Last week we published an article covering an overview of the colonization of Africa and unlocking the complicated history behind African poverty. We postulated that what Africa needs is not a new round of imperialism, colonization, or exploitation, nor does it need to be stuck in dependency on aid forever.

Instead, it needs the world to look at it as a captivating continent full of potential and valuable contributions, and it needs the world to come alongside it and seek its good through African development.

Africa’s history is filled with disruption, instability, colonization, exploitation, and imperialism – all things that keep it bound to its poverty. In the last 30 years, Africa is gaining new attention from around the globe. Some of this attention is a painful reflection of the imperialism of the past. Some of it bears the hopeful mark of a new era of African development.

Today, we’ll look at China’s investment in Africa.  Is it a painful reflection of the imperialism of the past? Or a beacon of hope for Africa’s future?


China Seizes African Opportunity

But while the rest of the world has held Africa at arm’s length, China, on the other hand, seized the opportunity the world didn’t. China strategically developed close ties and struck deals with the majority of African governments to secure infrastructure development projects in exchange for rights to extract natural resources.

The provisions of each deal varied greatly, but the appeals were generally the same. For African governments, these deals provided much needed infrastructure and investments. For China, the appeal was the solution of two national problems China couldn’t seem to solve: access to resources and the concerning rate of population growth on its mainland. These deals allowed China to acquire resources which were becoming depleted or were not available in the volumes they needed. The deals also secured permission for millions of China to settle in America, which solved the second problem.


China’s Investment in Africa: Creating Value or Exploiting It?

This is a win-win situation, right? African trade increased by 700% in the 1990s, largely due to China’s sudden involvement. (You can read more about China’s involvement in African development in this 2005 article.) This is evidence that the deals accomplished something, right?

A 2013 article by the Atlantic’s ChinaFile argues that the question is not IF China is transforming Africa, but HOW it is accomplishing it. It says,’

“From the “China shops”– small stores selling cheap clothing, bags, and kitchenware — that have become ubiquitous in Southern Africa, to oil, infrastructure and mining projects across the continent, China’s government, private and state companies, and individual Chinese immigrants are changing the continent that the West gave up on sometime in the 1990s.”

So China is transforming Africa…but at what cost? Is it transforming Africa in a way we should celebrate? Is China catalyzing African development, or merely exploiting it again?

Sadly, the evidence would point to the latter. While China has played a vital role in key infrastructure developments throughout Africa where the U.S. and European nations have been unsuccessful, the integrity of its presence must be questioned. The Economist reported in January the cautions of Nigeria’s former central bank governor, Lamido Sanusi, that

Africa is opening itself up to a “new form of imperialism”, in which China takes African primary goods and sells it manufactured ones, without transferring skills.


Sanusi is right – China’s role bears uncomfortably close similarities to the imperialism seen in the past – a lack of respect for Africa’s people, the exploitation of its land, and the entirely self-serving interests motivating its influence. For instance, China doesn’t have the same standards and transparency for human rights and acceptable labor conditions as Africans. And instead of creating good jobs for Africans that provide fair wages, sustainable employment, or development of skills and leadership, the Chinese are taking jobs by supplying their own labor for their infrastructure projects.

In short, instead of creating and expounding value in the African people and economy, China has merely claimed and extracted it. It may be safe to assume that like the imperialism of the past, Africa will be left ravaged and depleted, bound to poverty and dependency once more, unless something– or someone– else intervenes.


*Image note: This picture was taken by our own Gwen Rapp in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This is the light rail system that China Railway Group Ltd. is building. Gwen says, “Note the contrast between the poor road conditions running parallel to the advanced technology of the light rail. The system has two lines completed in February 2015, with 41 stations and expansion plans for lines in each direction out of the city. Addis Ababa is the capitol of Ethiopia and is viewed as a leading international transportation hub for not only the country but across Sub-Saharan Africa.”