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Is China A Neocolonial Power In Africa? – Analysis

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China-bashing has predictably reemerged as a familiar theme in the current 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, with the frontrunners of both parties attacking China for having committed a myriad of alleged outrages against U.S. interests.1 Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, is of special interest, as she had prominently accused China of engaging in neocolonialism in Africa during her 2011 visit to Zambia in her position at the time as U.S. Secretary of State.2 The Chinese have not forgotten this slight, and the state-owned Xinhua news agency recently published an opinion piece critiquing Clinton’s accusation of China’s alleged neocolonialism, concluding that:

“Accusing China of being a neo-colonialist in Africa puts the biased West in an absurd scenario where the robber acts like the cop.”3

As I recounted last year, China has indeed been very active with its various economic projects in Africa. To briefly recap: “Recent examples of such projects include China Railway Group’s Light Railway in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the first phase of which was recently completed; China Railway Construction Corporation’s Abuja-Kaduna railway in Nigeria, which was completed in December 2014, and which is the first phase of a larger railway modernization project connecting Lagos with Kano; and the Lobito-Luau railway in Angola, also built by China Railway Construction Corporation, which will eventually be connected to the Angola-Zambia and the Tanzania-Zambia railways. Likewise, Chinese engineering firms … are constructing airports across the continent, including airports in Angola, Comoros, Djibouti, Gabon, Kenya, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, and Togo. Apart from the transportation sector, Chinese companies are also involved in Africa’s energy sector, including hydropower dams in Ethiopia and Uganda; biogas development in Guinea, Sudan and Tunisia; and solar and wind power plants in Ethiopia, Morocco, and South Africa. Other economic sectors Chinese companies are actively involved with in Africa include agriculture, construction, healthcare, mining, and industrial manufacturing. A recent count estimates over 2,000 Chinese companies are engaged across almost every country on the African continent.”4

Does this intense level of economic engagement count as neocolonialism? Gordon observes that the relationship of neocolonialism is one of “political-economic domination” such that “there is no viable cultural, economic, or military opposition to the hegemonic weight of the current ‘world order.’” The world order today is Euro-American, and its hegemony was won through not just the collapse of the Soviet Union and its socialist satellites at the end of the Cold War, but also the “years of successful political, economic, and military destabilization of Third World sites of resistance.”5 Such efforts at destabilization continue in our contemporary era, as can be seen in the 2011 Western intervention against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, which in turn led to the strengthening of African jihadi groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram, and which in turn has led the U.S. to establish a network of secret military bases across the African continent to fight its War on Terror.6

Mason reminds us of Hu Jintao’s 2006 pledge to double China’s development aid to Africa, and of the subsequent surge in Chinese investment in infrastructure construction on the continent. Indeed, Chinese aid is more attractive for African governments compared to that offered by the West as it famously comes without the preconditions for political or economic reforms usually imposed by Western donors.7 Memories of the painful experience during the 1980s across Africa of the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) and the World Bank’s structural adjustment policies looms over the Nigerian government’s recent decision to seek infrastructure loans from the Chinese government rather than the IMF.8 Such memories echo Sartre’s warning that neocolonial efforts to emphasize the economic benefits accruing from colonial reforms are in fact intended to disguise the reality of political domination.9 Indeed, development aid from China has allowed developing countries such as Cambodia to avoid having to adjust their political and economic orders to satisfy the demands of Western donors.10

Mason suggests that the increased Chinese emigration to Africa that has accompanied the increase in Sino-African economic engagement mirrors the “white settlement and rule in Africa” that occurred during the colonial era, and focuses in particular on the economic impact of Chinese merchants in Africa, who “sell goods made in China,” as well as that of their African counterparts who travel to markets in Guangzhou and elsewhere in China to purchase goods for sale back in African markets.11 This influx of cheap goods from China has been known to “drive out traditional suppliers” and “undermine the local economy.”12 Dixon notes that the removal of trade barriers following Nigeria’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 1995 led to a flood of imported goods from China, and this in turn led to mass closures of local factories that were unable to compete with the cheaper Chinese products. The resulting deindustrialization of northern Nigeria laid the economic conditions for the rise of the Boko Haram insurgency which still afflicts the region today.13 However, this by no means represents the inevitable outcome of local industries in Africa confronting global competition. Brautigam cites examples of local African entrepreneurs in countries like Kenya, Lesotho, and Madagascar who were able to successfully compete against Chinese and other foreign imports, in some cases thanks to the human resource development and technology transfer provided by Chinese industrial investment in their countries.14

