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China’s Surprisingly Durable Reputation in Africa

Djibouti's Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Mahamoud Ali Youssouf (R) welcomes China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi upon his arrival at the diplomatic institute in Djibouti, on January 9, 2020. AFP

Donald Trump famously said that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and not “lose any voters.” Despite all that’s happened over the past 3.5 years of his presidency, the president’s poll numbers have remained largely intact, proving that statement to be quite prescient. 

In many ways, the same can be said for the Chinese in Africa.

In the five year interim since the respected public opinion research agency Afrobarometer conducted surveys on African citizens’ perceptions of China’s engagement on the continent, positive views of the Chinese were either stable or edging higher in most countries.

Overall, across the 18 countries that Afrobarometer surveyed, 59% of the people think that China’s economic and political influence in Africa is mostly positive.

That is a remarkable figure, especially in this day and age when China is such a polarizing actor in many other parts of the world.

And just as many journalists, intellectuals, and coastal elites completely misread the U.S. electorate in 2016, missing the boiling populist resentment that propelled Trump to the White House, the Afrobarometer data suggests that a lot of analysts who condemn China’s presence in Africa may also be misreading public sentiment.

Despite seemingly endless media coverage and social media discussion about Chinese “debt traps,” imported labor, substandard Chinese products, neo-colonialism, counterfeit goods and so on, the data suggests that China’s positive public perception in many African countries remains surprisingly durable.

There’s an important lesson here for the United States government and other China hawks about efficacy of the debt trap critique that they’ve employed for the better part of a decade: research clearly demonstrates that it simply isn’t working and they’d be well advised to find a new messaging strategy.

For others, including myself, the challenge here is to push beyond the boundaries of our personal feedback loops and constantly question the embedded narratives that can prevent an accurate understanding of how people across the continent feel about the Chinese presence in their countries.

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