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Africa-China relations have gained worldwide attention, writes Adams Bodomo, and constitute the topic of much academic and diplomatic discourse. In this paper, Bodomo explores two important issues within this topic – whether the relationship between the two parts of the world is symmetrical or asymmetrical, and the exact role of soft power in this constellation. Bodomo argues that prominent economies on the African continent such as South Africa, Egypt, and Nigeria have an important role to play in ensuring a symmetrical relationship with China, in which Africa can also take part in a symmetrical cultural diplomacy with China, for example through setting up African cultural institutes around the country.


Scholars on Africa-China relations engage in much debate about the exact genesis of the relationship. Two important periods and events, one in distant political history – the travels of Admiral Zheng He of Yunnan in the Ming dynasty (in the 1400s) to Africa, the other a relatively recent political event – the Bandung Conference of 1955, are often evoked by Afro-Sinologists and Sino-Africanists to mark the beginnings of Africa-China relations. Whatever date is established as the real beginning, Africa-China relations have suddenly gathered steam since the turn of the Century. The relationship has been marked by high-level travels by Chinese leaders to African capitals and high level travels by African leaders to Beijing. There are now even biennial Forums on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) gatherings alternating between Beijing and African capitals.

Why is it that this relationship has all of a sudden gathered momentum, what are the major issues involved in this momentum; who is driving the relationship, are there equal benefits or is the relationship skewed in an asymmetrical fashion to the benefit of one partner over the other? If there is this tendency how can one redress this; what is the role of soft power or cultural diplomacy as a solution to this?

These are some of the questions that this paper will address. We will claim that the view that there is an asymmetry skewed in favour of China has been largely exaggerated and that there are even areas in which Africa plays a greater role than China. We will then propose strategies for ensuring that the symmetry is well achieved and sustained. These strategies will involve prominent African economies like South Africa, Egypt, and Nigeria playing counter-balancing roles in the Africa-China relationship in order to sustain symmetry.


Three main facts indicate that Africa-China relations have begun a golden era. The first is the fact that there are very high-level political visits and meetings at ministerial and even head of state levels involving the Chinese and African governments. President Hu Jintao has visited Africa three times already since coming to power and many state ministers have followed suit. In 2006 there were more than 40 African heads of state gathered in Beijing for the FOCAC, the largest gathering of African heads of state outside of the UN.

Second, trade has all of a sudden increased to such an extent that China is now the second largest trading partner to Africa after the United States, beating well-established partners like Britain and France. Investments by Chinese governments and businesses in Africa have almost tripled in value since 2000.

A third fact signalling the booming of relations between Africa and China is the rapid establishment of African and Chinese migrant communities in both continents, as has been described in many works such as Large (2008), Bertoncello and Bredeloup (2007), Bodomo (2007a, 2007b, 2008), Li (2007), and Sautman and Yan (2007).

These facts all signify what may be described as golden era of cordial diplomatic relations between Africa and China, involving a lot of interaction between not just governments but ordinary Africans and Chinese.

In terms of the reasons for this sudden increase in momentum, we may state, in brief, that China as a fast developing economy has realised that it needs a lot of raw materials such as oil, gold, diamond, and iron ore which Africa has in vast reserves. Africa on the other hand realises that it needs to seek new partnerships for development beyond the Western economies that it has relied on over a long period of time. African countries are thus badly in need of Chinese investment to kick-start their troubled economies.

But the question then arises as to whether we are dealing with an equal partnership within this relationship, or whether it is the case that one or the other of these friends is dictating the relationship. We will examine this in the next section.


The relations that we have talked about so far have not always been seen to be on equal terms. There is a lot of chatter especially from Western sources that Africa-China relations are asymmetrical in favour of China.


This may sound true from some angles. For instance, even the very conceptualisation of the relationship designates an unequal nomenclature: The hypothesis here is that more people, writers from all parts of the world, see the relationship as China-Africa rather than as Africa-China.

