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Reading China’s Aid and Soft Power in Africa

May 1, 2014

In case you missed it among the never ending flood of publications on Chinese soft power I’d just like to draw your attention to Kenneth King’s, China’s Aid and Soft Power in Africa: The Case of Education and Training which offers an interesting take on the question.

King is retired University of Edinburgh Africanist who approaches the question of Chinese soft power through the perspective of aid for ‘human capital development’ (HCD) rather than from the more common perspectives of International Relations or Communications. This is valuable in itself but King also throws in lots of (sometimes implicit) comparisons with the approaches of other countries to HCD which really help to give perspective.

King sees a great deal of continuity in the Chinese approach to Africa dating back to the 1960s, this is rooted in a paradigm of poor helping the poor or as it would be seen today South-South cooperation. One of the points here is that while a Western aid agency such as DFID will be operating in paradigm of a one way altruistic transfer the Chinese model places emphasis on mutual benefit. One of the themes in the book is the extent to which there is a convergence between the Chinese model of aid and that of the countries operating within the framework of the OECD Development Assistance Committee. While there is some convergence it remains quite limited. For instance while many countries have signed up for universal primary education as part of the Millennium Development Goals China prefers to focus educational assistance on the HE sector.

A bit chunk of the book focuses on activities conducted through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) this dates back to the 1990s and provides the umbrella within which bilateral cooperation takes place. Much educational cooperation takes place through this framework. In African terms Confucius Institutes (which are also discussed) are a latecomer as numerous HE partnerships have already been in existence for a considerable period. FOCAC is run out of the Chinese Ministry of Commerce which also houses the main aid department.

There are some nice stories that to my mind show how influence is built over time. By providing scholarships to study in China, students are incentivised to learn Chinese. If they learn Chinese and spend time there they are in a position to develop other relations in China or work with Chinese firms. There’s the case of a student who decides to go and study in China because there are so many people who have studied in Europe or North America and by going somewhere different he will have a differential value in the market place. You see how education and training, language and commercial links work together to reinforce each other.

In reading this it occurred to me that it’s possible to see the whole Chinese approach as a very classical cultural relations paradigm – one that has probably existed in rhetoric and theory rather than practice in the West. It’s about constructing enduring relations between countries on a basis of mutual interest and equality. The connection between education and economic relations may offer the basis for longer lasting relations than the more rigorously altruistic perspective than you find at DFID.

One comment

  1. The UK used to have a major HE programme.. Technical Cooperation Scheme .. funded by ODA/ODM as was, DFID now. Administered by British Council. Ended in the mid to late 90s. Grew to well over 10,000 students every year, mostly at Masters level. Objectives were as you say for the current Chinese programmes.



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