Episodes of populism have emerged lately in Africa as a viable electoral
strategy (Resnick, 2017, 2015, 2014). Amid the upward trend is the dimension of
the populist strategy that amplifies the reactionary sentiments of China’s
growing role and influence in the country for political ends.
In other words, the growing negative perception of China has created a
conducive environment or become an easy target for some political actors to
ride on anti-Chinese rhetoric to build popular support for electoral fortunes.
Although volumes of work have extensively explored the reactions and perception
of China in Africa (e.g., Geerts et
al., 2014; Hess & Aidoo, 2015; Lekorwe
et al., 2016; McCormick, 2008; Sautman
& Yan, 2009), the topic of how the negative aspects of the reactions
and perceptions are harness as a wedge appeal or populist strategy is
Considering the topical issue of China’s increasing global activities
and influence, studying the topic is timely and necessary. This article
contributes by exploring the salient of anti-Chinese sentiments in Africa and
how it has been utilised or materialised as a populist strategy for electoral
purposes. Three country cases (i.e., Zambia, Zimbabwe and Ghana) are examined
with a focus on how rising anti-Chinese sentiments became salient, then
exploited for electoral purposes.
The cases are selected primarily based on the last perception survey of
China in Africa by Afrobarometer in 2016, which ranked the three among the top
countries where China’s influence is perceived as high. Also, China’s
engagement and activities in these countries have been contentious, attracting
widespread public attention and international media scrutiny. Another equally
important factor is that they are among a handful of African countries to have
held an election in recent times where China became a topical issue in the
From the outset, a fair idea of how issues are politicised and arise in
an electoral competition is imperative to understanding how anti-Chinese
sentiments have emerged in the competitive political field. In exploring how
issues evolve and becomes politicised in multiparty systems, Hobolt and de
Vries (2015) asserted that opposition parties or political
losers in the dominant dimension of political contestation have an incentive to
mobilise and promote issues that have the potential to disrupt the political
equilibrium to reap or improve their electoral fortunes potentially.
Drawing from Hobolt and de Vries’s model, this article contends that
political actors mostly seeking power in countries where China’s presence is
contentious are inclined to rhetorically rehash the salient issues of
anti-Chinese sentiments or adopt a polarising rhetoric position on the subject
of Chinese growing role and influence in the campaign platforms to gain
attention and electoral support of those concerned about the same issues. In
essence, whereas some governments may resort to Chinese aids or development
assistance to fulfil political promises necessary to remain favourable and
retain power, opposition political actors seeking power are more inclined to
advance the emotive issues of China’s contentious activities and influence as a
‘wedge issue’ to advance their electoral goal.
A wedge issue is defined in this context as ‘a rhetorical strategy, usually focused on the social concern, that is intentionally constructed to divide party voters and polarise the public in order to gain political advantage’ (Wiant, 2002, p. 276). The goal of utilising wedge issues, which is usually given currency by the media, is primarily to mobilise support to win an election (Wiant, 2002). Against this backdrop, it is argued herein that elevating and stoking anti-Chinese sentiments is a wedge appeal to draw or persuade constituents who are concerned or so unhappy about China’s perceived intractable activities and influence in the country.
Anti-Chinese populism is
thus, compelling wedge issue capable of appealing to ‘fear’ and driving a deep
wedge in the broader electoral coalition to mobilise voters. At its core,
riding on anti-Chinese populism is seen as an effective voter mobilisation
strategy as it has a broader public appeal by elevating and given prominence to
the increasing public concerns and negative perception of China.