To test this hypothesis we did a search on three academic databases, the largest and most prestigious Chinese language academic database called CNKI and two of the most prestigious English language academic databases, ISI and SCOPUS, for published articles with either Africa-China/Afro-Chinese or China-Africa/Sino-African as titles. Here are the results:

CNKI (June 24, 2009) (Timespan: 1915-2009):
Africa-China/ Afro-Chinese (feizhong guanxi): One paper (馬哈茂德·阿拉姆, 2006)
China-Africa/ Sino-African (zhongfei guanxi): 139 papers (search in titles), 7 theses (in titles)
- 217 papers (search in keywords)
- 278 papers (search in topics)

ISI (June 24, 2009) (Timespan: 1970-2009):
Africa-China/ Afro-Chinese: One paper (Maswana, 2009)
China-Africa/ Sino-African: Eight papers (Large, 2008; Lagerkvist, 2008; Xiang, 2008; Zhan, 2008; Xu, 2008; Liu, 2008; Taylor, 2008; Lin, 2004)

SCOPUS (June 24, 2009) (Timespan: 1960-2009):
Africa-China/ Afro-Chinese: Two papers (Mohan & Power, 2009; Anonymous, 1976)
China-Africa/ Sino-African: Fourteen papers (Large, 2008; King, 2008; Xiang, 2008; Liu, 2008; Lagerkvist, 2008; Shiming, 2008; Xu, 2008; Breslin, 2008; Taylor, 2008; Taylor, 2007; Naidu, 2007; Hofmann et al, 2007; Large, 2007; Seddon, 2006)

‘zhongfeiguanxi’ as keyword: 135 entries
‘zhongfeiguanxi’ as title: 112 entries
‘feizhongguanxi’ as keyword: 0
‘feizhongguanxi’ as title: 0

As can be seen from the above statistics, there are clearly far more papers with the China-Africa nomenclature, compared to the Africa-China nomenclature. It would therefore appear that evidence from even the nomenclature of the relationship alone tells us that the relationship is seen by most authors (both Chinese and non-Chinese) as more driven by the Chinese than by the Africans.


It is, however, mainly from the point of view of issues of economic leverage that the relationship is seen as far more asymmetric in favour of China. In short, the argument as advanced in works such as Broadman (2007) is that China (along with India for that matter) invests more in Africa than Africa invests in China. Broadman cautions: ‘It is imperative that both sides of this promising South-South economic relation address asymmetries and obstacles to its continuous expansion through reforms.’

From the above perspectives, it may therefore seem that there is a serious asymmetric relationship.

However, I argue that this purported asymmetry is rather exaggerated.


One reason why I argue against the asymmetry and claim that it is too exaggerated comes from the political arena. The argument goes that because China is a huge country with a large population of more than 1.3 billion, its relations with an Africa fragmented into 50 plus nations is necessarily and logically asymmetrical.[2] There are problems with this view. First, it would suggest that China’s relations with most small nations of the world, some even with smaller populations like Norway’s 4 million people, are necessarily asymmetrical. Second, it ignores the fact that despite having 53 independent countries, African countries often vote, mostly en bloc, on topical international issues.

In fact, and indeed, based on this strong show of unity by the AU in international events, Africa sometimes wields more power than China in international settings. China has actually benefitted on more than one occasion from this strong show of voting unity by the Africans.[3] A good example is how China got the Beijing Olympics awarded it because of an ‘en bloc’ vote by Africa during the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decision-making process. Also, Africa has helped China many times to prevent Taiwan from getting enough UN attention in its bid to gain a UN seat. The first Chinese to head the World Health Organization (WHO), Margaret Chan of Hong Kong, got her post largely because of an overwhelming support from African nations.

Indeed, based on this evidence, a counter-argument may be that even though China is a permanent UN Security Council member, Africa-China relations are asymmetrical in favour of Africa on the political front because of Africa’s massive voting clout at the UN and other international bodies like the IOC, the WHO, and the WTO.

I have in this section argued that concerns about Africa being in an asymmetrical relationship with China are too exaggerated. Seen from an economistic lens, this may appear so[4] but seen more broadly in terms of geopolitics Africa wields some considerable political power that China even benefits from, just as Africa benefits from China’s economic aid and investments in Africa.

This said, Africa and China must still find ways to ensure that there is equilibrium, and a sustainable symmetry in their relationship. I explore a possible path to this with the notion of soft power in the next section.


