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February 26, 2021

The Fragmented Spectacle of Chinese Soft Power in Africa

A Conversation with Maria Repnikova

Event Series: Chinese Politics and Economy Research Seminar Series

Billboard in front of construction site

In recent years, the U.S.-China competition has shifted into the realm of values. China is often accused of being an immoral power, out to spread authoritarianism and build an illiberal world order. Africa has been a particularly sensitive context when it comes to moral competition, with China investing heavily into shaping a positive image of itself on the continent and the United States discrediting it as a neo-colonial, self-interested, and autocracy-promoting power. Beyond these heated narratives, we still have little empirical grasp of this moral competition claim, and in particular about how Chinese soft power works on the African continent.

Georgia State University professor Maria Repnikova presented the multifaceted story of China’s soft power campaigns in Africa, with a special focus on Ethiopia—one of China’s closest economic and political partners on the continent. Countering the claims of China’s authoritarian export, the analysis of China’s engagement with Ethiopian elites, youth, and media audiences showcases a “fragmented spectacle” — a grand but disjointed display of China’s prowess. In particular, China’s soft power appeal is rooted in generosity of scale or the large-scale access to its initiatives. And yet, when it comes to building relationships, it produces fragmented or contested Sino-African solidarities. Repnikova specifically highlighted how performative, material, and discursive solidarity works and the tensions that override these different Sino-African encounters. This talk, which drew from a larger book project, demonstrated that the idea of a moral competition is largely a product of the U.S. insecurity about losing out to China, in what many U.S. officials see as the last frontier, rather than an accurate depiction of Chinese activities in Africa.

This academic seminar was jointly sponsored by the Department of Government and the Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues at Georgetown University.


Maria Repnikova is an assistant professor in global communication at Georgia State University. Her research examines the processes of political resistance and persuasion in illiberal political contexts, drawing on ethnographic research approaches and extensive time in the field. Maria holds a doctorate from the University of Oxford, where she was a Rhodes Scholar. She speaks fluent Mandarin, Russian and Spanish.