Blog | Vlaďka Jelínková

Quo Vadis China and Africa

« China is a very aggressive and pernicious economic competitor with no morals. China is not in Africa for altruistic reasons. China is in Africa for China primarily,» a leaked frank assessment of a senior US official in Nigeria recently resonated in the media. 

While some warn Africa against a « neo-colonialist » power, others applaud to China’s strategy of development of a continent, where western countries seem to have failed.


« For the first time the African politicians have a choice who they will take as a development partner. And they are really enthusiastic about it, » says Sven Grimm, director of the Centre for Chinese studies.



The key word is « partner » since China doesn’t see itself as a donor. It preaches the theory « growth through trade rather than aid », emphasises equality and mutual  win-win relationship. It also often commemorates its « historical commitment to Africa’s freedom struggle » and reciprocal Africa’s support to China’s presence in the United Nations in the 1970s. 

As  Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh said in Beijing in 2000: « China has been with Africa since it fought for independence. »


Looking at the trade statistics, China-Africa cooperation is boosting and with the present growth rate it seems to soon surpass the African cooperation with the EU. Even though EU is still the largest Africa trade partner (imports and exports in 2008 amounting to almost 278 billion U.S. dollars), China’s trade numbers have risen from 10,6 billion U.S. dollars in 2000 to 106,8 billion U.S. dollars in 2008, which means an annual growth rate of more than 30 percent. If  this growth rate persists, China will top over the EU already in 2012. Most of the African export to China as well as to the EU are raw materials.  


« What Africans like about the Chinese is that they set the goal and soon get it done. If they say that they will build a road from A to B, they do it, » says Grimm, echoing the words of Johny Sahr, Sierra Leone’s ambassador to Beijing who commented Chinese construction of a new football stadium: « The Chinese are doing more than the G8 to make poverty history… If a G8 country had wanted to rebuild the stadium, we’d still be holding meetings. The Chinese just come and do it. »

The main problems of Africa’s development are missing infrastructure, water and energy supplies. The electricity capacity of whole Africa equals to the electricity capacity of Spain. China concentrates at those issues and has already completed 2000 km of railways, 3000 km of roads and many power plants.


However not everybody in Africa is so enthusiastic about the Chinese presence.

« The Chinese do everything for their profit. They are mean, their products don’t last long and seem to be fake, » says Alice Harare from Tanzania.

While constructing, they often bring most of the material and workers from China, thus not improving the labour market and know-how capacities and creating a future dependence of Africa on Chinese reconstruction. Civil societies also blame Chinese for destroying African nature and not respecting human rights.

« Europeans cannot compare their standards with the Chinese ones. China is a developing country, therefore it’s not so far with the environmental protection laws and doesn’t have all the norms yet. However this is fast changing, » argues  Yue Yu Zou, a Chinese student of geopolitics in Paris.

« I think that the Chinese companies are more strict in Africa than they are in China, » she adds.


«We compare two different things, » thinks also Grimm: « European development aid and Chinese investments. We should rather compare Chinese investments to European investments, which are also highly profit-orientated and don’t have the well-being of the Africans as their first priority. »                                

The problem is that  China doesn’t really differentiate between development aid and investments. Therefore there is also a lack of effort to coordinate the development cooperation between Africa, China and Europe.

« Chinese diplomacy in Africa is very discreet and you never see their diplomats in development working groups, » says a source from the French Embassy in Uganda.            

Also EU doesn’t show much eager to talk to China. To European Development Days, a conference held in Brussels, no Chinese speaker or VIP was invited.


« EU has its policies, China has its policies. If they can get together for the benefit of Africa, fine. But that’s not a decision for our countries to make, » thinks Rwandan minister of foreign affairs Louise Mushikiwabo, who resides in a new ministry mansion in Kigali built by the Chinese.


Chinese run up against problems

also with Africans, mostly because of a cultural and language barrier, since Chinese workers usually speak only Ma

ndarin. China is trying to overcome this with building its language centres, Confucius Institutes. So far it has established twenty of them on the African continent. This indicates that China wants to enhance its « soft power » in Africa.

« It is surely working on building strong alliance with African countries, especially in world organisations like WTO or the UN. It wants to have supporters while saying that we, the developing countries, have a right to develop ourselves in the same manner as the western countries had,» thinks Zou. However she refuses that China is trying to transfer its political system to Africa. «We are ourselves in a big transition phase now. We don’t know where we are and where we are going, » she says. 

Mushikiwabo comments on this: « China isn’t trying to overpower Africa. And even if it were, it would be Africa’s fault. I wouldn’t blame China if there were any kind of imbalance in the relationship. The responsibility is on us, African leaders, to make sure that we have a relationship with China that is going to benefit us and our people.»