Within International Relations, countries do not only relate to and influence each other through their economic clout and military firepower, they also relate to each other through soft power. What is soft power? Liu (2008) points out that soft power is the term that Chinese scholars tend to prefer to use as a designation for cultural diplomacy which is defined as ‘...that aspect of diplomacy that involves a government’s efforts to transmit its national culture to foreign publics with the goal of bringing about an understanding of national ideals and institutions as part of a larger attempt to build support for political and economic goals.’ (Maack 2001: 3, quoted in Liu 2008). As in indicated in Liu (2008), while Chinese scholars prefer to use soft power with a strong traditional cultural background to describe Chinese cultural diplomacy, western commentators prefer to use the term ‘charm offensive’ (Kurlantzick 2007) to describe China’s engagement with the world.

Whatever we choose to call it and however we choose to view it, soft power or cultural diplomacy offers a promising path for Africa and China to constantly balance the equation and achieve a sustainable equilibrium in their relationship.


A prominent feature of China’s cultural diplomacy or soft power has been the establishment of Confucius Institutes, not just only in Africa but in many other parts of the world. More than 20 such institutes which teach Chinese language and culture have been opened or will soon be opened throughout Africa, out of a total of some 350 such institutes worldwide.

Confucius Institutes stand a chance of helping Africa-China relations to move away from the skewed economic focus, which is sometimes seen as China’s attempt to grab whatever raw materials and precious natural resources such as oil that it badly needs to feed its fast growing industrial machine. Cultural diplomacy, especially the soft power version of it with Chinese characteristics, would give China a more human face in its relations with Africa.

But there again is a danger of creating an asymmetry if Africa does nothing in return. The question has to be: If China has a soft power policy of establishing Confucius Institutes throughout Africa, what is and where is Africa’s diplomatic policy towards China? Indeed, what is Africa’s overall China policy? Until these questions are answered, even soft power on the part of China would not be an effective solution to maintaining symmetry in Africa-China relations.

I will thus in the next section explore what role some of Africa’s larger economies can play in the search for a symmetry in Africa-China relations.


Given the current economic predicaments that are facing, many, indeed, most African nations, it is largely idealistic and even inconceivable to expect all African countries to counterbalance China’s soft power of establishing Confucius Institutes by setting up their own Cultural institutes in China. Even though it is possible for all African countries to promote their culture in China and to the Chinese, realistically, only a select few can emulate China’s example by setting up their own Language and Culture Institutes. These include South Africa, Egypt, and Nigeria.

South Africa, a country of some 50 million people of diverse ethnic and racial origins, has one of the most advanced economies on the African continent, with GDP of more than US$350 billion and a per capita income of about US$4,000 in 2008. Ever since the Rainbow Nation under the world-renowned Nelson Mandela, turned its back on apartheid, a government measure that practiced a white supremacist policy of keeping races separate before 1994, it has made great economic and political progress on the African continent.

I contend here that, since not all African countries have the economic power to engage China on anything near equal terms on their own individual basis, select economies such as South Africa, among many others, ought to play a greater role in achieving symmetry in Africa-China relations.

It is interesting to note that South Africa is already playing a leading role in advancing Africa-China relations only after 10 years of diplomatic relations with Beijing, since January 1998.

For reasons of space, let me briefly highlight a little known interesting asymmetry. While it has been shown that, overall, Chinese firms have invested more in Africa than have African firms in China, it must be shown that when it comes to South Africa - China relations, actually South African firms have been more successful in penetrating the Chinese market than Chinese firms in establishing themselves on the South African market. The following report by the China Business Frontier (April 2008) newsletter testifies to this:

‘What followed (since the start of diplomatic relations in January 1998) was an initial rush of Chinese investment into the country…However, a general lack of local market knowledge, inexperienced management and a vastly different business culture all contributed to failure of these companies.’

The paper continues:

‘In contrast, South African corporations have been extremely successful in penetrating the often challenging China market. A handful of firms have been ‘industry shapers’ in the Chinese economy – after entering the market in 1994, SAB Miller became the largest brewer by volume in China last year, Naspers is a leading media player…; and Sasol could soon become the single largest investor in China if it goes ahead with two coal-to-liquid projects in China.’

What this has shown is that South Africa has played and will continue to play a major role on the economic front towards symmetry in Africa-China relations.


