China-Africa Think Tanks Forum: China broadens soft power campaigns in Africa

Early last month, more than a hundred Chinese and African think tank scholars and government officials participated in the Fourth China-Africa Think Tanks Forum, hosted this year by the South African government in Pretoria. The forum’s theme was Africa’s Agenda 2063, with the discussion dwelling heavily on the future of Sino-Africa relations and the upcoming Sixth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Summit in South Africa this December. The forum is a good example of China’s heightened efforts to strengthen its soft power in Africa and to seek influence at an intellectual level on top of its already expanding economic and political footprint.

Since the very beginning, soft power has always been regarded by Chinese and foreign observers as the relatively weak link in China’s foreign policy, although in the case of Africa, the general public opinion of towards China seems favorable—all nine African countries included in the Pew 2015 Global Indicator demonstrated favorability of greater than 50 percent towards China. However, the affinity seems to be evoked more by China’s economic charm and political friendship rather than China’s cultural or ideological attractiveness.  Many have attributed the deficiencies in China’s soft power to its domestic weaknesses. The 2015 report by Soft Power 30 Index points out that the lack of democracy, free press, and access to information that many people around the world take for granted weighs heavily on perceptions of China around the world. Similarly, according to Joseph Nye (former chairman of the National Intelligence Council and father of the international relations theory of neoliberalism), the reason that China’s large investment in soft power has had “a limited return” is that China refuses to “unleash the talents of its civil society.”

China acknowledges its insufficient soft power influence in Africa, yet traces its failure elsewhere, more to the intellectual and ideological differences between Chinese and Western mindsets. According to the China Academy of Social Sciences, China’s soft power deficiency in Africa originates from factors such as the ancient Chinese culture’s lack of modern applications, China’s weakness in shaping international norms and discourse, different political values, and the lack of public diplomacy.

When it comes to soft power, China believes that the problem begins with China’s “intellectual disadvantage” in Africa. In the Chinese view, prevailing political norms and public opinion in African countries are heavily influenced by those of its former colonial powers. For example, Chinese intellectuals point out that many, if not most, of the African political and business elite receive their education in the West, causing them to identify more closely with Western culture, ideology, and interests. Therefore, for Chinese culture, political values, and discourse to prevail in Africa, China faces significant psychological, cultural, educational, and communications problem.

China has been trying to change and shape the discourse in Africa through various channels. For example, the famous “Beijing Consensus” (China’s unique economic development model) has been cited as a powerful example of China’s soft power influence in many African states. Intellectual exchange and soft power also calls to mind the Confucius Institutes, which are largely seen as a direct application of cultural influence. So far, China has established 42 Confucius Institutes in 29 African countries, providing thousands of fellowship opportunities to African youth. These institutes have generated far less controversy in Africa than in the West.

The China-Africa Think Tanks Forum is a more recent attempt by China’s soft power efforts to influence the views of Africa’s academic elite and opinion leaders. As a part of the FOCAC sub-forums, the initiative was launched in 2011 by China to create a platform for dialogue and exchange between Chinese and African thinkers. Unsurprisingly, the forum receives its financial support from China, including through the China Development Bank, one of the most active Chinese financial institutions operating in Africa. China sees the forum as a civil dialogue mechanism as well as a high-end platform for academic and civil society leader exchanges. Its goal is clear: “to create a dialogue platform, nurture cooperation, and encourage academic exchanges among Chinese and African scholars” in order to establish a “community of common knowledge and philosophy.”

Essentially, the think tank forum is aimed at shaping the African elites’ perceptions and understanding of China through direct bilateral communication, without the interference of Western values or idiosyncrasies. The hope is that such intellectual cooperation will have the potential to change or reverse the unfriendly narrative of Chinese activities in Africa. In this framework, the theme of the Think Tanks Forum has been relatively consistent. From the institutionalization of academic/policy dialogues between Chinese and African thinkers to the upgrade of Sino-African relations, the forum strengthens China’s soft power campaign to promote Chinese presence in Africa. The forum also seeks to shape China-Africa economic and political cooperation. During this year’s forum, the discussion largely focused on the development trends in Africa after 2015 and how China could enhance its input in the industrial cooperation with African countries. In particular, Chinese participants used the opportunity to promote China’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy in Africa, and discussed bilateral investment and trade cooperation.

With such an ambitious plan, it remains to be seen how successful China will be. In reality, the forum reinforces Nye’s recent assessment of China’s soft power: China prefers to work with governments as the source of soft power, rather than individuals, the private sector, or civil society. While the think tank forum seemingly emphasizes think tanks rather than governments, its target eventually lies upon the African elite, rather than the general public at the grassroots level. While influencing the elites’ opinions in Africa is important and relatively easy given China’s vast resources, shaping the local community and average population’s view of China is the more challenging task.