Is China Colonizing Africa? By Addissu Admas

In the past dozen or so years, I have been observing the ever expanding and pervasive presence of China in Africa with puzzlement, and quite frankly, with growing concern also. I am not one to be convinced that China will help us obtain the kind of economic miracle for Africa that she has known herself since the era of Deng Xiaoping. Even though her claimed objective is along that line. We have been told time and again that China’s engagement in Africa is part and a continuation of a policy of cooperation that dates back to the 1950s while China was still firmly under Mao’s iron grip. Or that it is a South-South cooperation, i.e.: a more advanced Third World nation helping another less advanced one. Or perhaps two victims of Western colonialism trying to pull each other out of poverty, and march together to a better future. This is, of course, the ideological lens through which China wants the world to perceive her engagement in Africa. But the question is: is it so? Do the facts on the ground confirm this perspective? Do China’s “developmental” practices in Africa display truly the characteristics of cooperation, of mutually agreed upon goals, and even some form of partnership? Or is it something else?

What China continues to claim to do and what Westerners accuse her of doing has been the source of confusion for most of us. As we all know, China is not a democracy and as such there is no plurality of voices, much less dissenting ones. The Chinese government is the only source of information, and all what we know about China’s intentions in Africa comes from it. On the other hand what we get from the West is a cacophony of contradictory claims: from those extolling the virtues of China’s engagement in Africa to those shouting foul at China. Where in lies the truth?

What I have chosen to do here is, instead of debating the official doctrines of China or the claims made in the West, to focus on the facts, practices and claims reported in the media for the past twenty years from around Africa. And to draw my own conclusions about the true nature of China’s engagement in Africa.

Currently no one appears to know exactly how many Chinese citizens have moved to, live and work in Africa. The estimate ranges from a million to two million; some have even suggested a higher number. It appears that neither China, nor the governments of Africa want to reveal the exact number of the Chinese residing on the Continent. This is an information that is surely known by the respective governments: it is simply a matter of checking how many visas have been issued so far. The fact that precise numbers are neither provided nor known by the general public leaves one with the impression that both sides have something to hide. I don’t think this helps either party’s agenda!

The fact of the matter is that China is not only sending to Africa individuals involved in her grand projects, i.e.: the dams, hospitals, highways, railways, various extractive and manufacturing industries, but a whole class of people which have absolutely nothing to do with them. These consist of merchants, large and small, shopkeepers, farmers and even persons involved in criminality. It is known that Beijing, as part of her bargain with African governments, wants to barter as many visas as she possibly can garner from the more desperate nations of Africa. Often these visas are handed out for a pittance and last for decades, becoming de facto permits for permanent residence. The reason of this co-migration of large Chinese groups may be explained as providing co-adjuvant services for the ones engaged directly in the developmental projects. But the truth appears to me far more prosaic, and Africans are not so naïve as to accept this kind of explanation.

It is a reality of the 21st century that more Chinese have migrated out of China than from any other nation in the world. The Chinese are virtually present and in substantial number in Europe, the Americas, Asia, and of course Africa. By some estimate there are some 50 million of them living outside their motherland. Some are immigrants of old, and usually form a minority population in some South East Asian nations. Others, especially in Europe and Africa, are recent arrivals. With freedom of travel and emigration, more and more Chinese are preferring to make their residence abroad. Their reason for choosing to live abroad varies from the simple hope of making it somewhere else to wanting to live in freer societies. Other reasons most often cited are escape from corruption, pollution or simply lack of adequate human space.

The Chinese government appears not only to let this trend take its own spontaneous course, but it seems to have a deliberate program for it. In fact in 2011, during a parliamentary session, there was a serious consideration whether China should seek employment for a 100 million of her citizens on the African continent. I doubt if the debaters settled on any particular number. And in fact it is really beside the point. What the debate revealed to me is that China is grappling with her ever growing population (now at .5% growth rate), her limited resources and space to meet the needs of her citizens. From such perspective Africa looks like the perfect solution for her population problem. But what this kind of reasoning does not take into account is that first of all the population of the African continent is growing at an alarming 2.6% growth rate, and by the end of the century it is projected that Africans will constitute close to a quarter of the global population. Secondly, not all Africa is “developable” nor should she be. Her rain forests are necessary not only to Africans but to the whole world. The vast expanses of land are not only for human habitation, but to our badly battered and decimated fauna. In fact China has not been keen about environmental issues, as more evidence suggests. Chinese companies are engaged in a vast logging projects that is despoiling immense tracts of land and causing lasting if not permanent damage to the environment. I must add, however, that they are by no means the only ones engaged in such nefarious activity. Western companies have been doing it for decades, and they continue to do it today. The troubling aspect of it is that China is gaining far more access to all Africa’s resources than Westerners because of her stronger ties with the African governing class.

