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Countering China on the Continent: A Look at African Views

Afrobarometer data reveals Africans who feel positively about Chinese influence are more likely to hold positive views of U.S. influence
Thomas P. Sheehy and Joseph Asunka 23 Jun 2021

The U.S. Institute of Peace’s Africa Center is publishing a series of articles exploring U.S.-China relations as they impact Africa. 

Originally published on the United States Institute of Peace‘s site. 

As U.S. policy has increasingly focused on countering China’s influence worldwide, Africa also has come under this lens. While the administration and Congress consider approaches and policy options, it is important to ask what Africans think of U.S. efforts to counter China’s growing role on their continent. While U.S. foreign policy should serve American interests, it will be most successful if cognizant and, when possible, reflective of the interests and aspirations of Africans.

President Biden has pledged to work in greater partnership with Africans, making an awareness of African attitudes all the more relevant. So how do Africans view China and its relationship with the United States as it plays out on their soil?What do these views mean for U.S. policy toward the countries of Africa, including potential cooperation with China?

Afrobarometer offers unparalleled reporting of African views on a wide range of issues and released findings covering African perceptions of China and the United States most recently in 2020. USIP’s Tom Sheehy recently interviewed Afrobarometer CEO Dr Joseph Asunka to discuss African perceptions of the major powers.

Sheehy: What does Afrobarometer report about how Africans view China as an “external influence?” How has this perception changed over time?

Asunka: Afrobarometer asks respondents about whether the influence of China, the United States and other countries on their own country is mostly positive or mostly negative. We find that China is generally viewed favorably. We’ve asked this question in 16 countries in both 2014-15 and 2019-20. In the most recent surveys, 60% of respondents said that China’s influence is “somewhat” or “very positive.” This is down slightly from 65% who held this view five years ago, with declines in 10 of the 16 countries, including large drops in Gabon (22% decline) and Namibia (18% decline). But a few countries report increases, led by Ghana (13% increase).

Figure 1: Perceived positive influence of China (16 countries / 2014-2020)

Respondents were asked: Do you think that the economic and political influence of China on your country  is mostly positive, mostly negative, or haven’t you heard enough to say? (% who say “somewhat positive” or “very positive”) 

Sheehy: While the common perception held by outside observers is that China’s influence in Africa is growing, you report Africans’ perception that Chinese influence has declined in almost all countries that you survey. What’s at play here? 

Asunka: You’re right. We ask our respondents about how much influence China’s economic activities have on their own country’s economy, and we were surprised to see a substantial decrease over the same time period: 56% said China had “some” or “a lot” of influence in the most recent survey, compared to 71% in 2014-15. During a period when the common narrative is about growing Chinese influence on the continent, Africans in 15 out of 16 countries instead saw a decline (Figure 2). It’s not entirely clear what is behind these declining trends in perceived influence. It is possible that as people become more accustomed to China’s visible presence in their countries, its activities stand out less to them.

Figure 2: Influence of China (16 countries / 2014-2020) 

Respondents were asked: How much influence do you think China’s economic activities in your country have on the economy, or haven’t you heard enough to say? (% who say “some” or “a lot”) 

Sheehy: How do African views of China differ from views of the United States as an external influence? 

Asunka: Africans’ views of the influence of China and of the United States are surprisingly similar. If we look at all 18 of the countries where we have data in 2019-20, 59% say China’s influence is “somewhat” or “very positive,” and 58% say the same about the United States (Figure 3). Both countries are seen in a considerably more positive light than former colonial powers (46% positive) and Russia (38%).

Figure 3: Positive influence: China vs. United States  (18 countries / 2019/2020) 

Respondents were asked: Do you think that the economic and political influence of each of the following countries on[your country is mostly positive, mostly negative, or haven’t you heard enough to say? (% who say “somewhat positive” or “very positive”)

Sheehy: You report that “respondents who feel positively about the influence of China are more likely to hold positive views of U.S. influence as well, suggesting that for many Africans, U.S.-China ‘competition’ may be seen as a win-win.” Can you explain this? 

Asunka: That’s correct. And the similarity is not limited to the averages — when we look country by country, in most cases the differences between views of China’s influence and U.S. influence are quite small. In some countries the United States has a bit more positive image, while in others China is viewed a bit more positively, but overall, perspectives on the two countries are strongly and positively correlated.

This high correlation suggests that citizens’ ratings of each country may have less to do with the specific actions or investments of each — about which ordinary Africans may have limited information — but instead reflect an overall sense of whether external powers are generally contributing to the well-being of the respondent’s country. It suggests that the actions of either country can affect, for better or for worse, the public’s general perceptions of whether external influences help or hurt their country, and that the standing of both China and the United States may rise and fall together, rather than in opposition to each other.

Sheehy: Afrobarometer found fairly substantial differences in how China and the United States are viewed among the citizens of the 18 countries that you survey. Which countries view the two countries the most and least favorably? Any speculation on why?

