Explaining attractiveness: knowledge production and power projection in China’s policy for Africa


How is Chinese foreign policy building a positive image of China in Africa? IR literature on soft power and attractiveness abounds. This study builds on the existing works, especially contributions by Janice Bially Mattern and Ty Solomon, to account for the role of expert knowledge production in attractiveness and image-building. While the existing literature focuses on China’s media cooperation from the perspective of establishing Chinese media outlets in Africa, this article identifies an understudied aspect of China’s strategy in Africa—that of investing in human resource development and professional training programmes for African journalists. The study constructs its analysis based on a series of in-depth interviews and official document analysis. The findings suggest that Chinese-sponsored professional development programmes for African journalists are an opportunity for African trainees to be socialised in Chinese values, norms, and expert knowledge. These trainings contribute to build a positive image of China in Africa and are far more successful than material approaches including establishing Chinese media outlets across Africa.

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  1. 1.

    The addendum ‘with Chinese characteristics’ refers to an interpretation of soft power that is mostly conducted through government policies rather than stemming from the society.

  2. 2.

    I admit that the dichotomy between direct and indirect approaches is arbitrary and unstable. In fact, I concur with Mattern that the boundaries between soft and hard power are rather loose. The separation between a type of power that works through coercion (hard power) and a type of power that works through attraction (soft power) is problematic in that attraction can also be coercive, albeit less visibly so in discourses than in guns and money. Mattern views attraction as a form of force like any other. For her, ‘coercion thus works like a trap; either submit or risk death. […] However, the threats it poses are aimed at the victim’s subjectivity rather than physicality’ (Mattern 2005, p. 602). While investments in capacity-building programmes are not coercive in nature, they are still productive of certain discursive realities and affective dimensions as well as a recurrent rhetoric about a shared solidary identity between Africans and Chinese. For more on the existence of hard power within seemingly soft power mechanisms, see Nordin’s (2012) article which problematises the binary in the context of China’s Expo 2010.

  3. 3.

    CCTV Africa general information about the channel available at http://english.cntv.cn/program/africalive/20120111/117620.shtml (last accessed on 23 May, 2017).

  4. 4.

    For a comprehensive study of the history of China’s investments and aid for African education, refer to King (2013).

  5. 5.

    Throughout the article, I use vocational training programmes and capacity-building programmes interchangeably. Both terms are taken to mean policies that feed into China’s investments in human resource development programmes for Africans. I also use the term ‘intangible’ to describe these investments knowing that the separation between tangible and intangible is particularly hard to make in this case. Indeed, these capacity-building programmes require a lot of tangible and material resources for them to be implemented. However, I use intangible as opposed to physical material buildings such as the Chinese TV station headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.

  6. 6.

    For research on the use of ‘soft power’ in Chinese foreign policy discourse, see Li (2009); for a discussion on China’s soft power as a charm offensive aimed at countering Western narratives, see Suzuki (2009). For a discussion on how soft power is used to ‘brand’ China and promote image-building, see Barr (2012).

  7. 7.

    There is wealth of scholarship examining the establishment and outreach of Chinese news anchors and media outlets in Africa. See Zhang (2014) and Li and Rønning (2013) among others.

  8. 8.

    It is important to note that media relations are by no means the only area for Chinese soft power to grow in Africa. Confucius institutes for instance or other cultural diplomacy and exchange programmes also bring important considerations to the conversation on soft power. However, the scope of the paper is limited to the aspect about soft power that relates to image-building through creating a discursive space from which to portray or represent China–Africa relations.

  9. 9.

    See http://english.cntv.cn/program/africalive/20120111/117620.shtml (last accessed on 23 May, 2017).

  10. 10.

    Interview with reporters for CCTV Africa, conducted in March 2015.

  11. 11.

    According to http://cctv.cntv.cn/lm/cctvafrica/ (last accessed on 23 May, 2017), Air Time for Africa Live runs for 1 h late at night on weekdays, airs no more than half an hour on Saturday and one evening hour on Mondays and Sundays.

  12. 12.

    For the Washington Post coverage, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/03/24/this-chinese-restaurant-in-kenya-is-open-for-dinner-as-long-as-youre-not-african/ (last accessed on 23 May, 2017), for International Business Timeshttp://www.ibtimes.com/chinese-restaurant-kenya-shut-down-after-refusing-service-africans-1858536 (last accessed on 23 May, 2017), for news24http://www.news24.co.ke/MyNews24/Owner-of-racist-Nairobi-Chinese-restaurant-arrested-20150323 (last accessed on 23 May, 2017), among many.

  13. 13.

    Xi Jinping’s speech at the FOCAC Summit in Johannesburg on 4 December, 2015, available at http://english.cri.cn/12394/2015/12/05/4083s906994.htm (last accessed on 23 May, 2017).

  14. 14.

    As explained by He Wenping, ‘China also dispatches many Chinese experts to African countries to give lectures at universities, visit medical facilities and hospitals and advise farmers on agricultural production techniques’. A paper presented by He Wenping at the international conference on China and Africa Media, Communications and Public Diplomacy in Beijing, 10 and 11 September, 2014.

  15. 15.

    Reporters sans frontiers, 2016 ranking available at https://rsf.org/en/ranking?# (last accessed on 23 May, 2017).

  16. 16.

    All of the focus groups I attended were in China (Beijing and Jinhua) in June 2014 and May 2015.

  17. 17.

    I have also been following discussion boards of African students in China on social media platforms (Ethiopian students in China’s page on Facebook in this particular instance).

  18. 18.

    I did not convene the focus groups but was invited to attend as participant–observer. This seems to have had a positive impact on the flow of the conversation, as it emerged organically at the demand of newer students to get insights from their colleagues who were near completion.

  19. 19.

    The interviews took place in Ethiopia’s Capital City Addis Ababa (home to the African Union Headquarters) in March 2015, and China (Beijing and Jinhua) in June 2014 and May 2015.

  20. 20.

    Male journalist interviewed in Beijing, 2014.

  21. 21.

    I asked a school in Beijing, which is very active in training African reporters, to allow me access to the curriculum and it reflected what the participants expressed.

  22. 22.

    Chinese university administrator interviewed in Beijing, May 2015.

  23. 23.

    Bachrach and Baratz (1962, p. 952) argue that besides asking the question ‘Who rules?’, as sociologists do, or ‘Does anyone have power?’, as Dhal asks, it is important to investigate ‘the particular mobilization of bias’. They bring attention to the concept of non-decision making which refers to the ‘extent to which and the manner in which the status quo oriented persons and groups influence those community values and those political institutions’.

  24. 24.

    For more on the second face of power and a general discussion of the Faces of Power framework, see Lukes (2005).

  25. 25.

    For more on this, see Ding and Saunders (2006), Wang and Lu (2008), and Yun (2013).


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An earlier version of this article was presented at ISA Annual Conference in 2015. The author thanks Nadine Godehardt, Ty Solomon, and Badredine Arfi for their feedback, as well as the editors and reviewers of the Journal of International Relations and Development. Research for this article was supported by Funds from the Office of Research and the Department of Political Science at the University of Florida.

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Correspondence to Lina Benabdallah.

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Benabdallah, L. Explaining attractiveness: knowledge production and power projection in China’s policy for Africa. J Int Relat Dev 22, 495–514 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41268-017-0109-x

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  • Africa
  • China
  • knowledge–power nexus
  • soft power