Colonialism Redux

By Eliza M. Johannes

While Chinese development aid and debt-relief programs may help many economically strapped African nations, they are not likely to be what Africa needs over the long term. African nations will be forced to institute fundamental changes in governance and economic management to stimulate development. By revisiting the data on the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment policies of the late 1970s and early 1980s, among others, it is possible to see how the envisaged strategies could be a Chinese ploy to secure economic power in Africa as they pursue the continent’s abundant and unexploited resources.

Sino-African Relations, Now and Then

In 2006, China hosted the third Forum for China-Africa Cooperation, with 42 African heads of state and government officials of 48 countries attending in Beijing. The forum was one of the clearest signs of China’s intentions to penetrate Africa more deeply than it had previously. The gathering followed a series of similar meetings in 2000 and 2003.

The 2006 meeting was significant in that China promised to assist Africa on several levels of development. It dispatched 100 agriculture experts, set up ten demonstration centers, established a $10 billion development fund to encourage investment by Chinese companies, and established three to five trade economic zones. China also increased export items eligible for zero tariffs entering its market from 190 to 440, and doubled development assistance of $3 billion in preference loans in 2009 and $2 billion in export buyers’ credit. The Chinese canceled Africa’s interest-free loans that were due by the end of 2005, trained 15,000 human-resource cadres, and built 100 schools in rural communities. China also has doubled the scholarships it provides to African students and built 30 hospitals, provided $300 million in anti-malaria drugs, and set up 30 centers for the prevention and treatment of malaria. 1 With such repackaged commercial diplomacy, China is assured a place in Africa.

Modern Chinese forays into Africa date to the early 1960s and through the 1970s, when China aided some African nationalists in the process of decolonization. China was involved in providing weapons training for African guerrillas from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Angola, to mention just a few. Independence in these countries provided China with further opportunities to become involved in African affairs. Most notable was its assistance in constructing the Tanzania-Zambia railway in the 1970s and funding numerous projects in other African countries. In Zaïre, now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), China’s so-called Cultural Revolution of Mao and Deng impressed President Joseph-Désiré Mobutu to institute his own “cultural revolution,” with the intention of reforming his country as Chinese leaders had transformed theirs. By 1983, Zaïre owed China $100 million, a loan that the Chinese government forgave and translated into joint Chinese-Zaïrian projects. In the 1990s, China had about 1,000 experts working on various projects in Zaïre.

Before the 21st century, China built economic and cultural-related infrastructure in Africa. Those included modern stadiums such as the Moi International Sports Centre in Nairobi, Kenya, in the 1980s, and the National Arts Center in Accra, Ghana, which opened in 1992. In Kenya, the Chinese helped construct hospitals such as the Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Eldoret and modern roads, such as the Thika ten-lane highway in Nairobi and the Kima-Emusutswi road in western Kenya. Those aid projects have changed the way African countries have interacted with China in the recent past—largely on friendly terms. However, African countries would do well to be skeptical of China’s policies.

Aid—At a Price

Chinese officials have argued that there are no strings attached to the development aid, grants, and loans they provide to Africa. However, the flow of cheap goods into the continent leaves no doubt that this subtly imbalanced trade benefits China more. Although there are suggestions that China’s cancellation of Africa’s debt is intended to enhance the partnership and increase assistance, much of the aid seems to target countries rich in raw materials, including Angola, Ghana, the DRC, Central African Republic, Sudan, Nigeria, and Uganda. It is not surprising that China has invested chiefly in the development of infrastructure in those countries, whose abundant natural resources and other strategic assets could benefit China in the long run.

Many African countries, except South Africa, do not have what in economic terms would be considered a favorable trade balance with China. According to a brief released by the African Development Bank in July 2010, Chinese global economic strategy, including its relations with Africa, is largely “shaped by its national development objectives and its demand for energy and other resources.” 2 In fact, a majority of African countries import more Chinese goods than what they actually sell in return. As the recent example shows, Chinese businesses now want African governments to pay for their goods from China in Chinese currency, as has been the case in Nairobi. This is the clearest indication that China potentially harbors imperialist economic motives with respect to Africa, of which the continent’s governments ought to be wary.

The “marriage” between China and Africa represents a complex relationship indeed. Many Africans who experience the realities of Chinese economic power seem to agree that it is not a relationship based on equal partnership as suggested in previous policy documents. According to one small-scale Zambian farmer, Rosemary Atoma, who lives with her family in Kawaza village, Lusaka, her province’s vegetable markets are crowded with Chinese-grown products. “My family and I depended on what we could sell at the market, today. Chinese farms are supplying produce, and we cannot compete with that,” she said. Recently, they have had to scale back their farming activities because of the inflation of Chinese produce in rural markets.

