Voice

China Can Buy Influence, but It Can’t Buy Love

The Chinese government could learn a thing or two about soft power from a long-gone and much-maligned socialist regime: East Germany.

China's President Xi Jinping arrives at a meeting during a BRICS Summit.
Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives at a meeting during the BRICS Summit in Brasília, Brazil, on Nov. 14, 2019. Pavel Golovkin/POOL/AFP/Getty Images

Thanks to its large foreign investments and its global Belt and Road Initiative, China is winning plenty of friends around the world. Western policymakers, meanwhile, are struggling to compete with a country that has deep pockets, little interest in human rights, and no qualms about bullying countries into becoming its allies. And with economies around the world weakened by the coronavirus, the Chinese engine seems unstoppable. But China’s supposed friends are beginning to rebel, as last week’s retreat from Huawei 5G networks showed. If the mighty China wants to make a run for the United States’ superpower-with-lots-of-friends throne, it should learn from the much-maligned East Germans, who lacked both cash and prestige but won friends by offering training—and friendship.


When, a number of years ago, I went with a group of Ethiopian long-distance runners on a pre-dawn training run in the hills outside Addis Ababa, I was surprised to stumble on a construction project staffed by Chinese construction workers. In recent years, such projects have proliferated. According to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Belt and Road Tracker, between 2014 and 2017 alone China made loans worth over $120 billion to countries eager to build new infrastructure. The countries have—often using Chinese firms, as per the terms of their contracts with China—built highways and power plants, among other things.China has won new friends around the world. Western countries, by contrast, have lost opportunities for friendships.

China has won new friends around the world, a footprint in many countries with which it previously had little connection, and lots of business for its firms. Western countries, by contrast, have lost opportunities for friendships. They can’t issue loans as China does, and they especially can’t do so without thorough scrutiny of the recipient country’s intentions to adhere to human rights and the rule of law. For example, 42.3 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP is debt to China; Belt and Road—and China’s other investments—strengthens China and weakens the West.

But as it turns out, China’s friendship is rather unpleasant. The loans, of course, have to be repaid—a challenge for countries suffering from the effects of the coronavirus. And some countries are discovering that the loan-cum-construction deals may not benefit them. Last month, the government of Pakistan said it wanted to renegotiate Belt and Road repayments, accusing Chinese companies of inflating the cost of construction projects by $3 billion.

Also in June, a week after Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted a China-Africa summit in Beijing, a Kenyan court declared a $3.2 billion Chinese loan for a Kenyan railway partly operated by a Chinese company illegal. As the Economist reports, Egypt has suspended the construction of the world’s second-largest coal-fired power plant, a project funded by China, while Bangladesh is dropping plans to build a Chinese-funded coal plant. Pakistan has asked China to modify loans worth $30 billion for power projects. And in April, Tanzanian President John Magufuli canceled a Chinese loan worth $10 billion, signed under his predecessor, for the construction of a large port in Bagamoyo—operated by a Chinese firm. The contract, Magufuli said, could only be accepted by a drunken man. In mid-July, the United Kingdom—which has for a decade courted Chinese investments—reversed its decision to include Huawei in its 5G network. Not even Italy, one of China’s top friendship targets in Europe, is producing the hoped-for benefits; Italian media is reporting that the government has rewritten its 5G requirements in a way that excludes Huawei participation.

If you search “debt-trap diplomacy,” you get countless articles about China. The U.K. government, meanwhile, is facing Chinese revenge over its apparent plan to cancel Huawei participation in the country’s 5G network. According to British media, the Chinese ambassador has threatened that Chinese firms will cancel plans to participate in Britain’s planned high-speed rail line and a new nuclear power plant.

The fallout is occurring now because China has successfully built a global network of commercial relationships—but it hasn’t built friendships. If it’s going to compete with the United States for superpower status, it will have to match America’s soft power, a phenomenal platform the U.S. government has built over the years by initiating and nourishing friendships with a wide range of countries. But China has a distinct disadvantage: It’s not as attractive as America. Few people around the world voluntarily listen to Chinese songs, watch Chinese television, use Chinese slang (or any Chinese words), or dress like the Chinese people they see on TV.

