China is seen by African youth as the most influential foreign player on the African continent, but negative sentiment is growing regarding the activities of resource extraction companies from China and elsewhere, according to the Ichikowitz Family Foundation’s African Youth Survey 2022.
Seventy-six percent of the 4,507 young respondents, spread among 15 African countries, said China has a positive influence on their respective countries. China’s first place represents a breakthrough compared to the 2019 report, surpassing the US as the most influential foreign actor on the continent.
One-third (35%) of those surveyed said China has a very positive influence on their country and another four-in-ten (41%) say China’s influence is somewhat positive. In Rwanda (97%), Malawi (95%) and Nigeria (90%), almost all youth see China as a positive influence.
Respondents who see China’s influence as a positive point to the affordability of Chinese products, and Chinese investments and assistance for infrastructure development. Some also think China is creating employment opportunities for people in their country, a top concern for the youth on the continent, who will represent 40% of the world’s youth population in 2030.
African youth prefer local ownership of natural resources
However, youth who say the influence of China is negative are most likely to look at Chinese companies as taking natural resources without fair compensation (36%). Others are also concerned that Chinese workers are taking job opportunities away from locals (24%) and that Chinese investments are a form of economic colonialism (24%).
That reflects a wider ambivalence towards foreign companies, especially in the resources sector. Six in ten believe that foreign companies have been allowed to take advantage of their country’s resources without sufficiently benefiting or contributing to local populations.
When asked how natural resources could benefit their country most, nearly three-quarters said that it would be most beneficial if resources are owned, extracted and processed by local companies, compared to just one in four who favour foreign companies.
US influence on the wane
The report, compiled by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation, chaired by South African defence magnate Ivor Ichikowitz, shows that the proportion of African youth who see the US as positive has dropped by 12% in two years, notably due to an increasing number who have said their country had a negative relationship with the US under the Trump administration.
The US is seen to have a considerably weaker positive impact on African countries than China, with just one-in-four (26%) saying US influence is very positive and another 46% describing it as somewhat positive. Still, American influence is viewed particularly positively in Rwanda (95%), Kenya (92%), and Ghana (87%).
However, a majority of them appear positive regarding the impact of President Joe Biden, with 62% saying that his administration is likely to improve the Africa-US trade relationship and 61% expecting an uptick in investment.
Desire for democratic government remains strong among African youth
Commenting on the report, vice president for public discourse and engagement at the Africa Centre for Strategic Progress Melissa Speight Vaughn said that there may be a limit to autocratic China’s soft power on the continent, particularly as 74% of respondents said that democracy is always preferable to any other kind of government.
“So long as the desire for democratic governance remains strong, the United States is thus likely to be seen as a preferable partner as opposed to autocratic China,” said Vaughn.
However, the survey appears to prove that China’s considerable investments in Africa are paying off in terms of influence. The value of Chinese exports to African countries has jumped from $5bn in 2000 to over $110bn in 2020, making China the largest economic and trade partner of the continent.