China's role and influence in Africa has been a topic of both recognition and criticism from scholars and experts. While some view China's involvement as beneficial, improving infrastructure and promoting economic development in African countries, others express concerns about China's non-interference policy and potential neocolonial tendencies.
To gain a better understanding of public opinion in Africa regarding China's economic and political influence, a recent study conducted in Zimbabwe surveyed 1,000 urban professionals. The participants, with high education levels and living in urban areas, were asked about their perceptions of China's involvement. The ongoing study aims to shed light on how ordinary Africans view China's presence on the continent.
The study found that exposure to Western media led to a more negative view of China's economic and political activities in Zimbabwe, while exposure to Chinese media improved Zimbabweans' perception of China's economic activities without significantly impacting their views of China's political activities. Additionally, respondents' political affiliations played a role in their susceptibility to influence from Chinese or Western media.
China's historical relationship with Africa goes back to the Cold War era when it positioned itself as a force for liberation in the region. Notably, China supported the Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), which fought for Zimbabwe's independence from white supremacist rule. This alliance has remained strong since the early 2000s when Zimbabwe faced international sanctions due to controversial land reforms. China responded by providing loans and increasing investments in Zimbabwe.
Critics argue that China's loans create debt traps for African countries, leading to neocolonization, while others view the economic ties between Africa and China as mutually beneficial. They assert that Chinese loans are low-cost and allow African governments to leverage economic advantages for the benefit of their populations.
A survey conducted by an independent research network in over 30 countries between 2019 and 2021 found that the public perception of China's economic and political influence in Africa is generally positive, comparable to the perception of the United States. However, the survey respondents in Zimbabwe were more critical, with only 37% viewing China's influence positively.
The study also examined the impact of foreign media coverage from the West and China on respondents' views of China's influence. Chinese media coverage predominantly portrayed China's involvement in Zimbabwe positively, while Western media featured both critical and positive coverage. Exposure to critical coverage influenced Zimbabweans to have a more negative perception of China's economic and political impact. Partisanship also played a role, with supporters of the ruling ZANU-PF party more susceptible to foreign media influence compared to opposition supporters.
The opinions of ordinary Africans regarding China's influence hold significant implications, particularly in democracies and countries where opposition parties have influence. China recognizes the importance of public opinion and utilizes its news media to shape narratives. The study emphasizes the need to democratize the discussion surrounding China's presence in Africa by considering public opinion, as it is ultimately the public's influence on their elite representatives that will shape the extent of China's endeavors in African countries.