China in Africa: Friend or Foe?

Hlomani Baloyi: President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing the the Science, Technology and Innovation Dialogue during the China State Visit, at the CSIR International Convention Centre in Pretoria. President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China addressing the the Science, Technology and Innovation Dialogue during his State Visit to South Africa, at the CSIR International Convention Centre in Pretoria. Hlomani Baloyi: President Cyril Ramaphosa and President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China on a Guided tour of the Photo Exhibitions celebrating Science, Technology and Innovation between South Africa and China, at the CSIR Internatioanl Convention Centre in Pretoria, during the China state Visit.24/07/2018 KOPANO TLAPE GCIS


Is China Africa’s friend or its foe?

China’s engagement in Africa has increased significantly since the early 1950s. At this time, both parties were grappling with the complications of newfound independence, and thus engagement focused on political development. This geo-political landscape shifted in the 1980s, due in part to China’s new Open Up & Reform policy. The result of this was that China moved much of its development focus to the capital-heavy and industrialized west.

Following the end of the Cold War, China turned back to Africa, as it began to see the investment potential in the continent. After the turn of the century, Chinese investment into Africa skyrocketed, climbing from $0.49 billion in 2003, to $14.7 billion in 2011. Clearly, Sino-African relations are now at a point where their impact has global ramifications.

An exploration of the impact of Sino-African relations is necessary: does China’s engagement contribute to the continent’s development, or is it merely exploitative?

There two schools of thought around this question, namely Sino-optimism and Sino-pessimism. The Sino-optimistic lens argues that China’s engagement positively contributes to Africa’s development. On the other hand, Sino-pessimists argue that Chinese influence harms African development, due to China’s exploitation of poor regulatory environments, compliance with abusive regimes and the power imbalances it entrenches at a grassroots level.

Context and guidelines for Sino-African relations

Sino-Optimists maintain that China has been a historical friend to the African continent. Sino-African relations date back to the Ming dynasty, where Admiral Zheng He led  peaceful exploratory missions to the east coast of Africa, over 100 years before traditional western powers ‘discovered’ the continent.

African and Chinese officials commonly emphasize this historical relationship; for example, former Ambassador of African Affairs Liu Guijin mentioned “Friendly exchanges [between China and Africa]…went back to ancient times”. The idea of historical mutually beneficial relations sets a base for Sino-optimism.

While there is often reference to the unlegislated friendship between China and Africa, modern relations are guided by the more formal principles of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, or FOCAC. The forum was established in 2000, and is the most important multi-lateral establishment for China and Africa. It includes dimensions such as sincerity, reciprocity, mutual support and mutual learning. These principles are formal expressions of China’s commitment to aiding Africa’s development.

China as a development partner

While historical friendship and FOCAC are diplomatic reasons for Sino-optimism, we need to assess the concrete developmental impact of Chinese engagement in Africa. This development can be assessed on the basis of five categories namely infrastructure, aid, security, special economic zones and investment range.

Infrastructure is an easily visible example of development. China continues to facilitate many important projects in Africa, such as the LAPSSET corridor in Kenya or the Dar es Salaam-Bagamoyo transport corridor. Rudolph Du Plessis, in his article China’s African Infrastructure Projects: A Tool in Reshaping Global Norms, states that these projects will be regional “game-changers” when completed, improving connectivity and economic activity.  In addition to these examples, former president Hu Jintao cites the building of over 100 schools and 30 hospitals as evidence of Chinese friendshipwith Africa.

A further form of engagement refers to traditional development aid. China offers an alternative source of funding to the Bretton Woods organizations, offering grants and loans that are, to some degree, free of policy conditionality. The condition-free aid exemplifies the non-interference principle that China abides by in Africa. It can be argued that, by not including policy prescriptions, China more actively respects the agency of African government agencies. This provides further room for optimism regarding China’s willingness to assist Africa’s development.

Africa’s post-independence development has been hindered by security concerns throughout the continent, including well-known conflicts such as the Rwandan genocide and Sudanese civil war. Conflict means political instability, destruction of infrastructure and humanitarian concerns, all of which increase risk for investors. China is set to become a leading actor in resolving some of these concerns, through three steps. According to Professor Chris Alden, China is looking to create new norms around conflict conduct, focusing on a bottom-up approach to conflict resolution. The nation also aims to build technical and social capacity of Africans to keep peace. Finally, they offer practical solutions to problems, by utilizing their own nationals for peacekeeping missions; recently shifting from exclusive non-combatant roles to a more engaged military force, notably in Mali. This active commitment to security on the continent shows concern for the African outlook.

