The Chinese – African Relationship: Can Sub-Saharan Africans Think


by Collin Spears, BFPR Chief Foreign Policy Correspondent Washington, D.C.

In 2001, Former Singaporean Ambassador to the United Nations, Kishore Mahbubani asked a simple question, which was also the title of his book, “Can Asians Think?” Mr. Mahbubani sought to challenge, what he perceived as, Western paternalism. He believes that Asians do not need indefinite guidance by the Western world, because Asians are capable of independent thought, and just because these thoughts may differ from the West does not mean they are the result of defective thinking. A befitting question for the coming decade is, “Can Sub-Saharan Africans think?” For many Westerners it would seem the answer is, “No”, at least as far as Africa’s relationship with China.

In 2005, the Western media began to express “concern” with the increasing Chinese presence in Sub-Sahara Africa (Africa). During this period, many foreign policy observers began to promote the idea that China is plotting to take over Africa in some neo-colonialist attempt to gain unlimited access to natural resources. For example, Karin Kortmann, a German parliamentary state secretary stated in November of 2006, “our African partners really have to watch out that they will not be facing a new process of colonization” (Cheng 2007). The same year, Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, Jack Straw, made similar allegations “Most of what China has been doing in Africa today is what we did in Africa 150 years ago” (Stevenson 2006). This Sinophobic boilerplate is hyperbole, but the narrative suggests that the average African is impotent and their leaders are all iniquitous or ineffectual.
Modern Sino-African relations were born in the aftermath of the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960’s. The government of Beijing was isolated from the Soviet bloc and the U.S. did not recognize it. China moved to increase its links with the developing world by exporting its own variant of revolutionary communism, Maoism. China had a special appeal to many in Africa, as it was not a former colonial power.

In recent years, the Sino-African relationship has evolved toward capitalist trade. Chinese and African officials routinely describe their relationship as a mutually beneficial one, based on mutual respect, and free of exploitation or paternalism, both common complaints against Western nations. China has over 800 Chinese companies with 750,000 Chinese nationals operating in 49 out of 53 African countries (Page 2008) (Schaefer 2008). Since the 1990’s, the Chinese have invested billions of dollars in African infrastructure, resource extraction, and other business ventures. This investment has been the source of much Western suspicion.

Trade between Africa and China went from $10 million in the 1980s, to $100 million in 2008 (Amosu 2007). This was a rapid increase from $55 billion in 2006. The West still holds a dominant economic position to China in Africa. Harry Broadman (2007) found in his book, “Africa’s Silk Road: China and India’s New Economic Frontier”, that although China’s investment is growing quickly, it is not yet comparable with that of the West. China’s overall exports to Africa in 2006 were about 35% of total exports, equaling $27 billion (Broadman 2007). These exports were predominately light-manufacturing products. The growth rate of African exports to China was 1.7 times the global export total, 73% were oil products (Broadman 2007). One-third of China’s oil imports are from Africa, which was only 9% of Africa’s total oil exports, as compared to 33% going to the U.S. in 2006 (Broadman 2007). The same year, 10% of Africa’s total global exports went to China, which amounted to $29 billion (Broadman 2007).

By 2008, China exported $50.8 billion worth of goods to Africa, which was a rise of 36% from the previous year (Zheng 2009). The import of goods from Africa rose 54% or $56 billion (Zheng 2009). China’s major trading partners in terms of total trade were Angola; South Africa; Sudan; and Nigeria.By some estimates, China will likely surpass the United States in 2010 as Africa’s single most important trading partner. Currently, China ranks as Africa’s second highest trading partner, only second to the U.S.

In 2006, African FDI to China was $1.1 billion whereas Chinese FDI to Africa was $900 million (Wang etc al. 2008). China’s total FDI to Africa was 5% of its total, mainly to the mining and oil sectors, although there has been a diversifying trend (Wang etc al. 2008). Europe and North American were still the main foreign investors in Africa, accounting for 68% and 22% of the FDI stock, respectively (Wang etc al. 2008). No recent reliable data exists, but estimates put Chinese FDI as high as 30% of Africa’s total 2008 (Wang etc al. 2008).

China’s prevailing business model in Africa has been to look for niche opportunities where Western companies have found it too politically controversial, too risky, or financially enviable. For example, many of the assets held by China’s national oil company were too small for international oil companies and were either passed on or relinquished. China has also marketed itself as an alternative for African nations that are no longer interested in traditional Western aid programs, which often required economic and political restructuring. China offers less aid and more loans and business opportunities.

In addition, China is often willing to pay for goods with infrastructure projects and training. By the end of 2008, China trained 11,000 African professionals (Editor (b )2009). Two thousand African students receive scholarships to study in China each year, most of whom study engineering, medicine, and science; that number is expected to double. China sends professionals to Africa to work on various environmental, medical, and agricultural projects. China has also dedicated $3 billion to the China-Africa Development Fund, which has funded 20 projects Editor (b) 2009). The fund provides preferential loans to African nations and preferential buyers’ credit, as well as waives bad debts.

