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‘Coronavirus diplomacy’: China’s opportune time to aid Africa

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Corona Chronicles: 20 April – 24 April
Hangwei Li
By Hangwei Li

Journalist, and PhD candidate at SOAS, University of London

Jacqueline Musiitwa
By Jacqueline Musiitwa

Founder of Hoja Law Group, and a Young Global Leader

Posted on Friday, 24 April 2020 12:33

Zimbabwe China
China's Foreign Minister Wangi Yi, left, greets Zimbabwe's Foreign Minister Sibusiso Moyo after a joint press conference in Harare, Zimbabwe, Sunday, Jan, 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

China’s contribution to combatting COVID-19 around the globe has been striking. While Europe and the USA have become the epicentre of the pandemic in recent weeks, China is on the way to containing the new coronavirus (at least according to official statistics) at home. Its ability and willingness to offer humanitarian aid and lessons to other countries is generally welcomed. 

China’s aid has ranged from video conferencing to detail lessons learned, sending experienced medical staff to hard hit countries, to providing protective gear for medical personnel. The media focus on China’s aid, or rather the underlying soft power intentions, is an ongoing debate.

Although the most recent media focus has been on the assistance China is giving the West, its aid to Africa is noteworthy due to Beijing’s increasing influence on the continent.

China’s influence across Africa

China’s aid is important because it breaks with its typical aid structure coordinated by the state. That means it engages with the private sector and Chinese citizens and the media. But what is still unclear is whether China will provide Africa what it needs most to cushion the effects of a catastrophic recession: debt relief totaling about $145bn. The economic impact of coronavirus on the African continent is huge.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: South Africa expects economy to tank as it grapples with pandemic

Even taking into account COVID-19 related commitments from bilateral partners such as the United States ($274m), multilateral institutions such as the World Bank ($14bn programme to sustain economies),  African Development Bank ($10bn COVID-19 response plan), many African nations require additional aid to counter the current health and economic crisis.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: how China plans to restore its image in Africa

With Beijing’s increasing influence on the continent through its diplomatic, business, and media channels slowly surpassing that of the West, African countries unable to unilaterally fund the fight against the virus and maintain economic growth are now turning to China to access the support they need.

Contentious support

Chinese aid to Africa has been contentious, with an aim to influence governments in favour of  investments.  China’s aid mandate under the remit of the recently created China International Development Cooperation Agency  consists of grants and interest-free loans, concessional government loans and multilateral assistance.

However, COVID-19 has changed how China administers aid.

The new model uses multiple stakeholders coordinated and announced by Chinese embassies in different countries. The model includes leadership from the Chinese government along with the support of the business community and Chinese citizens residing in different African countries.

To date, the Chinese government has not publicized the total aid provided to African countries. 

On the one hand, the extensive media coverage of China’s aid efforts further amplifies the message of China’s actions as it tries to improve its image especially after Beijing in the early days of COVID-19 failed to be transparent about the extent and impact of the disease. 

On the other hand, media coverage has highlighted Africa’s mixed reception to Chinese aid. On social media platforms such as Twitter, Africans have expressed concerns about the quality of Chinese medical products. For example, Chinese medical doctors sent to Nigeria provoked a major backlash.

READ MORE: Coronavirus aid: Chinese medical teams arrive in Africa to mixed reactions

It begs the question of whether coronavirus diplomacy is attaining the intended effects of improving China’s image in Africa.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Nigerian Medical Association and government still feuding

According to McKinsey’s report ‘Dance of the Lions and Dragons‘, there are over 10,000 Chinese-owned companies across Africa.  Chinese companies which are heavily invested in the local economy and stand to lose from a national recession.

Giving back to their adoptive communities

That being said, they are not typically known for their corporate social investments or community engagement.  But COVID-19 has forced Chinese companies to change their approach. Here a few examples:

  • Jack Ma donated medical supplies to 54 African countries (Figure 1, see graph below)
  • Huawei donated R1m to South Africa
  • Naspers – working with Tencent and the Chinese government – donated $83m
  • The Huajian Group (the Chinese shoemaker) donated over 1 million face masks and other anti-epidemic supplies to eight African countries
Figure 1

The large sums are impressive, but what is rarely captured are the contributions Chinese citizens who, at various grassroots levels, mobilized assistance for the communities within which they live and their businesses operate.

A group of Chinese in Kenya created a messaging group called ‘Buying flowers to help Kenyan flower growers’ in an effort to help Kenyan flower growers as their demand has dropped dramatically from the pandemic.

Additionally, Chinese associations across Africa have also played an essential role in terms of supporting local communities during this unsettling time. For instance, according to the Chinese Embassy in Uganda, Chinese associations in Uganda are planning to donate 250,000 masks and medical goggles as well as thermometers.

‘Sinophobia’

A sobering concern among the many Chinese we spoke to, was the fear that inaction on the part of China might cause ‘Sinophobia’: a fear and ostracizing of Chinese people who are seen as the primary means of spreading the disease because it originated there.

The sooner African countries can turn a corner in the fight against COVID-19 and their economies begin to rebound, the sooner African countries can pay their debt, and inevitably the sooner China can return to developing the Belt and Road Initiative and trade can resume.

Already countries such as Nigeria plan to engage with China to restructure its debt  due to mounting pressures in fighting COVID-19 that have impacted its ability to repay.

More countries will follow suit.

Debt relief or aid

African governments are calling for over $100bn in assistance from China, including support for a moratorium on all external debt and eventually, some debt write-offs. It then begs the question: if needed humanitarian aid is given, would debt forgiveness not be a greater benefit in the post COVID-19 economy?

Despite China’s initial efforts to cover up the spread of COVID-19, the country’s subsequent success in containing the virus and readiness to help other governments around the world make this the perfect moment for China to win more hearts and minds with its humanitarian aid while changing how aid is administered.  However, to optimize long term effects across Africa, China’s largest aid now will be debt relief. 

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