China Wins Battle of Perception Among Young Africans

If it’s a battle for hearts, minds – and wallets – then according to young Africans, China is outperforming the U.S. these days.
China Wins Battle of Perception Among Young Africans
A couple wearing face masks walk past a painting to mark the country's Youth Day holiday in Soweto, South Africa, June 16, 2020.AP

If it’s a battle for hearts, minds – and wallets – then according to young Africans, China is outperforming the U.S. these days. A new survey by Johannesburg-based think tank The Ichikowitz Family Foundation, found this week that the vast majority of African youth see China as the most influential foreign player on the continent. By contrast, U.S. influence has dropped by 12% since 2020, according to the survey of more than 4,500 Africans 18 to 24 years old and living in 15 countries across Africa. Seventy-seven percent of young Africans said China was the “foreign actor” with the greatest impact on the continent, while giving the U.S. an influence rating of just 67%. In a follow-up question on whether that influence was positive or negative, 76% said China’s was positive, while 72% said the same of the U.S. The top reasons those surveyed say China’s influence is positive: affordable Chinese products, Beijing’s investments in infrastructure development on the continent and China’s creation of job opportunities in African countries.

“In the first edition of the pan-African youth survey we asked young Africans which country they believed had the biggest influence on the continent and at that point it was without any doubt the United States,” said Ivor Ichikowitz, who heads the foundation that carried out the research.

“This year, two years later, post-COVID, the picture is completely different ... the most influential country in Africa at the moment is China.”

According to Ichikowitz there are a few reasons for this change.

“(Former President) Donald Trump resonated with African youth. He was seen as a powerful, charismatic leader … and as a consequence the United States topped the list of most influential countries in Africa,” he explained. But mostly, he said, it’s down to investment.

“Young Africans are telling us that they are seeing tangible, visible and very impactful signs of the role that China has played in the development of Africa,” Ichikowitz said.

“Albeit that there is significant criticism of Chinese investment in Africa, it’s very difficult for African governments not to value China because China is providing capital, providing expertise, providing markets at a time when Europe and the United States are not,” he added. The African Union Commission reported more than 40% of the world’s youth is expected to reside in Africa in the next decade. The fact that China is helping to create a middle class on the continent means they will also help create one of the biggest consumer populations in the world, Ichikowtiz said. However, the study also found some young Africans concerned over whether they are reaping enough of the benefits from China’s exploitation of their mineral wealth and natural resources. Twenty-four percent of those interviewed said Chinese investments in their countries were a form of “economic colonialism,” with 36% of those surveyed saying the Chinese are exporting African resources without fair compensation. Yet other interviewees — 21% — said the Chinese showed a lack of respect for African values and traditions. Among the countries surveyed was South Africa.

Woniso, a 23-year-old medical student at a busy sidewalk café in Johannesburg, told that she understood why China had come out on top. Chinese investment in Africa was significant, she noted. However, she had some concerns about Chinese human rights abuses in Xinjiang and said she preferred Western-style democracy.

“Socially I’d probably put them (China) last because of like all the social injustices happening against the Muslim community,” said the student, who didn’t wish to give her last name. Young South Africans, she said, are also “a very liberal sort of generation” and liked “the U.S. in terms of their liberal nature of doing things.”

However, when it comes to a Western style democracy, only 39% of the youth surveyed said it should be emulated. While the survey found African youth favoring democracy, more than half of those interviewed said a Western type of democracy “is not suitable” and African countries need a style of governance that fits them. Chatting to a friend outside a mall a short distance away, Thandazani Nyathi, a businessman in his 30s, said he didn’t have a preference between the U.S. and China.

“They’re both looking to profit. I guess I would lean towards the country that wants to profit but on the most equitable terms,” he said.

“Which one am I particularly in favor of? The one that doesn’t come screw us,” he added, roaring with laughter.

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