The Rise of Chinese Sharp Power in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Alexander Mayer

Over the last decade, the rising utilization of ‘sharp power’ has served as a vehicle for the unprecedented growth of Chinese influence within Sub-Saharan Africa. Through a vast network of state-sponsored initiatives, including people-to-people exchanges, cultural awareness activities, educational programs, Confucius Institutes, and the regional spread of media and technology-based enterprises such as Huawei and CCTV, Beijing has been able to project its national interest into the media and information environments and exert due control over emerging political narratives.1 While expanded access to information and technology has previously served to advance the vibrancy of civil society and democracy within the region, the current policies and practices of the Chinese government has continued to subvert this laudable progress; preventing further democratization and exploiting the institutional fragility of nascent democracies through the exact mechanisms to which they have previously advanced. As concerns of great power competition between the United States and China continue to develop, understanding the nuances of Chinese sharp-power within SSA may prove to be a vital starting point for the Biden Administration to develop an effective and appropriate foreign policy response.  

Sharp-Power, Public Diplomacy, and Malign Influence Activities

According to the National Endowment for Democracy’s (NED) report Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence, ‘sharp power’ campaigns are undertaken by authoritarian powers such as China to “penetrate, or perforate the information environments in the targeted countries….seeking to manage their target audiences by manipulating or poisoning the information that reaches them.”2 Over the past decade, China has contributed an estimated $10 billion annually to engage in subversive activities in an attempt to manipulate and skew public perceptions and opinions across the world.3 While previously common practice for nations to engage in similarly-premise activities through public diplomacy and ‘soft power’ projection, the efforts of the CCP fall significantly within the category of ‘malign influence activities’ as characterized by the ‘3 Cs’ framework put forward by former Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull.4 Through the use of policies and practices that are “covert, coercive, or corrupting”, China and other authoritarian powers have supported a broad range of influence operations that attempt to “disrupt the normal democratic political processes in a target country by manipulating public discourse, discrediting the electoral system, biasing the development of policy, or disrupting markets for the purpose of advancing a political or strategic goal.”5 Markedly different from pedestrian public diplomacy initiatives considered legitimate so long as they remain “transparent, open, and easily attributable to governments,”6 the predatory sharp power campaigns of China have targeted think tanks, universities, open media sources, as well as local and national government institutions, to manipulate information and media environments within target countries, promote self-censorship, and subvert maturing, and therefore vulnerable, democracies of economic and geopolitical concern. 

Sharp Power in Sub-Saharan Africa

With the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) initiative reaching 52 of 54 African countries and trade between China and Africa growing to an unprecedented $128 billion in 2016 (up from only $1 billion in 1980), it comes as little surprise that the lion’s share of Chinese sharp power engagement would be focused within the SSA region.7 As stated in the 2014 NED report, “China has stepped up its engagement especially in Africa’s media sphere, expanding the presence of its media outlets, hosting exchange programs and training for journalists, and acting as a supplier for Africa’s telecommunications infrastructure.”8 These concerted efforts to ‘win hearts and minds’ have included the direct incursion of China’s state-led media corporations such as CGTN in East Africa (formerly CCTV), which established its first network headquarters outside of China in 2012.9 These efforts have also included the vast expansion of educational and cultural exchange programs as part of the Education Action Plan for the Belt and Road Initiative.10 While scholars have yet to fully isolate the outcome of these actions on democratic resilience and the rule of law, the magnitude of the outputs provides a strong foundation for analysis and further inquiry.

According to an April 2018 report by Emeka Umejei, a leading scholar on Chinese media and digital infrastructure within continental Africa, the expansion of state-sponsored media organizations from nondemocratic countries has raised serious concerns of backsliding among the fragile democracies of SSA.11 As Umejei argues, this is due to the import of Chinese journalistic and censorship practices, which run counter to the independent watchdog role that media traditionally plays in democratic systems.12 As he states, “China premises its media expansion into Africa on providing ‘positive reporting’ or ‘constructive journalism’…reporting only on the positive side of Africa’s development and providing solutions to governance challenges rather than criticizing African leaders.”13 While senior Chinese officials have attempted to justify such actions as an attempt to promote a ‘non-Western’ narrative within SSA, studies have found that ‘constructive journalism’ may be operating solely as a rhetorical device used to justify strategic censorship and the greater restriction of media autonomy abroad.14

In the shorter-term, the import of China’s media censorship practices may lead to the suppression of coverage on democratic developments and human rights, preventing the necessary mobilization of advocacy and civil society groups and thereby subverting the related institutional accountability mechanisms (e.g., National Human Rights Institutions, Ombudsman, Inspector Generals). In the longer-term, Beijing-supported censorship can contribute to the normative decline of democracy within a given country, the promotion of clientelism through the strengthening of elite-to-elite relationships, and to a broader disregard by ruling governments for the upholding of transparency, accountability, and other principles of good governance. Moreover, given the current financial incentives held by BRI host countries to maintain a non-confrontational relationship with China, it remains unlikely that the practice of strategic censorship, and the manifestation of its concomitant effects on political behaviors and democratic governance, will decline without external action from the U.S. government and by the international community at-large. 

