President Barack Obama’s second trip to Sub-Saharan Africa last month was accompanied by criticism and talk of the diminishing American presence and influence on the continent. The media described his trip to Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania as an effort to “catch up” to or “counter” the influence that China has made in Africa in recent years, primarily focusing on the exponential increase in Chinese-African trade, which has exceeded the volume of US-African trade since 2009. Surely, with trade between China and Africa reaching $200 billion in 2012 and approximately one million Chinese citizens working on the continent, the United States indeed seems to be falling behind.

However, the most recent survey published by the Pew Research Center last week reports that in Africa, the United States still overshadows China in soft power. Of the six African countries surveyed (South Africa, Ghana, Uganda, Senegal, Kenya, and Nigeria), an average 77 percent of respondents have a favorable opinion of the United States compared to 68 percent for China. While this margin is not huge, it certainly is telling when compared to the data from the last research poll taken in 2007, where 72 percent of the ten African countries surveyed had equally favorable impressions of both countries. Although African feedback of Chinese activities on the continent is still for the most part positive (especially when compared to the rest of the world), a US jump of five and Chinese drop of four percentage points in average favorability has led some analysts to question: Is the China-Africa honeymoon coming to an end?

China struggles with public relations. Despite the impressive economic gains made on the continental scale and widespread agreement that overall, Chinese investment in Africa is positive, a closer look at the local picture suggests that the continent may be experiencing a wave of Sinophobia. The recent mining debacle in Ghana, where 571 Chinese workers were arrested and a total of 4,592 expelled after Ghanaian authorities began a crackdown on illicit gold mining in early June, has resurfaced accusations that Chinese investment is neocolonialist in nature and only focuses on targeting Africa’s natural resource wealth. Chinese miners are a point of tension in Ghana not only because they unlawfully seized mining jobs from locals, but also because they carried assault rifles to allegedly protect themselves and polluted communal water supplies during their operations. In interviews, Chinese businessmen accused Ghanaian authorities of indiscriminately storming into Chinese compounds and being overtly violent in their behavior. Hostility towards Chinese is not a new occurrence; last year, Ghanaian security forces shot a 16-year old Chinese miner, which also raised tensions in the community.

Chinese-African friction is not limited to Ghana either. As Terrence McNamee, deputy director of the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation, discovered in his analysis of Chinese traders in Africa, “more and more… traders have become fearful of the rising tide of resentment amongst locals, fuelled by China’s perceived dominance over many sectors of their respective economies. This was especially pronounced in Lesotho, Angola and Zambia, and less so but increasingly in Botswana.” In March, a South African court ruled that Chinese-owned textile factories operating in Newcastle were permitted to pay their workers below the nation’s minimum wage requirements, a measure that is unlikely to be appealed by labor unions due to the community’s 60 percent unemployment rate. Nonetheless, the incident led to a fresh round of accusations about Chinese exploitation. In Lesotho, small business operation permits are also restricted to locals, but the government has largely overlooked the illegal acquisition of business licenses or identification documents by Chinese migrants, whose shops outcompete Basotho ones. African leaders have also taken notice. In a statement that seems to echo the growing perception that the Chinese Diaspora will do whatever it takes to make an extra dollar, including subverting domestic law, in February this year, President Ian Khama of Botswana publicly stated, “We have had some bad experiences with Chinese companies in this country…We are going to be looking very carefully at any company that originates from China in providing construction services of any nature.”

These cases are exemplary certainly of increasing public scrutiny of Chinese economic activities on the continent (albeit the miners in Ghana were lectured by the Chinese Foreign Ministry to abide by all laws in the country), which may be resulting in a decrease of public opinion of China. In actuality, the Chinese have diversified their interests in Africa (in 2010, for example, only 29.2 percent of new investment went towards extractive industries), and Chinese migrants have largely contributed towards developing local economies by reinvesting their profits in their businesses in Africa instead of sending them home as remittances. However, McNamee also mentions that Chinese traders “seal themselves in cocoons” and “only a tiny minority intend to make the continent their home.” With Chinese criticism catching momentum among African locals and leaders alike, Chinese leaders will have to reevaluate whether their bottom line economic strategy towards Africa will be sustainable in the long run. China’s policy might have worked from the get-go, but these blunders have deteriorated trust between Africans and Chinese, and will require a different kind of engagement.

The United States and China are opposites when it comes to issues with popularity in Africa: China’s national level engagement with Africa remains impressive, but Chinese expatriates on the ground are beginning to shift its public opinion; whereas while a robust US policy towards Africa is lacking, the United States has benefited from its long history of grassroots-level diplomacy with Africa that has over the years built the trust missing from the China-Africa equation. The US Peace Corps has sent more than 210,000 volunteers abroad to date, with Africa hosting the largest number of volunteers by a long shot since 1961, and numerous American aid agencies have operated on the continent for decades. While development organizations’ overall impact on Africa sparks an entirely different debate, the contributions these ground-level programs have made towards building goodwill between Africans and Americans alike cannot be underestimated. As Pham says in his article, given fiscal constraints, “the challenge for the United States and Africa’s other traditional partners is give the continent the attention it deserves… and, when they do so, to move beyond mere humanitarian sentiments and old habits about aid and to truly develop a comprehensive, proactive strategy that engages the new realities of an increasingly significant and dynamic region.” The US would do well to play to its strengths and let engagement at a grassroots level do the speaking by emphasizing cost-efficient soft power advances in the continent, such as widening the door for US companies to make their mark in Africa, renewing and improving trade-friendly legislation such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act, and continuing programs such as the Peace Corps that builds partnerships with Africa in a meaningful and lasting way.  

Adrienne Chuck is assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.