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11 January 2017

The African Cup of Nations may not feature many Chinese-based players, but it will be a good demonstration of Chinese soft power on the continent, Simon Chadwick writes.

With the 2017 African Cup of Nations (ACN) about to start in Gabon, one could be forgiven for switching one’s attention away from Europe’s big leagues and also from the transfer frenzy prompted by the newly re-opened Chinese player transfer window.

The ACN is a showcase for the continent’s best football talent, although it inevitably causes controversy as African players based in Europe often face a choice of leaving their clubs mid-season or else missing out on playing for their countries.

There are no such problems for African players based in China, as the Chinese Super League (CSL) isn’t scheduled to start until after the tournament is over. That said, the CSL is hardly awash with Africa’s top talent. Unlike the growing number of Brazilian players in China, most of Africa’s best are still turning out for European sides.

While the likes of George Weah at AC Milan and Didier Drogba at Chelsea have, over the years, cast African football in a positive light, China’s recent heavy investment in talent has yet to fully embrace African players (or, for that matter, African coaches and managers).

Off the field though, China seems rather more taken with Africa. This year’s ACN is the latest in a long line of tournaments into which the East Asian giant has invested. Gabon previously hosted the ACN in 2012, when two new stadiums were constructed for the event (which was co-hosted with Equatorial Guinea).

One of Gabon’s two stadiums, in Libreville, was funded and constructed by China. For this year, there will be an additional two new stadiums being used (as well as the existing stadium in Libreville and another in Franceville). The two new venues are located in Oyem and Port Gentil; both have been funded and constructed by China.

More on this: Engaging with Africa in a ‘post-aid’ era

It was hardly surprising therefore that in December, Presidents Ali Bongo of Gabon and Xi Jinping of China met one another in Beijing. The visit was marked by China’s announcement that Gabon is to become a comprehensive cooperation partner (raised from its current status as a bilateral partner). Tellingly, Xi asserted that China’s “willingness to deepen cooperation [would be] based on mutual benefit.”

Football, specifically the ACN, therefore nicely joins the dots in a Gabonese/Chinese relationship that already sees the African nation sending 14.2 per cent of all its exports to its East Asian partner. Unsurprisingly, Gabon’s biggest export to China is crude petroleum although it also sells a large quantity of manganese ore, which is widely used in iron and steel production.

China’s use of sports stadium gifting as a diplomatic and soft power tool is now long established, the country’s practices being nicely summarised by Rachel Will in her 2012 World Policy Journal article. Indeed, at ACN tournaments stadium diplomacy has been so frequently used that it is now commonplace.

For example, in 2010 in Angola, China financed and constructed all four venues at a cost of more than US$500 million. No surprise then that Angola’s top export is crude petroleum, and that China has since become the country’s biggest export market (worth US$27 billion, five times the value of exports Angola makes to the United States).

Go back a little further to Ghana 2008: four venues, two brand new and two renovated – all involved China, via the provision of ‘soft loans’ (loans issued at lower than market rates) to fund the near US$200 million costs. Ghana’s top export? You guessed it: crude petroleum (closely followed by gold). Ghana’s top export market since the late 2000s? Need I say more?

Looking ahead to the next ACN in 2019, Cameroon will be constructing two new venues, both of these will be designed by China Machinery Engineering Corporation. Back in 2009, China also made soft loans of US$40 million to Cameroon enabling the country to construct the Limbe and Bafoussam Stadiums, which will also be used in 2019. Cameroon’s top export: of course, crude petroleum. Cameroon’s top export market: actually, it is Spain although we probably should expect this situation to change post-2019.

So, what actually is the deal between China and its African partners? Well, the ACN is a showcase football tournament, Africa’s equivalent of UEFA’s European Championship competition. As such, it attracts tops players, big sponsorship revenues and worldwide media coverage. Being able to play games in modern, state-of-the-art venues helps the likes of Gabon make a bold, confident statement, and China’s help in enabling African nations to project such an image seems generally to be welcomed by them.

In return, China subtly and carefully utilises venue construction (or modernisation) to secure, if not exclusive, then certainly preferential access to the kinds of natural resources that are essential in maintaining the strengths of Chinese industry. The apparent reciprocation involved in stadium diplomacy would also seem to enhance China’s credentials as a trusted ally, enabling the country to win friends and extend influence across the continent. As some have observed, China’s approach to trade in Africa is markedly different to that of previous economic powers, several of which have often had a destructive influence on African nations.

Some critics, however, do not see things this way. After all, what is increasingly apparent across Africa are white elephant stadium projects funded by China that are more a reflection of some African leaders’ personal vanity than of a lasting legacy for the nations over which they rule. And China is perpetuating this through a series of low-cost deals; US$500 million may seem like a hefty price to pay for four football stadiums. Yet the long-term value to China is likely to go way beyond this, especially as the country seems to have no particular commitment to tournament legacy once a venue is constructed.

When this year’s tournament kicks-off with the game between Gabon and Guinea-Bissau at the Stade de l’Amitie in Libreville, we might be lucky and catch sight of Malick Evouna, the Gabonese centre-forward who plays for Chinese Super League Club Tianjin Teda. However, China-based African players won’t be making a big impact during the game. Instead, take a look at the stadium, and others that will be used during the tournament, and marvel at Chinese soft power in action.

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