GOING SOFT

Can China convince the world to like it?

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Even people who hate America love America. The late Kim Jong Il was obsessed with Hollywood movies; the same left-wing Europeans who call the US an imperialist hegemon sing along to Bob Dylan; terrorists are on Facebook.

The same cannot be said of China. Sure, there is the occasional American dude who studied comparative literature and likes to wear those long Chinese shirts. But China wants its appeal to extend beyond awkward Chinese literature guy. It wants the world to like China.

That includes wooing fellow developing nations. In one major hotspot, Africa, China is putting vast amounts of money and resources toward the goal of improving its image and assuring Africans that its dramatic rise on the world stage is a peaceful one.

Key to all of this is the concept of “soft power.” Coined in the 1990s by American political scientist Joseph Nye, this phrase is often employed by Chinese leaders, including president Xi Jinping. Soft power is basically a force of attraction. It makes everybody else want the very thing that is good for the country wielding it. The United States, for example, wants people to spend money on Hollywood films; it turns out the rest of the world wants to do that, too. America wants people from all over to learn English—hey, so do they.

China wants things, too. It wants other nations to get behind its One Belt, One Road initiative, an epic infrastructure project that would create trade routes across Asia and Europe. It wants companies that have succeeded within China to be able to sell stuff abroad. It wants people to learn Mandarin.

All of that will take some convincing. In Africa, China often comes off as less “attractive” and more “kinda racist.” A “This is Africa” exhibit at one Chinese museum compared Africans to animals. A skit during the widely watched Lunar New Year gala, aired on state TV, featured Chinese actors in blackface, depicting Kenyans.

Kenya itself has been the site of serious accusations of racism and discrimination from China. There, a Chinese contractor has been working on an ambitious railway project connecting the country’s two major cities, Nairobi and Mombasa. But a recent, explosive investigation from local media found Kenyans working on the project who claim that they are segregated from their Chinese colleagues, forced to do menial jobs despite their qualifications, and given fewer privileges. The company’s Kenyan workers have since been forced to sign non-disclosure contracts that make it much more difficult to talk to the media (and it did not respond to our requests for comment).

Quartz went to Nairobi. We spoke to a Kenyan who works on the railway, a Chinese national who is trying to improve how his compatriots integrate, and many others. We wanted to find out if China’s soft power is pulling countries in or pushing them away. The answer is complicated, as the video above shows.

We also talked to Eric Kiraithe, Kenya’s government spokesperson, who said the partnership between the two countries “has served us well.” His administration has largely been sold on China, and Kiraithe once controversially told Kenyans to “appreciate” China’s presence and encouraged them to work harder. But, he added, “Kenyans demand to be respected,” especially in their own country.

Quartz News is a weekly series bringing you in-depth reporting from around the world. Each episode investigates one story, breaking down the often unseen economic and technological forces shaping our future.

Click here for previous stories.