Chinese soft power in the developing countries: Africa

The battle for international influence is not only fought with military and economic instruments, and in the age of mass media it is easier to attract than to intimidate the citizens of other countries. An excellent example for this is the use of “soft power”, which was first brought to perfection by the USA. As a result of the rearrangement of global power relations, other great powers also wish to apply the toolbar of soft power. China’s current foreign policy can be characterised with an increased use of soft power, and the following analysis outlines its implications in the developing countries, particularly in Africa.

The strength of soft power

Thanks to its economic growth, China is gaining more and more international influence; however, its image held in the world remains far from the Chinese expectations. Several countries in East Asia such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore have made a lot of effort to create a positive image of their culture, products and role in the world. The question is whether China will be able to repeat this success and appear as a positive international actor in the eyes of the world.

During the analysis we take Joseph Nye „soft power” term for our basis and examine it in the Chinese foreign policy of today. The scope of building “soft power” is limited to the countries of Europe, and one of the special elements of the instruments enhancing influence, i.e. development aid is highlighted. Besides, to interpret the Chinese soft power, we also introduce the term of Chinese “responsibly developing great power” (fuzeren de fazhanzhong guojia), which facilitates the interpretation of the Chinese soft power within developing countries.

What is soft power?

The term soft power was introduced by Joseph Nye. This term supplements the classical definition for the “hard power” of the fight for power, which according to Nye is not enough to obtain the power over the world. Instead of enforcement, “soft power” focuses on attraction, as softer instruments convince the countries that they will benefit from getting in the influencing zone of popular power.[1]

According to Nye, a country can obtain “soft power” in three fields: through its political values, culture or foreign policy.[2] Nevertheless, he also mentions that governments cannot establish it artificially but the fundamentally existing values and factors shape the attraction.

As compared to its hard manifestation, the soft form of power has no physical format and cannot be forced because it is generated in people’s mind, primarily through the changing of behaviour. However, context and endowments might also evoke that a country forms a most positive image in certain areas, while in other cases its image-building attempts fail.[3]

Concerning the Asian manifestations of soft power, we can regard the spreading of Japanese culture and the Korean wave of hallyu as outstanding examples, and the promotion of pop culture was supplemented with good policies and the favourable role fulfilled in the world. The high quality of the products, the commitment to democracy and human rights and in the case of Japan the active role assumed in international assistance have all consolidated the soft power of the Asian countries.

On the contrary, the name of China has become associated with cheap and poor-quality products, which has weakened the reputation of the country, and the Communist political establishment has had negative connotations for the western countries. China’s position may seem disadvantageous if it intends to become attractive; however, it should be mentioned that in certain parts of the world China is seen through a different lens than by the liberal democracies. Therefore, the Chinese “soft power” can become more efficient in the developing countries where it can apply an entirely different strategy than it would do against the West. This is the reason that the African countries, which are developing countries along with China, are being investigated.

Chinese soft power in the 21st century

The Chinese leadership set the goal of building “soft power” about ten years ago, and today it already spends approx. 10 billion dollars on related projects.[4] Preparing for taking over the power in 2011, President Xi Jinping defined the forming of their country a “socialist cultural superpower” as a national objective at the session held by the Central Commission of the Communist Party of China.[5]

A year after he was elected President, Xi Jinping introduced the term “Chinese dream” in 2013,[6] which has become a symbolic term for the Chinese “soft power” of today. President Xi has demonstrated several times that he aims to gain the western public opinion, which he also expressed in his speech for globalization delivered at the World Economic Forum in Davos.[7]

Founded in 2015 and providing wide-range benefits for infrastructure developments in Central, South and Southeast Asia, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) might become one of the Asian tools for the building of the Chinese “soft power”. This is the development bank that has been supported with the largest amount, i.e. 50 billion dollars, but enormous amounts have been invested in numerous other institutions interested in the building of soft power, too. For instance, China devoted 41 billion dollars for the New Development Bank established jointly with the BRICS countries and 40 billion dollars for the New Silk Road Economic Zone.[8]

Besides the international development, however, numerous other areas such as the media, education, arts and sports appear, too. They also offer an excellent opportunity for building the soft power in both the developed and the developing countries. At the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing the greatest efforts were taken, which must have been successful as 70% of the world population followed the sports events with attention.[9] The Chinese Government allocates huge amounts to these programs with an estimated fund of 10 billion dollars annually.[10] However, these central activities clash with the role of the existing attractive elements specified in the definition of soft power.