In point of fact it is rather hard to see where the China/Africa cooperation is happening. Even if China wants to define her engagement in Africa as a “win-win cooperation” the fact of the matter is that China’s aim is to have unhindered and unlimited access to Africa’s natural resources for her overheated factories. The countries that are willing and ready to offer China unrestricted and even preferential access will benefit in the form of massive loans to build their infrastructures. And with few exception, the ones engaged in their construction are Chinese parastatal companies: in essence such dealings are part and parcel of the loan agreements. In reality Africans are not at liberty to do their own biddings. No Western or even local companies can compete with Chinese companies because they consistently and mercilessly underbid their competitors. This forces often Chinese companies to work with razor thin profit margins which invariably leads to cutting corners on material, workmanship, dangerous labor practices, severe underpayment of local workers; often dispensing with accepted labor laws. These are some of the main reasons why so much of the major projects completed by Chinese companies are of very questionable quality.

Even though the size and terms of China’s loans to Africa are often generous by Western standard, their purpose is more to maintain the continent forever indebted, rather than a ticket out of underdevelopment. It is doubtful that Africa, despite her considerable resources, will ever become solvent.  The reality of these loans is that they don’t appear to have been negotiated at all but rather are simply offered as a “package” by Beijing. The only choice that Africans have in the matter is to either accept or leave it. Since the fall of communism, Western finance institutions have directed their focus to Eastern Europe with marked disengagement in Africa. Thus China was the one willing and happy to step in the position of premier financier of African projects. Africans who have always perceived the West with justifiable suspicion were more than happy to give China a chance. Even if such choice is understandable from a historical perspective, I doubt very much of its wisdom!

An even more puzzling side of this China Africa transaction is that not much of it concerns transfer of knowledge and skill. Since the days of the construction of Tazara Railway (The railway that connects Tanzania and Zambia) in the mid-seventies, China has not only financed her projects in Africa, but has also provided her engineers, managers as well as her own vast labor force. It is an indubitable fact that China has substantial labor surplus force, and she has always sought more employment for them. But Africa does not really need a vast army of laborers wilding shovels and pushing wheelbarrows from China. She has enough labor force to meet all her needs. This practice is indeed depriving Africans of much needed employment.

The most cited reason by the Chinese for not hiring Africans is “that Africans are not as hard-working as the Chinese”. But the true reason is the fact that China wants to unload her excess labor force on Africa. Some have even suggested, perhaps uncharitably, that China was using her prisoners for her African projects thereby finding a solution for their maintenance. In truth, China’s modus operandi resembles very much like a military expedition: her numerous parastatal companies arrive with their army of workers, “set up camp”, run with minimal transaction with the local population, complete their projects and usually pass on to their next one. In all this activity little, if any, is learned by the local people.

China has virtually unlimited access to the African governing strata because both she and them lack democratic norms to govern their transactions. China is known to be more than willing to corrupt anyone from top to bottom to meet her objectives, and she finds in the African governing class an eager class of people happy to oblige. This is not really a new phenomenon. The West has been as guilty as China of the same practice. What may be different is the level of secrecy that shrouds it. Because of the autocratic and undemocratic nature of the parties involved, the lack of transparency is almost complete.  

Whatever the case may be, at the end of the day who is really benefitting: China or Africa?

It may be true that the Chinese may have built more structures, highways and railroads than all Western colonial powers of yesteryear. Indeed they may have been more willing to risk their own money over a developing continent more than any one of the richer countries. But are they really helping Africa to become self-sufficient, or are they setting us to become their permanent dependents?

Let us first of all disabuse ourselves of the notion that a win-win cooperation exists, or is even possible. In every transaction between two unequal partners, only one party is bound to win. And in our case it is going to be of course China. China may be willing to take enormous risks, but she does it knowing that the rewards are going to be equally big. I am inclined to even contend that China, wittingly or unwittingly, may be engaged in a new form of colonialism. Some would say neo-colonialism. But whichever term seems appropriate we are not new to this kind of relation.

Ania Loomba gives us a succinct and yet quite encompassing definition of colonialism. For her it is “the conquest and control of other people’s land and goods”. This describes in one sentence the history of modern colonialism which began with the Spanish conquest of the Americas in the early part of the 16th century and ended more or less in the middle of the 20th century.

As the social scientists tell us, every colonial enterprise has three components: Conquest/occupation, control and exploitation. Before the middle of the 20th century these elements took place contemporaneously, in a coercive and exclusive fashion: territories were divided-up among the contending colonial powers for their individual exclusive occupation, control and exploitation. I need not recount here the truculence with which all this took place since it is at the heart of Africa’s recent history. We need not even focus on the deleterious effect it had, not only on our natural environment, but on our very souls as well. What I want to do here is to inquire whether these components of colonialism are present in our Sino-African relation.

