The Symbolism of Chinese Power: How the Image of China in Africa Illustrates China’s Global Ambitions and its Contest with the West

Written by Tom Harper.

With the exception of East Asia, the case of Chinese foreign policy towards the African states has been the most popular example of China’s international relations.  Chinese initiatives have achieved a lot in the continent in a comparatively brief period of time.  Such is the influence of these policies that the pan-African magazine, New African, has called it the most notable influence on Africa since the colonial era.  It is also this experience of imperialism that has been a long running theme in China’s African policies, serving both as a means to further Sino-African ties or to accuse China of being yet another imperial power.  In recent years, China’s expression of these ties has come in the form of the blockbuster action film, Wolf Warriors 2 (狼战2), where a maverick Chinese soldier battles American mercenaries to save a fictional African state.  While the film’s success has been held up as an example of China’s growing nationalism under Xi Jinping, it is equally an illustration of China’s foreign policy as well as harking back to the Sino-African unity of the Mao era.  At the same time, this attention has led to debate over the nature of Chinese engagement with the African states as well as for Chinese foreign policy as a whole.  This has largely taken the form of the Western accusation of China being a neo-imperial power while the Chinese perspective presents China as a role model for African development.  These depictions are a creation of the themes and experiences of both China and the West, which in turn shows how China’s African policies are symbolic of wider phenomena in the power relations between China and the West as well as the wider battle for China’s image.

Possibly the earliest source of Chinese involvement in Africa has been the eunuch admiral, Zheng He’s, Treasure Fleet’s voyage during the Ming Dynasty.  The motif of Zheng He has been utilised to symbolise China’s current internationalism, which seeks to depict a truly global China in contrast to the isolationism of the late Qing and Maoist eras. The modern roots of China’s African policies can be seen in the period of decolonisation, where Beijing supported the nascent anti-colonial movements with military and ideological aid to battle the European empires that had been weakened by the Second World War.  This was pursued with the spread of Maoism to the post-colonial world in opposition to the American led First World and the Soviet dominated communist bloc.  

The greatest shift arguably came with the end of the Cold War and the apparent disinterest in the African continent.  This saw a change in Chinese foreign policy objectives from ideological to economic goals as the source of Beijing’s legitimacy.  This required the furthering of China’s ties with economically crucial states, a number of which were located in the African continent.  Chinese objectives were furthered by the ties cultivated during the Maoist era, which emphasised the mutual experiences of European imperialism.  This experience would enable China to gain further traction since it appeared to lack the colonial baggage of many of the Western nations.  At the same time, the legacy of imperialism was not the only theme in the study of China in Africa.   

One of the most common Western images of China’s African policies is the idea that it encourages the rise of authoritarianism in the continent.  This is largely related to China’s apparent support for Africa’s more autocratic regimes, most notably Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and Bashir’s Sudan.  Such an image has been furthered by Beijing’s willingness to do business with states that Western powers are reluctant to be involved with. While this has been a reaction to Chinese policy, this image is also suggestive of the more normative elements within the depiction of China in Africa.  This can be seen in the most controversial aspect of these policies, which can be seen in the Chinese model of economic development, dubbed the Beijing Consensus.  While this is perceived as a potential alternative to the failings of the Washington Consensus, it has also been viewed as spreading authoritarian political norms under the guise of economic development.  As a result, it would appear that the images of China in Africa are reflective of a wider rivalry between democratic and authoritarian norms.   

