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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

China in Africa: Beliefs and Reality

Filed under: Africa
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 30, Numbers 1–2

China knows without a doubt what to expect from Africa. But what about Africa? What does it want? May it have already forgotten the debt crisis of the 1980s and its disastrous consequences, followed by painful structural-adjustment plans? Are we witnessing a process of China’s gradual takeover of Africa?

China used to be a poor country, economically vulnerable and beset by famine. But its forced economic transformation has profoundly transformed the country and in a few decades it has become a world power. China is now the largest market in the world, the largest consumer of certain commodities, an investment and international-trade giant, as well as a powerful producer of cheap industrial products and manufactured goods.

Claiming sometimes that China is a rich country alongside other rich countries and claiming at other times—according to its interests—that it is a poor country of the South, Beijing appears for some years to have taken an interest in Africa. We see China lending billions of dollars and implementing an expansive credit policy with exceptional facilities and loans often secured by agreements that mortgage the natural resources of borrowing countries. Examples include the debt of Angola guaranteed by its oil resources, or loans granted to Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo that are conditioned on privileged access to their subsoil.

China and Africa No Longer Belong to the Same World

“A predatory policy, a new form of colonization!” claim some voices. “Where is the problem?” retort others. “African countries need liquidity, infrastructure, and development while China needs raw materials. It’s give-and-take according to the needs and resources of both partners!” In other words, we may be witnessing the emergence of an extraordinary case of “win-win” cooperation that is “mutually beneficial,” “unconditional,” “egalitarian,” “pragmatic,” “exemplary.” In sum, free trade that is convenient for everyone and profitable to all parties, a South-South economic solidarity.

But beyond this romantic rhetoric, what are the real issues of Sino-African relations? Is Chinese aid really free of any hegemonic interest? Is Chinese cooperation devoid of any imperial ambition? Are we really witnessing the emergence of a new model of transnational egalitarian cooperation?

First observation: China and Africa no longer belong to the same world. The Bandung Conference and the illusory “solidarity of the damned of the Earth” are a thing of the past, whatever those who are now nostalgic may think.

Second observation: In order to regain “its place” as the center of the world, China implements the same strategy of extending its influence over target regions. However, its modus operandi is rarely overt; instead its expansion is often soft, gradual, and discreet. China never comes to a country showing off its muscles or imposing a prefabricated economic or political model. It takes its time, observes, identifies the key players, sets up the appropriate relays, works discreetly to create favorable conditions for tightening its grip; then, without appearing to do so, it imposes its own rules and its own economic and political standards. For Beijing’s ambition is to alter international standards in a way that promotes its interests through economic means and not by force.

Chinese-African Cooperation: A Formal Equality

Third observation: The African belief that the sole motivation for China’s policy is the common good is alive and well in some political circles of the continent. How can it be explained that reasonable people could believe in such an absurd myth? What factors could account for the persistence of such a belief? Could it be Beijing’s art of diplomacy and courtesy? Could it be that the Africans are so happy to be treated with respect by a great power that they may forget the stakes? Could it be because of the formidable effectiveness of China’s low-profile diplomacy , or perhaps the Chinese semantics of noninterference in the African countries’ internal affairs, which means, in other words, that China will not be strict on issues involving human rights violations? Or is it because China’s cooperation is not conditioned on any respect for democratic freedoms?

The gap between the familiar rhetoric extolling an egalitarian, “win-win” cooperation and the reality is huge. Unfortunately, there is no equality in Sino-African cooperation. What, indeed, is the room for maneuver of an African country that is economically vulnerable, with no financial latitude or production capacity—and therefore no repayment abilities—when it negotiates with China and is obliged to pledge and deposit on the table its soil and subsoil, therefore waiving the ultimate right to freely dispose of its natural resources? What sort of political and economic autonomy will such a country retain vis-à-vis Beijing once the loan has been made under such inequitable conditions?

Underdevelopment Cannot Be Cured by Overindebtedness

Even more problematic: Knowing that the investments currently made with the Chinese loans will not generate new resources large enough to repay the loans contracted, what will happen tomorrow if China decides, like any other lender, to claim the repayment of debts? How will any insolvent African debtor country deal with China? The question is worth asking in view of the misfortune of Sri Lanka, a country in default of payment and forced to cede the strategic port of Hambantota to China for a period of 99 years.

The fact is that economic overindebtedness is an enslaving and deadly political choice for economically vulnerable countries. Overindebtedness may enrich some groups of annuitants and induce an artificial feeling of prosperity, but it does not save one from misery; it only increases the vulnerability of the troubled borrower and finally leads to bankruptcy.

Africa seems to have a short memory. Has it already forgotten the massive debt of the 1970s and the grand-scale projects: road infrastructure, railways, dams, turnkey factories, hydro-agricultural development, and more? Has it already forgotten the debt crisis of the 1980s and its disastrous consequences? Underdevelopment cannot be cured by overindebtedness. And the mortgage of a country’s natural resources—its sole source of income—cannot reasonably be the road to economic emancipation.

China Knows without Doubt What It Wants from Africa; but What Does Africa Want?

While there is no denying the positive aspects of the Sino-African cooperation, in the long term its logic is deeply asymmetrical, enslaving, and prejudicial to African interests. For who will ultimately repay all these loans contracted frantically and greeted with widespread enthusiasm? Once the party is over, who will pay for these mistakes? Who will have to pay the price for indebtedness, a potentially toxic bubble that will add nothing to the productive capacity of the continent and will perpetuate a resource-rent economy fraught with corruption, clientelism, opacity, authoritarianism, totalitarian temptation, social crisis, conflicts, and wars?

China undoubtedly knows what it wants from Africa: access to its soil and subsoil, the conquest of a promising continental market, the strengthening of Chinese firms’ international positions in the field of infrastructure, African support for Beijing’s diplomatic stances, the isolation of Taiwan, the expansion of China’s millennial global military vision, the promotion of its norms and values, the spread of its ideological power…China clearly knows what it wants. What about Africa? What does it want? What are its strategy and economic goals? Is Africa really aware of what it is and what it could be? Or is it finally satisfied to be a passive background market, confined to this eternal role of supplier of raw materials?