A war of words – the discourse of China in Africa, by Lucy Corkin

As China turns increasingly to the cultivation of soft power in the course of developing its foreign policy, the use of political rhetoric and its explicit and implicit audiences become more and more important, both on a bilateral level and within the international arena at large.  Using the case of China’s relations with African countries, this article examines key themes within China’s diplomatic narrative regarding its role on the African continent and contrasts with Western and African responses.

This article distinguishes three separate lines of conversation comprising the discourse surrounding China-Africa relations, that from ‘the West’, that from China and that from African actors. Drawing on more than 200 in-depth semi-structured interviews conducted with Chinese, Western and African respondents, several key narratives come to light.  From Western sources two central themes emerge, the possibility of a ‘China threat’ to the established order, in a political and economic sense and furthermore the challenges China poses for the ‘development’ paradigm in a broad sense. Chinese concerns centre around the need to distinguish China from African countries’ other partners and the importance of strengthening ‘soft power’ in the international community. Africa is seen as a testing ground for such diplomatic experiments. Chinese scholars posit an alternative vision for development stemming from China’s own experience that implicitly challenges established dogma. African rhetoric encourages China’s role, despite various challenges to the relationship, specifically in order to exploit the arising tensions between China and ‘the West’. In order to crystallize the meaning of such messages, the article examines how Chinese and African use rhetoric in the context of their bilateral relations for both international and domestic audiences.

The article concludes that it is clear that China’s political rhetoric directed toward Africa is a function of the country’s process of internationalisation and consequent domestic debates concerning China’s rise in the international community. Furthermore, China’s rhetorical position regarding development assistance is informed by lessons learned from the country’s own developmental experience. Many aspects of this are appealing to African elites. China advocates ‘gradualism’, rather than ‘shock therapy’ administered by the West (Zhang and Luo 2008, 25).

However, the audience of China’s public diplomacy is not restricted to Africans, be they elites or the masses, but it also intended for the international community at large, in order to project a positive image more broadly (Cull 2009). Indeed, as has been seen, Africa is actually viewed as a test case scenario where Chinese diplomats can perfect the art of soft power, increasingly recognised as being important to cultivate the kind of stature China wishes to attain on the global stage.

Lucy Corkin, School of Oriental and African Studies, Africa-Asia Centre, London, United Kingdom (lucy.corkin@rmb.co.za)

Read the article:

CORKIN, Lucy Jane. China’s rising Soft Power: the role of rhetoric in constructing China-Africa relations. Rev. bras. polít. int.,  Brasília ,  v. 57, n. spe,   2014 .   Available from <http://www.scielo.br/article_plus.php?pid=S0034-73292014000300049&tlng=en&lng=en&gt;. access on  19  Oct.  2014. http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/0034-7329201400204.

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