- Over a decade of economic engagement and financial investments has built a reservoir of goodwill between China and Ghana. This has created a long-term trend towards friendly relations between the two states.
- The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic brought China very negative feedback especially on Ghanaian social media, and this fuelled perceptions of a ‘failure’ in Chinese health diplomacy during the early stages of the pandemic.
- However, China’s assertive tactics in controlling the virus in China received applause on these same social media platforms, and again, China took the leadership in health diplomacy in Africa (and other parts of the world).
In the early winter of 2019, there were rumours of a SARS-like virus in Wuhan, China. The world came to a standstill when the virus was understood to spread by human contact with high fatality. On social media platforms in Ghana and around the world, users hurled a barrage of insults and conspiracy theories against the Chinese. Specifically, in Ghana, many posted and commented on how ‘wicked’ the Chinese are, a sentiment exacerbated by the maltreatment of Africans in Guangzhou (广州)-China. Some critics even said China had invented the virus to cause harm and pursue a monopoly of vaccine distribution, and subsequently hegemony in the post-COVID world. In the early stages of the outbreak, I was working as a translator for a Chinese construction firm in Kumasi. Once, I had to go out with my Chinese supervisor to the mall for some groceries and he was deprecated and insulted. Many Ghanaians (as well as other Africans, and the world at large) were displeased with China for failing to reveal initial details about the virus, its mode of transmission, and other relevant data at the early stages of the outbreak in Wuhan. Moreover, the fact that Dr Li Wenliang had warned that there was a viral infection such as the 2002 SARS pandemic, gave many people a just cause to blame China for the negative repercussions that the world had to bear.
On social media platforms (especially WhatsApp) in Ghana, many young people were engaged in heated discussions about China’s failure to tell the world about such a deadly virus from the very beginning. Others also mocked the Chinese, saying they were gluttons who ate everything including bats and pangolins (two animals that were suspected to be carriers of the virus). Another criticism levelled at the Chinese, was the maltreatment of Africans who were living and working in China. Notably, in Guangzhou, the largest hub for the African diaspora, there was mass discrimination against Africans, some of whom were evicted from their homes and denied access to hospitality services. The fact that most of these young social media users had either schooled in China, or were in China, added credibility to the many claims of discriminatory practices the Ghanaian diaspora faced and shared to the world through Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. Some were also Mandarin translators and managers of several Chinese companies in Ghana, without whom the Chinese would have struggled to do business in Africa. This wave of negative feedback, spurred on by the onset of the pandemic, threatened to damage the ‘goodwill’ and friendly relations between China and Ghana. China had to act and act it did.
The efficacy of Xi’s public diplomacy
With the outbreak of COVID-19, President Xi was out of sight for many weeks, but his reappearance in public came with power, as his administration implemented drastic measures to control the virus. Suddenly, China was being applauded around the globe for the effectiveness of its model of domestic governance in containing the pandemic. America and Western Europe were at their wits’ end, with thousands contracting the virus and dying daily. China took the lead in health diplomacy by supplying Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), facemasks and testing kits to several countries in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa. In Ghana for instance, Xu Gong (GH) Machinery Co. Ltd, China Zinzheng Ghana Friendliness Development Co Ltd, FAW First Ghana Motors Co. Ltd, Dragon Success GH Logistics Co. Ltd and LX Joyea Co Lt collectively donated GHS 80,000 worth of PPE to the Ghana Armed Forces. Public health personnel were also deployed to many African countries to help control and combat COVID-19. African diplomats both in Beijing and their respective nations also met with Chinese officials and ambassadors to discuss the ill-treatment of Africans in China. Once again, Xi’s administration was quick to resolve the issue.
Suddenly, Ghana’s young bilingual Mandarin speakers, the majority of whom are social media users and translators with Chinese companies, were praising China and willing to work with Chinese companies as the translation jobs had started to flow again. Thus, China effectively combatted the negative feedback brought on by the virus and restored the trust in the Sino-African relationship. No matter how difficult the situation, as this virus has demonstrated, the China-Africa relationship still grows in a positive direction. Why is this so?
‘Goodwill’: the invisible hand that mitigated China’s ‘failed health diplomacy’
I argue that China has obtained a certain level of ‘goodwill’ amongst Africans because of the mass investment, loans (especially the infrastructure-for-resource loans) and soft power ventures that it has executed in Africa. I define ‘goodwill’ here as a friendly gesture from one person to another.
First, since China revived its diplomatic ties with African countries in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there have been huge investments in many countries that have produced positive spill over effects. In Ghana, Chinese’s investments have led to the successful implementation of key projects such as the Cape Coast Sports Stadium, the Bui Hydro-electric Dam, the Kpong Water Supply Expansion Project, the Gas Pipeline Project and the Sunon-Asogli Power Plant. Huawei, Sunda International, and Green House are big Chinese investors in Ghana who have provided thousands of job opportunities to Ghanaians. Notable amongst these employees of the Chinese companies are Mandarin translators who are constantly in high demand and very important to the success of Chinese companies on the African market. This is because they bridge the language barrier between the Africans and Chinese.
