A successful narrative strategy, as any compelling story, articulates an audience’s grievances and aspirations in the same way that an archer hits a bull’s eye. In the National Museum speech Xi Jinping recalls the historic grievances of his domestic audience as a prelude to a story about how China’s rise on the global stage will help China to achieve Xi’s nationalist dream. This is just one example: an international narrative strategy can also be focused on current rather than historic issues, as it can target the problems or aspirations of audiences abroad, rather than at home.

The EU tends to skip grievances, whilst China targets them, both in its domestic and in its international messaging. This becomes clear when, for instance, one considers the European Commission’s recent joint communique to the European Parliament and the Council entitled Towards a Comprehensive Strategy with Africa. This new EU-Africa Strategy opens by saying:

Africa is Europe’s closest neighbour. The ties that bind Africa and the European Union (EU) are broad and deep as a result of history, proximity and shared interests. … We need to partner with Africa, our twin continent, to tackle together the challenges of the 21st century and to further our common interests and future.

(EC HR/PV, 2020)

Although intended as an empathetic message to the EU’s African neighbours, it skips the establishment of a foundation of sentiment on which a sense of kinship may be built, to jump to the shared ‘challenges’ and ‘interests’ that demand cooperation. Later on, it does touch briefly upon some of the issues in which the real and urgent problems of the African audiences lie, but it fails to truly acknowledge these on two levels.

First, it describes grievances not as palpable sufferings, but rather as negative qualities – ‘fragility’ and ‘weakness’ – inherent in the African institutions. This causes the narrative of kinship to lose empathetic appeal, as the audience is framed as a passive rather than an active element in the story. Secondly, it fails to address the fact that in many African narratives of political identity, current problems of poverty and conflict are intertwined with historic grievances to which Europe was an active contributor (Links, 2020).

The failure to address current and historic grievances in Europe’s messaging to Africa offers easy discursive opportunities to Chinese leaders. By consistently recalling the shared Sino-African history of ‘humiliation’ by colonial powers, matched with a strong emphasis on ‘win-win’ deal-making in the present, in which each party, African and Chinese, is free and expected to pursue its own best interest, China is able to undermine the European-African kinship narrative and validate its own value proposition in one elegant swoop. In his first speech to an African audience, in Tanzania in 2013, Xi stressed how the African and Chinese people have long shared an ‘anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle’, followed by the reassurance that:

China will continue to offer, as always, necessary assistance to Africa with no political strings attached … We get on well and treat each other as equals.

(Reuters, 2013)

Interestingly, this speech followed increased criticism that Tanzania’s trade imbalance with China was ‘the essence of colonialism’, to quote the African country’s central bank governor (Reuters, 2013).

If anything, the EU’s failure to acknowledge historic African grievances leaves Chinese leaders an easy card to pull, whenever it itself is faced with the scrutiny that befalls a superpower. If frustrations with China continue to rise, China will be pushed to further excite the anti-European sentiment in its messaging to African audiences. Ironically, European messages calling China’s presence in Africa ‘neo-colonialist’ are bound to backfire, as long as Europe itself has not addressed its own history to any meaningful degree. More importantly, perhaps, by ignoring historic grievances, the EU undermines its own attempt to ground a sense of kinship in historic ties, which it is, wisely, trying to do. Moreover, it limits the discursive space for cooperation with China in Africa, which is, after all, in its best geopolitical interest.

The extent to which China’s material development in and of itself forms a compelling story of aspiration to African audiences should not be underestimated. It challenges European leaders to ask themselves: how can we more empathetically appeal to African aspirations, given that China’s dream is increasingly becoming Africa’s too? Results from the Afrobarometer survey point in a promising direction (Selormey, 2020). When respondents from across the African continent were asked which country presents the best model for development, two clear winners emerged: the US (32%) and China (23%). China is seen by most respondents as having a positive influence, and most respondents see China as giving aid with fewer strings attached than other donors. As the largest donors of development aid to Africa, this does not bode well for the EU and its member states. However, the survey also shows that China is strongly associated with poor-quality products. This points to the possibility of innovating the European aspiration narrative based on the demands of the new African middle classes, who are looking for higher standards of living. A reinvigorated relationship with African audiences starts by getting to know those audiences in their variety. Very little is known of how different societies on the African continent view the EU. The few studies that have been conducted are elite-focused, whereas the EU’s policy priorities vis-à-vis Africa should aspire to broad social appeal (Fioramonti & Poletti, 2008) (Fioramonti & Olivier, 2007) (Fioramonti & Kimunguyi, 2011).

