This qualitative and exploratory study seeks to investigate how China’s contemporary public
diplomacy promotes its foreign policy interests in Africa, particularly in a post-2008 era. In order to
answer this overarching research question, three interrelated purposes are pursued in this thesis. First
is to uncover how China conceptualises public diplomacy in order to respond to concerns over its
global rise. Second is the exploration of the relationship between the Sinocentric world narrative
(that is China’s historical position as the world’s centre, which some scholars believe expresses itself
in its outward communication) and the narratives adopted in its contemporary public diplomacy.
Third is how China’s public diplomacy adapts narratives in order to manage its foreign policy
interests in Africa. Hence, the International Relations constructivist approach is adopted as a useful
theoretical framework to explore issues of identity, context and socialisation. It also happens to fit
the study of diplomacy well, as essentially a dynamic social process.
In order to understand what China is communicating about its rise through its public diplomacy in
Africa, a selection of multi-level snapshots are adopted. They include China’s communication
towards Africa at the global level (the Belt and Road Initiative), regional level (through the Forum
on China–Africa Cooperation) and bilateral level (South Africa). Together these snapshots reveal
how China’s public diplomacy uses historical narrative, promotes its interests and responds to
dilemmas posed by recipient milieus.
In summary, it appears that China does not instrumentalise the Sinocentric world narrative as a signal
of it seeking to create a world order in its image (although it does occasionally draw on narratives
from that same historical period, to demonstrate its cooperative and non-threatening behaviour).
Instead, it draws on narratives that speak to China–Africa links specifically, such as a shared colonial
experience, solidarity politics during Africa’s independence, China’s support during the Cold War,
and more contemporary links, like shared development aspirations. In turn, three broad findings are
drawn from the study. First China’s public diplomacy that helps meet its interests is conditioned by
the African context and its ability to evolve. Second, since China–Africa relations exist in an
interdependent world, combining domestic and global developments, as well as recipient-specific
processes and factors, the narratives that China uses in Africa are conditioned by determinants
whereby they become increasingly co-constituted. Third, it appears that as China’s engagement in
Africa deepens, the main challenge for its public diplomacy will be reconciling its rhetoric of
symmetry with the growing awareness of its inherent structural power. This topic is important, as much discussion exists on globalisation’s impact on diplomacy and the
need for increased public and outward engagement vis-à-vis public diplomacy. Yet less is understood
about how policymakers – particularly in emerging and rising powers – are in fact making sense and
responding to such changes (and what informs their choices). In particular, the study situates itself
within important IR discussions on China – including the debate over its rising trajectory and
whether it seeks to shape the world in its own image (as reflected by its calls for national
rejuvenation, which links China to its past imperial splendour), or if it is actually integrating deeper
into the Westphalian world order. The study will also advance from discussions on who China will
become, to importantly, what it thinks and how it merges its past and self-perception today. Lastly it
seeks to investigate China’s increased engagement with the Global South, especially Africa, which
provides a glimpse into the normative drivers of its diplomacy, and specifically the subset, public
diplomacy, as well as contributing to the debate on its conduct in global affairs.