A related claim that is commonly presented in the media about China’s alleged neocolonial exploitation of Africa is that China and its firms have been engaged in a massive land grab on the continent. In Brautigam’s calculation, if all these media reports were accurate, Chinese companies would own 6 million hectares, or 1% of Africa’s total arable land. However, the actual figure is closer to just 240,000 hectares. As she explains: “Discouraged by poor infrastructure, political instability, and the sober realization that profits were likely to prove more elusive than hoped, Chinese firms came, explored, and then often went elsewhere—most often to countries in China’s border regions: Russia, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia.”15

The small actual size of Chinese-owned farmland in Africa also disconfirms related accusations of China’s alleged neocolonial plot to transform Africa into a farm to feed the hungry masses back home in China. Recent trade data shows that China is currently importing most of its food commodities like maize and soybeans from major non-African agricultural exporters like the U.S. and Brazil. Indeed, the development of Africa’s food producers into major global food exporters will require significant investment in agricultural modernization, which means the countries concerned will have to do more to attract much-needed investment from international agricultural firms like those of China.16

With regard to journalists and researchers repeating false claims about China’s agricultural activities in Africa, similar examples can be found in reports of Chinese loans to African states. A 2011 report from Fitch Ratings calculated that loans issued to Sub-Saharan African states between 2001-10 from the Export-Import Bank of China amounted to 67.2 billion USD, “overtaking World Bank lending of USD54.7bn to Africa for the same period.”17 This claim would subsequently be repeated elsewhere. Mason, for example, repeats the claim that Chinese aid to Africa exceeded that of the World Bank.18 The suggestion that China has been inundating Africa with cheap money has various implications, including the neocolonial image of China purchasing influence from impoverished African governments. However, the Fitch claim is wrong. A recent study of Chinese loans to Africa from Johns Hopkins University’s China Africa Research Initiative (CARI) shows that a more accurate estimate of Chinese loans to Africa during 2001-10 would be 30.5 billion USD, or less than half of Fitch’s estimate. Indeed, China’s growing pledges of development aid, including concessional loans, should be differentiated from the loans that are actually agreed upon and accepted, especially since a “growing number of countries … have suspended or canceled Chinese offers of credit lines.”19 As the authors of the CARI report recount of their analysis:

“Of the 1,223 reports of Chinese loan financing that we analyzed, only 56% actually materialized and are being used. The rest turned out to be mistakes, hopes, rumors, cancelled, or real loans—but not from China.”20

Looking beyond Africa, this trend of misreporting China’s global activities is most glaringly seen in alarmist reports of China’s alleged attempts to subvert the existing Euro-American world order by creating a parallel constellation of international institutions.21 In the case of the new international financial institutions (IFIs) set up by China, including the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and the New Development Bank (NDB) set up by China with its BRICS partners, China has always asserted that these are intended to supplement rather than replace the existing constellation of IFIs.22 Indeed, the modest nature of the first projects to be funded by the AIIB and the NDB confirms that this is the case.23 Beyond the shores of Africa, China is also not exhibiting the behavior of an aspirational neocolonial power.

References:
Aderinokun, Kunle, and Amanze-Nwachuku, Chika. “Adeosun: Nigeria Does Not Need IMF Loan.” ThisDay, April 17, 2016. Accessed April 24, 2016. http://www.thisdaylive.com/index.php/2016/04/17/adeosun-nigeria-does-not-need-imf-loan/.