I don’t think that we can doubt that China is unmistakably trying to transfer as many of her citizens as she possibly can to the African Continent. How else can we explain the staggering number of Chinese residing on the continent who have precious little to do with Africa’s development efforts? These Chinese citizens are essentially competing against every rang of the African entrepreneurial class, often displacing them entirely. Even the Indians and the Lebanese, who were known traditionallyas the trader class in many parts of Africa, find themselves facing today a far more formidable competitor. Indeed their communities are in the process of migrating out of Africa in ever larger number.

In effect China is conquering and occupying Africa without sending a single soldier; at least for now. One is free to consider this as a peaceful occupation. But in reality this transfer of such huge population is neither welcome nor appreciated by the citizens of the continent. It is a fait accompli perpetrated upon us by our mercenary governing officials for their own enrichment. Or maybe perhaps, to give them the benefit of the doubt, as concession to Beijing’s extortionist demands. Africa with its growing population and ever depleting resources cannot afford to host her own native population, let alone a hundred million more Chinese workers. Like their predecessors the Portuguese, Spaniards, French, Brits, Italian and Germans, the Chinese have behaved so far not only as occupiers but also as bosses. With all the attitudes, prejudices, and preconceptions of racial superiority that this position entails. This is already setting the stage for an uneasy and possibly tense co-existence.

Secondly, in this new deal with China, Africa has been cornered to accept the terms drawn by Beijing: Africa, being in the supplicant position, cannot dictate the terms of China’s presence and “cooperation” in Africa. Simply put: beggars can’t be choosers. Thus the element of control; though not, at least for now, backed my coercive means, like the military and security forces. Africans may desire to choose freely their foreign cooperation partners, but with their ever growing indebtedness to China, such a choice will become increasingly difficult, if not impossible. In point of fact we are in the gradual process of relinquishing our freedom in the hope of achieving the Chinese dream.

Are Africans being exploited by the Chinese? The term exploitation implies that one party in the deal is not receiving its fair share. The question then must be reformulated as: who is benefitting the most in this famous “win-win cooperation”? China or Africa?

The transformation of Africa’s urban and rural landscape should not lead us to believe that it is all because of China’s munificence. On the contrary it has come at a very high price; actually much higher that the real monetary cost it suggests. I am of course alluding to the manner in which Africans are accepting to be treated, and the ever growing devastation of their natural environment. Not all what glitters is gold! As I have indicated above, the majority of China’s projects are being completed with record speed and efficiency. But the most common complaint heard around Africa is that these projects begin to crumble even before they begin to “pay” for themselves. This means only one thing: even though China never fails to get paid either through barter or financial instruments, she has been delivering sub-par products to the continent. This is more than simple exploitation. It borders on criminality!

One may choose to define China’s engagement in Africa as neo-colonialist, or post-colonialist. However one prefers to call it, it looks to me like a kind of “voluntary colonialism”. This may sound rather paradoxical since colonialism entails some form of coercion in the relation between the transacting parties. Yet, if one looks closely, all the elements or components of colonialism are present in China’s engagement in Africa, except notably for military coercion (and this seems to be changing also: note China’s recent opening of a military base in Djibouti). I call it voluntary precisely for this reason: it is a status quo that African leaders have brought upon Africa, perhaps naïvely, but more likely than not out of sheer incompetence, with an element of insatiable greed thrown into the mix.


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Posted by on January 19, 2018. Filed under COMMENTARY,VIEWS. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to Is China Colonizing Africa? By Addissu Admas

  1. Alex Demissie

    January 19, 2018 at 5:47 AM

    Dear Addissu,

    Thank you for writing this opinion article. Being someone looking at China-Africa relations for a long time, I am afraid that your article contains assumptions debunked long-time ago. Especially the narrative that China is transplanting its citizens to African nations is simply not correct. There is no grand-plan in China that is coordinating migration to Africa or somewhere else. Many Chinese see opportunities for development in African countries- that is their main motivation to migrate.

    The topic of colonialism is equally hard to maintain. There is not one single case in African countries where Chinese actors control a nation (culturally, economically, politically). The fact that they win tenders has nothing to do with the fact that they are Chinese, rather that their approach has created an advantage to their enterprises. We tend to forget that majority of the actual projects are tendered through international institutions such as the World Bank or African Development Bank. Are the tendering rules and regulations or these institutions flawed?

    I am really glad to see these type of discussions here. I also encourage all of us to have a real debate on this topic. Being from the realist school of though, I think African countries have a tremendous opportunity to use China to advance their own version of development on the continent. I also think we would not talk about Africa’s growth miracle today without China’s involvement in African countries development in the last 20 years.
    It is a two-way game, if African countries are well prepared, they can win, if not. they loose.

    I am happy to debate on this topic. Please follow me on Twitter @Chinaafricablog.

    Alex Demissie