China in Africa: why the charge of ‘Neo-colonialism’ misses the question

On the need for looking beyond political rhetoric and acknowledging African agency

by Lydia Shu

During her visit to Zambia in 2011, Hillary Clinton urged scrutiny of China’s investment in Africa and accused China of a creeping ‘new colonialism’ – a charge echoed across media outlets in the West. Indeed, increased Chinese investment in Africa from the early 2000s has led to undercutting, streamlined exports of primary products, growing debt that is exacerbated by lack of competitive bidding, and infrastructure projects driven by Chinese interest instead of local demand. A mounting concern surrounds potential white-elephant projects such as the Chinese-backed Nairobi-Mombasa railway – which, launched in 2017 as Kenya’s largest infrastructure project and President Uhuru Kenyatta’s pre-election big win, today sees cargo traffic so scant that pundits worry it might never make enough money to repay the debt it’s incurred.

Yet, those who paint China as a neo-colonial giant often push oversimplified narratives,
castigating the state-led nature of Chinese capital and glossing over both African leaders’
agency and the real benefits of Chinese investment in Africa.

The state-led nature of Chinese capital has benefited the continent in ways private capital could not have, says Lee Ching Kwan, Hong Kong-based professor and author of The Spectre of Global China. The fact that private capital’s main goal of profit-maximisation is much more limited than the state-logic of extending diplomatic influence and achieving long-term profit-optimisation implies a more concessionary and negotiable approach attached to Chinese state capital.

The market-defying concessions made by Chinese state-owned mining company CNMC
illustrate this, according to Lee. Zambian leaders successfully negotiated for the creation of a special economic zone (SEZ) in Chambishi and a subzone in Lusuka, to aid the Zambian long-term developmental vision of copper value addition. In 2012, Sinopec and PetroSA built an $11bn oil refinery on the South African west coast specifically for serving the local market and not for processing exports to China – as South Africa has no significant oil or gas reserves itself. Several SEZs that mainly focused on manufacturing and services were also set up in Ethiopia, Mauritius, Zambia, Egypt and Nigeria, negating claims that Chinese investment has not contributed to African economies outside of resource extraction.

Yet, these concessions remain highly dependent on the bargaining capacities of African leaders.
Case in point is the stark contrast in concessionary outcomes in Zambia’s mining and
construction industries. Mining industry leaders secured negotiations in line with Zambia’s long-term developmental vision partly because they possessed resources precious to China, says Lee, but also because their unions were highly organised, equipped with past experience in political mobilisation during anti-colonial and post-independence labour movements. In construction, contrastingly, the leadership’s agreement to Chinese concessional loans was aimed at furthering politicians’ short-term electoral gains instead of long-term national development. The Chinese got to decide what construction projects to take on, resulting in the type of notorious infrastructural development that disproportionately benefits Chinese state interests.

Some argue that African leaders need a clearer focus in business dealings with China. “China knows what it wants from Africa,” said Ibrahima Diong, Senegal-born former regional co-ordinator for Africa at the World Bank, in an interview with CNBC. “But, most African countries don’t have a strategy vis-a-vis China.”

Chinese engagement with Africa, while not necessarily neo-colonial – and in fact at times mutually beneficial – remains strategic. African leaders hence play an integral role in facilitating or challenging China’s less-than-favourable treatment of certain African economies. While a degree of skepticism is advisable and Chinese investment is not quite the altruistic gift to the continent the CCP presents, rhetoric that reduces it to ‘neo-imperialism’ merely obfuscates the varied power relationships that underlie China-Africa trade deals and their accompanying issues.


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