Although China’s involvement in Africa can be traced back as early as the T’ang dynasty A.D.618–907 (Rotberg, 2009) the last two decades have seen a rapid expansion of economic ties between China and Africa (The Economist, 2012). Supporters of China’s recent surge in activities perceive these efforts as fundamentally positive engagements, representing these relations as “pragmatic cooperation for mutual benefit”—cooperation that advances Africa’s socioeconomic development and secures China’s access to vital resources (see Rupp, 2009: Li, 2010: Hung, 2009). Critics however, perceive and portray Chinese activities as economically predatory: profiting the Chinese state and its commercial interests, displacing African industries and markets, and embedding the continent in relations of dependency that resemble “neo-colonialism” (See Bond, 2006: Sautman and Hairong, 2009). Though the charge of neo-colonialism may capture aspects of Chinese economic engagement in Africa, the equivalence it draws with colonialism is rather uncritical.  The implicit effect of these comparisons dehistoricizes the actual colonial experience. The western supported narrative of a Chinese “scramble for Africa” tends to sanitize the egregious effects of colonization expiating Europeans of their excesses, which are only too recent to be forgotten.

Nevertheless, the anxieties expressed by some African observers of an emboldened China aggressively expanding its influence on the continent should not be dismissed. The frequency of this characterization in African public discourse highlights fundamental anxieties about the recent surge in Chinese activities in Africa (Rupp, 2009). African experiences with colonialism reordered social, political, and economic structures and provided foundations—however problematic—for contemporary African life (Aiden, 2005). This understanding should contextualise the anxiety of Africans for supporters of China who dismiss their concerns as spurious and exaggerated.

From the above, this piece argues that Chinese engagement in Africa should not be understood as neo-colonialism, instead China is strategically leveraging structural characteristics of African political and economic systems — ironically created by the colonial powers who criticise China today. While the imbalance in economic power between China and individual African states echo the dependency typical of colonial relations, there are significant divergences from colonialism as it was experienced in Africa.  China’s fundamental respect for the sovereignty of African states; its active nurturing of relations with African states; and its extensive infrastructural and socioeconomic programs —suggest that China and Africa are engaging in postcolonial relations of interdependency however economically imbalanced these relations may be. To argue the above, three main sections will critically draw out the differences and similarities between the Chinese engagement (which is argued emerged from the “Beijing consensus”) and European colonial policy and practises. The first section will evaluate African sovereignty in relation to China’s engagement, the second looks at China’s diplomatic efforts aimed at courting African countries as partners in the international arena. The third looks at China’s extensive infrastructural and socioeconomic programs. This piece concludes with a brief summary of the arguments made in each section.

African Sovereignty

For more than half a century the foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China has been predicated on non-interference, respect for the sovereignty of others, non-aggression and peaceful co-existence (Taylor, 2006). These were the principles set down by Premier Zhou Enlai at the Bandung Peace Conference in 1955 (Brown, 2013). The border incursions in Vietnam, the tensions with Korea and the challenges with Japan on the disputed South China Seas notwithstanding the leaders of the Communist Party have strategically prioritised economic growth and poverty alleviation as a means of satisfying its population and preventing a crisis of legitimacy (Zhao, 2014). At the heart of this policy is China’s ability to secure natural resources (land, oil, mineral etc.) that can propel and sustain growth. Pursuing imperial or colonial ambitions with masses of impoverished people at home would be wholly irrational and out of sync with China’s current strategic needs. Like the European colonial powers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the alignment of Africa’s natural resource endowments with China’s core economic interests has increased its economic and political ties albeit under a different set of international rules. The question many have posed is whether China can secure its economic interest without politically interfering?  Interestingly, while China has defended itself by referring critics to its non-interference policy, its role in Darfur, the brutal repression in Equatorial Guinea and its support for Zanu PF in Zimbabwe cast doubt on its non-interference policy.  (Rotberg, 2009). Furthermore, the refusal to employ its evident economic leverage appropriately on the side of peace has many worried about Chinese intentions on the continent.