Possibly the most dominant Western perception of China’s African policies is the view that China is building an empire in the African continent.  This is based on the perceptions of Chinese economic activities in Africa, which raise the spectre of the European empires from the nineteenth century.  An example can be seen in the Spanish journalists, Cardenal and Araujo’s claim that Chinese policies echo those of the British Empire in Africa, something that Tom Miller labels as a ‘Chinese Raj’. While this assumes that China will be an exploitive power as the European empires were, it also depicts China as being under pressure to become an imperial power.  This can be seen in the claim that China is a ‘free rider’, in international relations and that the threats to Chinese interests in the continent will compel China to become a more proactive player.  This echoes the shift from informal to formal imperialism during the ‘New Imperialism’ of the late nineteenth century.  In this sense, this illustrates the influence of the Western experiences in Africa in that it assumes there is a linear progression between the European empires and China. In a bid to challenge the Western conceptions of China in Africa, China too has created a discourse to combat what Beijing perceives to be the adverse impact on Chinese foreign policy due to the Western discourse.  Such a move is illustrative of how Chinese foreign policy has become more than the simple mercenary venture that it is often depicted as and posing an alternative to the established political and economic system.  

One of the most dominant themes of this as well as how the Chinese discourse describes the benefits of Chinese foreign policy  has been the concept of mutuality.  This has often manifested itself in a number of different ways.  One of these is the benefits of Chinese policy, couched in terms such as ‘win-win cooperation’, which contrasts against the exploitive aspects of it depicted in the Western narrative. On the other hand, this concept has also been used to refer to the shared experiences of China and Africa.  In an echo of the Maoist era, this often cites the legacy of European imperialism, which has been particularly notable in the case of Zimbabwe.  Such an image is reflective of how the Chinese narrative is reflective of Chinese foreign policy as well as the experiences that influence it.  This is furthered by the policies intended to promote China’s image in Africa. As part of China’s global charm offensive, Beijing has advocated the policy of cultural soft power (文化软实力) via the initiatives of the Confucius Institute.  This draws upon China’s traditional culture to promote the image of China that Beijing seeks to project to the wider world.  These policies are suggestive of the Chinese empire’s cultural authority in Asia, which is in keeping with the perception of China’s return to its’ previous role.

These policies can also be seen as an exercise in normative rather than soft power.  By promoting a particular image of China’s role, these initiatives promote Chinese norms as well as culture, which illustrates the shifts in China’s role and identity as well as providing a potential model for the developing world.  These shifts have come in the form of China taking on a more cultural identity, in keeping with its imperial predecessors, as well as a more exceptionalist approach to foreign policy.   This furthers the normative dimensions of Chinese policy as well as its economic objectives. In keeping with the spread of Chinese norms, Beijing has also held up the Chinese economic model as an example for Africa to follow.  This has gained traction in a number of African states as a result of the perceived failings of the Washington Consensus, which has encouraged China to promote the Chinese economic model as a potential alternative. Such an image seeks to further China as a partner for the African states rather than being their exploiter. At the same time, this is also illustrative of the influence of China’s imperial past.  As well as cultural authority, the source of China’s power come from acting as a paradigm to follow, something that is embodied in the Chinese international order, Tianxia (天下), advocated by Zhao Tingyang.  This in turn has played a more prominent role in the rise of the China Dream (中国梦)

The most dominant feature of the present state of Chinese foreign policy has been the China Dream of Liu Mingfu, advocated by Xi’s premiership.  This calls for a ‘Chinese future’, which was further reinforced by the nineteenth party congress.  presence of this phenomenon has become commonplace in the Chinese narrative as it seeks to separate itself from the Western discourse. While this is expressive of how the Chinese narrative reflects Chinese foreign policy, it also suggests that these policies are more than simply the pursuit of economic development in that China has created its own narrative to interact with the established Western discourse.  This comes in the vision of a Chinese globalisation, based upon concepts from China’s experiences and on China’s economic model, which is likely to gain further traction in the apparent backlash against it under the Trump administration as Beijing positions itself as the guardian of free trade and globalisation.  

In all, the themes present in both the Western and Chinese perceptions of China in Africa are illustrative of wider phenomena.  This has come in the form of the influence of the experiences of China and the West as well as being an expression of the power relations between the two.  In addition, this also shows how the changes in China’s identity are connected with the shifts in Chinese foreign policy.


Tom Harper is a PhD student at the University of Surrey. His research explores Chinese foreign policy, particularly towards African states and Central Asia.

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