“Borrowing boats to go out in the ocean”: The influence of China and Russia in Africa

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Significant debate has surrounded Russia and China’s political and economic activities in Africa recently, ushering in what some have called a new Cold War. While the Trump administration framed its priorities on the continent largely in economic terms, Russia and China expanded their influence by using diverse methods, which has had serious implications for both African and American policymakers. Russia is to fill the void left by the United States (US) in Africa, using low-cost tactics to secure strategic influence and undermine Western global governance. Meanwhile, China manoeuvres to secure a dominant economic and diplomatic status across Africa as part of a global strategy to gain influence, providing support to digitally empowered authoritarian states in the process. In this article, we shift the conversation to Africa by exploring the impacts of China and Russia’s influence operations on African institutions and civil society.

China’s Involvement in Africa

China’s global communications presence grew dramatically over the past decade, as President Xi Jinping established clear directives to promote the “Chinese dream” (中国梦) abroad in support of core foreign policy objectives. These communications efforts began to escalate in 2019 as protests in Hong Kong, the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, and the genocide of the Uighur population in Xinjiang led an increasingly anxious Beijing to safeguard its image abroad using aggressive influence operations.

Communication efforts migrated to Western social media platforms, namely Twitter, to reach populations in strategic countries, including Pakistan, Poland, South Africa, and the US. Through these channels, the accounts of Chinese diplomatic officials and state-affiliated media produce highly confrontational, pro-Beijing disinformation, given the moniker of “wolf-warrior diplomacy,” which is amplified by massive networks of fake accounts. This recent shift in messaging is significant given its newly expanded global scope and unusually high-profile and aggressive nature, mimicking disinformation tactics previously only employed by Russia.

Across Africa, however, China’s disinformation operations remain relatively more muted. Wolf warrior diplomacy is far less prevalent, as is the widespread use of sophisticated bot networks to sway online discourse on key topics. Chinese officials’ accounts have a far more limited following across the continent than their counterparts in Europe and North America. Moreover, state-affiliated media is staffed largely with younger and less experienced journalists, as more senior members are deployed to Europe and the US.

However, China still exerts widespread, albeit subtle, influence across African media markets. Previously, Chinese state media sought to influence African media houses’ content production to promote pro-Beijing narratives. Using the concept of “borrowing a boat to go out on the ocean” (借船出海), or information laundering, China seeks to co-opt key political elites and influencers by securing access to African media organisations to recycle pro-Beijing narratives through trusted mediums.

This can be seen through content distribution agreements, where Chinese embassies work covertly for Chinese media outlets to supply African news outlets with free video and radio content. This displaces access agreements privately negotiated between African news outlets and international broadcasters such as the BBC, reducing the diversity of news available. Other tactics include free training programs for African elites and journalists, some of whom become important conduits for pro-Chinese narratives within their domestic institutions. This trend accelerated throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as an already financially weakened media market proved even more susceptible to foreign funding.

While Chinese influence operations are overall more subtle in Africa than in Europe or North America, they have become increasingly visible in recent years, largely in response to Beijing’s increased anxiety over its global image on human rights and public health. On the topic of Xinjiang, China depends heavily on the support of African capitals to avoid criticism in the United Nations. As a result, Chinese state-affiliated media launders stories through local outlets to emphasise positive outcomes in Xinjiang, while whitewashing well-documented claims of ethnic cleansing. Moreover, Chinese diplomatic accounts across Africa engage in negative messaging, reposting Chinese state media articles that downplay the genocide by criticising Western democracies. While African governments largely side with China on the topic of Xinjiang in international bodies, the role of influence operations in determining this outcome remains unclear when compared to other factors, namely China’s use of financial and commercial incentives, and normative alignment on non-interference in domestic human rights affairs.

This approach is part of China’s messaging around COVID-19 and vaccines. Since January 2020, China has been the primary state source of COVID-19 disinformation, as it seeks to portray its own response in a positive light while denigrating the efforts of Western democracies, going so far as to falsely accuse the US of being the origin of the virus. After developing COVID-19 vaccines, Beijing shifted its messaging strategy to promote its own Sinopharm vaccine, while discrediting Western alternatives. China devotes one-third of its coverage on Facebook to COVID-19, targeting audiences in Africa more heavily than those in Europe and the Americas. However, despite the scope of these messages, organic pro-Beijing opinions fail to materialise among members of the public, and African media rarely amplify such content despite their access.

