The European Business Council for Africa

China is seizing on the global disruption created by Covid-19 to go for broke in asserting leadership and positioning itself as the most consequential external actor on the African continent. Right now, it is meeting little effective resistance from Europe or the United States. Whether or not China’s attempt to use this crisis to its advantage fully succeeds will depend on how the Chinese manage the internal contradictions inherent in its approach.

China has long sought to portray itself as a friendly, non-judgmental alternative to partners like Europe and the United States, appealingly free from the baggage of colonialism and Cold War machinations on the continent.  In promoting the ‘Chinese model’ of development fuelled by state capitalism and authoritarian governance, China has enjoyed a great deal of success. It is Africa’s indispensable infrastructure partner, has deeply penetrated African markets, and accrued significant influence over African governments with its generous financing packages.

Now, in the midst of the pandemic, China’s challenges to the West are more direct than ever before. Its diplomats are using social media not just to publicise and laud Chinese cooperation and generosity, but also to suggest that other major powers are either overstating their own assistance, failing to support important initiatives, or even are to blame for the emergence of the virus in the first place. By amplifying its ‘mask diplomacy,’ heralding the work of Jack Ma and his foundation, and using its embassies to coordinate assistance from Chinese businesses, China is able to send a unified message about its altruism, making even modest contributions loom large in the popular consciousness.

 

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