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Is it Fair to Call China’s Involvement in Africa “New Colonialism”?

5 Nov 2010

In this week’s China Dialogue, Li Anshan, head of the Center for African Studies at Peking University’s School of International Studies converses with Ning Er, a reporter of Southern Metropolis Daily, about whether China’s involvement in Africa should be termed “new colonialism.” This China Dialogue article possesses valuable sources and new publications that are overlooked in today’s media.

Ning Er sees the overall impact of Chinese activities in Africa as positive rather than negative. The majority of influential Chinese companies in Africa are State Owned Enterprises which increase tax revenues and employ the local population. Examples include the Khartoum oil refinery and the Merowe dam project in Sudan. The Chinese International Water and Electricity Corporation employs 16,000 local Sudanese for the Merowe dam project. The China National Petroleum Corporation currently employs and trains 1,100 locals. Yes, Chinese firms expands opportunities and develops infrastructure in Africa, however, how do we answer to complaints that Chinese companies are limiting local workers to a minimum? And, what about China’s alleged ties to corrupt leaders of African nations?

Ning Er denies China’s involvement in Africa as “new colonialism” and calls such a comparison “ridiculous.” He suggests China’s relationship with Africa as one based on mutual benefit and not at all reminiscent of forceful behavior that characterized the past few centuries of French colonialism. Chinese companies claim employees need a level of skill and it is simply not practical to hire all local workers. Ning Er’s arguments are somewhat flawed as he goes as far as stating current Western accusations against China’s “short-term” and colonial interests are remnants of Western imperialism. He argues just because linking aid and investment is not the current Western norm, it should not be immediately frowned upon. Does the fact that it resembles British colonial behavior in the nineteenth-century write it off immediately?

Ning Er, does however, alert us to the fact that the failure of rich Western countries to provide Africa with meaningful and self-sustainable aid may have contributed to the current uproar against China, who is currently successful and profiting. As a history major studying British Imperialism in China, it is hard for me to ignore China’s current thirst for raw materials and how it resembles the need to balance the outflow of silver in Britain during the early nineteenth-century. Britain decided to balance this trade with a very special product – opium. China’s current interests in Africa do not take after the imperialists of previous centuries.

China’s presence in Africa entails more than just increased employment for Africa. It means she can finally play off East and West in the world of global politics and side step the requirements of the IMF, World Bank and other western powers. It’s hard to see how China’s alliance, devoid of moral lectures on human rights and corruption wouldn’t be more than welcomed in the continent.

Decades of support from rich Western countries has apparently failed to give Africa meaningful and self-sustainable solutions (read more about this in Dambisa Moyo’s book, Dead Aid) and the inability of these countries to reap fruits from billions of dollars of aid may have edged on the current uproar against China.  The belief that China’s interests are merely short-term and commercial is proven otherwise by Deborah Brautigam, an American University professor who emphasizes that China’s policy in Africa is more long-term than the West’s ever was. Her book The Dragon’s Gift; The Real Story of Africa in China is succinctly reviewed in Foreign Affairs.  China does not render Western efforts to encourage human rights and transparency useless because the Chinese method of investment doesn’t allow finances to pass through the hands of African government officials. For example, it does not provide a percentage of allocation for administration – in other words, corruption.

This information is shocking to us because we are accustomed to the bias in today’s media. Prof. Brautigam has a “sound academic background” having research China’s agriculture support to China since the 1990’s. However, Li Anshan goes as far as to say current French fears about China’s involvement in Africa are “deep-rooted in colonialism”. This statement is making Li Anshan seem just as rooted in the legacy of colonialism as his counter-parts, he does not contextualize China’s official ties with infamous African leaders such as Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan, not even mentioning implications of his involvement in the genocide in Darfur. As a result, I am ultimately not convinced by Li Anshan’s conclusion:

“Not interfering in internal affairs doesn’t mean you are unconcerned, but simply that you use different methods – definitely not direct accusations or sanctions. Why did the Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir ultimately accept the peacekeeping force from the United Nations and African Union in Darfur? The decision was directly linked to private communications with the Chinese government. We can privately provide opinions as friends – and that’s a method they can accept.”

Unfortunately, providing friendly opinions only goes so far. This China Dialogue article highlights essential valuable information about China’s involvement in Africa that is overlooked in the media today. However, Li Anshan ultimately does not see what is critically wrong with China’s relationship with Africa, and how this will have dangerous implications not only for Africa and the West, but for Africa and China in the future.

This post was a response to articles featured at, the go-to bilingual source on news and analysis on the environment with a special focus on China.

[via China Dialogue, The Times and Foreign Affairs]

Denise Hofmann is a history major at Middlebury College, writing her senior thesis on Protestant Missionaries and opium in 19th century China. Follow her on Twitter.

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