East Germany, too, had an image problem and needed to make friends. And unlike China, it had no cash to distribute. But the much-maligned East Germans went about doing so with a much more effective strategy, one that was relatively inexpensive and won them lasting affection. It built personal friendships.

University students formed a cornerstone of the East Germans’ approach. Between 1951 and 1989, up to 78,400 students from more than 125 countries completed their university degrees in East Germany. (As in West Germany, there was no bachelor’s degree, which meant the students spent five or more years in East Germany gaining a master’s degree, medical degree, or equivalent.) Many of those 125 countries were socialist allies of East Germany, but many others were developing countries that sent promising youth to East Germany for a first-rate university degree funded by the East Germans. Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights and a former president of Chile, studied medicine in East Berlin in the 1970s as a refugee from Chile’s Augusto Pinochet regime. In addition, the East Germans hosted exchange students from the West. Foreign students were even given a monthly stipend by the East Germans. Indeed, East Germany’s fine universities were a key asset for the country’s diplomats.

While China does debt-trap diplomacy, East Germany did distinctly eclectic educational diplomacy. In a small town in the northern part of the country, it ran a training camp for guerrilla fighters from Nicaragua, Mozambique, Angola, and South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC); they all trained with the East Germans, who calculated that some of them had a realistic chance of taking power. And they did. One graduate, Mike Hala, went on to lead the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, also known as MK. Another MK member, Ronnie Kasrils, became a post-apartheid intelligence minister, while yet another South African, Siphiwe Nyanda, became a post-apartheid chief of South Africa’s armed forces and subsequently the country’s communications minister. Kasrils later estimated that some 1,000 MK members had been trained by the East Germans and called the East German training superior to similar instruction provided by the Soviet Union. (Unfortunately for East Germany, the ANC only came to power after East Germany itself had collapsed.)

The Chinese Communist Party has long been cultivating friends though its United Front apparatus, which focuses on so-called people-to-people diplomacy and includes state-sponsored friendship societies. But while the East Germans used friendship outfits to convince foreigners of East Germany’s attractiveness, China pressures ethnic Chinese citizens of other countries to forge closer links with their “home country.” And in a survey of 65 countries, Freedom House reports that “Chinese officials have held trainings and seminars on new media or information management with representatives from 36 [countries].”East Germany didn’t exactly provide training in democracy—but at least it offered an ideology, a vision, much the same as the United States has done.

East Germany didn’t exactly provide training in democracy—but at least it offered an ideology, a vision, much the same as the United States has done through academic scholarship programs and training schemes for foreign officials. China offers censorship training. Some of the iron-fisted courting seems be paying dividends: In a recent U.N. Human Rights Council report on China’s new security law in Hong Kong, 53 mostly developing countries (including Togo and Republic of Congo) voted with China, while 27 mostly Western countries voted against it. But would countries vote with China if they had a viable option not to?

As a country, East Germany was a failure. Its economy was the subject of ridicule. The Stasi kept an eye on visitors. Yet even this sorry country could have built vassal-like relationships with even weaker countries. (Think Cambodia.) Instead it established friendships that lasted. Years later, Bachelet described her time in East Germany as “very happy.” “When I married [in East Germany], the government gave me a larger apartment. There were so many rights that people simply took for granted,” she recalled. And while African leaders such as Tanzania’s Magufuli feel they’re being taken for fools by China, African revolutionaries trained by the East Germans were amazed to find themselves waited on by white staff.

I’m not proposing that China train guerrillas, but Beijing needs to grasp that it can’t buy love—or even admiration. The Chinese government would do well to study its long-gone humble socialist sister’s soft-power approach. Otherwise many more leaders will join the clear-sighted Magufuli in rebelling against China’s brutish pursuits.

Elisabeth Braw directs the Modern Deterrence project at the Royal United Services Institute. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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