A more historic understanding, however, implicates the West in both countries; not only as former colonial powers, but also having propped up authoritarian regimes as and when it suited their strategic political and economic needs (Bond 2006).  The accusations by the West of China’s “no strings” investment and aid approach underpinned by the non-interference strategy attest to China’s adherence the examples of Sudan and Zimbabwe notwithstanding. The chequered  history of reforms by the West undermines  the credibility of its accusations against China especially when past policies in Africa have often  imposed  constraining conditionalities that undermined African sovereignty and reconstructed them at best as “disciplined democracies” (Abrahamsen, 2000) and at worst, as “vassals” (Plank, 1993). The success of China’s approach is therefore no surprise as criticism by the West has only served as a catalyst for some African governments to seek even closer ties. After all, whatever Chinese investment in African countries is doing, it is not, among other things, imposing its sovereign rule, confining people to the so-called “native reserves,” extracting unfair and unjust taxes, and fashioning deeply racist societies (see Mamdani 1996).

Chinese diplomacy towards Africa

China’s diplomatic engagement with Africa has broadly been defined as episodic (Zhao, 2014). Against the backdrop of diplomatic isolation imposed by Western powers in the 1950s, China cultivated diplomatic partners in Africa as a means of ending its isolation. This culminated in the funding and education of sub-Saharan African students through exchange programmes (Rotberg, 2009).  Stadiums were built in some African countries and the railway network between Tanzania and Zambia was commissioned. China also trained anti-imperialist leaders and promoted political movements that aligned with Mao’s anti-imperialist struggle (Zhao, 2014). These investments paid off as African countries played a decisive role in Beijing’s 1971 entry into the UN. The second period was the 1980s, known as the ‘decade of neglect’ of Africa in China’s foreign policy (Taylor, 1990).  Launching market-oriented economic reforms; Beijing was not sure how it could benefit from relations with economically stagnated African countries. While the rhetoric of third world solidarity continued, China moved its foreign policy priority towards Western industrialized countries. The ‘neglect ‘was to be corrected after the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, motivated initially by the strategic interest of working with its third world allies to resist Western sanctions as well as the competition with Taiwan over diplomatic recognition by African countries (Large, 2008), this engagement was to be the most  consequential and far-reaching for both China and Africa.

In sharp contrast to European colonial diplomatic engagement, China’s rise has witnessed the strengthening of its diplomatic relationships with African states in bilateral as well as multilateral relations, taking great care to emphasize that African nations are political equals (Rupp, 2009). In the contexts of International bodies such as the United Nations (UN), the World Trade Organization (WTO),and even the International Olympics Committee, China has emphasized and nurtured its relations with African member states, recognizing that as a regional voting bloc, the African continent has the preponderance to affect the outcomes of significant issues(Rupp,2009). Building on its legacy of political solidarity with African nations that date from the Non-Aligned Movement of the 1950s, China actively nurtures mutually supportive diplomatic relations with African states. In contrast to the critical condemnation of Euro-American nations, African leaders stepped forward publicly to support Beijing’s strong stance against pro-democracy protestors (Taylor, 1990). Support provided by African nations also played a pivotal role in securing China’s membership in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and in China’s successful bid to host the 2008 Olympics (Rupp, 2009). In return, Beijing has sought to counterbalance international pressure against African states, especially those states in which it has vested interests, as China’s shielding of the Sudanese government from UN sanctions has demonstrated (The Economist, 2012). This pattern of international engagement indicates that China engages in robust and reciprocal partnerships with African states at the highest levels of diplomacy, in contrast to Euro-American tendencies to treat African states as second-tier players (Rupp, 2009). This diplomatic cultivation by the Chinese has undoubtedly facilitated high-level government to government contact which has been mutually beneficial in trade negotiations. Beijing unsurprisingly is Africa’s largest trading partner with trade grossing over $198.5 billion in 2012. The United States came in a distant second with $99.8 billion (Brookings Institute, 2014).

