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Jack Ma’s Disappearance Is a Setback For Chinese Soft Power in Africa

Image via Alibaba.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi is in Africa at the moment. It has become a multi-decade tradition that the FM’s first foreign trip of the year is always to Africa. These trips are arguably less important for what they achieve (although announcements of new deals frequently follow) and more for projecting a sense of constancy in the China-Africa relationship.

In Chinese official rhetoric, the China-Africa relationship is always strong, yet constantly undermined. As the prominent Chinese China-Africa scholar He Wenping put it in a recent Global Times op-ed: “Certain Western political elites and their media outlets see Africa as their sphere of influence – even though they do not really care about the continent. They regard China as moving their cheese when Beijing deepens coordination with African countries. They are jealous and hold a “sour grapes” mentality toward growing ties between China and Africa.”

According to this narrative, the only reason African stakeholders might have misgivings about cooperating with China is due to the Western media’s “hate and misinformation” about China in Africa, rather than anything to do with China itself.

The relationship is painted as being constantly under attack, yet always emerging phoenix-like from this fire: “China will always be Africa’s all-weather friend and partner. Their friendship has been tested for over half a century. It will not fall into crisis due to provocations by some Western media outlets and politicians. On the contrary, their friendship will be deepened with these tests.”

This story has proven as constant as Wang Yi’s annual visits – both are perennial classics of Chinese public diplomacy. But no matter how constant, they haven’t proven as popular in Africa as China’s newer avatar, the tech billionaire Jack Ma.

Ma was instrumental in the massive PPE donations that reshaped Chinese outreach to the continent in 2020, and headlined the Africa’s Business Heroes competition, which tapped into the continent’s growing mania for salvation-via-entrepreneurship (itself a narrative with nine lives.) In many ways, he seemed to represent Chinese public diplomacy 2.0 – the same development story, but now more fun.

Now, Ma has disappeared from view, sparking speculation around the world that he is being detained. His fall also dials the public diplomacy back to 1.0. Say good-bye to razzle-dazzle, and hello again to Wang Yi and strident rhetoric about constancy.

How Ma’s story develops in Africa this year will be revealing of wider public opinion about China on the continent. But maybe the ultimate lesson has already been revealed: China-Africa relations may be constant, but nothing is more constant than the power of the CCP.

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