Anderlini, Jamil. “Why Trump is the natural choice for China.” Financial Times, April 20, 2016. Accessed April 24, 2016. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/21a225ca-063b-11e6-9b51-0fb5e65703ce.html.

Brautigam, Deborah. The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Brautigam, Deborah. Will Africa Feed China? Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

“BRICS bank approves first loans, $811mn investment in renewable energy projects.” RT, April 16, 2016. Accessed April 24, 2016. https://www.rt.com/business/339797-ndb-first-project-loans/.

“Clinton slams China to win labour votes.” AFP, April 8, 2016. Accessed April 24, 2016. http://www.straitstimes.com/world/united-states/clinton-slams-china-to-win-labour-votes.

Dixon, Robyn. “In Nigeria, child beggars are easy recruits for Boko Haram extremists.” Los Angeles Times, August 17, 2014. Accessed April 24, 2016. http://www.latimes.com/world/africa/la-fg-nigeria-economy-boko-haram-20140817-story.html.

Fick, Maggie. “Nigeria agrees $6bn loan and currency swap deal with China.” Financial Times, April 13, 2016. Accessed April 24, 2016. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/6e994bb0-0190-11e6-99cb-83242733f755.html.

Fitch Ratings. Fitch: Africa’s Growing Trade and Financial Links with China, December 28, 2011. Accessed April 24, 2016. https://www.fitchratings.com/site/fitch-home/pressrelease?id=737895&cm_mmc=Eloqua-_-Email-_-LM_News%20EM%2FJHB%202012%2FJAN%2F10%20Sub%20saharan%20monthly%20-%20January%20edition-_-0000.

Gordon, Lewis. “Tragic Dimensions of our Neocolonial ‘Postcolonial’ World.” In Postcolonial African Philosophy: A Critical Reader, edited by Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, 241- 251. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1997.

Halper, Stefan. The Beijing Consensus: How China’s Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the Twenty-First Century. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

Heilmann, Sebastian, Rudolf, Moritz, Huotari, Mikko, and Buckow, Johannes. China’s Shadow Foreign Policy: Parallel Structures Challenge the Established International Order. China Monitor No. 18. Berlin: Mercator Institute for China Studies, 2014. Accessed April 24, 2016. http://www.merics.org/fileadmin/user_upload/downloads/China-Monitor/China_Monitor_No_18_en.pdf.

Hwang, Jyhjong, Brautigam, Deborah, and Eom, Janet. How Chinese Money is Transforming Africa: It’s Not What You Think. Policy Brief No. 11. Washington DC: China Africa Research Initiative, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, 2016. Accessed April 24, 2016. http://www.sais-cari.org/s/China-Africa-Loans-Briefing-Paper_SAIS-CARi.pdf.

Krause-Jackson, Flavia. “Clinton Chastises China on Internet, African ‘New Colonialism.’” Bloomberg, June 12, 2011. Accessed April 24, 2016. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2011-06-11/clinton-chastises-china-on-internet-african-new-colonialism-.

Kuperman, Alan J. “Obama’s Libya Debacle.” Foreign Affairs, March-April 2015. Accessed April 24, 2016. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/libya/obamas-libya-debacle.

Lim, Alvin Cheng-Hin. “Africa and China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.” The Asia-Pacific Journal 13 (2015). Accessed April 24, 2016. http://apjjf.org/2015/13/10/Alvin-Cheng-Hin-Lim/4296.html.

Lim, Alvin Cheng-Hin. Cambodia and the Politics of Aesthetics. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Lim, Alvin Cheng-Hin. “Hybrid Lives In Postnormal Times.” Eurasia Review, February 15, 2016. Accessed April 24, 2016. http://www.eurasiareview.com/15022016-hybrid-lives-in-postnormal-times-analysis/.

Lim, Alvin Cheng-Hin. “The Pedagogical Subject of Neoliberal Development.” East-West Affairs 2 (2014): 85-96.

Mason, Mike. Global Shift: Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1945-2007. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013.