But South Africa can do more. I propose that to counterbalance China’s charm offensive or rather to reciprocate its soft power, African countries should aim at setting up African cultural institutions in China. Each African country should try to set up at least one institute with its favourite designation. For South Africa, I propose that the most apt designation should be the Mandela Institute. This would be a cultural institute teaching South African languages and cultures and spreading Mandela’s policy of rapprochement between races and all peoples of the world.

Egypt with its population of 90 million and an annual GDP of more than US$450 billion is Africa’s second largest economy. In addition, Egypt has a long history and is world famous for its prominent historical and archaeological relics such as the pyramids. Obviously, Egypt is capable of playing a major role in championing Africa’s soft power initiatives in China.

Nigeria with a population of 150 million is Africa’s most populous country, with about one in six Africans being a Nigerian. It has the largest economy in West Africa, with an annual GDP of some US$300 billion in 2008, giving it a GDP per head of about US$2000, which makes it an emerging market and a middle-income economy. Undoubtedly, like South Africa and Egypt, Nigeria has the capacity to champion Africa’s soft power politics in China by establishing African Cultural Institutes in China, and using whatever name that may project their national heroes. These institutes would be best conceived in very pan-African terms, and even though individual countries may champion the funding, it would even be best if pan-African institutions championed the funding, though this approach may not be the most effective.

Indeed, even African countries with less endowed economic capacities can work with Chinese Universities and other institutions of higher learning to set up African Studies Institutes in China that can house some of their national cultural centers. In this sense, the newly started University of Hong Kong and the Yunnan University Centre of African Studies can assist African governments if adequate memorandums of understanding (MoUs) are signed between African governments, the Chinese government, and the Universities.


In conclusion, in this paper, I have discussed two important notions within contemporary Africa-China relations, symmetry and soft power, and shown how soft power can be used by both Africa and China to strengthen a symmetric relationship between the two entities. I have argued that the notion that Africa-China relations are asymmetrical in favour of China is a largely exaggerated notion. I have pointed to cases in which Africa has shown enough political muscle to counterbalance international decisions in favour of China, just as China is helping Africa through aid and favourable investments. The relationship is thus largely symbiotic and mutually beneficial.

I have also argued that despite this exaggeration, measures must be taken to ensure that the relationship maintains a sustainable equilibrium, and soft power or cultural diplomacy offers a promising path to maintaining, sustaining and even strengthening such equilibrium and a relationship with a human face.

Finally, I have proposed that prominent economies on the African continent such as South Africa, Egypt, and Nigeria have an important role to play in ensuring a symmetrical relationship in which Africa can also take part in a symmetrical cultural diplomacy with China, such as in the setting up of pan-African cultural institutes in China.

* Adams Bodomo is associate professor of Linguistics in the School of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong and coordinator of the University's [email protected] or comment online at


[1] Versions of this research have been presented at various places including the Roundtable on South Africa – China Relationship, Faculty of Social Sciences, HKU, November 3, 2008; and external talks at Yale University, USA and Zhejiang Normal University, China. I thank the audience at all these places for discussion of various issues presented here.
[2] This was a view expressed by Joshua Eisenmen of the American Foreign Policy Council during a debate with this author during a Hong Kong Radio (RTHK) discussion on Dec 12, 2007.
[3] I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for supporting and confirming this position with the following statement: ‘The Chinese government has stated that ‘Africa needs China and China needs Africa,’ but Chinese Africanists have more forthrightly recognized that ‘China needs Africa more than Africa needs China.’
[4] But even here, it may be argued, as pointed out by an anonymous reviewer, that while the economic relationship may be seen as asymmetrical in the sense that most African exports to China are primary products and most Chinese exports to Africa are manufactured goods, China does not yet have a role comparable to that of the West in prescribing and thus determining economic policies for African states. Indeed, China may on balance, contribute to Africa’s economic development in mutually beneficial terms. Therefore, the view, often entertained in some academic and media analyses of Africa-China relations, that the relationship is ‘neo-colonial’, meaning that China is acting as a new colonial power in Africa, is highly problematic.
[5] In an earlier article (Bodomo 2009), I had singled out South Africa and highlighted its role as the one country in Africa that could most effectively counterbalance China’s soft power. Discussions at various fora since then have pointed to the fact that one ought to highlight larger economies such as those of Egypt and Nigeria. Even hough I had alluded to these and many more in that article, I now find space to build on that research and clearly outline the roles of these other two larger economies as well in this regard.


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