In spite of these humanitarian efforts, China continues to take heavy criticism from the West. Many complain that much of Africa is already struggling to develop and China not only promotes and enables bad governance, but also destroy domestic businesses through unfair competition. Beijing’s economic model for development runs counter to Western free market neo-liberalism, which critics often complain is a detrimental example for African governments.

There are also complaints about China’s lending practices. The former Bush Administration accused China of being a “rogue creditor” by not only bypassing the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, but also not adhering to their lending standards, which encourage transparency and assesses the overall fiscal health of the lender. To maintain good long-term relations, China has canceled the debt of 31 African countries to the tune of $1.4 billion (Yan 2006).

China has been panned for its military sales and reluctance to punish nations the West see as pariah states. It is true that China has a non-interference policy in the domestic affairs of sovereign nations, which it has long promoted in the UN Security Council. Despite this, China has pushed for a stronger role for Peacekeepers in Sudan, where it has contributed its own troops, as well the Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia.

From 2003 to 2006, 15% percent of total arms sales to Africa came from China, putting them behind Russia and Germany (Hanson 2008). These sales included those to Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Burundi, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. Still the United States and other Western nations express hypocritically selective outrage. During the Cold War, the West propped up dictatorships or overthrew democratically elected governments based on its interests and continues to do so. China’s behavior is far from unique; the real issue is that China and the West have interests that currently conflict.

Many in the West also charge China with unfair competition, citing that their government heavily subsidizes many Chinese firms, and in turn, these companies flood struggling African markets with their goods without hiring Africans workers. China’s oversight agencies do not have direct authority over Chinese corporations overseas, especially the many that are not government owned. The Chinese government organizes loose syndicates that work in coordinate to further business goals.

Chinese goods do often flood African markets, often smothering local fledgling competition, which causes unemployment. Most of this labor cannot transfer to Chinese companies because up to 70% of their laborers are imported from China (Hanson 2008). Chinese firms are vertically integrated which allows them to avoid negotiating with African trade unions and transferring skills that might eventually make Africans more competitive, but there are not many corporations that willingly help potential competition.

Many Western China critics attack the Chinese government and business for allegedly assisting African governments to oppress their people in order to gain a firm control over resources that China needs to fuel its development. They complain about China’s failure to engage the broader African population in an altruistic manner. These detractors seem to forget that the Chinese are engaging in business, not charity. Further, they do not believe that Africans are capable of doing what is in their own interest. Hypocritical attempts to take the moral high ground, claiming to be a champion for Africa’s oppressed masses is a cover to mask the discomfort generated by unwanted strategic competition with China in Africa.

The reality is that the primary barriers to Africa’s development are internal; but it is rare a Western analyst looking at China’s position in Africa, asks what responsibility Africans have to themselves. Countries with significant oil and mineral deposits frequently fail to grow, despite investment, due to corruption and the Dutch Disease. Africa’s non-commodity exports have limited penetration to China’s market, not due to tariff barriers, but due to lack of competitive products, high transportation costs, and a weak financial system that does not properly allocate capital to domestic firms. As to corruption, Transparency International reported that China is one of the most willing nations to pay bribes, but at the same time, a World Bank survey of 68 countries found that Africa leads other regions in corruption (Behar 2008). These issues are internal to Africa and not the responsibility of China.

African leaders can drive a harder bargain by exploiting existing political advantage and strengthening continental institutions. Africa is responsible for China gaining its seat in the UN Security Council, as well as China’s ascension to the WTO. Africa also supports China in the UN against human right allegations and by limiting Taiwan’s diplomatic movements. Africans need to build a stronger African Union that can provide a multilateral trade infrastructure and coherent continental Chinese economic policy; this will only strengthen the continents ability to negotiate. The current situation is a type of “prisoner’s dilemma” where individual countries benefiting from Chinese trade do not want the African Union involved in their affairs.

African citizens are not helpless. In some African nations, civil society has pressured governments concerning their nation’s relationship with China. This has promoted some African governments to change the nature of their engagement with China. This is something China has shown flexibility for, because China wants to avoid some of the strong anti-Chinese movements that have occurred in Namibia, Zimbabwe, Angola, and Lesotho, Zambia, and Gabon in recent years (Schaefer 2008). There is likely a correlation between good governance and the amiability of citizens to trade with China. This is something China might be reflecting upon.

Due to the current global financial crisis, revenues have been falling for many Chinese firms. Harry Broadman found that Africa averaged 6% GDP growth in 2007, but projects growth to be 3% in 2009 (Wood 2009). The economic contraction is greatest where capital markets are most developed, as in South Africa and Nigeria. FDI has also declined an commodity prices have dropped significantly in some markets, 50% in the oil market (Wood 2009). Consequently, these firms have become more risk averse in their African business.

The contraction of Western economies will push Africa even closer to China, as China’s economy probably only slow to 8% GDP growth in 2009 (Shinn 2009). The demand generated by this growth will be important to Africa, as it might prevent a complete collapses of commodity prices (Shinn 2009). In 2007, Pew Global Attitudes Project found that most Africans see China’s influence being more positive and growing faster than America’s (Cooke, 2008). This finding will be prescient, if the West does not change its attitudes. To remain competitive the West should focus on trade over aid. Aid is will still be necessary, but as William Easterly (2006) stated in his book “The White Man’s Burden”, the West should target aid based on what Africans wants not on what they think Africans need; which is a de facto acknowledgment of the fact that Africans can think.


