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Thu, 07 Mar


Room B103

‘Not Soft, not Sharp’: the subtext of China’s subtle power through and in African parliament buildings

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‘Not Soft, not Sharp’: the subtext of China’s subtle power through and in African parliament buildings
‘Not Soft, not Sharp’: the subtext of China’s subtle power through and in African parliament buildings

Time & Location

07 Mar 2024, 17:00 GMT

Room B103, SOAS, University of London Thornhaugh Street, Russell Sq, London WC1B 5DQ, UK

About the event


In recent years, the term ‘sharp power’ has been promoted in scholarly and democracy promotion policy circles as the best descriptor of China’s expanding political engagement in the Global South. This emerged from the quest to find an appropriate nomenclature for China’s growing and apparently influential engagements in the Global South. Given that soft power is perceived in positive light and thus claimed as Western, a China specific taxonomy needed to be found. According to its promoters, the essence of sharp power is malevolent. It entails the use of manipulation to directly weaken or undermine the political institutions of targeted countries. While acknowledging China self-interested objectives, this paper challenges this characterisation. Using evidence from China’s construction and maintenance of parliament buildings in Southern Africa, I argue that sharp power has limited explanatory capacity to capture the nuances of China’s engagement in democracy enabling institutions in Africa. It isn’t soft either. Rather, its characteristics denote subtle power – a delicate, demand driven, non-intrusive long-term relationship building mechanism. I argue that instead of drawing its influence from a manifestly aggressive approach as implied by sharp power proponents, China’s political dividend in the Global South accrues from its passive investment owing to its fine-grained, context specific and culturally sensitive relationship building style. This paper contributes to the burgeoning debates on China’s political engagement in the Global South.


Innocent (Ib) Batsani-Ncube is an interdisciplinary Politics and International Relations scholar – trained in Africa and the UK – with substantial pre-doctoral experience in development practice and political analysis gained in 16 years of policy engagement in Southern Africa. His research explores how African countries’ donor-recipient relationship with China and other emerging powers from the Global South impact African domestic political institutions. Ib received his PhD in May 2022 from SOAS, University of London, where he wrote a dissertation on the politics and implications of Chinese government funded and constructed Parliament buildings in Lesotho, Malawi and Zimbabwe. Ib is a recipient of the Chevening Scholarship Award which funded his MSc in Elections, Campaigns and Democracy at Royal Holloway, University of London. He was an Usawa Postdoctoral Research Fellow at SOAS from 2022-2023.


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