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Understanding Chinese Culture Is Important When Analyzing Africa-China Ties

The distance between China and African cultural backgrounds allows for differences to be easily observed and misinterpreted. The mis-accusations of China’s wrongdoings in Africa (such as exploitation and debt-trap) often stem from overlooking or misunderstanding Chinese traditions in interpersonal relationships. Born in China, raised in Canada, studying in the United States with a focus on Africa-China relations, I am so intrigued by how heterogenic cultural backgrounds influence relationships, especially in the context of China-Africa relations. Here are just a few Chinese traditions that many misconstrue.

“Altruism” in the Form of Patronizing, NOT Neo-Colonialism

Chinese altruism stems from the Taoist tradition dedicated to achieving harmony with salutary forces and heavily influences Chinese diplomacy. Beijing sees itself as Africa’s “brother” and hopes to help African countries develop through infrastructure projects while abiding by its non-interference policy. However, Chinese in Africa are not the best at representing Beijing’s belief and has thus sparked debates over its validity.

Wang Jinpu and Zhan Ning discuss the “patronizing mentality” amongst Chinese entrepreneurial migrants in Africa in their recent research. I witnessed this narrative of “uplifting poor African brothers and sisters” during my research in Ghana as well. Many Chinese shop owners in Accra highlighted that their imported goods competed favorably with both local products and Western products. “Many [Ghanaians] cannot afford the Western goods of excellent quality, so the Chinese products are good for [Ghanaians] because of their balance of quality and price.” Not only do the Chinese see this as a way to ensure profits, but they also believe that they are helping diversify the local market by offering a wider selection of goods of varying quality and prices to the local consumers.

Although China upholds its solidarity with Africa when making investment commitments, helping develop a prosperous Africa is beneficial to China’s economic and political interests as a world leader as well. Indeed, the relationship China attempts to forge with Africa deviates from the definition of altruism in its purest form. Nevertheless, understanding the root of this “mutually beneficial engagement” narrative entails comprehending the Chinese value of altruism. 

Humility and Modesty

I was sitting in a lecture at Peking University discussing contemporary China-Africa relations when a local student questioned the nature of the economic exchange. During class, one student asked, “you always hear Western media say that China is conducting debt-trap diplomacy…is that really so? Why do they make such claims?”

“Well, if I lend you 1000 yuan today, would I go to the street and tell everyone that I lend someone 1000 yuan today? Of course not. That would be bragging.” The professor responded in a scenario that perfectly exemplifies the Chinese virtue of modesty.

Humility and self-effacement are qualities extolled by Confucianism and are deeply rooted in Chinese culture. Chinese people tend to play themselves down, often denying others’ praise as a way to display humbleness. But many don’t understand such cultural value, especially when it can be used to explain the lack of transparency in Chinese investment (though shouldn’t be used to justify the opaque build-up of debt, caused by a lack of transparency).

Ironically, Beijing has been promoting and exporting its culture abroad since 2004, establishing Confucius Institutes across the globe in hopes of pushing its cultural influence. However, the focus of these cultural hubs may be doing more cultural display than inviting others to truly understand Chinese cultural values. The Quartz Africa article from 2018 revealed that the Institutes “focuses more on calligraphy, music and dance” as opposed to teaching history and culture. Although Confucius Institutes continue to be a prominent sight of “China overseas,” the lack of cross-cultural misunderstanding persists.  

Guanxi (Networking)

If you know anything about doing business in China or with Chinese people, chances are you know about guanxi, the social connection based on mutual trust and balancing of favors so the relationship is beneficial to all. It’s the American understanding of “networking” with a Chinese touch. Think about it, technically, the China-Africa guanxi can be traced back to the early 1400s when Zheng He voyaged to Africa.

Let’s take a crack at understanding the economic relationship between China and Africa: China needs to source a financial market to invest capital and export industrial products and African countries need infrastructural and technological investment to promote local economic growth. Both sides’ desires can be fulfilled by each other’s strengths, and voila, there you have the framework of a China-Africa guanxi. Now, is it a bad thing?

The world seems to be split into perspectives when perceiving China Africa ties, some say it will increase the bargaining power of African states as long as they bargain the right things, while others believe that China is “failing Africa.” Many of the criticisms over China’s patterns of economic engagement results from a lack of understanding of guanxi, which sees close family and friend networks as the most important aspects that influence and shape the general business profile of respondents. Establishing a closer-than-professional relationship will help cultivate better trust and more robust commercial activities. Considering the implications of guanxi when approaching engagement with China will help African countries better negotiate their interests and leverage their power. 

Inevitably, cooperation cannot exist without both parties’ serving its self-interests. Understanding Chinese traditional culture can minimize the cultural gap and make cultivate more productive exchanges, especially for Africans. But, traditional values certainly cannot be employed to justify China-Africa engagement, especially when such justification conceals the investments’ potential detrimental impact on the receiving community in crippling its development. Yet, it is equally damaging to not take into account deep-rooted Chinese cultural values when evaluating Sino-African exchange, as they guide Chinese diplomatic strategies.

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