Viewed from an African perspective, China’s presence on the continent presents a dichotomy, with China the benefactor and a new economic imperial power poised to exploit Africa. The current arguments are that China’s presence in Africa ought to be understood as an effort to help break the lingering neo-colonial chains and to assert the independence of African nations in a journey to exercise control over the continent’s natural resources. 3 However, the aid that has been provided has not pulled Africa out of its historical predicament; it has remained underdeveloped.

There remains the pertinent question: Why should the efforts of China—the “new kid on the block”—be viewed any differently from the earlier efforts and agendas of other notable Western donor and aid agencies in Africa? Indeed, it would be foolish to do so. Chinese policies are reminiscent of similar policies in the name of structural adjustment that were designed to develop the continent but led countries such as Tanzania to declare bankruptcy.

Solving Africa’s Problems

Michal Meidan, an analyst in Eurasia Group’s Asia practice, argues that the relationship between China and Africa is that of a convergence of interests. In her view, while the availability of natural resources might constitute a driving force, they can by no means fully explain China’s new diplomatic thrust into the continent. 4 Therefore, the so-called reciprocity between Africa and China is a far-fetched notion that should be explained clearly. Other scholars have argued that China’s role in Africa is well-defined and that it is conscious of its interests. The essence of this argument is that China is using cultural aid to establish lasting relations with the various African countries.

There are those who think that Sino-African relations could produce a “win-win” situation for both parties. However, that is a romanticized view of China’s involvement in Africa, given that 85 percent of the population has little influence on the governments’ decisions. Should the African governments decide to take China’s loan with or without strings attached, 80 percent of the continent’s population will have little or no voice at all, given that the majority of African governments are corrupt.

In the past, some African leaders misappropriated the loans that donors and aid agencies gave their governments. For example, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaïre used 17 to 20 percent of his country’s annual budget for self-aggrandizement. Other leaders, such as General Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, Ghana’s military leader from 1972 to 1978, accumulated a personal fortune of $100 million amid mass poverty in the country. Thus, if the Chinese choose to turn a blind eye to the corrupt elements in Africa, the situation will not turn out to be mutually beneficial, but rather one that appears to favor solely the top African leadership and China’s economic interests.

China wishes to negotiate a free-trade agreement with African countries to include other regional economic and cultural organizations. This would allow African goods access to Chinese markets with duty-free requirements. In addition, the process would permit the settlement of disputes through bi- and multilateral consultation between Africa and China. African nations have been encouraged to invest in China. The Chinese government has promised to play a vital role in negotiating the implementation of the bilateral trade agreements with the nations concerned. China and Africa have attempted to open a dialogue to create a conducive commercial environment for investment and cooperation and to protect the legitimate rights and interests of investors on both sides. While this may look good on the surface, there is a belief that China is no different from other global economic powers that have created straitjacket programs in which African nations are obliged to fit in, if not follow. The general assertion is that Africa is the weaker party in this arrangement.

A “Marriage” for Whose Convenience?

Sino-African policy details China’s so-called “five principles of peaceful coexistence” as a way of contributing to stability around the world. The policy recognizes Africa as a strategic force for world peace and development. The implication of such an approach, however, is to define the path that China-Africa relations ought to follow. The opportunities offered will strengthen China’s capacity to formulate and implement measures that largely further its own interests.

Africa’s abundant resources and role in the Chinese-African marriage will therefore help China to restructure, develop, and balance global trade through the avenues it is creating on the world stage—a role that will ensure it becomes a formidable and omnipresent world economic power.

Indeed, China has been quick to construct and deploy an alternative discourse that its relations with Africa are a function of the protracted, shared political history of struggle against outside domination by such powers as the former Soviet Union, not to mention the exploitative Sino-Japanese relations during the 19th and 20th centuries. Little wonder, then, that “sincerity, equality and mutual benefit, solidarity, and common development” are the words that China has selected to articulate the guiding principles of its current partnership with Africa.

That China is keen on positioning itself as the new world economic power is obvious. It is attempting to dissuade African nations from forging economic and political ties with Taiwan. It is not surprising that most African leaders have agreed to this dictum, to receive China’s low-interest loans and support China’s unification cause.

China has also expressed interest in collaborating with local African governments. African central governments are undertaking cultural exchange with their Chinese counterparts, between their communities and local entrepreneurs and would-be investors. This approach is known as the “twin city” or “twin province” relationship, which China supports to facilitate bilateral exchanges and local cooperation.

