President Xi Jinping has announced that China will provide one billion COVID-19 vaccine doses to Africa. Only 7% – about 96 million – of Africa’s 1.38 billion people have been vaccinated. He also promised to roll out university programmes in African countries spanning the medical, innovation, climate change and agricultural development fields in a wide-ranging support package that is poised to further cement Beijing’s footprint on the continent.
This comes amid ongoing disquiet over global vaccine inequity and, following the sequencing of the new Omicron variant by South African scientists, a travel ban affecting several African countries, including academic mobility, write Kudzai Mashininga and Esther Nakkazi for University World News.
In a keynote speech delivered virtually during the opening ceremony of the Eighth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) hosted by Senegal on 29-30 November, Xi said countries must fight COVID-19 guided by science and must support the waiving of intellectual property rights on vaccines.
Cobus van Staden of the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), an independent think-tank, said: “The continent has suffered under vaccine hoarding in the Global North, so this will help to get vaccinations to a few hundred million Africans.” Chinese vaccines are double-shot vaccines, so one billion will inoculate 500 million people.
The sentiment was echoed by Adhere Cavince, a PhD student in international relations at Central China Normal University.
“I think the donation stands in stark contrast to what we have seen recently with the discovery of the Omicron variant in Africa. As European countries and the United States rushed to slap travel bans on affected African countries, China has come forth with a bag of vaccines.
“So, I think that Beijing has been more useful as a partner to Africa. Isolation and vaccine nationalism are not the best approaches in containing the global pandemic.”
Despite ongoing development projects in Africa and China’s support on the vaccine front, the Financial Times reports that China will cut its money aid in the next three years by about a third (from US$60 billion to US$40 billion) due to concern over the continent’s levels of debt.
The FOCAC, which started in 2000, brings together China and Africa every three years and is a pillar in the parties’ diplomatic relationship.
FOCAC members include China, the 53 African states that have established diplomatic relations with China, and the African Union Commission.
Support for the education sector
Xi announced several education and science initiatives.
Data from the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University in South Africa has shown that the scientific collaboration between Africa and China has been increasing, from 3.2% in 2008-12 to 6.7% in 2014-18, the last available figure.
On 29 November, Xi said: “China will undertake 10 digital economy projects for Africa, set up centres for China-Africa cooperation on satellite remote-sensing application, and support the development of China-Africa joint laboratories, partner institutes and scientific and technological innovation cooperation bases.”
There will also be, among others, poverty reduction and agricultural projects, the upgrading of schools, and an invitation to 10,000 high-level African professionals to seminars and workshops as well as vocational education and training for Africa’s students in China.
In addition, Xi added, China will encourage Chinese companies in Africa to create 800,000 local jobs. This comes at a time when youth unemployment is a growing concern in Africa.
Starting from 2012, the two sides have implemented exchange programmes between universities. Since 2018, China has also established workshops together with colleges and universities in various countries including Egypt, South Africa, Djibouti and Kenya, sharing quality vocational education resources and training high-calibre technical personnel.
In addition, China has helped about 30 African universities to set up Chinese language departments or Chinese language majors and has helped 16 African countries to introduce Mandarin into their national education systems.
Van Staden of the SAIIA said the European Union and the United States have also announced engagements with Africa and the wider Global South. “In contrast, China’s engagement with and relationships with the Global South are increasingly fine-grained and well developed,” he said.
China’s focus on COVID-19 is a major part of its latest engagements with Africa.
Xi said China and Africa need to fight COVID-19 with solidarity, to ensure the accessibility and affordability of vaccines in Africa to bridge the immunisation gap. China will, therefore, help the AU achieve its goal of vaccinating 60% of the African population by 2022.
Xi said 600 million of the billion doses will be donated and 400 million will be provided through joint production agreements by Chinese companies and relevant African countries.
Chinese firms are already working with firms in Africa. To date, they have started production in Egypt, and signed agreements with Morocco and Algeria.
In Egypt, Vacsera, a major vaccine producer, has been cooperating with China’s Sinovac Biotech to produce its COVID-19 vaccine, and it is expected to supply 200 million doses for local use annually.
