Coronavirus: how China plans to restore its image in Africa

By Olivier Caslin

Posted on Monday, 20 April 2020 13:40
Virus Outbreak South Africa
LI Nan, a South Africa's Chinese Embassy representative, left, elbow bumps with Zweli Mkhize, South African Minister of Health, during the handing over for the emergency medical equipment for COVID-19 from China, at OR Tambo Johannesburg, South Africa, Tuesday, April 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

China, the birthplace of the coronavirus pandemic, has been sending medical supplies across the continent. Will these efforts be enough to divert attention away from the country’s questionable management of the crisis and the discrimination African nationals have suffered on Chinese soil?

“Once the snow and ice melt, it will be spring. After we triumph over the epidemic, the community of common destiny linking China and Africa will be stronger than before.”

The videoconference organised by Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi on 10 March with foreign ministers from some 50 African countries concluded on this note of poetry and prophecy.

And yet, the great China-Africa friendship flaunted throughout Yi’s speech has taken a serious beating these past few weeks. Initially, this was due to reports out of cities from Abidjan to Lubumbashi, as fears over the virus spread, that Chinese citizens in Africa were being singled out and ostracised.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Africa puts China in quarantine

A sign of this defiance, planes from Ethiopian Airlines – the only African airline company which continues to operate flights to China – have been prohibited in Kenya until further notice.

In Ouagadougou, one of the airline’s planes was grounded on the tarmac of the airport while passengers suspected of being infected with COVID-19 were tested. In Brazzaville, a group of Chinese workers coming off of a flight from Addis Ababa were forcibly quarantined in a hotel despite their protests.

However, for several days now, alarming accounts have been reported out of the mainland Chinese city of Guangzhou. Provincial authorities are said to be imposing discriminatory practices on thousands of Africans living in the city once known as Canton.

Many Africans assert that they have been kicked out of their hotels or apartments over suspicions that they carry the virus. Others have been placed in isolation despite testing negative for the disease or have had their visas mysteriously revoked.

The situation has gotten to the point that, on 10 April, a group of African ambassadors in Beijing came forward with a formal complaint about the treatment of the continent’s citizens and, three days later, the African Union (AU) asked the Chinese authorities to take steps to avoid any over-the-top behaviour.

Original sin

While the Chinese government appeared to be receptive, it’s because they don’t want the incidents to tarnish the image they have just restored by shipping a massive amount of medical supplies to the continent in recent weeks. It is as though China is exporting its supplies, personnel and expertise acquired during the combat against the virus – which it claims to have contained – to rid itself of the original sin of having let COVID-19 develop on its very soil.

Since 1 March, the country has shipped €1.33bn worth of various medical supplies (3.86 billion masks, 37.5 million protective clothing items and 16,000 ventilators, according to Chinese customs authorities) to more than 80 countries, including African countries.

At the end of March, each country on the continent also received 1,000 protective suits, 20,000 test kits and 100,000 masks, as promised by the Jack Ma Foundation, a charitable organisation created by Alibaba’s super-rich founder, and delivered with the strong backing of China’s local ambassador.

READ MORE: Alibaba’s Jack Ma, Paul Pogba mobilise against coronavirus in Africa

Other Chinese companies are taking part in the effort.

Telecommunications behemoth Huawei is distributing supplies and checks in the various countries where it operates. China Merchants imported 1 million masks to Djibouti. Construction giant CSCEC sent more than €420,000 worth of supplies to Algeria and Hunan Construction did the same for Senegal.

Targeted bilateral aid

April marked the beginning of China donating actual, clearly targeted bilateral aid. The Democratic Republic of Congo received 65 tonnes of testing supplies and protective gear, Ethiopia more than 1 million tests and 6 million masks, and a field hospital was set up in Algeria and Zimbabwe.

On 6 April, an Air China plane landed in Accra to unload several tens of tonnes of supplies, which were then redistributed in 18 countries – Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, São Tomé and Príncipe, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.

Expertly staged and flawlessly communicated via Chinese media outlets, these operations nevertheless seem too sporadic to be adequate.

“Contrary to what China claims, it can’t save Africa by itself”, experts from the OECD said.

It just doesn’t have the resources.

A stricken engine

Beijing recently shelled out €14bn to handle its own health crisis. More than half a million SMEs have closed their doors since January and the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone has been hit with full force by the 20% drop in exports in March.

Economists are forecasting China’s growth to be close to 5% in 2020, i.e., the lowest rate recorded in a long time by “the engine of the world”, which remains stricken on account of the lack of market demand.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Africa braces for the economic impact of China slump

China continues to be viewed by Africans as “the helping country”, but will this be true tomorrow?

Once China wins the “battle of narratives” denounced by European officials, will Beijing have the ability to transition away from “mask diplomacy” to get back to its role as Africa’s top economic partner?

Major projects that had already been launched continue their course, but other large infrastructure projects could be delayed, if not cancelled, depending on the state of China’s finances and supply chains. The stream of anticipated Chinese tourists will dry up and the promised production offshoring, particularly in Ethiopia, is – in the most optimistic scenario – at risk of being postponed until a more certain future comes into view.

An inflexible creditor

What’s more, the fall in commodity prices increases the debt China is owed by countries producing hydrocarbons and certain types of ore, as China alone is the creditor of nearly one-fourth of the loans taken out by countries belonging to the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (CEMAC).

The continent’s economists increasingly emphasise that “if China genuinely wants to support Africa, it should do so by simply forgiving [this debt].”

The problem is that Beijing comes off as an inflexible creditor.

As French President Emmanuel Macron stated in an interview with RFI on 14 April, “I don’t doubt for a single second that, for China’s president, the situation in Africa warrants a significant gesture. So, it’s a discussion that we’ll have […] because I’m going to ask him about this issue.”

But will China listen to him?

Finally, some see Beijing’s difficulties as an opportunity for Africa to “redefine the economic ties linking the continent to the rest of the world, and especially to China.”

With the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and the planned arrival of the Eco currency in 15 ECOWAS countries, Africa is currently equipping itself with the tools that will enable it to better position itself in an international economy turned inside out. This is one of the scenarios made possible by the pandemic, but not necessarily that chosen by Beijing’s strategists.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options