China’s (Africa) Public Image Crusade

China issued a white paper today on trade and economic relations with Africa, leaving the world with the same question it had before: Is China engaged in a massive African resource grab?

China Africa

The basic premise of a white paper issued today titled “China-Africa Economic Trade and Cooperation” is that China and Africa are mutually supportive of each other’s growth, that China in particular is driving economic development in Africa, and that China is committed to contributing to Africa’s growth in the future.


The white paper has the tone of a justification, with statements such as, “In the 1970s China, despite its own economic hardship, provided assistance for the construction of the 1,860-km-long Tanzania-Zambia railway, which is historical evidence of China’s selfless help to Africa.”

But China’s far-reaching presence in Africa is hardly selfless. We noted China’s particular interest in Africa’s vast natural resources two years ago, showing case after case of how Africa’s natural resources are being plundered. This white paper–though stuffed with legit, valid statistics about China’s contributions to the continent’s various industries–spanks of new colonialism, not too different from the agricultural and industrial provisions the European powers effected in Africa when they first arrived hundreds of years ago (when their mission was religious conversion, slavery, and total political and economic dominance).

The paper asserts that the continent of Africa and the nation of China are somehow on an equal footing with regards to economic development and industrialization. “Now China and Africa are both in the process of industrialization and urbanization, a time characteristic of great market demand, hence China-Africa trade has great potential.” First of all, Africa is a continent, not a country, and as such China is dealing with individual nations. When China goes into Nigeria, for example–a country where it reportedly has over $7 billion worth of investments–China engages national players, not an all-Africa delegation. If China wants to say it’s on an equal footing with an entire continent, that’s fine, but it doesn’t help an individual African country look any better off standing next to the world’s next superpower.

The report also indicates that the relationship is not one way and that Africa, too, is an equal investing partner in China. The paper points to a joint beer venture and a chemical fertilizer joint venture to substantiate its claims. According to the report, African investment in China amounts to $9.93 billion and Chinese investment in Africa amounts to $9.33 billion–a striking similarity in figures and one that does not add up. (Professor Deborah Brautigam of American University has discussed China’s inconsistent investment reporting extensively.)

Toward the end of the report it says, “As backward infrastructure is the bottleneck that hinders the development of many African countries, infrastructure construction is one important aspect of China-Africa economic and trade cooperation,” and “backward” certainly doesn’t seem a term to be used among equals. China certainly has some bottlenecks of its own–recall the disproportionate number of schools that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

The past two weeks have marked a particular diplomatic and aid-heavy period for China. The country pledged $200 million in unconditional aid to Pakistan, expressed interest in increasing cultural exchanges with Chile, and issued the China-Africa white paper this week. Whether the above is a distraction from neighboring North-South Korea tensions or from China’s allegedly illegal wind power subsidies, we’ll just have to wait and find out.


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[China in Africa photo illustration by Plamen Petkov]


About the author

Jenara is an overseas reporter for Fast Company and a freelance writer/producer in Asia, regularly on CNNGo, and a graduate of Harvard and UC Berkeley.