The Role of Public Sentiment and Social Media in the Evolving China–Africa Relationship


The South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) published in January 2013 an analysis titled “The Role of Public Sentiment and Social Media in the Evolving China-Africa Relationship” by Yu-Shan Wu, an assistant researcher at SAIIA.

The title is misleading in that the focus is almost exclusively the relationship with South Africa. The analysis is stronger on the social media situation in China than in Africa. Nevertheless, this is one of the few studies that has looked at social media in the China-Africa context.

The author notes that social media is changing Chinese and African society, where the youth are at the forefront of media communication technology. In the case of South Africa, social media have not been utilized widely by the leadership to engage the public. Africa is moving ahead faster than China in making use of new communication technology. In spite of this trend, South Africa demonstrates the limits of social media on the decision making process.



China’s diplomacy in Africa is evolving at a progressive pace. Relations have developed from early diplomatic ties – beginning in North Africa (Egypt) in 1956 – to the multiple points of engagement on the continent today. As state-to-state ties progress,(1) so does the steady rise of economic relations. Since 2009 China has been Africa’s largest trading partner. In 2011 the total trade volume between China and Africa reached about $160 billion and currently over 2 000 Chinese companies have established business on the continent. (2) As China moves closer to regions in the world it considers strategically important through political and economic means, views over its real intentions remain divided, from exploitation and self-interest to creating new opportunities and partnerships.

To add to the debate is Beijing’s launch of a global public diplomacy drive to communicate China’s values, culture and foreign policy to the rest of the world. This has included the establishment of Confucius Institutes (3) abroad, university scholarships and think-tank exchanges, the establishment of state media broadcast centres and bureaus abroad; (4) all of which provide a glimpse into China’s view of the world. Engagement with public citizens of other countries makes diplomatic sense and is regarded increasingly as a necessity, as state policies are influenced (directly or indirectly) by internal and global public attitudes. In order to carry out foreign-policy decisions successfully, states need to influence others to think of them in a favourable light and to ultimately get others to desire the same outcomes. This psychological and emotional influence is what Joseph Nye describes as‘soft power’.(5)

Since 2007 (6) China’s drive to capture and influence public attention in Africa has been predominantly top-down. For instance, the recent Fifth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC V), established to co-ordinate China and Africa relations, announced that more resources would be committed to cultural and people-to-people exchanges.(7) Part of this material assistance was the proposal to establish a China–Africa Press Exchange Center that would host African journalists in China, observe, and report on Chinese affairs. (8)

However, elevated public sentiment has increased the complexities and sensitive nature of foreign policy making all the more. Though gauging public attitudes is nothing new,the development of communication technologies, specifically social media platforms, has heightened the influence of and access to public sentiment.

The paper seeks to make sense of the evolving nature of public diplomacy and what the involvement of public sentiment means for the future of China–Africa relations. It is divided into two main sections. The first discusses public diplomacy in a digitised information age and how the increase in access to information and communication is diffusing foreign-policy decision making in China. The second section explores how the point of engagement between China and Africa, as well as the degree of possible influence, is also determined by Africa’s own processes and developments (ie of communication technology).As a case in point, South Africa’s public environment shows how government can be influenced into a state of non-action. As the China–Africa relationship strengthens through economic and politicalties, it is worth contemplating the gaps in perceptions that still exist and the underlying factors informing these.

Click on the link below to read the entire paper in PDF format
The Role of Public Sentiment and Social Media in the Evolving China–Africa Relationship