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Chinese State Media: Obama ‘Playing the Family Card’ in Africa

China's reaction to Obama's trip does not reflect a country secure in its position on the continent.

US President Barack Obama (C) greets his half-sister Auma Obama (L) alongside Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta upon his arrival at Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi on July 24, 2015. US President Barack Obama arrived in Kenya late today, his first visit to the country of his father's birth since his election as president.  AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (C) greets his half-sister Auma Obama (L) alongside Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta upon his arrival at Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi on July 24, 2015. US President Barack Obama arrived in Kenya late today, his first visit to the country of his father's birth since his election as president. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

United States President Barack Obama is wrapping up official trips to Kenya and Ethiopia, on his fourth and likely final state visit to sub-Saharan Africa, where he aims to strengthen counter-terrorism cooperation and boost trade with the United States. But China, which supplanted the United States as the continent’s largest trading partner in 2009, seems to have viewed the visit as a challenge to the East Asian giant’s dominance there — and its state media have unleashed a barrage of negative coverage of the president’s visit.

One state media take veered dangerously close to racism: on July 24, the day Obama arrived in Kenya’s capital city Nairobi, the English language website of state-run outlet Global Times ran a cartoon titled “Homecoming,” portraying the president wearing what appeared to be tribal attire and carrying a spear near a herd of zebra on an open plain. Such a cartoon is doubtless unprofessional by U.S. standards, but not entirely surprising in a country dealing clumsily and often insensitively with a new influx of African migrants, and where a common online nickname for Obama is “Black O.”

The next state media attack occurred on the heels of Obama’s June 26 visit to Kenya, his father’s homeland, where he met with a wave of popularity, especially after referring to himself as the “first Kenyan-American to be president of the United States” in a Nairobi speech. At that moment, it seemed to matter little that Obama’s policies towards sub-Sahara in Africa are generally regarded as underwhelming — he visited the region only once in his first term, and his keynote policy Power Africa, two years after its inception, has yet to increase the capacity of the region’s stressed power grids. In a series of widely syndicated articles, Chinese state media sought to remind readers of U.S. failures.

Chinese state news agency Xinhua ran a July 27 article, promoted near the top of its site, accusing Obama of “playing the family card” and “paying lip service” in Africa. The article mentioned the stalled power initiative and claimed that Kenya has yet to see any of the $100 million in counter-terrorism aid that Secretary of State John Kerry announced in May. “America repeatedly says it is Africa’s ‘natural partner,’” the article asserted, “but in fact that’s purely out of self-interest.” Another widely syndicated July 27 article from Xinhua decried Obama’s Kenya visit as a “kinship political show.” The U.S. president’s arrival may have caused “many local people to rejoice,” went the report, but “just like the Africa policies of the preceding U.S. administrations, it lacks sincerity.”

In addition to both questioning and exploiting Obama’s Kenyan heritage, Chinese state media also compared U.S. engagement in Africa unflatteringly with China’s own. China is the continent’s biggest trading partner, with around $222 billion in annual trade largely in the form of raw materials that China needs for its swift development. Chinese firms have undertaken vast infrastructure projects in a number of African nations, including Kenya, where Chinese workers have built schools, roads, and other large projects. Translations of BBC editor Jon Sopel’s remark to Obama during a July 24 interview — that Obama would be “going to go to the African Union Building, which was built with Chinese money, you’re going to travel along Chinese-built roads, you’re going to go past endless Chinese traders on those roads” — has received wide play in Chinese media and social media. Beijing has also touted its partnership with African nations as a shining example of its foreign policy — high-level economic partnerships and trade deals with no strings attached. By contrast, a July 27 Xinhua article cited former Kenyan ambassador to China Julius Lekakeny Ole Sunkuli saying the requirements United States places on Kenya in exchange for infrastructure and medical aid puts impoverished people at risk.

That Xinhua article concluded by claiming that the United States’ “paternalistic intervention” and its “forcing of so-called democratic values” onto African nations was in part the cause of “Africa’s regional and tribal conflicts.” In his interview with the BBC, Obama emphasized that the United States “welcome[s] Chinese aid to Africa.” But given the Chinese state media reaction, it seems safe to say China doesn’t feel the same way about American aid.

AFP/Getty Images

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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