China’s Infrastructural and Socioeconomic Programs

African’s lack of infrastructural development has seen partners offer development projects, both infrastructural and socioeconomic, as inducements for African participation in bilateral partnerships (Bond, 2006).  These “trade and aid “packages it is argued accomplish several strategic tasks (Rupp, 2009). For external partners, the offer of development projects eases the way into more substantial negotiations with African leaders while pushing back on predatory accusations as ordinary African people stand to benefit by the provision of such basic services. The criticisms of China on this issue have particularly been vocal with accusations ranging from the lack of environmental impact assessments, health and safety and the general quality of these projects. It is important to note however that the refurbishment, reconstruction, or outright development of infrastructure such as roads, ports, and airports by the Chinese in some of the most remote parts of Africa are capital intensive programmes that western partners refused to undertake after several years of engagement in Africa. While the construction of some ports and railway networks have mirrored the self-interested construction of the colonial period the scale and extensiveness of some of these projects (the Benguela railway line from  Angolan through Democratic Republic of the Congo to Zambia) have economically revitalised hitherto ghost towns bringing much needed employment in the process (Negi,2012). It is clear China is no altruist, as some of its practices have been extractive and exploitive (Rotberg, 2009), yet, as argued by Stephanie Rupp the necessity of infrastructural networks to the economic objectives of external partners like China does not preclude African economies from their share of the vital economic benefits their citizens stand to gain. In the absence of the Chinese most external partners stayed away from these long term capital intensive projects. The case of Angola readily comes to mind. In spite of its huge oil reserves, years of war had left it unattractive to Western investors. China however advanced nearly $2 billion in soft loans to Angola when no investor was willing to invest. Criticisms of China’s monopoly and access to Angolan oil today fail to account for the fact that bilateral trade between Angola and China reached $24 billion in 2011-12(Zhao, 2014). Angola is now China’s second-largest African trading partner closely behind South Africa (Brookings Institute, 2014).  The lack of transparency on these deals has fuelled Western accusations of corruption with some accusing China of propping up African dictators through its investments. These accusations however are met with ambivalence by African observers who see the long-term trade-offs of Chinese involvement in the continent’s development. For Rupp,

China is quickly building infrastructure that is desperately needed. African elite note the lack of planning meetings, environmental impact reports, and other bureaucratic hurdles that typify projects sponsored by Euro-American nations and international lending organizations such as the World Bank and the IMF. They view the Chinese approach as a refreshingly efficient change (2009).

China today is highly regarded in many capitals across Africa. It is a worthy competitor for resources and for construction projects. Additionally, its direct and indirect donor aid is now significant, overshadowing or competing for influence with the United States and Europe (Brookings Institute, 2014). This competition has brought into sharp focus the almost suffocating restrictions of the Western-based international aid system. This system dictated how the rich countries of the West traditionally interacted with the developing world, and especially with Africa. China is seen as bypassing the established system, and having previously developed political ties with African countries, is now continuously strengthening them with economic ones. Of course, this approach was not envisioned as part of the original aid system when it was developed and applied, and this has led to the perception that China is not following the established way of doing things, which helps to explain why there is such resistance to the changes that these ties have brought. China’s involvement in the international aid system is now influencing and changing it, both because of the alternative offer of their own aid and also because their differing investment and aid policies and practices are helping to change the aid landscape (Li, 2010).

Africans welcome this new heightened rivalry for their attention and partnership. They further welcome China’s lack of conditionality, lack of hectoring, lack of preaching and instruction, and most importantly the reduced hypocrisy. Whatever becomes of China’s engagement in Africa, Africa’s governments and elites need to cease the moment and ensure that the benefits of this partnership not only accrue to a select few but transform the long term developmental prospects of its people. This will demand a sustained effort aimed at poverty alleviation underpinned by robust economic growth. China will always put the interest of its people first in its dealings with Africa and understanding that can propel a clear and forceful articulation of African interest by its leaders in this burgeoning economic partnership.


In summary, this piece has argued that Chinese engagement in Africa should not be understood as neo-colonialism instead China is strategically leveraging structural characteristics of African political and economic systems that advance the interests of the state—both the Chinese state and African states. As a result of the imbalance in economic power between China and individual African states, these relations echo the dependency typical of colonial relations. Yet, significant divergence from colonialism as it was experienced in Africa suggest that China and Africa are engaging in postcolonial relations of interdependency, however economically imbalanced these relations may be. To argue this, three main sections were devised. The first looked at China’s non-intervention policy with regards to African sovereignty. The second evaluated China’s diplomatic efforts on the international stage aimed at wooing African support for its international agenda and partnerships. The third section focused on China’s developmental projects and aid in Africa.


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