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Key findings
  • On average across 34 countries, China trails the United States as Africans’ preferred development model (33% vs. 22%), followed by South Africa (12%) and former colonial powers (11%).
  • Almost two-thirds (63%) of Africans say the economic and political influence of China in their country is “somewhat positive” or “very positive,” while only about one in seven (14%) consider it negative. Views on U.S. influence are almost identical (60% vs. 13%).
  • While a majority (59%) of Africans say China’s economic activities in their country have “some” or “a lot” of influence on their economy, that proportion has declined sharply over the past five years (from 71%).
  • Among the 47% of African citizens who are aware of Chinese loans or development assistance to their country, a majority (57%) say their government has borrowed too much money from China.
  • Views on whether China or the United States is preferable as a development model do not appear to affect Africans’ support for democracy or democratic norms.
  • Seven in 10 Africans (69%) say English is the most important international language for young people to learn. Only 3% prefer Chinese.

Home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies (Mitchell, 2019), Africa has attracted the attention of leaders and economic strategists everywhere, including China. Over the past two decades, political and economic relations between China and Africa have grown rapidly, with trade volumes increasing from about $11 billion in 2000 to $192 billion in 2019

(Amoah, Hodzi, & Castillo, 2020; China Africa Research Initiative, 2018; Thomas, 2021). While the United States is still the continent’s largest aid donor, China is the leading provider of financial support for infrastructure development in Africa (Muchira, 2018; Shepherd & Blanchard, 2018, Thomas, 2021).

However, China’s investments and dealings with Africa have been a topic of widespread scrutiny and debate. Because China’s financial support for Africa is often in the form of long-term loans rather than grants, it has been criticized as a “debt trap” that China may use to

gain strategic advantages on the continent (Green, 2019). Some argue that African countries that borrow from China may lose key assets if they are unable to pay back their loans (Brautigam, 2019; Brautigam & Kidane, 2020; Sun, 2014). Others are concerned that China is using its influence to promote its political ideas on the continent (Scott, 2021).

How do ordinary Africans perceive China’s engagement with their countries and economies?

Afrobarometer’s national surveys in 34 African countries in 2019/2021 show that Africans hold positive views of China’s assistance and influence on the continent, though its perceived level of influence on African economies has waned over the past five years. Positive views of China’s influence do not appear to affect Africans’ attitudes toward democracy. China remains second to the United States as the preferred development model for Africans. And majorities of those who are aware of Chinese loans and development assistance to their countries are concerned about being heavily indebted to China.

Josephine Appiah-Nyamekye Sanny

Josephine is the knowledge transfer manager for Afrobarometer.

Edem Selormey

Edem Selormey is the director of research at the Ghana Center for Democratic Development.