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2 thoughts on “The Chinese – African Relationship: Can Sub-Saharan Africans Think

  1. Overall you offer a fair assessment of why Africans are choosing to build stronger ties with China, but I have to take issue with two points, one major and one minor.

    I’ll start with the minor. African countries are not responsible for China having a UNSC seat, the US is. Changing the UNSC seat from Taiwan to the PRC was part of the normalization of Sino-US relations. The same is true of China joining the WTO. African countries — and you sometimes fall into the trap of treating Africa as one country in this piece — don’t have nearly the political pull you claim. Instead, pro-China African countries and China work together as a voting bloc in UN committees. They will, for example, vote in unison against a UN resolution seen as anti-China, while China will extend its veto shield to protect regimes like Sudan’s from UN pressure. But as for the case of Taiwan, the African countries don’t “help China” by voting against recognition of Taiwan: most of them have been told by China that if they want investment, they should break off diplomatic ties with Taipei.

    The major argument I have with you is when you bring up the “West did it 30 years ago, so it’s hypocritical to complain when China does it today” argument. As is so often the case with Chinese policy, I’m perplexed as to why it’s okay for China to do bad things today because the West did bad things yesterday. With regard to arms sales, the problem isn’t the amount of arms countries sell to Africa but the regimes they sell them to. Provided that the regime in question doesn’t recognize Taiwan, there is, in fact, no government so terrible that China would not sell it weapons (not to mention invest in it). And that, most observers will agree, isn’t good for human rights in Africa.

    Finally, I hope you’re right that China comes around to promoting good governance among its African client-states, but the Zambia case in 2006 suggests that Beijing prefers that African countries do their best to maintain the status quo. Otherwise, China will withdraw investment. This is not a recipe for reform, and it undermines the Chinese claim that their relations with African nations are based on mutual respect. The Sino-African relationship isn’t neocolonialism, but it’s pretty clear who can dictate to whom.

  2. Matthew:

    1) I am well aware that Africa is not one nation, believe me. It is difficult to speak about 53 nations various foreign policies, so I spoke about the average. Just as I later spoke about ASEAN. I only have about 2,000 words to write something very complex, I don’t have space to delve into the foreign policy of each nation. The idea is an overview of Sub-Saharan activity.

    2)Quid pro quo, investment for the proper vote is not strange. This is basic politics. China expects things in return for its low interest high risk loans. Africans don’t have to take these loans.

    I am aware that Africans did not single-handedly put China in the WTO, etc. I should have been more clear, but my argument was that African nations (often as a pretty firm bloc) support China and vice versa. As you pointed out and this extends to more than “protecting Sudan”.

    3)No reason to be perplexed. I was not making the argument that the West has done something bad so then China is entitled to. It is the issue that the West does not have a lot of moral real-estate to stand on. I’m convinced Western governments, as an aggregate don’t care about Africa either, they “want what they want” and this is more an issue of not liking Chinese competition than anything else. As far as arms sells, I’m not going to make moral judgments as far as who should sell what to who. What I know is nations sell to people if they see it in their interests to do so, all nations do this, including China. This has always been the case. Some nations try to justify it, hide it, etc. That does not change the affect. In the end, human rights in Africa is not China’s responsibility it is Africans. Africans are not children. If you give me a gun, that does not mean I will shoot my neighbor. It might make it easier to do so, but the motive is not in the gun or the seller, it is in me. Africans have a choice. One might say that a tyrannical government can victimize individuals. True, but many nations (including China with the mandate of heaven and most Westerns nations) believe in the idea of “just revolution”. In American history, Nathan Hale said, “I only regret that I have but one life to give my country”. That is instructive as to my view. Africans are just as cable of fighting for their rights and beliefs as anyone else. I do not recall it being necessary for people from China or Africa having to go to Europe to “teach” human rights or “protect” people from deadly weapons. They figured it out on their own, and that peace appears somewhat lasting and stable. I believe Africans are just as capable.

    4) In the case of Zambia, you are correct, and China can dictate to a single state, but that is also the fault of Africans. If African nations learned to cooperate more across borders (as ASEAN is somewhat doing now) they might have more clout in negotiating as a body against China. It is simple game theory. Alone they get dictated too, together they may be able to force a concession. The reality is that China can not long continue to develop without significant imports from Africa. Africans are the one who can drive a better bargain, but it is up to them to do so. I say let them try, if they fail then maybe they will learn from that experience.

    To sum this up. My thinking is that as long as China is not forcing anyone in Africa to do anything by force of arms it is the responsibility of Africans to exploit whatever opportunity they can with China to their benefit and leverage those opportunities for better deals with the West. I do not believe Africans are mentally challenged, physically inferior, or culturally backward. I believe they can understand basic concepts of trade and diplomacy. I also believe they know what is in their best interest.

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