promised at the beginning of his presidency. Africans have realized that Washington doesn’t have much further to offer them in terms of socio-political capital, with very few socio-political lessons to emulate. If Africans are not talking in loud tones and tunes against Washington it may be because we are uncomfortable with their hard power, we live in fear of Africom, of deadly drones, and callous imposition of sanctions.

On the contrary, China is having positive socio-political influences on Africa, African leaders, and ideologically literate Africans on the African streets. Many Africans now realise that the Chinese way of handling its political economy is far better than that of the fiscally irresponsible American and western governments in general. China and other prudent Asian economies bailed the world out of the banking disaster induced by some greedy western leaders and businessmen that caused untold hardships on Africans since 2008.

China, along with Russia, India and Brazil, is behaving towards Africans in a far better way than the US and its western allies, some representatives of which are often arrogant and haughty at international meetings within the UN system and beyond. America, Britain, and France often resort more to hard power, more to military invasion and gun-boat diplomacy, than soft power to convince Africans at international fora whereas China uses more of pragmatic and mutual self-interest diplomacy – more of soft power – to convince Africans at international fora, though of course we must mention that the rumoured building of a military base in Djibouti is an unfortunate attempt to emulate the hard power options used by western powers – and a step in the wrong direction by Beijing, if this rumour is proven right.

Socio-culturally, US soft power is waning in Africa whereas China’s soft power is increasing. The use of English in Africa is not – or no longer  – an example of American soft power, but the increasing learning of Chinese is an instance of growing Chinese soft power. Young people in Africa don’t think well of America and Britain as a land of milk and honey when they open their mouths to speak English, but young people in Africa learning Chinese do think of China as a land of opportunity with which they hope to trade or engage in other ways after successfully learning the language at the 50 or more Confucius Institutes springing up everywhere in Africa – great symbols of Chinese soft power in Africa.

Hollywood films and popular music have often been mentioned as symbols of American soft power in Africa but this is getting anachronistic. Africans are not looking at Hollywood and seeing good things in the American socio-cultural system and getting awed about it. Africans are looking to Hollywood to emulate good examples from their fellow Africans, from their brothers and sisters there, even if Hollywood itself appears to be tone-deaf about diversity. There are many successful Africans in America and Europe and Africans look to these people for inspiration, not to the racist socio-cultural constellation that is called America, where a Black man is gunned down almost on a daily basis. On the contrary, Chinese socio-cultural soft power aspects are rising in Africa. When young Africans practice Bruce Lee Kunfu styles they think positively of Chinese culture, this is soft power at the socio-cultural level. 

Research by myself and the Korean scholar, Eun-Sook Chabal, is showing that Africans in the diaspora are beginning to enjoy Asian popular music, particularly the cultural consumption of the Korean wave items like music and Korean TV drama series. When Africans consume these they consume Chinese and general Asian soft power products. Asian soft power is rising faster in Africa than American and general western soft power.  Chinese herbal medicine, particularly herbal tea in the middle class African living room, is fast becoming a popular Chinese cultural consumption item in Africa by the middle class. A lot of research still needs to be done here.

On a personal note, as someone who has attended many fora in China, America, Europe and met with many African, Chinese, and western diplomats and academics, on the whole the Africans are often more at ease, more relaxed with the Chinese side than with the western side. There appears to be more symmetry among Africans and Chinese and more asymmetry among Africans and westerners at such meetings. And symmetry has a solid, strong connection to soft power, as the title of one of my articles – “Symmetry, soft power and South Africa” –, a pioneering study on symmetry and soft power in Africa – China relations, shows.

There is Chinese soft power in Africa – and it is rising!

Adams Bodomo, a native of Ghana region of Africa, is professor of African Studies at the University of Vienna, where he directs the University’s Global African Diaspora Studies (GADS) research centre. Image credit: CC by European External Action Service/Flickr.