Panda, Ankit. “Revealed: The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank’s First Projects.” The Diplomat, April 20, 2016. Accessed April 24, 2016. http://thediplomat.com/2016/04/revealed-the-asian-infrastructure-investment-banks-first-projects/.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Colonialism and Neocolonialism. Translated by Azzedine Haddour, Steve Brewer, and Terry McWilliams. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Talley, Ian. “U.S. Looks to Work With China-Led Infrastructure Fund.” Wall Street Journal, March 22, 2015. Accessed April 24, 2016. http://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-to-seek-collaboration-with-china-led-asian-infrastructure-investment-bank-1427057486.

Turse, Nick. “America’s Empire of African Bases.” TomDispatch.com, November 17, 2015. Accessed April 24, 2016. http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/176070/tomgram%3A_nick_turse%2C_america%27s_empire_of_african_bases.

“Who’s Africa’s neo-colonialist?” Xinhua, April 19, 2016. Accessed April 24, 2016. http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-04/19/c_135292464.htm.

Notes:
1 Jamil Anderlini, “Why Trump is the natural choice for China,” Financial Times, April 20, 2016, accessed April 24, 2016, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/21a225ca-063b-11e6-9b51-0fb5e65703ce.html. “Clinton slams China to win labour votes,” AFP, April 8, 2016, accessed April 24, 2016, http://www.straitstimes.com/world/united-states/clinton-slams-china-to-win-labour-votes.

2 Flavia Krause-Jackson, “Clinton Chastises China on Internet, African ‘New Colonialism,’” Bloomberg, June 12, 2011, accessed April 24, 2016, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2011-06-11/clinton-chastises-china-on-internet-african-new-colonialism-.

3 “Who’s Africa’s neo-colonialist?” Xinhua, April 19, 2016, accessed April 24, 2016, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-04/19/c_135292464.htm.

4 Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim, “Africa and China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road,” The Asia-Pacific Journal 13 (2015), accessed April 24, 2016, http://apjjf.org/2015/13/10/Alvin-Cheng-Hin-Lim/4296.html.

5 Lewis Gordon, “Tragic Dimensions of our Neocolonial ‘Postcolonial’ World,” in Postcolonial African Philosophy: A Critical Reader, ed. Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1997), 242.

6 Alan J. Kuperman, “Obama’s Libya Debacle,” Foreign Affairs, March-April 2015, accessed April 24, 2016, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/libya/obamas-libya-debacle. Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim, “Hybrid Lives In Postnormal Times,” Eurasia Review, February 15, 2016, accessed April 24, 2016, http://www.eurasiareview.com/15022016-hybrid-lives-in-postnormal-times-analysis/. Nick Turse, “America’s Empire of African Bases,” TomDispatch.com, November 17, 2015, accessed April 24, 2016, http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/176070/tomgram%3A_nick_turse%2C_america%27s_empire_of_african_bases.

7 Mike Mason, Global Shift: Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1945-2007 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013), 250.

8 Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim, “The Pedagogical Subject of Neoliberal Development,” East-West Affairs 2 (2014): 86-89. Kunle Aderinokun and Chika Amanze-Nwachuku, “Adeosun: Nigeria Does Not Need IMF Loan,” ThisDay, April 17, 2016, accessed April 24, 2016, http://www.thisdaylive.com/index.php/2016/04/17/adeosun-nigeria-does-not-need-imf-loan/. Maggie Fick, “Nigeria agrees $6bn loan and currency swap deal with China,” Financial Times, April 13, 2016, accessed April 24, 2016, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/6e994bb0-0190-11e6-99cb-83242733f755.html.

9 Jean-Paul Sartre, Colonialism and Neocolonialism, trans. Azzedine Haddour, Steve Brewer, and Terry McWilliams (New York: Routledge, 2001), 9.

10 Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim, Cambodia and the Politics of Aesthetics (New York: Routledge, 2013), 39.

11 Mason, Global Shift, 250.

12 Stefan Halper, The Beijing Consensus: How China’s Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the Twenty-First Century (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 98.