African economies are in most cases not in a position to compete or engage with the Chinese economy on an equal footing. South Africa’s economy, by far the largest and most developed on the continent, nevertheless is inconsequential by comparison with China’s. Moreover, the open policy of dealing with Africa, which emphasizes “business now, politics later” does not hold up, given that most countries in Africa with resources, such as the Niger delta and southern Sudan, experience conflicts between the state elites and community groups over the legitimate rights to their natural resources. Clashes between these groups over resources have resulted in the abduction of five Chinese workers in 2007 in Nigeria’s unstable Niger delta region by community-based militias. 5 This demonstrates that China concentrates its Africa aid and loans to the elite who have little knowledge or have utterly no interest in the welfare of local communities.

African host communities have not viewed the Chinese as any different from the former colonial masters in the way they have treated African labor. For instance, in 2010 several Chinese mine managers shot and wounded 13 of their employees in southern Zambia over a pay dispute that sparked countrywide outrage. 6 In Kenya, where there is abundant labor, one Chinese company involved in the construction of infrastructure has mechanized construction, to the chagrin of the local people who prefer that they be given the jobs rather than using machines.

Although Africans work alongside the Chinese on projects, their cultural differences often render them far apart. One Kenyan citizen, Logole, who worked on the ten-lane highway in Nairobi, attests: “Often when something doesn’t go right we are disciplined. Sometimes you are hit in the back of your head, or they withhold some of your pay.” Like many in his country, Logole is paid between $2 and $5 per a day. Moreover, Chinese is becoming a required language in African schools. In central Africa, it is taught along with French as the medium of instruction. This is identical to what took place during the French assimilation in West Africa beginning in the 19th century. For Africans, learning Chinese is necessary to do business with their Chinese partners.

Heeding History’s Lessons

Although China’s development aid for Africa and loan forgiveness programs appear to be favorable to many struggling African nations, those countries should consider what will happen when they no longer can satisfy China’s desire for raw materials. African leaders should revisit the history of structural adjustment programs of the late 1970s and early 1980s for germane lessons, should China turn its back on Africa.

Chinese aid may indeed turn out to be yet another external control of Africa through assistance and loan mechanisms. Questions linger, of course, over China’s support of rogue states in Africa: does it do so simply because of the abundant resources the continent possesses? Should regimes such as those currently in power in Sudan and Zimbabwe, which terrorize their own citizens, continue to benefit from Chinese aid simply because China does not believe in interfering in other countries’ internal affairs?

Political analysts have argued that China should consider the question of the transparency of the regimes and stability as a precursor to development. Are there possibilities to develop policies, objectives, and ways in which economic output for the continent and China go hand in hand with developing and encouraging more sustainable democracy on the continent? However, the question begs some answers, given that the Chinese government itself is not a liberal democracy.

Other nations have engaged with China economically, and there are lessons to learn from their experiences. African states and civil societies can study those examples and turn them into opportunities. More important, however, African nations must develop a vision of civil society that includes measures to improve labor conditions as part of China’s investment packages. They should establish training programs, transfer technology, develop local management skills, and reserve a proportion of Chinese investment in African countries.

1 Chris Aden, “Background Notes on FOCAC,” The Bulletin of Fridays of the Commission: Africa Union Commission , Vol. 3, No. 1, January 2010, p. 11.

2 African Development Bank Group Chief Economist Complex, African Development Policy Brief, Vol. 1, No. 4, 29 July 2010, p.1.

3 N. Sanusha and M. Dais, “China-African relations: A new impulse in a changing continental landscape,” ScienceDirect , Vol. 40, No. 8, Winter 2008, pp. 748-761.

4 Michal Meidan, “China’s Africa policy: Business now, politics later.” Asian Perspective , Vol. 30, No. 4, 2006, pp. 69-93.

5 Christopher Clapham, “Fitting China in,” Brenthurst Discussion Papers, Vol. 8, Johannesburg, Brenthurst Foundation: 2003, p. 3.

6 “China: A Blessing or Africa’s Curse?” Daily Nation , Friday, 22 October 2010, pp. 1-2.


Dr. Johannes is a cultural anthropologist and researcher at the Institute for Defense Analyses. She holds a Ph.D. in international education policy from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her scholarly concentration is on economic security, political development, and policy issues in Eastern Africa.

Dr. Johannes is a cultural anthropologist and researcher at the Institute for Defense Analyses. She holds a Ph.D. in international education policy from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her scholarly concentration is on economic security, political development, and policy issues in Eastern Africa.

More by this Author

None found for this author.

Events and Conferences

None found for this author.


Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Mon, 2016-06-13

You are cordially invited to: U.S. Coast Guard Update A discussion with: Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, USCG25th Commandant of the U.S...

2016 Naval History Conference

View All

From the Press

Keynote Speaker & Book Signing

Mon, 2016-05-30

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership