Features | Opinion | East Asia

Is China a New Colonial Power?

How well do the claims of neocolonialism stand up?

By Amitai Etzioni for
Is China a New Colonial Power?
Credit: Lintao Zhang, Associated Press

Critics argue that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has become a neocolonial power. Although it does not hold the kinds of colonies imperial powers used to lord over, it is said to conduct itself as one of them. Thus, for instance, according to Jean-Marc F. Blanchard, a China scholar, “the general features of China’s relations with many countries today bear close resemblance to the European colonial powers’ relations with African and Middle Eastern countries in the 19th and 20th century. Among other things, we witness countries exchanging their primary products for Chinese manufactured ones; China dominating the local economy; countries becoming heavily indebted to the PRC; China exerting greater weight on local political, cultural, and security dynamics; and Chinese abroad living in their own ‘expat enclaves.’” While Blanchard adds nuance to this narrative in his own analysis, many scholars appear to take it as common wisdom.

Beijing’s new transnational infrastructure, like pipelines and highways, are viewed as initiatives to send more resources to the PRC. These projects are reported to deplete national treasuries. Moreover, Chinese projects and investments draw on few local suppliers and partners and contribute little to job creation, partly because they employ many Chinese laborers. Finally,  China is said to doing more harm than good to the host countries because its cheap goods destroy local manufacturing.

Africa is depicted as the major victim of this new Chinese global abuse drive. China is said to propping up its own industries by extracting raw materials, such as minerals, fossil fuels, and agricultural commodities, from all over the world, with Africa as its main target. China is “present” in 39 African countries and is the continent’s biggest trade partner. China’s tens of billions of dollars in investments and loans are readily accepted by cash-starved African states, however they have  come with many strings attached.

China is reported to issue loans to make countries beholden to the it; that they must be are paid whether through economic concessions, political support, or a combination of both. Although bilateral trade often grows in the wake of such deals, critics hold that the trade is skewed heavily in China’s favor, allowing the PRC to get resources while “import[ing] cheap finished goods of questionable quality that undermine local manufacturers.”

For example, in Zambia, we are told, China has invested in copper mines. It “moved men and machinery to the country, replacing Zambian with Chinese workers,” leading to an increase in unemployment in the country. Moreover, the Chinese companies have ignored safety regulations, denying local miners’ access to basic protective equipment.

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African leaders are reported to be different from those of other regions in that they “are unwilling – or unable – to push back” against China. “At the 2018 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), African leaders drowned China in praise in a[n] unmistakable sign of how indispensable the Middle Kingdom has become to them, in contrast to the United Nations, United States and European Union.”

All these criticisms play well in the context of a rising Cold War between the U.S. and China. However, if one is not caught up in the mutual recriminations between the two powers, one observes that, unlike the charges about violations of human rights, the charges of neocolonialism may be overblown.

Many infrastructure projects financed by China, whether they be power distribution lines, highways, or railways, “facilitate internal exchange of goods, services, and peoples. Other projects will integrate countries into global production networks or regional connectivity schemes. …Chinese-constructed airports, port, and special economic zones (SEZs) are ‘dual use’ in that what goes in and out need not be just from or to China. … China is not forcing countries to accept bad projects or incur debts through pressure or deception about project viability. Furthermore, based on publicly available evidence, China is not dispensing ‘cheap opium’ in the form of preferential loans to ensnare countries in a so-called ‘debt trap.’”

Deborah Bräutigam of Johns Hopkins University, writes that “[s]urveys of employment on Chinese projects in Africa repeatedly find that three-quarters or more of the workers are, in fact, local.” She and her colleagues at Johns Hopkins and Boston University began tracking loans provided by China in 2000. “In Africa, [they] found that China had lent at least $95.5 billion between 2000 and 2015. That’s a lot of debt. Yet by and large, the Chinese loans in [their] database were performing a useful service: financing Africa’s serious infrastructure gap. On a continent where over 600 million Africans have no access to electricity, 40 percent of the Chinese loans paid for power generation and transmission. Another 30 percent went to modernizing Africa’s crumbling transport infrastructure. … The stories of large-scale land grabbing and Chinese peasants being shipped to Africa to grow food for China turned out to be mostly myths.”

The best way to curb improper Chinese influence is for the West to provide investments, credits, and aid on better terms than China offers. This is not taking place for various reasons, leaving many nations with the choice to accept Chinese offers on the terms available – or not gain any. Additionally, not only do exports of commodities and agricultural products to China benefit countries from Australia to Namibia to Kazakhstan, but often China is the only market available for these products. And China’s high level of demand means that the resources it imports are selling for higher prices than they were previously. China is also helping these countries to industrialize and to develop their physical, technological, and power infrastructures – all of which benefits both China and the other nations involved.

The roads, railways, pipelines, and ports that China is helping to construct in many countries as part of its new Silk Road have no checkpoints that bar entry by nationality. They make trading with China easier, but they also facilitate trade with other nations, including those in the West. Moreover, the much criticized Silk Road, has been depicted by the Wall Street Journal, not a publication making light of the rise of China, in an article entitled “China’s Imperial Overreach”– as “poorly defined, horribly mismanaged and visibly failing.”

Many of the charges leveled against Chinese corporations are also leveled against American and other Western corporations. Thus, Nike, Apple, and Walmart have been reported to run sweatshops in developing countries, in which working conditions are unsafe, employees are paid little, and children are employed.  Western governments also demand that the credits they extend be used to buy products of their corporations, along with various other concessions. A main difference is that the aid, credits, and investments available from China these days are much larger than those available from the West.

At a World Health Assembly meeting in 2018, U.S. officials used threats of hampering trade and eliminating key military aid to browbeat their Ecuadorian counterparts into agreeing not to introduce a resolution related to breastfeeding. In the rush to secure a new sponsor to advance the resolution, health advocates found that “at least a dozen countries, most of them poor nations in Africa and Latin America, backed off, citing fears of retaliation” from the U.S.  This bullying is not reserved for countries that are small and/or poor. When the U.K. reversed course on its decision to allow Huawei to provide hardware and services for its public 5G network, government officials privately told Huawei executives that the new ban was partially attributable to “geopolitical” factors, specifically pressure from the Trump administration.

If, after the U.S. elections, there is a reexamination of U.S.-China relations in a less heated context, three propositions are particularly worthy of reconsideration: (1) There is much room for setting norms and standards for all nations that extend credits to other nations in need. (2) The charges leveled against China as a major violator of human rights, namely the detention of a million Uighurs, the oppression of Hong Kong, and increased authoritarianism at home, are well-taken. However, it does not follow that China’s economic development drives overseas are necessarily all to be condemned. They need to be evaluated in their own right, and, as the preceding discussion suggests, they may on balance be quite constructive. (3) Providing nations in need with aid, credits, and investment on better terms than those offered by China is the best way to counter whatever undue influence China has, rather than merely criticizing Chinese practices.

In short, we should not approach China in binary terms, as either friend or foe, but continue to promote human rights and democracy, contain aggression where we encounter it, and compete to help the developing world, rather than seeking to block China while providing little help of our own. 

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Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international affairs at The George Washington University. He is the author of Avoiding War with China and Reclaiming Patriotism, among other books.