People-to-People and Civil Society Organizations Engagements in Africa-China Relations

Chinese foreign policy makers pay a great of attention to nurturing people-to-people relations, whether this means elite exchanges, presidential official visits, or people-level exchanges, summit diplomacy, and so forth. Professional networks are value, nurtured, and taken as assets for successful and prosperous foreign relations and reputation. [1]

Lina Benadballah (2020), p.9


Most analysts consider the 2006 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) as a watershed moment in Africa-China engagements due to China’s Africa policy document [2]. However, similar significance is attributable to the 2018 FOCAC, characterized by a decrease in China’s commitment package ($60 billion) in development assistance projects. It is instructive to note that most assessments of the strength of China-Africa engagements are based on material considerations, including natural resource extraction and infrastructural investments. However, while this is important, something remarkable happened as the 2018 FOCAC action plan was released: China’s commitment to human resource development (HRD) (including people-to-people and professional training) initiatives in Africa increased relative to previous years.

Increasing HRD is congruent with persistent advocacy for skilled-labor training, knowledge, and technology transfers from Chinese experts to Africans to boost Africa’s internal capacity and build resilience to withstand the continent’s development challenges. Thus, seemingly, the Chinese heeded the call to incorporate the suggestions into the evolving engagements. However, as the opening quote indicates, Chinese policymakers have always emphasized connections—a priority derived from the cultural optics of guanxi focused on networking and social capital formation. Some pundits assert that such initiatives serve specific interests, especially constructing epistemic communities. [3] In this sense, increasing Chinese HRD support is just as imperative to Chinese foreign policymakers as does trade and infrastructure, as long as it deepens ties.

Thus far, it is unsurprising that China has emerged as the leading financier of HRD in Africa. However, considering that another FOCAC has just ended, it is time to assess what the increasing human resource development encompassing education and civil society organization means for the future of Africa-China relations and possible policies for future engagements.

People-to-People exchange and civil organization engagements through the years

People-to-people exchange and civil organization engagements through the years
Analysts have timestamped Africa’s engagement with China into three main periods: the anticolonial solidarity and geopolitical phase, developmental and reform phase, and mid-1990s and post-FOCAC. Each of these periods has a unique policy orientation and commitment to a specific project, thus demanding a review to ascertain changes or discontinuities regarding the evolving relationship’s people-to-people and civil society organization dynamics. During the period 1950s and 1960s, Africa’s engagements with China were circumscribed by an antihegemonic stance—a perspective that resonated with Chairman Mao Zedong. This confluence of vision and ideology conditioned how the two parties interacted. China acquiesced to help in decolonizing efforts and build capacity to deal with challenges of “re-independence” [4] by sending agricultural and medical teams to various African countries to train local staff.

Additionally, China provided scholarships for African graduate students to study in Chinese universities (Anshan 2018). The Chinese also trained African revolutionary groups in Zanzibar, Ghana, and Cameroon to counteract imperialist operations on the continent. While people-to-people engagements, especially education and training of Africans by Chinese, were prioritized during this period, there was little on the civil society engagements. However, this phase of the interactions ended abruptly at the onset of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

The 1970s through the mid-1990s marked the second phase of Africa-China ties. It started with China seeking to regain African trust, which was damaged during the Cultural Revolution by shoring up people-to-people exchanges, aid, developmental projects, and scholarships. Although China was then facing remarkable domestic issues of poverty, it delivered on critical themes; not least is the TAZARA freedom railway [5], which was built to connect Zambia’s Copperbelt to Tanzania’s coast in Dar-es-Salaam. The geopolitical importance of TAZARA is immense, especially after rejections by the World Bank and other western countries such as Germany, the USA, and the UK. TAZARA’s construction was accompanied by over 35,000 Chinese technicians and workers who worked day and night to complete the project. As part of the contract, China agreed to train Zambia and Tanzania engineers to operate the locomotives and rail lines. About 200 of these students were trained in China, some on partial Chinese government scholarships. African countries reciprocated these gestures as they voted to reinstate China as a member of the UN Security Council, thus, displacing Taiwan. However, again, the people-to-people elements of the relations were prioritized with no notable civil society engagements.

Despite a brief interruption in the late 1980s, Africa-China engagement rebounded in the 1990s with an increased commitment to HRD and people-to-people exchanges. The 1990 gains were boosted with the institutionalization of FOCAC in 2000. In addition, periodic action plans have underlined increased exchanges by deepening interactions with African government elites and the next generations. As the opening quote suggests, this objective is being pursued through a mix of professionalization training, workshops, and seminars for African civil servants, media personnel, and political cadres. Similarly, Chinese government scholarships to African students have been expanded, along with Confucius institutes programs and classroom projects to facilitate Chinese language and cultural learning and human resource development initiatives.

FOCAC 8: People-to-people exchange and civil society organizations and policy suggestions

The 2021 FOCAC was organized under the theme “Deepen China-Africa partnership and promote Sustainable Development to Build a China-Africa Community with a Shared Future in the New Era” and ended with a $40 billion commitment from China to African countries. Besides this quantitative outcome, education and people-to-people exchanges were explicitly captured under points 4 (social development cooperation) and 5 (cultural and people-to-people exchanges). At the same time, human resource development, health care, and tourism were also explicated under these captions. As part of these programs, the Chinese proposed upgrading 10 African schools and inviting 10,000 high African elites to professional training and seminars in China. Academic think tanks and research centers were also proposed for engagement for the next three years. While civil society organizations were not explicitly mentioned, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were. The action plan states,

“China welcomes African NGOs to join the Silk Road NGO Cooperation Network and the Silk Road Community Building Initiative, step up people-to-people exchanges and livelihood cooperation, and contribute to stronger people-to-people connectivity between China and Africa under the Belt and Road Initiative.”

2021 FOCAC Action Plan

By all indications, people-to-people exchanges in the form of educational cooperation, professionalized training for African elites, and media personnel remains priority areas for Africa-China engagements. At the same time, civil society involvement was given marginal considerations. If HRD and people-to-people exchanges are the future of the ever-evolving Africa-China relations, then the following suggestions may be instrumental in shaping mutual outcomes.

  1. Care must be taken to ensure the ensuing deepening of people-to-people ties and human resource development initiatives are reciprocal and not lopsided. So far, the initiatives are skewed in China’s favor regarding funding and curricula design guiding such exchanges prompting many Africans to wonder how much input they make to the final policy.
  2. The African Union must take a lead role in establishing a multicultural center at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa and each member country to promote African culture and languages. This would go a long way in giving African cultures and language visibility and collective thrust. For example, Africans learn Chinese when in China; Chinese people must also learn African cultures and languages when in Africa.
  3. The training received by most Africans from Chinese people should be devoid of serving instrumental purposes but instead focused on addressing systemic issues. Why should African media personnel be trained by Chinese experts only to “tell Chinese stories better?” Being the fourth estates of governance, media persons should report the news that does not favor prescribed narratives based on their Chinese-funded seminar priorities.
  4. The African Union should direct efforts at increasing the African cultural centers in China to facilitate learning about African people and cultures in China. This would go a long way in addressing blatant racism against Africans in China and promote African values and cultures to the rest of the world.
  5. There is a need to involve more civil society organization participation in the growing people-to-people exchanges. Thus far, this dimension has been treated only as an appendage in Africa-China engagements and exchange. Vibrant and independent civil society organizations with the necessary resources and capacity are crucial in facilitating democracy and sustainable development in Africa. The activities of civil society actors would go a long way in complementing governmental and international efforts.

  1. Lina Benadballah (2020), p.9
  2. Chris Alden 2007
  3. Kwame Adovor Tsikudo 2021
  4. Africans were independent before colonialism started. Decolonialism is not a new thing, reasserting of their pre-colonial status albeit with new political maps
  5. Jamie Monson 2009
  6. 2021 FOCAC Action Plan

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