However, if we take a look at the inherent possibilities for the building of soft power, the number of elements that may evoke attraction towards China is limited. Joshep Nye has written rather critically about the attempts of the Chinese soft power as he considers it excessively centralized and expects no returns from the investments of several billion dollars.[11] According to Nye, truly efficient soft power derives from the civil actions of the country; nevertheless, China seems to seek its own “Chinese” way in this field, too.

The country has set several important purposes to achieve through the instruments of soft power. The primary purpose is to obtain an “image” within the international community, by earning respect due to a great power, to meet more tolerant external reactions and to win support and sympathy for the affairs important to it. Besides, it also aims to obtain economic advantages indirectly, which is mainly shown in the opening of new markets.[12]

One the one hand, the “Chinese model” can be popular among the developing countries. The gradual economic opening started in the early 1980s proved to be successful, and in the 2000s it was referred to as a model in the international and the Chinese literature. It can serve as a model for the developing countries, and the Chinese development principles, integrated in international assistance, might evoke positive reactions in these countries.

Soft power may include the forms of providing public welfare,[13] and China’s responsibility includes the intention of maintaining the existing institutions and establishing new ones to a larger and larger extent. The One Belt One Road initiative is also heading in this direction as one of the great objectives of the marine and mainland economic corridor across Eurasia is to intensify trade in a field that has been ignored in the global circulation in recent decades. A similar approach lies behind the establishment of AIIB, with its founders intending to fill the infrastructural gaps of an Asian region neglected by other international development banks.[14]

However, the foreign political gestures of soft power have been devoted to both the developing countries and the USA having a hegemon influence. This attempt was primarily reflected in the building of “new type great power relations”. The meeting of Presidents Jinping and Barack Obama held in Sunnylands in 2013 suggested the world that the so-called “G2” is being realized between the USA and China, which can be evaluated as an outstanding point in China’s international image creation.

China’s position in terms of becoming attractive might seem to be disadvantageous; however, it should be mentioned that in certain parts of the world China is seen in another way than in the liberal democracies. Therefore, the Chinese “soft power” can be more efficient in the developing countries applying different strategies than it would against the West. This is why we also study the African countries, which are developing countries similarly to China.

For the investigation of the Chinese soft power, it is worth analysing the judgement of China’s place taken in the international system in a Chinese perspective. International identity is of key importance because the way a country judges its own position in relation to other countries fundamentally determines its foreign policy and relationships maintained with the external world.  China’s emerging power role is the subject of numerous debates as the great power status entails increased commitment. The internal political changes and the external impacts formed the Chinese identity together, which has created the role of the responsible developing great power (fu zeren de fazhan zhong daguo) by today0.

The Western special literature assesses China’s international identity and responsibility based upon the country’ relations maintained in the prevailing international system. When shaping its foreign policy, China has had to face several identity dilemmas accompanying the country’s developmental path and international role changing. Whether determining itself? as a developed or developing country, China has different obligations and rights in the international system. A developing country can represent its national interests more easily, while a developed country has a more expansive scope of responsibilities and more expectations are laid against it?.[15]

The biggest challenge of the development dilemma lies in the representation of national interests. A developing country has more opportunities to enforce its rights, while a developed country is primarily subject to the international obligations. In this issue China is rather in favour of enforcing the rights, which is clearly shown by the relevant criticism demanding international responsibility, according to which China would only put issues suiting its interests on the agenda.[16]

Since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, there have been several periods of identity building primarily determined by the Communist regime and the belonging to the third world until the international opening beginning in the late 1970s. The international identity of the country has undergone a radical change since the announcement of reform and opening in 1979. One of the lines of Deng Xiaoping’s famous speech announcing the opening is “avoiding attention and biding your time” (taoguang yanghui) has become the central principle of Deng’s modest foreign policy.[17] In that period this used to be a pragmatic step since China was a modest country with only initial economic reforms; therefore, Deng’s leadership aimed at gradualness in every field.