13 Robyn Dixon, “In Nigeria, child beggars are easy recruits for Boko Haram extremists,” Los Angeles Times, August 17, 2014, accessed April 24, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/world/africa/la-fg-nigeria-economy-boko-haram-20140817-story.html.

14 Deborah Brautigam, The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 219-223.

15 Deborah Brautigam, Will Africa Feed China? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 153.

16 Brautigam, Will Africa Feed, 157.

17 Fitch Ratings, Fitch: Africa’s Growing Trade and Financial Links with China, December 28, 2011, accessed April 24, 2016, https://www.fitchratings.com/site/fitch-home/pressrelease?id=737895&cm_mmc=Eloqua-_-Email-_-LM_News%20EM%2FJHB%202012%2FJAN%2F10%20Sub%20saharan%20monthly%20-%20January%20edition-_-0000.

18 Mason, Global Shift, 250.

19 Jyhjong Hwang, Deborah Brautigam, and Janet Eom, How Chinese Money is Transforming Africa: It’s Not What You Think, Policy Brief No. 11 (Washington DC: China Africa Research Initiative, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, 2016), 3, accessed April 24, 2016, http://www.sais-cari.org/s/China-Africa-Loans-Briefing-Paper_SAIS-CARi.pdf.

20 Hwang, Brautigam and Eom, How Chinese Money, 1.

21 Sebastian Heilmann, Moritz Rudolf, Mikko Huotari and Johannes Buckow, China’s Shadow Foreign Policy: Parallel Structures Challenge the Established International Order, China Monitor No. 18 (Berlin: Mercator Institute for China Studies, 2014), accessed April 24, 2016, http://www.merics.org/fileadmin/user_upload/downloads/China-Monitor/China_Monitor_No_18_en.pdf.

22 Ian Talley, “U.S. Looks to Work With China-Led Infrastructure Fund,” Wall Street Journal, March 22, 2015, accessed April 24, 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-to-seek-collaboration-with-china-led-asian-infrastructure-investment-bank-1427057486.

23 Ankit Panda, “Revealed: The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank’s First Projects,” The Diplomat, April 20, 2016, accessed April 24, 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2016/04/revealed-the-asian-infrastructure-investment-banks-first-projects/. “BRICS bank approves first loans, $811mn investment in renewable energy projects,” RT, April 16, 2016, accessed April 24, 2016, https://www.rt.com/business/339797-ndb-first-project-loans/.


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Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim is a research fellow with International Public Policy Pte. Ltd. (IPP), and is the author of Cambodia and the Politics of Aesthetics (Routledge 2013). He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and has taught at Pannasastra University of Cambodia and the American University of Nigeria. Prior to joining IPP, he was a research fellow with the Longus Institute for Development and Strategy. Email: Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

2 thoughts on “Is China A Neocolonial Power In Africa? – Analysis

  • April 26, 2016 at 9:17 am
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    Voilà comment on veut dénigrer les efforts et les percées chinoises en Afrique. ça ne veut pas marcher, les africains ont plus confiace en Chine qu’aux Etats-Unis qui les a arnaqué depuis toujours….

    Reply
  • April 26, 2016 at 12:25 pm
    Permalink

    Bollocks! If I understand the basic argument correctly, various sources have over-reported the amount of farmland possessed by Chinese companies in Africa and the size of loans China has made to Africa…and because these numbers have been over-reported, China cannot be a neo-colonial power.

    Why not instead try to examine the actual behavior of Chinese actors in Africa? I agree from an international structural perspective one cannot accuse China of neo-colonialism as China has not yet achieved global hegemony like the US and its sub-imperialist allies. However, Chinese actors can certainly be accused of replicating neo-colonial behavior on the continent: Infrastructure for resource swaps; involvement in illicit trafficking of goods; support to undemocratic regimes, etc.

    You conveniently used stats on modest Chinese food imports from Africa to argue that China is not neo-colonial. What about Chinese imports of African minerals, timber, ivory?

    You don’t need a PhD to write this kind of fluff

    Reply

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