Great Power Competition Begins in the Classroom

Countering China’s Influence through Education Initiatives in Africa

(Photo: Ugandan high school student learning Mandarin in school)

CPT Ryan Hooper


Education is the starting point for growth, opportunity, and peace. Education is necessary for stability and a society’s best defense against destitution, oppression, and conflict. Education, as a means, can also be used to weaponize and leverage influence in ways against America’s national security interests. Civil Affairs (CA) forces should not only be concerned about using education as a form of foreign and humanitarian assistance as the United States military and diplomats rightfully have in the past, but CA forces should also be attentive to the kind of education being taught abroad and across differing socioeconomic statuses and who is influencing it.

Throughout the globe, education has long been a battleground for influencing the next generation of citizens. In America, there have been million-dollar campaigns for local school board elections, packed school board meetings, and constant fighting over school curriculum and policy in the last few years.1 The American people care about what is taught in schools because Americans know how important it is in developing children and society’s future. If CA forces are tasked with influencing the civil component of the operational environment, then the educational assessment of local populations must be a priority.

Competitors in the so-called Great Power Competition have certainly prioritized education and no one has taken this to more dramatic measures than the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In their 2016 Education Action Plan for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China committed to “shoulder as many responsibilities and honour as many commitments as possible, and to make a greater contribution to the development of education”2 in their cooperating countries. To understand the importance of winning the competition for influence in the global classroom and the consequences of losing, this article will focus on China’s educational endeavors and investments on the African continent. For purposes of this article, the definition of “invest” will not be limited to the economic or financial assistance sense, but will also include human, social, and political aspects as well.

Africa represents the next battleground for America and CA forces in the Great Power Competition. Experts predict that Africa will double in population by 2050 encompassing 30% of the world’s population. As Colonel Joe Bruhl puts it, “Africa will play a central role in the next century — demographically, economically, and politically — whether the United States likes it or not.”3 The education of this burgeoning population will have significant consequences far beyond its borders. Influencing these future generations of Africans won’t be easy as a recent African Youth Survey shows young Africans viewing Chinese involvement as more positively than American involvement. However, there is still potential for American influence to win in Africa as values such as democracy, free speech, equality under the law, etc. are highly desired over alternative styles of government amongst the youth populations.4 If American influence is to succeed, CA forces must have a presence in all domains – especially in the human domain represented here in education.

Education in Africa

In Africa’s 54 countries, there exists a diverse educational ecosystem that throughout its history has often experienced turmoil and grave challenges. Of the challenges seen recently, armed conflict and humanitarian emergencies such as the Covid-19 pandemic, have caused the largest threats to education in the region.

The world is currently facing some of its highest rates of attacks on education in modern times. From Ukraine to Afghanistan, millions of students have recently had their education disrupted due to the increase of conflict and violence in their countries. However, in Africa, this level of violence and disruption in education has been consistent and pervasive throughout the region. In their Education Under Attack 2022 study, the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack found that schools, students, and teachers in Africa were some of the most likely worldwide to be suffering from attacks on education in the last two years. Schools in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mali had some of the highest reported attacks on schools while Nigeria and Burkina Faso had some of the highest reported attacks on students, teachers, and other education staff.5

In many West and Central African countries, where UNICEF reports that a quarter of all attacks on schools globally in 2018 occurred, militant groups such as Boko Haram (meaning Western Education is Forbidden) strongly oppose forms of Western and secular education. Between 2009-2017, in northeast Nigeria alone, roughly 1,400 schools were destroyed, 2,300 teachers killed, and 57% of schools were forced to close due to violence from Boko Haram.6 Ideologies held by groups like Boko Haram oppose education systems that value educating girls and have subsequently focused attacks on these institutions through mass kidnappings of schoolgirls.7

Attacks on education in Africa also come in the form of boys likely to be recruited into armed militias, girls likely to face gender-based sexual violence and early child marriages, and schools likely to be used for military purposes. These widespread threats of violence and insecurities have caused thousands of school doors and opportunities for millions of children throughout the continent to remain closed for years.

In addition to violence and conflict in the region, humanitarian crises such as food and water scarcity, and outbreaks of diseases have plagued education ambitions in Africa over the years. However, the recent Covid-19 pandemic caused an earth-shattering destruction to the goal of opening more doors of educational opportunities to the children of Africa like never before. While the pandemic has caused learning disruptions that have worsened learning outcomes globally, countries in Africa with lower levels of income, greater risk to humanitarian crises, and weaker education systems faced far greater consequences. In Africa, providing education remotely or returning safely to the classroom was a much more daunting challenge, thus exacerbating previous inequalities in educational outcomes between African and advanced countries.

The consequences of the pandemic on education in Africa has been dire. Younger children, girls, and students in rural or disadvantaged areas were those most likely to be left behind during the pandemic, and many children have since dropped out since their schools have reopened. In sub-Saharan Africa, it is estimated by UNESCO that 5 million students, mostly girls, will not return to school.8 Even in higher education, many African students struggled to access their learning with only 29% of institutions able to successfully transition to virtual learning while the majority of American and European universities did so with ease.9