The China-Africa relationship has predominantly been carried out on a state level, with inter-state relationships driving the growing engagement between the two. While China has successfully attracted the attention of both the political and business elite in Africa, it has not necessarily attracted the same praise from the general public.

Trends over time strongly indicate that China tends to prefer building bilateral political and elite relationships rather than with civil society. This has been part of China’s engagement with the continent from the beginning; a perfect modus operandi, as, “if there’s a continent that loves elite relations its Africa” (The China Africa Project, 22.04.2017).

However, while China appears to be more inclined with dealing with elites, it appears to have recognised that ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of the African population is key to its future success.

In recent years, China's increasing presence across Africa has led to a growth in anti-Chinese sentiment. Local populations have started to voice their concerns over the lack of benefits – and sometimes detrimental effects – that the Chinese presence has on their communities. Concerns range from a lack of engagement with local communities and a failure to create jobs; to concerns over the quality of Chinese infrastructure and other Chinese goods.

These issues highlight the importance of a soft power strategy, particularly if China wishes to continue pursuing economic opportunities in Africa. As a result, Beijing has implemented a soft power strategy, aimed at shaping the African public’s perception of China through both economic multilateral (pan-African) and bilateral (state-to-state) diplomacy.

The former is largely driven by the China-Africa Cooperation Forum (FOCAC), while the latter is carried out through more bilateral cooperation agreements on everything ranging from loans, guarantees, and technical assistance; to cultural exchanges and educational scholarships.