Experts differ on China's 'soft power' in Africa
Experts disagree on how successful China has been in building its intangible - non-economic - influence in Africa
Nobody doubts the huge economic power China wields in Africa, as the largely impoverished continent's 54 nations look for a partner to help them build their economies and Beijing seeks a share of their massive natural resources.
But analysts are sharply divided on whether China wields so-called soft power with its African allies. Some believe Beijing's outreach efforts, supported by its economic might, are improving the outlook for China in Africa, while others believe the lure of the United States and old colonial ties remain stronger.
Building the nation's "soft power" - the kind of intangible influence the United States enjoys through its cultural strength and global connections - has emerged as a key priority in recent years and was repeatedly emphasised by former president Hu Jintao.
"China's impact in Africa should not be underestimated. China is the most influential world power in Africa at present; its soft power is overwhelming," said Anthony Desir, a partner of the Strategic African Mineral Investment Fund, an African resource consultancy.
China has used the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) to build political influence in every African country, Desir explained.
"Of course China's soft power will boost China's economic relations with Africa; what else is the point of the relationship? China's Ministry of Commerce reports that Chinese investment and holdings in Africa exceed Chinese holdings in the US.
"African states have recognised China is a more willing source of development funds than US or European governments or NGOs," Desir said.
On July 5, Sierra Leonean President Ernest Bai Koroma announced he had signed deals for a new international airport, a railway and other infrastructure projects totalling US$8 billion during his recent visit to China.
In a bid to boost his country's influence in Africa, US President Barack Obama visited Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania in June. This follows President Xi Jinping's visit in March to three African nations, namely Tanzania, South Africa and the Republic of Congo, where he signed a series of economic agreements.
China overtook the US as Africa's biggest trading partner in 2009, and Sino-African trade jumped 20-fold from US$10.6 billion in 2000 to nearly US$200 billion in 2012, according to Xinhua.
"Soft power is the ability to attract rather than coerce or give money. Soft power is about placing China on the map. China, with its economic power rising, is saying, 'We're here,'" said Bjorn Harald Nordtveit, associate professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
The main driver of China's soft power in Africa is business, said Nordtveit, formerly an academic at the University of Hong Kong. "A lot of Africans are very excited about the economic development in China. They are interested in business relations.
"A lot of Africans are interested in getting jobs in Chinese companies."
Africans learn Chinese mainly for business purposes, said Kenneth King, professor emeritus of African studies at Edinburgh University in Scotland, helping to boost the success of one key plank of China's "soft power" development: the Confucius Institutes. There are 38 Confucius Institutes and Confucius classrooms in 26 African nations.
The Confucius Institutes teach Chinese language, martial arts, cooking and other China-related subjects.
Nordtveit explained: "The Africans are impressed by China's economic rise. That's why they want to go to Confucius Institutes. Higher education and Confucius Institutes are helping economic development between China and Africa."
Every year, there are 6,000 African students on scholarships in China, but three times as many privately finance their education in the country, King said.
"China's soft power has been so successful you don't need a scholarship to get African students to go to China."
FOCAC's plan for Africa from 2012 to 2015 includes giving short-term training for African professionals in China, scholarships for African teachers of Putonghua and a programme to partner 20 Chinese universities with 20 African universities.
In the 1960s, racism against African students in China was so severe that some Africans returned home after a few months, "but it's dramatically improved", King said.
Martyn Davies, chief executive officer of Frontier Advisory, a South African business consultancy, said: "Confucius Institutes are still in early stages and still learning how to operate in Africa. Many initial mistakes were made. Returning African students after having studied in China will have a far greater effect on China's soft power in Africa."
It will take time before the Chinese government's language and cultural programmes in Africa lead to soft power, Davies said. "China has minimal soft power in Africa, mostly due to the fact that its companies in Africa do not possess such soft power in their businesses or brands." China's power projection in Africa is largely through geopolitics and its sizeable spending on hard infrastructure, Davies argued.
The value of Chinese construction projects in Africa jumped more than tenfold from US$1.81 billion in 2002 to US$19.75 billion in 2008. A common business model is for Chinese state-owned firms to build infrastructure in Africa, financed by Chinese state-owned banks, in return for resources such as oil.
The quality of work in Africa by Chinese construction companies is widely perceived to be inferior, according to a paper by Davies, Lucy Corkin and Christopher Burke for the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.
"China has a moderate amount of soft power in Africa," said Corkin, a resources credit analyst at Rand Merchant Bank in South Africa. "China has become an important player in African countries' economic and political landscapes. However, Chinese products still suffer from negative perceptions of quality in some African countries.
"China's use of soft power in Africa has a shorter history than the continent's traditional trading partners in Europe and US. However, it is growing in strength."
However, Desir said: "The traditional colonial powers in Africa have already lost their influence. China has opened up Africa by allowing many nations to see beyond their colonial masters as their most likely and most important benefactor."
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, disagreed. "French soft power is bigger than China in francophone countries in Africa. France's relation with French-speaking African countries like Senegal is intimate. China is trying to make inroads in French-speaking countries in Africa, but it's hard for China."
In film, literature and music, Africans remain more attracted to Western countries, Cabestan said.
Dane Chamorro, Asia-Pacific director of British risk consultancy Control Risks, said: "China does not have soft power.
"Soft power is about cultural attraction. China has economic power."
China has a lot of economic power in African countries that supply resources, such as Angola and Sudan, Chamorro said. In African countries where Chinese workers have been brought in to build infrastructure, China's reputation has been tainted by resentment from locals, he added.
Initially, the African side embraced China with enthusiasm, because in the past 10 years China provided trade and investment to Africa without conditions such as human rights imposed by Western institutions, Desir explained.
But recently, "we see less excitement about China from the African side, because there is less enthusiasm for selling resources without getting high-value development. China's soft power is at a crossroads. The last 10 years is absolutely not going to be the working model for the next five to 10 years," Desir said.
But whatever the analysts think, the public still seem to favour the United States.
Pew Research Centre's Global Attitudes Project, released last week, suggests that in the six sub-Saharan African countries surveyed and in Latin America, China's scientific and technological rise was admired, but Chinese culture and ideas had been slow to catch on.