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Key findings
  • Only about one-third (36%) of Malawians think that China’s economic activities exert “some” or “a lot” of influence on Malawi’s economy, a decline of 23 percentage points since 2014.
  • Malawians have a more positive (50%) than negative (26%) perception of China’s economic and political influence in their country. Positive views are fueled by China’s low-cost products as well as its infrastructure and business investments, while negative views are based mainly on perceptions that its products are of poor quality.
  • Fewer than half (46%) of Malawians are aware that their country receives loans or development assistance from China.
  • Among those who are aware of China’s assistance, a majority (56%) think Malawi has borrowed too much from China.
  • In a comparison with other countries and organizations, China ranks fourth in perceived influence in Malawi and perceived helpfulness to the country.
  • China ties with the United States as a development model preferred by Malawians, trailing only South Africa.

China’s relationship with Africa, formalized in the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), has received considerable attention and debate. Critics consider it lopsided and exploitative, giving China access to natural resources, jobs for its labourers, and markets for its traders while undermining efforts to promote democracy and human rights on the continent, exacerbating corruption, and creating unsustainable debt (Green, 2019; Brautigam, 2010; Shinn & Brown, 2012; Albert, 2020). But others see it as more multifaceted with benefits for both sides (Mugabe, 2015; Brown, 2012).

Malawi’s ties with China began only in 2008, when then-President Bingu wa Mutharika abandoned the country’s long-standing diplomatic relations with Taiwan. In return, China began sponsoring a number of high-profile projects in Malawi, including the Parliament Building, Karonga-Chitipa Road, Bingu International Conference Centre, and the two five- star hotels and shopping mall at the heart of the Capital City. But in the past five years, the number of high-profile projects has declined, as have presidential references to China as a key friend.

How do average Malawians see their country’s relations with China? Findings from Afrobarometer surveys since 2008 show that despite being a late entrant on the diplomatic scene, China is seen as an important economic player. But perceptions of its influence have declined since 2014, public awareness of its assistance is limited, and many Malawians think their country has borrowed too heavily from China. Still, among Malawians’ preferred development models, China ties with the United States, just behind South Africa.

Maxton Tsoka

Maxton Tsoka is an associate research professor for the Centre for Social Research of the<br /> University of Malawi.