Russia’s Involvement in Africa

Russia’s influence activities around the globe consist of manipulating public discourse, discrediting electoral systems, biasing policy development, and disrupting markets to advance its own geostrategic goals. As with China, Russia relies heavily on social media to spread disinformation – focusing on sowing division within and between democracies. In addition to the highly reported operations Russia carried out leading up to the 2016 US elections, Russia attempts to spread discord in Europe – notably spreading disinformation in the United Kingdom during its Brexit campaign, and in Germany in the 2017 elections. It has also attempted to “capture” elites who then promote Russia-friendly policies. In Africa, Russia carries out similar operations.

Disinformation Campaigns

Russia’s sponsorship of troll farms that interfere in African elections has been overlooked. Russia carries outdisinformation campaigns in weak African countries using anti-colonial narratives, intent on damaging relationships with the West. These have been notable in Ghana and Nigeria. In Mali, following the August 2020 coup, military supporters took to the capital’s streets, waving Russian flags while others held placards thanking Russia for its support. The scene is particularly noteworthy given that historically Mali does not have strong bilateral ties to Russia. Likewise, social media blamed France for an Islamist insurgency in northern Mali, in part amplified by inorganic Russian messaging. The messages on social media demanded that France redeploy its 5,000 troops fighting the insurgents. Later, opposition groups adopted similar anti-French messaging. These operations highlight the degree to which disinformation can help launder narratives into genuine political discourse.

The Russian Security Apparatus

The Wagner Group, a private military contracting agency funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of Vladimir Putin’s and rumoured to be tied to the Russian security apparatus, is part of Russia’s “contactless” warfare strategy in Africa. Organisations associated with the company provide services to the security sector of African regimes; by advising, providing military training, ensuring the protection of Russian businesses, and conducting weapons transfers. In Madagascar, for example, private military contractors train local forces and provide security to Russian operatives, who have been known to have interfered in local elections. In the Central African Republic (CAR), they instruct state forces on using Russian-supplied weaponry, protecting Russian-operated diamond mines, and acting as bodyguards and advisors to the president. Russia also uses opportunities that the Wagner Group affords to participate in profit-making through natural resource extraction, which itself accounts for Russian presence in several countries.

Development, Natural Resources, and Humanitarianism

In addition to its disinformation campaigns and security activities, Russia endeavours to expand its influence in Africa through natural resource extraction and financial investment in development. Russia increases its non-raw materials export capacities by securing rare natural resources, including bauxite and gold from Guinea, diamonds and oil from Angola, and coltan, copper, oil, uranium, and hydropower from the DRC. Russia also funds infrastructure development in Angola, and telecommunications projects in Sudan. As with China, Russia’s infrastructure development has not had an immediate effect on African civil society, though involvement in this arena is significant, because, as opposed to several years ago, it has an increasing presence on the continent.

Finally, Russia enhances its geopolitical status with humanitarian support to Africa. Russia provides resources in stopping the spread of Ebola and, like China, participates in COVID diplomacy, telegraphing the supposed superiority of the Sputnik-V vaccine over Western alternatives. These humanitarian efforts afford Russia support in international bodies such as the UN and work in its favour when making trade deals to develop stronger economic relations with African states.

Impacts on Africa

Despite China and Russia’s increased use of influence operations across the African continent, little evidence exists of the impacts of effectively cultivating pro-Beijing and Moscow sentiment. While Beijing and Moscow may not always shape public opinion across Africa in their favour, such actions still pose serious harm to the continent’s stability.

  1. Normalising and Bolstering African Disinformation

Russia and China’s influence operations across the African continent are likely to result in increased use of disinformation by illiberal and authoritarian governments and non-state actors. In limited cases, Chinese officials may directly enable knowledge transfers by teaching their African counterparts information control techniques, which designates them as passive receivers. China’s media also assist with state-led disinformation campaigns characterised by pro-government bias. China, it seems, has learned from the “third-person effect”, the idea that narratives are more likely to be accepted when Africans, not Chinese, relay messages. According to Professor Madrid-Morales, African media amplify official government talking points which downplay recorded human rights abuses in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, while providing far greater air time to ruling party members than opposition figures during elections in Zambia and Uganda.