In the 2000s political consequences also arose, following China’s economic growth. Regarding its economic volume, the country has rivalled the developed countries faster and faster, influencing the operation of the global economy more and more. It proved to be successful in the management of the financial crisis in 2008 and helped its greatest rival, the USA. In parallel with the growing comprehensive general power (zonghe guoli), China undertakes to take part in the solving of global issues according to its international weight. On the one hand, one of the results of crisis management is that China started to represent its interests in an international context more and more definitely. On the other hand, the country became more self-confident after taking the economic leading role of the East Asian Region in 2010preceding Japan. The strengthening economy and the international influence were accompanied by the emergence of the concept yousuo zuowei, according to which China should contribute to the international order.[18]

The most recent development of the international identity appeared in Li Keqiang’s speech held in March 2017 in the official Chinese rhetoric; fu zeren daguo, .e. the role of a responsible great power is a new stage of the country in the international identity shaping.[19] This also suggests that the comprehensive national power has become larger than ever, and thus China may be able to assume a leading role in affairs such as the struggle against global warming or the maintenance of world economic openness.

The practical implementation, however, is not obvious since the shaping of Chinese great power identity raises the issue of “shared responsibility”, which can be illustrated with the example of the response to environmental protection. The Chinese leadership has agreed to take part in the fight against the global climate change in accordance with its economic weight, but at the same time it also represented the aspects of the developing countries and requested the developed countries to take increased responsibility owing to their past and present situation.[20] China basically could imagine participation on the solving of global issues based upon the liangli erxing principle, which means that different levels of capabilities and capacities entail different levels of commitment.

This duality can mostly be observed in the development aiding. One of the forms of responsibility assumed for developing countries is developmental aid, which has been serving as an asset of identity-forming foreign policy for decades. As for aiding, the scale of China’s responsibility is important: the leadership of the country primarily highlights the responsibility for the developing countries, and the representation of the common future of the entire humanity is only followed after this.[21]  This may lead us to the conclusion that China is particularly interested in arousing the interest in Chinese norms in the developing countries, particularly in Africa, as the relationships maintained with the Sub-Saharan countries have become more and more important over the past decades.

The primary target: Africa

Concerning all regions of the world, Africa seems to be the most susceptible to the Chinese soft powers, which has several reasons. This paper does not deal with the examples of the successful or unsuccessful operation of the Chinese soft power; two further articles are going to investigate the above described theory in practice.

Africa finds other aspects attractive in the Chinese soft power policy than the Western countries.[22] The rediscovery of the Continent by China in the 1990s is primarily due to the vacuum that commenced in the region at the end of the Cold War. The amounts of the Chinese aids devoted to Africa, primarily to the Sub-Saharan countries, suddenly increased in the first years of the decade,[23] and this tendency continues today, too. The influence that can be observed in the continent is mainly economic, and since after the US-origin crisis the confidence in the Washington consensus has particularly shattered, African countries generally attach greater hopes to the Chinese arriving with primarily commercial and investment purposes than the developed countries intervening in humanitarian and security terms.[24]

If we study the aspect included in Nye’s soft power term and having attraction, we can see that the countries of the continent can be interested in certain Chinese values, too. Director-General of Africa Department of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Lu Shaye called them an organic part of the Chinese “diplomatic philosophy”[25] and sees them manifest in Zhou Enlai’s eight principles that are still valid today. Nevertheless, the developmental path t is not forced to any country but only shown as an alternative since the eight principles include the promotion of finding their own way.[26] This approach is in accordance with the operational mechanism of the soft power, since attraction emerges towards elements existing in policy and culture.

China has been committed toward the principle of non-interference since Bandung and it believes that the big and strong countries must not intervene in the internal affairs of the small countries as it would create an unbalanced situation.[27] The Chinese rhetoric related to Africa is based upon its similar role and history as a developing country, whose most important promise is that they can rely on the Chinese model for development and the Chinese assistance during their development.

The attraction to Chinese international affairs has been affected by the building of institutions, too. We can speak about relationships institutionalised under the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC); ministerial meetings have been held since 2000, and an important element of the summit meetings is the focus on the common values of the countries and the gestures of the Chinese state in numerous fields.[28] The support of international development including the healthcare, education and infrastructure of African countries as well as the promotion of international cultural, academic and technological exchange established more dominant presence in the continent.

One of the central points of the Chinese soft power endeavours focusing on Africa is aiding.[29] The reason for this is that this instrument has been used for a long time and seems to be successful in gaining influence in Africa. In the case of China, the power-creating tool of aiding has economic implications, but the establishment of the new-type relations system has been more important since the foundation of FOCAC. The so-called “South-South” relations aim to re-establish the norms of development aiding, and the promotion of this relations system forms a significant part of China’s aid policy. The fundamental values of the South-South relations are rooted in the eight principles of Zhou Enlai and are based upon the partners’ equal relations.[30] By maintaining the developing status, China can remain in a position that facilitates partnership among equal parties despite the enormous developmental differences. This may be contrary to the assumption that China pursues a general Africa policy.[31] Besides, the African leaders point out that they receive high-level diplomatic attention from China, which is a rare gesture towards their countries.

