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COVID-19 and the conundrum of China-Africa relations

Making sense of the impact on society
Dr Barney Walsh and Hubert Kinkoh

Lecturer in Security, Leadership and Development Education; Research Associate, African Leadership Centre

30 April 2020

The impact of COVID-19 could see a new chapter for China-Africa relations. However, there exists a scepticism held by many African citizens towards China and its perceived collaboration with the African ruling elites. Dr Barney Walsh and Hubert Kinkoh from the African Leadership Centre explore how the current pandemic could deepen the divide.

Africa’s fragile health systems are at risk of being overwhelmed if COVID-19 is not contained early and swiftly. Notwithstanding some scepticism around the narrative of success that China has presented in tackling the crisis at home, Africa seems to be very open to receiving support from Chinese government and private enterprises.

Examples of stories and initiatives emerging across Africa include:

  • the Jack Ma and Alibaba Foundations respectively sent 1.1 million testing kits, six million masks and 60,000 protective suits to African states, with more on the way
  • private enterprise China Star donated medical supplies to Rwanda
  • the Chinese business community in Zimbabwe, alongside the Chinese embassy, raised USD 500,000 to upgrade Zimbabwe's main COVID-19 isolation and treatment centre
  • the 1,000 Chinese medical workers already in Africa have conducted more than 250 COVID-19 training sessions for more than 10,000 African health workers

The African perception of China

A striking feature of China-Africa relations is the divergent perceptions of China held by state elites, on the one hand, and a great many ordinary African citizens on the other. This is likely to be exacerbated thanks to COVID-19.– Dr Barney Walsh and Hubert Kinkoh

China engages the ‘pillars of statehood’ in Africa through interactions and exchanges with government officials and parliaments and political parties, as well as military and police training and equipment supply programmes. Beijing’s accompanying ‘non-interference’ principle has been embraced with open arms by Africa’s governing elites who see China as a model of transformative state-led development and as a crucial supplier of development assistance and the mega-infrastructure Africa needs.

However, African citizens, whilst embracing Chinese goods and opportunities, express some scepticism of a creeping major power cosying up to the leaders they often fear and mistrust – seeing the relationship as largely a tool to protect elite interests.

There has been fairly widespread hostility towards Chinese immigrants working as local market traders in Africa and anger about the lack of employment opportunities. Similar levels of anger have emerged over accusations of mistreatment of African employees on Chinese projects and general racist behaviour by Chinese living on the continent against African citizens.

Citizen resistance to Chinese support

The reaction of African citizens to COVID-19, and their view of China as the purveyor of the pandemic, contrasts sharply with those of their state leaders. For many people in Africa, Beijing’s opaque handling of the early stages of the virus and the lack of faith in their own leaders make for a ‘China-phobia’.

There has been a parallel response by African civil society groups. For example:

  • in Kenya, even before the country’s first confirmed COVID-19 case, a widely circulated social media video clip showed two Asians being bullied by a large crowd in a low-income area of Nairobi. Weeks later, pressure from civil society groups forced the Kenyan government to back down and halt flights from China.
  • in Nigeria, civil society groups pressured the government to ‘close its borders to countries with high cases of COVID-19’, and the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) expressed its opposition to the invitation and arrival of a Chinese medical team to the country.
  • in Ghana, people took to social media through the #CloseBordersNow campaign as soon as their first two cases were confirmed.

More Africans have expressed pessimism on social media about Chinese assistance to Africa in the fight against COVID-19. For example, many claimed Jack Ma’s medical equipment was defective and others said it was a means to transport the virus from China to Africa. Some cautioned that governance gaps in Africa will make it difficult for the poor to benefit from the assistance.

This trend furthered in April when the forced evictions and maltreatment of Africans (stigmatised as potential new sources of COVID-19) living in China was reported. African citizens responded through the #ChinaMustExplain campaign on social media, calling for the closure of Chinese embassies and the deportation of Chinese nationals from Africa and for African governments to recall their ambassadors from China.

State support for China

Meanwhile, a further strengthening of state relations and engagement with China is taking place. The support and advice proffered by China has been embraced by African leaders. The Chairperson of the African Union publicly thanked the Jack Ma Foundation and the Alibaba Foundation for their generous donation to the continent.

Various other leaders have expressed praise and adulation for China, wrapped in the usual ‘mutual-support’ and ‘win-win’ language that has been the hallmark of modern public relations. Meanwhile, China’s President Xi, in a phone call to Namibia’s President Hage Geingob, was reported to say that the only way to defeat the pandemic was for countries to “pull together and fight in solidarity.”

At the time of writing, it is unclear how African leaders will react to the #ChinaMustExplain campaign. The intense anger from African citizens has already prompted a twitter statement from the AU Commission, and various African ambassadors have written to China’s Foreign Ministry expressing concerns.

Despite talk of a rupture in relations, however, it seems unlikely that African Presidents will publicly criticise or condemn China over the issue in the immediate term at least, or that the fundamentals of the elite-level relationship will be significantly altered. China’s seemingly superior capacity and effectiveness in halting the spread of COVID-19, versus the struggles by Western (Euro-American) democracies, appears to resonate with some African governments.

The future of China-Africa relations

Beijing is already attempting to control the narrative around its own role in the outbreak, as the US and UK in particular are growing more vocal about their distrust of China’s reporting and data on COVID-19. The burgeoning arguments and counterarguments may further influence African citizens’ views on China and its role in the outbreak. Still, African leaders will likely continue to see China as a protector of their interests.

From the evidence so far, it seems that the pandemic will likely strengthen China’s relations with African states and ruling elite on the one hand while deepening the fissures between African citizens and their leaders on the other.


Dr Barney Walsh is a Lecturer in Security, Leadership and Development Education in the African Leadership Centre.

Hubert Kinkoh is a Research Associate, based in the African Leadership Centre, Nairobi.

The African Leadership Centre (ALC) has launched an Africa-focused op-ed series to track, analyse and reflect on COVID-19 in and for Africa. To find out more, visit the ALC Nairobi website.

In this story

Barney Walsh

Barney Walsh

Senior Lecturer in Security, Leadership and Development Education

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