Asunka: The differences across countries are quite large. On the one hand, in Cabo Verde, Guinea and Burkina Faso, 70% or more have positive views of the influence of both the United States and China. At the other end of the spectrum, in Angola and Sierra Leone, fewer than 50% regard either country as a positive force, and in Tunisia, only about one in four do. In all of these cases the differences within the country between views of China and the United States are relatively modest in comparison to the large differences across countries.

This suggests that some countries generally have a more positive attitude toward external influencers in general, while some are more negative. We need to do further research to understand what explains these differences. They could be linked to practical considerations about the direction the country and the economy are going. But they may also reflect generalized levels of trust and social cohesion, which vary across societies and play a role in explaining different levels of trust for fellow citizens, for leaders and likely for external actors like the United States and China as well.

Sheehy: You look at which countries offer the “preferred development model.” What are the rankings? China puts considerable stock in positively portraying its economic development success overseas. What do your findings suggest about the effectiveness of its effort? How has this changed over time? 

Asunka: Yes, although we’ve seen that people generally view both China and the United States in a positive light, when it comes down to identifying which country would serve as the best model for development, the United States still prevails. Across 18 countries in 2019-20, 32% of Africans prefer the U.S. model, compared to 23% who opt for the Chinese model. There are just two countries — Burkina Faso and Mali — where the China model is preferred by a wide margin, compared to seven countries where the U.S. model is preferred by a margin of 10 percentage points or more. China has gained only marginally over the past five years, suggesting that the country’s efforts to promote its image and influence are met with uneven success, at least in terms of gaining status as a development model.

Across 16 countries where we can track these attitudes over time, preference for China as a model has increased only from 22% to 23%, while preference for the U.S. model has declined from 33% to 31%. Some specific countries stand out though: In Burkina Faso, preference for the Chinese model has nearly doubled over this time period, from 20% to 39%, while Namibia shows the opposite pattern, decreasing from 22% in 2014-15 to 11% in the most recent surveys.

Figure 4: Best model for development: China vs. United States | 18 countries | 2019/2020 

Respondents were asked: In your opinion, which of the following countries, if any, would be the best model for the future development of our country, or is there some other country in Africa or elsewhere that should be our model?

SheehyIt’s possible that an African may have a positive impression of China’s economic engagement in their country yet be concerned about its political influence. Do your findings shed any light on the complexity of Chinese engagement in Africa? 

Asunka: Our overall impression is that people are more aware of China’s economic influence than its political influence. There is some awareness that China tends to attach less conditionality to its loans and development assistance than some other countries, for example, but overall, only about half of people are even aware that China provides this kind of assistance. Other kinds of more immediately visible assistance — such as branded infrastructure projects — may shape views more. And some preliminary analysis we’ve done suggests there is no real linkage between attitudes toward China and attitudes toward democracy. For example, those who prefer China as a development model are just as likely to support democracy and elections as those who prefer the United States as a model.

Sheehy: Young Africans have a more positive impression of the United States than their elders, you find. Any insight on the reason and implications of that? 

Asunka: Although majorities in all age groups have positive impressions of both China and the United States, younger people report more positive views of both. Given their higher levels of education, access to news and information, and engagement on the internet and social media, younger Africans are likely to have a more global perspective and to be more open to the influence of and interaction with the world at large than their elders. For instance, African youth show strong attachment to American and Western pop culture, which, I believe, influences their views.

U.S. Policy Reflections

Sheehy: China’s favorability throughout Africa is not surprising given Beijing’s significant economic investment in what are the world’s poorest countries. While the trendline is not long, many Africans view China’s influence as waning. U.S. influence is viewed as positive too, and correlated with Chinese influence, meaning Africans view the roles of each country favorably. Africans don’t appear opinionated about the Chinese governance model, despite Beijing’s substantial efforts to tout its virtues.

The United States does enjoy some advantages over China in Africa. It is seen as a better development model than China, including among Africa’s burgeoning youth population. And American popular culture is attractive to many Africans.

Despite these advantages, Afrobarometer findings suggest that U.S. policy focused on explicit competition with China in Africa rubs against the grain of African perceptions of their interests.  Both powers are viewed as external actors, presumably judged upon the impact of their interventions. China’s general favorability should be a cautionary note for U.S. policy that is shaped first and foremost to challenge China in Africa. In general, U.S. policy should recognize its advantages and challenge China’s policies where appropriate, but not take African backing in doing so for granted. Ultimately, U.S.-China cooperation on issues of common interest — like climate change, combatting transnational terrorism and maritime piracy, and managing public health crises — could advance African interests and would likely receive African support.

Thomas Sheehy

Thomas is a membe rof the international advsiory council at Afrobarometer

Joseph Asunka

Joseph Asunka is the chief executive officer at Afrobarometer.