CHINA SAYS its relationship with Africa is a mutually beneficial one—a relationship of equal partners. In practice however, one is the giver and the other plays the receiving party; a lopsided association.
On Thursday morning, I felt more challenged than privileged when myself, Sunny Ntayombya, The New Times features editor, and thirty other scholarship beneficiaries from Africa and the Caribbean Islands graduated with a master in international communication. We were the third batch of a long term project in which China seeks to improve its image in Africa and other parts of the world through improved public-diplomacy.
It’s true that China has challenges with its global image, especially in Africa. A fast-rising China and its increased global influence is viewed in some western media circles as a rising threat to the exiting global status quo.
In Africa, it has been dubbed the continent’s new colonial master and a mineral monger blinding African governments with string-free aid to access executive rights to the continent’s vast mineral wealth and market for its industrial base. In summary, China feels its story has been misreported and this has resulted in a misunderstanding of its true global aspirations.
So, Beijing is investing in a cocktail of public diplomacy initiatives that international communication scholars have coded as ‘Chinese soft power’. China is determined to tell its own story and paint herself a new global image. The Nairobi based CCTV Africa, whose aim is to improve Sino-Africa media relations, is the specimen of those efforts.
But in addition to that, Beijing feels that by sponsoring African media professionals for studies in China, they can see for themselves, appreciate and return to their home countries as goodwill ambassadors who can provide an informed insight into Chinese affairs and shape global opinions.
Whether this approach will yield for China or not is subject to debate but what’s clear is that the estimated 13,000 Africans on Beijing’s scholarship programme to study in various Chinese universities is not for showbiz. It’s a well calculated investment.
One can’t help but reflect on Africa’s own international image woes and wonder whether African governments care what others think of them. The western media continue giving prominence to Africa’s darker story of disease, famine and poverty and the continent has the strongest presence of International NGOs doing charity work to save poor Africans.
The tag is one of a continent in need. One could even be forgiven if they defined donation as the practice of giving to Africa, where the giver is a European or Asian country, philanthropist or NGO.
But isn’t it about time that African governments stopped playing top receiver of aid and started practicing the art of donating as a means to an end? As a developing country, China too has millions of poor kids who can’t afford university education yet finds resources to invest in a foreign scholarship program for Africans in a bid to boost its national image.
Africans would like to tell a glossy side of their story yet they have not invested in global media channels competitive enough to deconstruct the frames in which they have been placed by decades of what they call misreporting by western media. Paradoxically, some African leaders feel privileged to be interviewed by western media who often twist their statements to fit the traditional frames designed for African stories.
After a year in China, scholarship beneficiaries are deemed to have a better understanding of Chinese politics, society, people, their culture and aspirations and are expected to help generate rational opinions to balance the global debate on Sino-Africa relations.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of millions of young Chinese people who struggle to understand Africa. Quite a number of them believe Africa is one big country while others can’t name more than five African countries. To some of them, Africa represents poverty, wildlife and suffering- not wrong but also not accurate.
It’s clear therefore that just as the Chinese government seeks to improve its image among Africans, African governments too need to do just the same; improve Chinese people’s understanding of Africa and Africans. As Chinese investment in Africa surge, governments should invest more in people to people diplomacy; let China sponsor more Africans to study in China but African governments should reciprocate this scheme by sponsoring a few Chinese scholars on special programs to achieve balanced results.
The irony is that Africa and China face the same image problems globally. Both are accused of stifling free speech and press freedom, infringing on human rights and presiding over undemocratic governments. They could work together to change this discourse.