It is not all about employment, however, and there is also the aspect of access. Chinese firms operating in Africa have provided locals with affordable access to key goods and services like mobile phones, clothing, shoes, bicycles, building materials, and many other things essential for modern life. Though critics argue that Chinese products are inferior in quality to other brands, as the focus is on quantity and not quality, the truth is that many Africans can afford these products with their limited income. For instance, thousands of Africans can now afford mobile phones, thanks to Huawei. Many more can also access satellite TV, thanks to StarTimes that has more than 30 million customers across the continent (XINHUA).
Secondly, China’s infrastructure-for-resource loans through infrastructure/development and business investments have been largely beneficial to African states. Not only are resources (oil, gold, bauxite, etc.) extracted for exports to China, but more importantly, the infrastructural developments that come with the loan packages have helped transform many countries. Dams, roads, highways, schools, hospitals, airports, railroads, and many other infrastructural amenities have been built in Angola, Nigeria, Sudan, Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Algeria, to name a few. Contrary to popular belief, that China largely used its own nationals as labourers for these projects, Africans have been increasingly employed as labourers, translators, and even managers in these Chinese construction and engineering firms. The pay may be low, the work conditions may not be so good, but it is an opportunity for employment, which is scarce amidst the high unemployment rates in Africa.
In addition to the above, in many African communities, praises are continuously heaped on China for bringing transformation, development, and equitable access to basic public services. This is because most of these communities previously had no electricity, no or poor road networks which made commuting very difficult, and no access to portable water. The West had also denied loans to the governments of these countries because they were unwilling to abide by the loan conditionalities. Then China arrived, not to oversee regime change or enforce democracy, but to do business, and in a few years many African states had roads, dams, bridges, railroads, hospitals, and many amenities. Most built by the Chinese. This made life much easier for Africans, and the African never forgets when you do them good. With more and more infrastructure projects developing in Africa, a certain level of ‘goodwill’ has been generated towards the Chinese.
This ‘goodwill’ has also been recognised and sustained by China, in the long-term, through soft power ventures. The China-Africa relationship has been built on the five principles of peaceful coexistence, which have given the Chinese a good place in the eyes of African governments. In particular, the principle of non-interference and non-intervention is well received by all African states, especially the non-democratic ones. Mutual respect and the amicable manner of resolving conflicts between African governments and the Chinese government have boosted Chinese soft power in Africa. The clearest demonstration of this enduring ‘goodwill’ was witnessed in the heated debate that ensued between China and Ghana over the latter’s treatment of some Chinese citizens involved in illegal mining in Ghana. After all the tensions between the two countries, China continued with its donations to some state institutions in Ghana and contrary to the perception of broken relations, President Akuffo-Addo bestowed upon the Chinese Ambassador, Madam Baohong, the Order of the Star of Ghana (the highest national honour), in April 2018.
The initial ‘failed health diplomacy’ of China has also been rectified through the new Chinese vaccine distribution. China donated 200,000 doses of the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine to Zimbabwe on the 15th of February 2021. Other countries like Kenya, Equatorial Guinea and Senegal are all expected to receive thousands of doses of the Chinese vaccine developed by Sinopharm. This is a clear indicator that China has been smart and dynamic in its relationship with Africa; learning from mistakes, taking corrective measures and constantly adapting to the changes and demands of its African counterparts.
Finally, China has sustained feelings of ‘goodwill’ with African youth through its huge financial investments into advancing the study of Chinese and setting up of Confucius Institutes. The thousands of full or partial scholarships and awards for Africans interested in studying Mandarin has transformed the lives of many young adults. In Ghana, for instance, studying Mandarin Chinese has become very attractive and there are at least 300 Mandarin bilingual graduates from the various tertiary institutions in the country. Additionally, African Mandarin bilinguals, usually a scarce commodity for Chinese firms, have significant ‘power’ vis-a-vis the Chinese. This is because, in order to do business and undertake projects in many communities, African Mandarin bilinguals are needed to facilitate communication between the locals and the Chinese. Whilst the good feeling between the African Mandarin bilinguals and the Chinese diaspora in Africa was fractured at the beginning of the pandemic, the long-term trends of overall trust and feelings of ‘goodwill’ between China and Africa have meant that China has been able to resume positive engagement with the African continent on issues ranging from health policy to infrastructure and development.
In a nutshell, Chinese economic statecraft has produced significant soft power projections that have been conducive to its strategic interests. From access to markets and resource acquisition, to the intangible security externality of ‘goodwill’ because of huge financial investments and loans, have given China a good place in the hearts of African governments and citizens. It is this invisible and intangible asset of ‘goodwill’ that has helped restore the tarnished image China incurred during the early stages of the pandemic. This ‘goodwill’ will be a safeguarding factor in securing the China-Africa relationship for many years to come.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the China Foresight Forum, LSE IDEAS, nor The London School of Economics and Political Science.
“Opening ceremony of the FOCAC Summit | Beijing, 3 September 2018” by Paul Kagame is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0