A second vehicle of sharp power projection includes educational exchange programs. According to a January 2021 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), preceding the launch of BRI in 2003, there were fewer than 1,300 African students enrolled in Chinese universities.15 Fourteen years later, in 2017, there were more than 80,000 African students enrolled in Chinese universities and financially supported through China’s 20 + 20 Initiative.16 China has also offered 12,000 academic scholarships to African students in 2020, 11,800 more than that of the U.S.17 This is not to mention the ever-growing number of Confucius Institutes within the region, which currently stands at 54.18 While the U.S. has previously utilized similar international educational exchanges and public diplomacy initiatives to establish lasting ‘soft power’ connections between partner nations, China has now taken the helm, projecting itself extensively within this emerging cultural arena. 

As Umejei confidently states, “It becomes pertinent to argue that Chinese media organizations in Africa are not telling the true African story to a global audience, rather they are telling a Chinese version of the African story to a Chinese audience.”19 While he argues that Chinese sharp power campaigns and censorship practices could potentially be isolated to those living within Southeast and Pacific Asia, current circumstances point to a much grander, global initiative.

Sharp Power, Human Securityand Human Rights

While the institutional implications to the core tenets of democracy are deeply apparent, a secondary, more immediate danger to human security can be seen emerging from the subversion of local and state governments pliant to Chinese state interest. In particular, the resulting weak institutional conditions and the absence of free access to information can provide the CCP with the political and informational ‘space’ to continuously violate human rights and global labor standards within the context of BRI.20 While there are, indeed, Chinese policies and regulations that provide labor protections to Chinese nationals abroad and require Chinese firms to comply with local labor laws, both private and state-owned firms have been found to be regularly non-compliant.21 By allowing for the continuity of sharp-power campaigns and malign influence activities within SSA the international community and the United States will remain passive to the subversion of democratic institutions within the region, while accepting unlawful and dangerous actions towards vulnerable populations abroad — a condition which runs counter to the principles put forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

A Path Forward

The United States and the Biden Administration now face the complex political challenge of determining an operational policy approach to ameliorate the ongoing situation in SSA. While renewed goodwill towards the United States and American internationalism may prove to be an advantage for highlighting human rights and labor infringements on the global stage, the ‘street-level’ cultural dispute between the U.S. and China will continue to require an unconventional, normative-facing approach. This begins with the core assumption that sharp-power campaigns and authoritarian promotion must be met with well-funded, strategic democratization initiatives as well as a set of comprehensive political and financial incentives for a target country’s commitment to transparency, accountability, and political responsiveness.

While the U.S. should still attempt to match the direct outputs and programming of the Chinese government as to not be fully handicapped in its engagement, future efforts should draw primary focus on sustainably enhancing the resilience of civil society and democracy at-large. This outcome will require broad-based efforts by USAID and other key stakeholders within the U.S. government, drawing emphasis on the strengthening of horizontal accountability mechanisms, establishing independent media watchdogs, ensuring safe political and civic spaces, and empowering autonomous local civil society and advocacy groups. While far from a panacea, these efforts stand as the foundation for future U.S.-Africa engagement — slowing the normalization of nondemocratic forms of government and preserving the potential for future democratic consolidation and vibrancy throughout the Sub-Saharan region. 

Alexander Mayer is a graduate student within the Georgetown University Department of Government. His work focuses on the intersection of democracy promotion, foreign assistance, and state security. He currently serves as an Assistant Editor for Democracy & Society and has previously worked with the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF), the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and the Organization of American States (OAS). He can be found on twitter @Deutscher_Mayer


[1] “China’s Foreign Influence and Sharp Power Strategy to Shape and Influence Democratic Institutions.” National Endowment for Democracy, May 16, 2019.

[2] National Endowment for Democracy. “Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence.” International Forum for Democratic Studies, December 5, 2017.

[3]“China Is Spending Billions to Make the World Love It,” March 23, 2017.

[4] Turnbull, Malcolm. “Speech Introducing the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2017.” December 7, 2017.

[5] Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Countering Russian & Chinese Influence Activities.” Countering Russian & Chinese Influence Activities, July 12, 2020.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lokanathan, Venkateswaran. “China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Implications in Africa.” Observer Research Foundation (ORF), August 20, 2020.

[8] National Endowment for Democracy. “Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence.” International Forum for Democratic Studies, December 5, 2017.

[9] Umejei, Emeka. “Will China’s Media Influence African Democracies?” Power 3.0: Understanding Modern Authoritarian Influence, October 10, 2018.

[10] Center for Strategic and International Studies “Countering China’s Influence Operations: Lessons from Australia.” Countering China’s Influence Operations: Lessons from Australia | Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 31, 2020.

[11] Umejei, Emeka. “Will China’s Media Influence African Democracies?” Power 3.0: Understanding Modern Authoritarian Influence, October 10, 2018.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Rhodes, Tom. “China’s Media Footprint in Kenya.” The Committee to Protect Journalists, May 8, 2012.

[15] Crespin, Richard, and Kristen Cordell. “Winning the Great Power Education: Revamping the U.S. Approach to Education Exchange.” Center for Strategic and International Studies. January 13, 2021.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] King, Kenneth. “China Will Continue to Back Confucius Institutes in Africa.” Opinion –, August 24, 2018.

[19] Umejei, Emeka. “Will China’s Media Influence African Democracies?” Power 3.0: Understanding Modern Authoritarian Influence, October 10, 2018.

[20] Halegua, Aaron. “Where Is the Belt and Road Initiative Taking International Labour Rights? An Examination of Worker Abuse by Chinese Firms in Saipan.” The Belt and Road Initiative and Global Governance, March 22, 2020, 225–257.

[21] Ibid.