More often, however, Russia and China’s disinformation effects are indirect. For example, Russia’s high profile success in waging influence operations, combined with the reduced normative costs for engaging in social media manipulation, plays a contributing role in the global rise of governments exploiting social media for political gain. Furthermore, as the political economy of disinformation grows, Russia’s establishment of African troll farms risks giving rise to a local industry of influence operations for hire, further lowering the costs for governments and political elites to engage in such behaviour. In the long run, disinformation reduces the costs for incumbents in illiberal democracies and autocracies to engage in repression, and normalises crackdowns on freedom of information and other basic rights.

  1. Influence Operations and Corruption

Likewise, co-opting African leaders with opaque business deals enhances clientelist practices that compromise local and national government officials and weaken democratic institutions. Aside from the direct siphoning of funds by rulers and local officials, individuals with access to resources prioritise exchanges for personal or political interests. The pooling of resources by government officials, ruling parties, and key political figures creates roadblocks for challengers. While clientelism may help individuals and groups acquire transactional benefits from the state, the effects are detrimental to democracy. Clientelism limits the exercise of citizens’ rights, and reduces the ability for voters to hold politicians and parties accountable, distorting systems of representation. In the case of natural resource exploitation by Russia and China, money finds its way to elites who use it to secure their positions. These processes marginalise African voices that call for greater reform and participation in politics, stymieing African agency.

  1. Truth Decay

Third, a weakened media and disinformation on social media damage information ecosystems in the long run, eroding trust in governments and institutions, and fomenting violence in electoral and insecure contexts. Reduced trust in the media is especially damaging, as it limits journalists’ ability to hold ruling elites accountable and undermines the informed consensus needed to sustain healthy democratic practices.

These impacts are especially prominent in the context of COVID-19, as ongoing Russian and Chinese efforts to discredit Western-produced vaccines undermine inoculation campaigns and spur conspiracy theories within African information spaces. As seen with Soviet-era disinformation campaigns that accused the US of creating HIV/AIDS, public health disinformation can produce long-term damage to the credibility of trusted medical expertise, and can damage efforts to manage and contain COVID-19.

The future of influence

China and Russia engage in influence operations across the African continent for both commercial and geopolitical goals, albeit with different strategies and geographies of focus. Russia relies on exporting low-cost disinformation tools and techniques, targeting resource-rich, low capacity states. It funds troll farms and uses local broadcast media to manipulate and spread disinformation and promote Russian interests. Target countries, notably Mali, Sudan, CAR, and Madagascar, are likely selected for their existing degree of Western influence, which Moscow seeks to undermine. Meanwhile, China carefully manages its use of influence operations to maintain strong ties with African governments and to cultivate a positive image for itself and its development activities across the continent. As such, it seeks to build long-term structures of influence, largely through investments in media markets in strategic countries such as South Africa and Kenya, while deploying more aggressive, short-term influence operations to maintain its image during crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Russia’s presence in Africa also involves providing security to African governments and Russian businesses that train, equip, advise, and fight alongside African security forces. These entities are becoming prevalent in unstable countries and amplify the hold that African autocrats have on power. China supplants its influence in media markets with exports of sophisticated technologies of digital authoritarianism. While such exports are more ad-hoc and commercially driven rather than part of a grand strategy, they have undue effects on consolidating power in the hands of unaccountable elites and contribute to the securitisation of democratic politics and digital spaces.

Russia and China are filling the space that the US and other Western liberal democracies are leaving on the African continent. These countries – and China especially – think long-term. The most logical effect is African states’ decreasing participation in liberal democratic practices. While China and Russia influence varieties of media and shape the information these outlets broadcast, the next generation of African leaders are being moulded. As Madrid-Morales speculates, Kenya may not look like the Kenya we see today. There is but one way to shift from this path, and that is to re-engage.

Claire Metelits is an Associate Professor of Strategic Studies at Marine Corps University (MCU) and researches African affairs, non-state armed groups, and gender and conflict. She is the author of Inside Insurgency and Security in Africa. The views expressed in this article are her own and do not represent those of MCU or the U.S. government.

Gabriel Delsol is an associate at Park Advisors, and a researcher interested in the intersection of digital rights, political economy, and African affairs. 

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