A central pillar of China’s commitment to developing Africa comes in the form of Special Economic Zones, or SEZs. These are areas where trade, labor and the market as a whole are liberalized to attract FDI. China assisted with the implementation of twenty-four of these zones in Africa – following the success of this model in their own development. In China, SEZs in Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Shantou and Xiamen helped underpin their rapid development, and China’s willingness to replicate a model that worked so well for them perhaps shows a commitment to developing the African continent.

Moreover, a cause for celebration amongst Sino-optimists is the range of countries that China’s investment reaches. Dr. Zhang Chun, in his article The Sino-Africa Relationship: Toward a New Strategic Partnership, states that there is a western perception that much of China’s investment is directed to resource-rich countries, which supports the notion of China as an exploitative actor. However, this is a myth; China invests in 49 countries in Africa, covering 83% of the continent. This is evidence that China engages in diverse investment spending, and does not focus on the zero-sum game of resource exploitation. This, in turn, supports China as a development partner to Africa.

The above pillars of Chinese facilitation of African development are strong arguments against the accusation often leveled against Chinese engagement in Africa; namely neo-colonialism (Brautigam & Ziaoyang, 2011). China is aware of this criticism, and actively aims to refute it. For example, the Xinhua news agency called the accusation “biased and ill-grounded”. They go on to highlight the reciprocal nature of the relationship by saying “Africa’s exports […] have played an active role in lifting the Chinese people’s livelihood, [while] Beijing has focused on helping build the continent’s productive capacity”. Clearly, China is keen to publically emphasize the idea that Sino-African relations are mutually beneficial, which, along with the tangible development engagements mentioned above, provide space for Sino-optimism.

Chinese exploitation of the continent

Despite the evidence mentioned above, there are still numerous examples of China as an exploitative actor. These incidences can be broadly grouped into three categories; exploitation due to lack of regulations, engagement with human rights-abusing regimes and grassroots issues. The issues mentioned above often stem from an overarching disconnect between the cordial relationship of diplomats and the “on-the-ground” individuals directly experiencing the impact of Chinese engagements on the continent. This is known as the upstairs-downstairs problem.

The regulatory environment of Africa as an investment destination can allow for human rights abuses on the continent. Much of post-independence Africa has been desperate for investment, meaning that many countries have been happy to take a laissez-faire approach to China’s engagement. This has resulted resulted in ineffective or non-existent regulatory watchdogs.

Certain Chinese companies have exploited this fact, to the detriment of the local population. For example, a Human Rights Watch report entitled “You’ll Be Fired If You Refuse”, details the systematic exploitation of Zambians in Chinese-owned copper mines. This is a clear example of China as an exploiter in Africa. Of even more concern, as pointed out by Dr. Folashade Soulé-Kohndou, is that the Chinese Bureau of Standards and many Chinese contractors are both State-owned Enterprises. This creates a clear conflict of interest, suggesting that many human rights abuses of this nature have not been discovered.

Human rights abuses go beyond labor exploitation; China has been accused of investing and supporting countries with poor human rights records. It abides by the policy of non-interference, as mentioned earlier, which allows for investment into countries like Sudan or Angola. Dr. Adaora Osondo-Oti criticizes this as an irresponsible approach – stating that investment indirectly or directly supports human rights abuses.

Grassroots issues are the starkest example of the upstairs-downstairs problem. As investigated by the aforementioned Dr. Soulé-Kohndou, in the article Passive Agents? Bureaucratic agency in Africa-China negotiations: a case study of Benin.  Firstly, there is the issue that Chinese companies fail to employ locals. As a “risk-mitigation” process, some companies prefer to employ Chinese nationals. However, this means that little-to-no employment is being created. In fact; local jobs and wages are threatened by the increase in labor supply.

The second grassroots issue relates to the compatibility between Chinese and African workers. This stems from different cultures, languages and customs, but due to the power imbalance between employer and employee, these cultural differences disproportionately harm local labourers. A project that highlights both grassroots issues in action would be the Akassato-Bohicon road in Benin, where, despite legal requirements, a negligible number of locals were employed on a project estimated to cost around $175 million. Furthermore, there was no clause stipulating that French could be used as a working language. Local workers were not only excluded contractually, but linguistically as well.


The historical relationship of friendship between China and Africa and FOCAC guidelines frame contemporary Sino-African engagement in a positive light. China’s development actions, such as important new infrastructure and the respect of African agency, enhance the Sino-optimism perspective. However, there are valid concerns about Chinese exploitation and the accusations of neo-colonialism that have been levelled have some validity. These concerns are especially relevant at grassroots level, in poorly regulated environments or in regimes with questionable human rights records. It is evident that China’s involvement in Africa is a nuanced issue, and should be investigated sensitively and on a case-by-case basis.

By Tao Platt, an honours student in Economics at the University of Cape Town.