The China Africa Project Is China colonizing Africa?

Eric Olander and Cobus Van Staden of The China Africa Project write about why Chinese companies in Africa 'import' workers from China instead of hiring locals.

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Dear Eric & Cobus, I read the other day that there are now more than a million Chinese people in Africa. A million?!?! Seriously. I know you guys say the Chinese aren't colonizing Africa like the way the British and the French, but it's really starting to feel that way.

- Mike from Nairobi via email

Dear Mike,

The word colonialism or neocolonialism is frequently used when talking about Africa-China relations, both in the West and in Africa.

On the surface I can see why it makes sense: like its colonial past, Africa again mostly exports raw materials, and frequently imports the finished products manufactured from these materials in China. In addition, though China finances infrastructure, that infrastructure is frequently mostly used to export raw material. Compared to an economic giant like China, African countries are much weaker and there is no doubt that Africa sometimes gets exploited. All of these realities look pretty familiar to Africans and I can see why the continent’s relationship with China is sometimes compared to European colonialism.

China’s choice of South Africa to host the China-Africa summit underscores the special relationship between the two countries play

China’s choice of South Africa to host the China-Africa summit underscores the special relationship between the two countries

This really bugs me.

In the first place: calling the bad stuff China is doing in Africa ‘colonialism’ ends up making the stuff Europe did there look much better. So let’s be clear: there is no comparison. What Europe did to Africa is one of the worst things that have ever happened on the planet. By some accounts, a single European country (Belgium) killed more people in a single African country (now Democratic Republic of Congo), than died in the Holocaust. And that was only over less than a century. As a whole, European colonialism in Africa lasted about 500 years and caused some of the worst human cruelty, cynical destruction of local cultures and languages, and engineered underdevelopment ever seen in human history. Bad as some Chinese exploitation on the continent is, it is peanuts compared to even some of the milder outrages Europeans committed there over the centuries. For that reason you can see why it is very convenient for European commentators to call Chinese expansion in Africa colonial - because it allows them to look concerned about African welfare, which is a refreshing new position for them.

The second reason calling it colonialism bugs me is that it allows African leaders to pretend they have no agency. Instead of taking the lead in fighting corruption and mismanagement, the colonial trope allows them to be all ‘poor little us’. While the power differential between China and any individual African country is obviously vast, this does not mean African governments are powerless. In fact, many researchers have shown that African governments exercise significant decision-making power in their negotiations with Chinese funders and companies. Governments put out tenders, and they decide the geographical placement, function, and completion deadlines of infrastructure projects. This doesn’t mean they have full decision-making power, but they certainly have much more than African leaders ever had under colonialism. To call the relationship colonial is to underestimate all the decisions made by African leaders. In other words, it lets them off the hook for failures and mismanagement. One of the clearest examples of this is the environmental impact of Chinese engagement in Africa: illegal logging, wildlife smuggling and destructive mining are all driven by Chinese demand, but enabled by weak African governance. To look at them as examples of how Africa is being colonised by China is to excuse all the corrupt officials, indifferent governments and rotting institutions that enable this stripping of African resources. This is especially irksome because research has shown that if African governments set limits and enforce them, Chinese companies tend to play ball.

play Chinese premier Wen Jiabao embraces a local chief standing next to Ghana's then president, John Kufuor, in 2006. (Li Xueren/AP)


Calling the relationship colonial is essentially to erase the real Africa and replace it with a fantasy of an eternal victim. This is bad for Africans not only because it allows African governments to hide from their responsibilities. It is also bad because it lets African children grow up with the idea that Africa is somehow a perpetual victim - no matter who is the coloniser, Africa is always the colonised. On the surface this makes commentators sound all righteously angry and concerned for Africa’s welfare. But when you unpack it, the logic is deeply racist, because instead of seeing colonialism as a historical crime that lays at the heart of Europe’s toxic relationship with the world, it sees it as somehow intrinsic to being African. It turns colonialism from something Europeans did to something Africans are. It carries the logic that what it means to be African is that you’re always going to be colonised: first the Europeans, then the Americans, now the Chinese, and in the future, if they get it together, maybe the Peruvians, and 500 years from now, the Martians. They’re all going to violate Africa because that is what Africa is there for: to be violated. This is a deeply racist and horrific view of the continent, which we smuggle in and hide in plain sight when we call the Africa-China relationship colonial.

This is not to say that China’s relationship with Africa isn’t problematic in many ways.

However, to describe those problems with the shorthand ‘colonial’ does nobody any favours. In fact, it actually makes it harder for us to articulate the specific problems in the Africa-China relationship. In order to do that, we need a new word.

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