China also engages with countries that have urgent and serious grievances within the EU. In these cases, it deploys narratives that emphasise China’s willingness to help the country in question exactly when the EU would not do the same. Moreover, it captures that aid in specific terms, relevant to the local context, by means of a tangible object, as a standing symbol of both Chinese charity and European failure. One example is that of Greece in the midst of the eurozone crisis.

A New York Times article entitled ‘Chastised by E.U., a Resentful Greece Embraces China’s Cash and Interests’ reflects on the developments that led to Greece’s decision to block an EU statement at the UN denouncing Chinese human rights violations. It shows that the narrative of China’s ‘helping hand’ is to a great extent internalised by European and American audiences. A Greek parliamentarian is quoted as saying that China never explicitly asked for Greece’s support on human rights, because it did not need to:

If you’re down and someone slaps you and someone else gives you an alm, when you can do something in return, who will you help, the one who helped you or the one who slapped you?

(Horowitz & Alderman, 2017)

The point is not that China’s policy is purely symbolic; China did of course actually invest in the Greek economy during the eurozone crisis. Nor is the point that the EU’s policy towards Greece should have been different only because it offered China the chance to take the stage. The crucial thing to realise is rather that these investments are not only of commercial value to China, but also of strategic and narrative value, and were the logical result not only of EU and Chinese material policies, but also of the respective narratives they offered Greece in a moment of crisis. In the midst of Greek grievances and European pessimism, China launched a story of aspiration. In the same NYT article, Marietje Schaake, then a member of the European Parliament, illustrates the EU’s messaging towards Greece on the topic of its relationship with China, by saying:

The Greek government needs to choose where its alliances lie and realise the EU is not only a market, but first and foremost a community of values.

(Horowitz & Alderman, 2017)

China has grand narratives (Dams, 2019), but never forgets to exploit a small narrative (Lyotard, 1984), targeting grievances by offering hope in times of crisis. Apparently, China realised before the EU did that Europe may be a community of values but is not yet seen by all its constituents as a brotherhood of aspirations. The port of Piraeus stands to this day as a symbol of how China was able to leverage a localised grievance narrative into a positive storyline for Sino-Grecian brotherhood. As former premier Tsipras said last year during a visit by President Xi to Athens:

A friend in need is a friend indeed.

(Xinhua, 2019)

A friend in need, it may be added, offers a narrative opportunity – one that China took and the EU, in this case, failed to appreciate. The ‘helping-hand’ trope resonates to this very day, and indeed to the pandemic crisis in which we are presently engulfed.

Very little research is done on how European narratives are perceived by various local audiences across the globe as well as within the EU. For the EU, a big challenge lies in connecting to local audiences in regional settings. A strong answer to this challenge relies on researching and referring to localised grievance and aspiration narratives. On a more fundamental level, China’s ascent confronts Europeans with a crisis of faith to which China is not party: namely, the crisis of ‘declinism’ in European society, or, put more simply, the widely shared feeling among Europeans that their society is in decline (Elchardus, 2015). Although China, Russia, Turkey and other geopolitical competitors can and will amplify Europe’s self-doubt to undermine the standing of the liberal-democratic societal model globally (Dams, 2020), they are not the cause of declinism’s traction, nor is an assertive European counter-narrative towards these powers a weapon fit for battling declinism. The belief that Europe belongs to ‘yesterday’s world’, while China ‘owns the future’, must be countered not by geopolitical, but by narrative and social means, offering Europeans a mobilising story of collective aspiration and the institutions to realise it. As sociologist Mark Elchardus argues:

That vision or narrative, to be successful, must of course show how and why the proposed solutions are consistent with the values that are dear to people and will in fact increase the probability they can live the lives they want to live.

(Elchardus, 2017)

Ergo, we must turn from grievances and aspirations towards values, common interests and the role of value narratives within and beyond the European community.