Contemplating Contemporary Colonialism: Making sense of China’s Increasing Investment and Influence in Africa

China’s growing financial investment in the African continent has brought with it concerns, with many questioning whether its foreign direct investment (FDI) and trade policies are a form of neo-colonialism. In order to responsibly address these important questions, it is crucial to acknowledge the vestiges of European imperialism that continue to influence African socio-economic dynamics, whilst recognizing the progressively globalizing nature of the contemporary international economy in which these legacies exist.

The Imperial Legacy

Understanding the current trade relations on the continent requires not only a consideration of the historical context underpinning African social phenomena, but also of the political and economic institutions that have been left in the wake of European colonial rule. These post-colonial institutions reflect not only an attempt by European colonial powers to reconstitute a pan-African sovereignty defined along their own terms, but also the foundations for the kind of asymmetric trade relationships we see between African states and the rest of the world today. In other words, there exists a dissonance between Western political and economic institutions on the one hand, and traditional African ways of being on the other. These attempts at imposing top-down solutions fashioned to mirror European nation-states has ultimately led not only to weak regimes vulnerable to corruption and power grabs, but also to the drawing of arbitrary borders that have cut through traditional trade routes and created land-locked states with little economic recourse.

The Not-So-Long-Ago Historical Context

During the Cold War, Africa was a hotspot for proxy wars engendered by the West’s and the Soviet Union’s respective goal of consolidating international influence. With the end of the Cold War came the ushering in of a new international unipolar order, and with it a demotion of the geopolitical strategic value associated with African investment, meaning that the West no longer saw supplying African regimes with military or diplomatic aid as beneficial. The Soviets were no longer extending patronage to African states with socialist solidarity and with the United States’ new hegemonic power, they too had little incentive to express interest in Africa. 

Since the establishment of what Dr. Alex Thomson, a principal lecturer in the Politics Department at Coventry University, calls the ‘New World Order’, of all the major economic powers, China has concerned itself the most with African affairs. As with the shift from ideological influence to economic power incurred by the Cold War, China too has moved towards more capitalist focused foreign policy and trade agreements.

What do China’s Investments in Africa Look Like?

While Europe has long been Africa’s biggest investor, China’s increasingly assertive investment portfolio over the last three decades has forcefully challenged the status quo. The African continent is home to the fastest growing population, yet it receives the least foreign direct investment than any other emergent region, with the exclusion of Central-Asian transition economies. This means that Africa is currently the continent with the least inflows while conversely having the largest needs. Chinese FDI peaked between 2007 and 2008 following the global financial crisis, and between 2016 and 2019, China has had continuous net positive flow into Africa. China’s newfound interest in Africa is perhaps best explained by their search for raw materials, in particular, their economy’s appetite for oil.

In 1993, with the expansion of its economy, China became a net exporter of commercial goods. Consequently, they required an alternative trading partner from whom to secure hydrocarbons because the Middle East’s oil industry was dominated by US corporate interests. Thus, Africa became China’s primary source for oil extraction, surpassing Saudi Arabia as their largest supplier of oil in 2006. As Dr. Ian Taylor puts it, “the importance of Africa to China’s own development cannot be overstated.” Africa has also become an important destination for manufactured Chinese goods including household items, clothing, lower end electrical goods and so on. In 2006, the value of imported goods from China in the African continent was $26 billion USD, which Dr. Thomson describes as the “largest volume of inward trade from any single country”.

Although China’s interest in Africa has been influenced by promising opportunities in raw material extraction and new markets, African leaders have also been  attracted to China’s human rights discourse and their emphasis on the importance of sovereignty and non-interference. Rhetorically, Dr. He Wenping stated that, “[China doesn’t] believe that human rights should stand above sovereignty… [China] has a different view on this, and African countries share [that] view”. This position was made explicit in China’s 2006 White Paper on his Africa policy which states that the country saw “sovereignty as the guarantor of human rights”. China, simply put, is an ideal patron for Africa insofar as their investment is neither contingent on African leaders respecting human rights nor moving towards liberal democratic ideals in the same way that European investment is. It is important to recall, however, that the structures that underpin despotism in Africa are inextricably linked to a colonial past that produced the environment in which power grabs of this kind were possible.

While China has by and large taken an amoral stance with regards to their investment in Africa, broadly speaking, China and many African countries share similar perspectives on human rights, particularly with regards to collective and economic rights. China places a notable importance on the right to basic necessities and economic development and has not shied away from asserting this as a part of their mission in Africa. This vision of China’s purported mission becomes blurrier, however, when we examine Zimbabwe, a country that China has  invested considerably in. It is difficult to see how this kind of discourse is reflected when unemployment is at 80% and inflation is rising at 11 000%  per year, all the while black market exchange rates are reaching 300 000 Zimbabwean dollars to 1$USD.

Contemporary Implications

In an article published by the Washington Post in 2018, Dr. Deborah Brautigam argues that China’s presence in Africa has been villainized as a story of colonization, when in reality the facts tell a story of globalization. Brautigam argues that China’s presence in Africa has reinforced their agency and helped build important local infrastructure despite complaints by local workers of competition from Chinese migrants and higher pressures from Chinese bosses demanding longer hours with lower pay. She also concedes that despite Chinese resource extraction taking a “significant toll on conservation efforts,” Chinese investment is creating jobs and empowering Africa.

Though Brautigam’s article reveals some intrinsic qualities about Chinese investment, her globalization laden rhetoric minimizes the disparities in the distribution of wealth across the continent. China is leveraging a process of unequal development in Africa, using its land and people as a springboard from which to extract raw materials in order to bolster its domestic manufacturing industries. The ‘win-win’ rhetoric that China and African elites like to espouse is true insofar as they are winning— meanwhile, African workers suffer as governments lose incentives to enforce human rights regulations. Moreover, the very sustainability of China’s investment portfolio in Africa is questionable given that their “FDI into Africa is creating fewer jobs per unit of investment, on average,” meaning that in order to sustain the inward flow of FDI, China will have to focus on creating more domestic African jobs.

Notwithstanding these implications, Brautigam may have a strong argument when it comes to reinvigorating African sovereignty in terms of economic agency: Chinese investment gives African leaders the unique opportunity to leverage offers from Western donors against those of Chinese investors in order to sign the most advantageous deals. This bargaining power has the potential to strengthen African states vis-à-vis Western states and potentially augment the sovereignty that they exercise globally. However, it is important to remember, in the grand scheme of things,  that the infrastructure being built by China in Africa is inherently extractive in nature, designed with a capitalist agenda in mind, not the well-being of African locals. 

This infrastructure, despite potentially empowering people across countries in African, reflects the broader global capitalist system that, in a post-colonial era, African states are forced to compete in despite asymmetric capabilities. 

Edited By Shannon Benson


Photo credits: “Minister Lindiwe Sisulu addresses the 7th Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, Beijing, 2 Aug 2018” by GovernmentZA is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0 

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