The past of Chinese assistance s also memorable to the African countries, so China has been rather accepted as an equal partner up to present  because the Western countries are considered too paternalist. Kenneth King’s research findings confined to the educational projects also show this: African countries appreciate the opportunities offered by the Chinese since they suggest that the Chinese acquaint their local partners with their own methods.[32]

According to the public opinion researches conducted in the countries of the continent, the African aspects of the soft power function efficiently. The number of African inhabitants having a positive opinion of China is close to the number of people who like the United States.[33] Furthermore, new opinions have emerged. For instance, Nigeria’s Central Bank Governor Lamido Sanusi supposes that the attraction of the African countries to China is only a romantic illusion, and if Chinese interests required hard intervention, all the beneficial effects of soft power would slip away.[34]


Over the past decades, Chinese soft power has undergone a significant transformation, the country has got onto the map of global influence in this respect, too. It can be stated that, unlike many developed countries, international image building is realised in a centralised system. Although the Chinese leadership aims to convince the population of the developed and the developing countries about? the international values of its culture and principles, the latter has been more successful.

Chinese endeavours made so far seems to be successful in Africa: although there is no one single exclusive consensus among the countries of the continent, we can basically talk about positive tendencies regarding the judgement of the Chinese influence. Assuming the role of a developing great power, China can be attractive to the African countries with respect to the new norms shown in the developmental relations. However, this explanation only dealt with the opportunities of soft power evoked by the values and needs to be proven with practical examples in the future.

The above analysis should also be continued because we took the continent as a whole, and we can get a more comprehensive picture of the operation of the Chinese soft power if we study its operation in practice in different African countries having different endowments.



Author: Eszter Polyák

[1] NYE, Joseph S. (2004): Soft Power: The Means To Success In World Politics.

[2] NYE, 2004.

[3] MOSS, Trefor: Soft Power: China Has Plenty. In: The Diplomat. 4 June 2013.

[4] China is spending billions to make the world love it. In: The Economist, 23 March 2017.

[5] SHAMBAUGH, David (2015): China’s Soft Power Push. In: Foreign Affairs.

[6] Economist, 2017.

[7] XI, Jinping (2017): President Xi’s speech to Davos in full. World Economic Forum, 17 January 2017.

[8] SHAMBAUGH, 2015.

[9] Is China’s soft power strategy working? In: China Power.

[10] SHAMBAUGH, 2015.

[11] MOSS, 2013.

[12] MOSS, 2013.

[13] NYE, 2004.

[14] Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank Articles of Agreement, p. 1.

[15] SUN, Xuefeng (2012): „The Dilemmas of the Rise of China.”

[16] SUN, 2012.

[17] WOLF, David: Understanding „tao guang yang hui” In: The Peking Review, 2014. szeptember 2.

[18] LUO, Jianbo (2014): „Fu zeren de fazhanzhong guojia…”

[19] XUAN Doc Loan: „Is China Becoming a Responsible Great Power?” In: Asia Times, 2017. március 16.

[20] LUO, 2014.

[21] LUO, 2014.

[22] MOSS, 2013.

[23] NAIDU, Sanusha – CORKIN, Lucy – HERMAN, Hayley (2009): „China’s (Re)-Emerging Relations with Africa.”

[24] COOKE, Jennifer G: China’s Soft Power in Africa.

[25] LU, Shaye (2012): The Road Ahead: China and Africa. In: WANG, Jisi China at the Crossroads. p. 144.

[26] CHIN, Gregory T. – FROLIC, B. December 2007. p. 4.

[27] LU, 2012, p. 148.

[28] The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Johannesburg Action Plan (2016-2018) In: 2015. december 25.

[29] NAIDU – CORKIN – HERMAN, 2009.

[30] Zhongguo de duiwai yuanzhu (2011) bai pishu.

[31]NAIDU – CORKIN – HERMAN, 2009.

[32] MOSS, 2013.

[33] COOKE, Jennifer G: China’s Soft Power in Africa.

[34] SANUSI, Lamido: Africa must get real about Chinese ties. In: Financial Times, 11 March 2013.

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