African Perspectives on China

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 18

Nearly a year after the China-Africa Summit in Beijing, African perspectives on China are emerging more clearly. At the summit—which was really an extended series of bilateral encounters rather than a meeting with “Africa”—many African delegations felt like props in a theatrical production, to be looked at rather than listened to. They nevertheless welcomed the attention and the promises of cooperation and goodwill, and enjoyed the novelty of being regarded as friends to be courted rather than as problems to be solved. Africa sees clear benefits from all forms of Chinese engagement, but African leaders are also increasingly aware that they will only reap full “win-win” rewards through hard-nosed negotiation with China in defense of their national interests—much as China itself did during its own economic transformation.

The most welcome elements of China’s presence to African leaders are undoubtedly infrastructure and investment. Over the past two years, particularly in resource-rich states like Angola, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (which last month was offered $5 billion to rehabilitate its mining sector), China has committed to building more infrastructure than all other donors combined. Not all of this is “aid,” to be sure. It is tied to Chinese construction companies, and in the form of loans rather than grants. But that distinction is of little concern to African governments desperate to build the ports, roads, railways, and electricity grids that they need to jumpstart economic growth. Given the borrowing restrictions placed on the governments that have had their debts forgiven by multilateral institutions though HIPC and similar programs, and the near total lack of funding for infrastructure through U.S. government aid programs (except through the MCC), China has become one of the main sources of project finance for infrastructure. This alone will guarantee it warm relations on the continent for many years to come.

Similarly, African companies are now present in every country on the continent, as documented by Harry Broadman in a recent study for the World Bank [1]. They engage in almost all business sectors, from manufacturing and food processing to small-scale trading in isolated Lesotho mountain valleys. They pay taxes and hire workers. Many have no connection to the Chinese state. Nevertheless, as Joe Mollo, a former senior Lesotho diplomat, observed, there is usually a “love-hate” relationship between Chinese employers and their African employees. The latter feel exploited and underpaid; the employers counter that they are overpaid considering their level of productivity [2].

African militaries value the training courses they are offered in China and can make tight military budgets stretch farther by purchasing relatively inexpensive Chinese-made arms (Chinese arms sales to Africa are increasing as a proportion of the total share), though they consistently prefer Western training and equipment if it is available.

Earlier this year, Western media noted that China had been invited to participate in the African Union (AU) summit as the only non-African delegation. This was taken as further evidence of the stunning success of China’s diplomacy in Africa. The reality was more mundane, as the Deputy Chairman of the AU, Patrick Mazimhaka, explained recently at a meeting in Washington: The AU simply wished to acknowledge China’s gift of a new conference center for the AU Headquarters in Addis Ababa, not signal to the world that China now had some special, privileged relationship with Africa [3].

Even the China-Africa issue that has gotten the most attention in the West—China’s unconditional support for the Sudanese government, despite its genocidal counterinsurgency in Darfur—does not particularly alarm African leaders, because they do not blame China for the crisis, and do not believe it has the power to end it. Similarly, on Zimbabwe, since most African leaders share Chinese views on sovereignty and non-interference, they do not begrudge China its reluctance to abandon its ally of more than forty years, Robert Mugabe. African leaders instead are putting stock in their own slowly evolving continental security mechanisms, instantiated through the African Union.

However, the attitudes of African people may not be so forgiving, particularly as African civil society increasingly takes stock of China’s behavior on the continent and sees its parallels to the neo-colonial past [4]. China’s reluctance to take non-governmental perspectives into account will have long-term consequences for how it is perceived in Africa. Indeed, it is the political left in Africa—the same individuals and organizations most suspicious of Western intentions in Africa—that is most suspicious of China’s activities.

African leaders do, however, have concerns as well. One set of worries has been raised by the new U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), which many in both the U.S. and African media have taken to be mainly a reaction to China’s increased presence in Africa, particularly in oil-producing areas. Considerations of China, in fact, played little role in the Department of Defense’s decision to establish the new combatant command, which is more about rationalizing the Pentagon’s own operations in Africa. But part of the lukewarm reaction to AFRICOM, even among U.S. allies, is the fear that Africa will again be the powerless victim in a strategic competition between two superpowers, as it was between 1960 to 1990. The Ghanaian chief of Army staff, Brig. Gen. Robert Winful, said recently in Washington, “I wish to also remind you that one of the potential pitfalls of AFRICOM is that it could make Africa become a theater for the new scramble for resources between China and the U.S., Japan and Europe. More importantly, it is the relationship between China and America that worry most people in our continent. What happens if the Chinese leadership decides to establish the abolition of AFRICOM in Africa? The only victim, as was the case during the Cold War, would be Africa and its people” [5].

Africa does not want to be forced to choose between China and the West. It sees Europe, the United States, and China as able to offer different kinds of investment and aid (which do not necessarily overlap), and wants to enjoy the benefits of strong relations with all. The United States may have to make greater efforts to reassure African partners on this score.

Another set of worries concerns the impact of Chinese competition on African enterprises and African exports. Chinese textile imports have decimated Nigeria’s domestic production, forcing many factories to close. South Africa’s textile industry was saved only through a bilateral agreement between the governments to voluntarily limit Chinese imports, though this is a temporary measure. Chinese traders in both rural and urban African markets, who can obtain consumer goods from China more cheaply through their networks, are usually able to undercut African traders, which breeds resentment. Michael Sata, a Zambian opposition politician, significantly boosted his support in last year’s presidential election by running on an anti-China platform popular with urban traders and mineworkers upset with wage and labor conditions. African governments and unions are also worried about labor and environmental standards in Chinese enterprises, and about safety standards in Chinese imports, especially given that they usually do not have the capacity to conduct inspections and enforce laws.

Finally, there are some worries about governance, particularly as evidence mounts that Chinese firms are only too happy to bribe their way to lucrative contracts. The anti-corruption and good governance agenda is no longer only a “Western” agenda: it is shared by African people and many African leaders, and is expressed in continental agreements. In fact, to the extent that China’s aid and investment increase tax revenue and create “policy space” for Africa governments by reducing their intellectual dependence on donor agencies, it may actually be a boon to the quality of African democracy.

As one African leader commented privately, “Their game is clear. They say, I’ll build you a road, if you give me that mine. They are completely transparent.” But this is said without malice or surprise. The lesson for the United States is that it is okay to have a more “normal,” interests-based foreign policy with African partners that transcends humanitarian rhetoric. The lesson for Africa is that in order to derive maximum benefit from the current economic configuration, which places a premium on African resources, each African nation must enhance its diplomatic and investment relations with other Asian or developing countries that can offer similar advantages to China—Malaysia, India, Brazil, Japan, the Gulf States—in order to prevent a total dependence on China.


1. Harry G. Broadman, Africa’s Silk Road: China and India’s New Economic Frontier, Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2006.

2. Speaking at “African Perspectives on a Rising China,” American Enterprise Institute, September 12, 2007. Transcript and video available at

3. Speaking at “African Perspectives on a Rising China,” American Enterprise Institute, September 12, 2007. Transcript and video available at

4. For this perspective, see Firoze Manji and Stephen Marks (eds.) African Perspectives on China in Africa, Oxford: Fahamu, 2007.

5. Speaking at “AFRICOM: Implications for African Security and U.S.-African Relations”, American Enterprise Institute, September 20, 2007. Transcript and video available at