China Power

As Xi Jinping Visits Africa: What are China’s Intentions?

With Xi Jinping in Africa, Elleka Watts refutes 5 myths about China’s involvement in the continent.

By Elleka Watts for

On the second leg of his first overseas trip as China’s head of state, Xi Jinping is visiting a number of destinations in Africa, including Tanzania, the Republic of Congo, and South Africa where he will attend the 5th BRICS Leaders Summit in Durban. Xi’s trip reflects the growing importance China places on Africa in its foreign and economic policies; last year, Wei Jianguo, a former Commerce Minister, forecast that Africa would surpass the U.S. and EU as China’s largest trading partner in three to five years.

Among Western audiences especially, China’s involvement in Africa is often viewed through the larger prism of U.S.-Sino relations, as both sides compete for influence in the resource-rich continent. In this context, Xi Jinping’s trip will be watched closely by U.S. policymakers who are increasingly wary of China’s growing clout in Africa. Indeed, although she stopped short of singling China out by name, Hillary Clinton made two major trips to Africa during her time as Secretary of State, during which she warned African leaders to be wary of a “new colonialism.”

"We saw that during colonial times, it is easy to come in, take out natural resources, pay off leaders and leave. And when you leave, you don't leave much behind for the people who are there. We don't want to see a new colonialism in Africa,” Clinton said in 2011.

Although Clinton and U.S. officials are obviously intent on advancing U.S. national interests, many observers outside of government paint China’s African engagement in a similarly negative light. In order to make their case, many pundits have relied on gross exaggerations or complete falsehoods. Sadly, all too often these go unchallenged and feed a false narrative about Chinese-African relations. Five such myths are worth addressing:

Myth #1: China’s involvement in Africa is a new phenomenon.

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False. China is Africa’s largest trading partner and has actually been engaged in the continent since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and became more active starting in the 1960s. For example, the PRC has been a major contributor to Africa’s economic development through providing aid, debt relief, grants, and concessional low-interest loans, and especially through business enterprises such as capital investment, joint ventures, commercial loans, exports credits, and by developing special economic zones to spur economic growth. While Chinese investment in Africa during the Mao era was aimed primarily at supporting left-wing militant groups, since the time of Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening up” China’s investment in Africa has become more pragmatic and mutually beneficial.

Myth #2: Chinese investment and foreign aid in Africa is only given to nondemocratic states.

Not true. Western media sources cite examples of China providing aid to unpopular regimes like those in Zimbabwe, Angola, and Nigeria to show how the nation is supporting corrupt regimes with terrible track records on human rights. Additionally, many analysts argue that China’s overseas development assistance is given only to resource-rich countries. In fact, as scholar Deborah Brautigam points out, the better indicator of which countries receive Chinese foreign aid is the recipient nation’s position on Taiwan. According to Brautigam, among those countries that support the PRC’s “one-China” policy, “grants and zero-interest loans are distributed fairly evenly around the continent, while concessional loans fit a country’s ability to pay.” In other words, China provides aid and investment to both democratic and non-democratic regimes alike.

Furthermore, as Brautigam warns: “to see ‘the West’ as refusing to engage with rogue regimes, while ‘China’ actively seeks them out, misses a big part of the picture,” which is China can actually be a positive developing force in Africa. Chinese foreign aid conditionality is diplomatically (and somewhat economically) based; it does not have political conditionality at all, for better or worse.

Myth #3: The Chinese government is heavily involved in planning Africa’s economic zones

Greatly exaggerated. The Chinese government has expressively endorsed developing African states through the creation of economic, trade and cooperation zones (ETCZs) in Africa, similar to China’s own use of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) domestically.  

However, Chinese investors and companies work together with African leaders to develop specially tailored zones without a lot of Chinese government involvement in how the zones are designed or operated. While some of the Chinese companies are technically state-owned, the companies still enjoy a high degree of autonomy. Eight official government endorsed zones have been built thus far (although some have not begun operating yet). Private Chinese enterprises also operate their own.

Since these zones are still new, it is hard to determine whether or not they are mutually beneficial to China and Africa, and a lot of the negative speculation on Chinese investment in Africa stems from this uncertainty. Although some of these zones are joint ventures, Chinese companies have also come under criticism for owning 100 percent of the shares in some of the ETCZs. This ignores the fact that prior experience has shown that many times the African stakeholders often inhibit the success of these kinds of projects due to rampant corruption and mismanagement. Thus, Chinese companies exercising ownership of the STCZs can actually be to the benefit of the ordinary Africans involved.

Myth #4: Chinese companies in Africa only hire Chinese workers.

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False. African governments are usually responsible for labor regulations and restrictions and they have implemented rules about the ratio of Chinese to African labor in these economic zones. In most of the special economic zones there have been more African workers than Chinese ones, with ratios heavily weighted towards the former.

For example, in the first stage of the ETCZ in Egypt’s Suez region, there were merely 80 Chinese workers compared with 1,800 Egyptians. Egyptian construction companies were also hired to help construct the ETCZ. Similar African-Chinese labor ratios can be found in places like Ethiopia, Zambia, Nigeria, and Mauritius. In Zambia, for example, factories in a special economic zone employed only one Chinese for every four Zambians.

Furthermore, the importation of Chinese workers reflects the reality that many African countries lack a skilled labor force. As a result, Chinese companies are often forced to import skilled Chinese laborers for managerial positions, while hiring locals for low-skilled positions. This is unfortunate but can hardly be blamed on China. Rather, the fault belongs with African governments that have underinvested in education and technical training in their own countries for decades.

Myth #5: Chinese companies ignore African labor laws

False. Chinese companies are often blamed for poor labor practices and violating labor and environmental laws when developers and companies are actually in most cases adhering to the laws set forth by African governments. The actual issue here is that many African nations don’t have adequate labor protection laws, which leaves African workers vulnerable to African, Chinese, and Western companies alike.

That is not to completely deny that Chinese companies and investors, like those from other parts of the world, are taking advantage of the lack of legal protections with workers by using labor practices that would not be tolerated in other areas of the world. Chinese companies could improve their image by adhering to higher standards than is required by law, and there is some evidence that the Chinese government is pushing them to do so.

While China’s—like other powers— engagement in Africa may not be entirely altruistic, it is simply untrue to say that Beijing works solely for its own benefit at the expense of Africans. In many cases the interactions between China and Africa have indeed been mutual beneficial and depicting China as a modern colonial power is overly simplistic at best. Indeed, as Rob Davies, South Africa’s Minister of Trade and Industry, has pointed out, with China’s growing involvement in Africa “We don’t just have to sign on the dotted line whatever is shoved under our noses any longer; we now have alternatives and that’s to our benefit.”

Elleka Watts is an editorial assistant for The Diplomat. She is currently studying Global Affairs and Chinese Area Studies at George Mason University.