Africa has received the lowest number of Chinese vaccines, according to an independent consultancy that tracks China’s impact on global health, Bridge Consulting.
Of the 155 million doses previously pledged to Africa, China has delivered 107 million, of which 16 million have been donations.
However, issues of affordability and accessibility are particularly critical for African countries with limited financial resources at their disposal. Alongside bilateral agreements, Africa has also been receiving Chinese vaccines through the COVAX initiative.
At the Dakar meeting, the Foreign Minister of the Republic of the Congo, Jean-Claude Gakosso, expressed his appreciation for the promptness that China shows in the distribution of vaccines. More than 250,000 Congolese have received at least one dose of the Sinopharm vaccine. Egypt, Morocco and Zimbabwe have also been major recipients of the Sinopharm jab.
Although China's own health system is lacking by international standards and among Xi's priorities for improvement, it has also pledged to focus on assisting Africa to improve its public health system and its capacity for controlling and preventing major communicable diseases.
It will, therefore, provide an anti-pandemic China-Africa health cooperation long-term strategy, share its experience in coordinating routine epidemic prevention and control with social and economic development, and speed up cooperation with Africa on vaccines.
It has already provided multiple batches of emergency medical supplies and sent medical groups to 15 African countries.
Chinese hospitals have been paired up with 43 hospitals in 38 African countries, and China has trained more than 20,000 African health workers. It is also participating in the construction of the African Centres for Disease Controlheadquarters.
Xi said China has strengthened international cooperation on vaccines in the spirit of equitable access for all. “China has provided vaccines and necessary technical support for countries in need, and has made active contribution to promoting the equitable distribution of vaccines and global cooperation against COVID-19.”
China’s growing economic, diplomatic and educational imprint in Africa has been keenly watched by other countries and criticised as neo-colonial, but international relations commentator Adhere Cavince points out that all development partners may contribute to Africa’s socio-economic transformation.
“It is true that there is no free lunch in international relations. However, if a partner is willing to help you overcome the most potent existential threat you face [such as COVID-19], such partnership is mutually beneficial and exemplifies the kind of partnership that Africa needs,” he said.
Whereas various educational opportunities are continuing as part of the China-Africa relations, some changes may be on the cards in terms of the internationalisation of higher education.
According to a report titled FOCAC at 21: Future trajectories of China-Africa relations released by the London School of Economics (LSE) ahead of the Senegal meeting, admission requirements to Chinese universities by African students are likely to become more stringent due to language issues.
In 2014, China surpassed the United States and the United Kingdom as a top destination for anglophone African students. There were 50,000 African students in China in 2015, making China the second-most popular destination for African students behind France. The number rose to 81,562 students in 2018.
However according to the LSE report, that trend is likely to change. “Looking towards the forthcoming FOCAC and the future of student exchanges, it is necessary to consider the following gaps: The issue of language, as Chinese tertiary institutions seek to compete more globally, their requirements for admission could become more stringent.
“For instance, the criteria of the 2021 Chinese Government Scholarship, as advertised by South Africa’s Department of Higher Education and Training, include: a preference for specialised fields (such as maritime studies and telecommunications) and an HSK level 4 language certificate for undergraduates”, which means students’ language preparation that will enable students to converse in Chinese on a wide range of topics and be able to communicate fluently with native speakers. Meanwhile, postgraduates have a choice of English or Mandarin.”
The report also said that, while much attention is paid to increasing the number of students recruited to study in China, less emphasis has been made on the preservation of alumni relations.
“Some African students who have completed their studies struggle to find employment in China or their home country and instead seek opportunities in third countries such as North America or Europe. Thereby, these students are not necessarily driven by particular politics but rather the weighting of opportunity costs,” the report added.
The report said there were three main drivers behind the rise of African students in China: affordability, and China’s own promotion of exchanges and scholarships (it announced 50,000 scholarships at FOCAC in 2018), as part of its broader public diplomacy, and a key instrument of soft power.
This article was originally published by University World News on 2 December 2021. It is republished here under Creative Commons licence. See links below to the original story, and to the University World News website.
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