Colonialism has shaped Africa in a multitude of ways. The scramble for Africa in the late 19th century caused traditional values and culture to give way to European influence and ideals, deforming the African identity through exploitation. This impact is felt until today, as the continent struggles to bounce back and embrace its wealth of natural resources to advance independently without relying on foreign aid. China has been the most active player in providing services, import and export goods, and investments on the African continent, in a move that many describe as neocolonialism, implying exploitation and an increase of power at the expense of the African people.
The Subtle Expansion of China and Russia
Looking at the current situation of the African continent, one can see multiple countries involved in some capacity or another. It’s been an open secret that China is especially interested in the continent, spending a lot of money in trade, investments, and aid. The trade volume between the continent and the People’s Republic of China grew 7.5 times between 2000 and 2015, amounting to $75 Billion with further economic interest on the table. China has embraced Africa (and Latin America for similar reasons) as an area that has been rather neglected by other superpowers, enabling the nation under Xi Jinping to get a foothold and expand its power and resources.
Both Russia and China have been very active in establishing ties with African and Latin American nations in the face of frequent sanctions and hostility displayed from Europe and the US. As opposing powers in ideology, it is in their interest to expand their influence elsewhere. China has found a resource-rich and eager soil to benefit from on the African continent, which has welcomed the much needed and rather lax “no-strings-attached” money that China has brought into the African economy.
The question remains, however, if China is indeed an ally of the African continent, offering a quid pro quo attitude in aiding the development and growth in exchange for resources and lucrative trade. As it stands right now, Africa does benefit from the money influx brought by China, but at the cost of its own sovereignty.
Africa and Foreign Aid
Since the 1970s, the world has poured more than $300 Billion into the African continent, hoping for positive developments and growth. Most of the money, however, came with clear conditions enforcing Human Rights conditions in the recipient nations. China does not adhere to these standards and treats investment and loans on the continent purely as a business. As is the nature of any business, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is an equally fair endeavor.
If you look at the situation superficially, there sure are benefits on either side. African nations involved with China often benefit from improved infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, as well as more job opportunities in Chinese businesses. The increase in money does give the economy a chance to grow, which it did, but without enforcing much-needed change. China has a history of backing autocrats and kleptocrats on the continent and nations have failed to invest the gained money in substantial development and infrastructure that goes past what the Chinese have already achieved on the continent. There is still a lack of skilled workers and provided education that permanently hinders significant advancements for the population. This is on Africa, not on China, mind you.
Africa needs to take charge and actively shape the way they use the vast riches their country has and use it as a bargaining chip for their own collective benefit, which they have failed to do so far. Instead, they have gotten to a point where they are increasingly dependent on China.
China and Africa: Neocolonialism at Work?
When asked, China obviously denies notions of neocolonialism on the African continent, but there are factors that undermine that statement.
“We absolutely will not take the old path of Western colonists, and we absolutely will not sacrifice Africa’s ecological environment and long-term interests.”
Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi
The accusation of neocolonialism would imply that China seeks to dominate and exploit African countries, effectively taking control. While many say the mere existence of an agreement on both sides and a mutual benefit, however great and unequal, nullifies this claim of neocolonialism. The question has to be if this is an equal partnership or if China effectively takes advantage of the African countries it does business with?
The money involved in the relations between China and Africa are manyfold and so is the influence China has in Sub-Saharan Africa. Loans, aid, and actual investments are used by the nation to leverage their influence further. China smartly creates dependencies that are translated into money towards nations that are desperate for it. There is no reliable data on aid China actually gives to African countries, but its ramifications are severe.
China Kills African Sovereignity
A look at AidData shows that all African countries that vote in China’s favor at the United Nations see their aid increased by 86%. Other than that, aid payments employed by China seem to have no other significant agenda. There is no known program to boost humanitarian help, human rights, or similar social or political issues. China is frankly not concerned about anything it seems, except loyalty and good image. It is an expansion of worldwide soft power by the utilization of aid, something that might seem beneficial for both sides, but can make the respective countries indebted to China.
China has been giving out loans to specific countries, basically indebting them and exercising a theoretical power over those nations in the long run. This Dept Trap Diplomacy approach has been a dominant practice under China’s One Belt, One Road program in several nations outside of Africa.
Is China Really Investing in Africa?
Then there is the argument of investment. Many news outlets and the media have reported about vast money investments on the African continent, but if one looks at the actual data, there is not much Chinese investment to be found. On the contrary, Chinese companies actually provide huge amounts of expensive services on the continent that far outnumber the investments. According to the China-Africa Research Initiative (CARI), all of China’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Africa is equal to 14.1% of China’s FDI in the US, making up only 0.2% of China’s total FDI in 2016. Even compared to the US FDI in Africa (which fluctuated heavily in recent years), China often invested much less on the continent than the US for example.
CARI explains this with a general confusion about what China actually does in Africa. They don’t invest, they provide services to the African nations. The relationship is therefore not that of a partner but a more of a contractor-client relationship. CARI also notes that the turnover of Chinese construction companies in Africa was 25 times higher than the amount invested in 2016.
With this comes more ramifications for the African nations that do get into relationships with China. While China gains access to resources and a buyer for its own goods, as well as diplomatic influence, military possibilities, and dependency, Africa gains money and infrastructural improvements, but at a huge loss. Chinese products that flood the market, as a result, are impossible to compete with for locals, Chinese companies in Africa mostly employ Chinese workers, and even if Africans are hired, working conditions are often sub-par.
So what is the answer to the question we posed in the beginning? Is China’s involvement in the African continent some form of neocolonialism?
Neocolonialism: Yes or No?
When assessed from afar, it may not seem as grim, but looking closely there is certainly domination and exploitation involved, even if it seems voluntary. Its involvement in Africa is a smart move, using the negligence of other nations and superpowers to expand their reach and secure resources and allies on one of the richest continents in terms of natural resources. China creates a network of dependencies created by aid, investment, and infrastructure projects, effectively exercising power over a continent that is split and too dependent on individual leaders and interests as to use that interest to further their own.
If Africa wants to turn China into a real partner for trade and investments, it has to unite and be able to negotiate in everyone’s interest, as well as using gained money in their collective interest to advance their countries and eventually operate as a sovereign entity down the line. But this implies being fully aware of what you are worth and selling your products and services at an advantageous price.
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