“When East meets South”: China’s African gambit

Nearly six centuries after Zheng He first reached the Horn of Africa, China once again turns its attentions to the African continent.

Leaders of 48 of the 53 African countries, including 40 heads of state, plan to arrive this weekend for perhaps the biggest diplomatic event China has ever organized.

The official purpose of the three-day China-Africa Forum is to expand trade, allow China to secure the oil and ore it needs for its booming economy, and help African nations improve roads, railroads and schools.

The unofficial purpose is to redraw the world’s strategic map, forming tighter political ties between China, now the fastest-growing major economy, and a continent whose leaders often complain of being neglected by the United States and Europe.

This is of course not the first time in recent memory China has courted African leaders. During the Cold War, China would frequently reach out to Socialist states (shaky though they were) and the bidding wars between the PRC and the ROC for UN votes too often focused on cash-poor African nations.

This time though, the Chinese want trade and commerce. They want raw materials. And they’re not particularly finicky about with whom they do business.

“The Western approach of imposing its values and political system on other countries is not acceptable to China,” said Wang Hongyi, a leading specialist on Africa at the China Institute of International Studies. “We focus on mutual development, not promoting one country at the expense of another.”

Economically, Beijing’s outreach aims to secure Africa’s abundant supplies of oil, iron ore, copper and cotton at the lowest possible prices, delivered through a supply chain that China controls, analysts say. Chinese companies also view Africa as an open market, neglected by Western multinationals, that they can cultivate with their trademark low-priced goods.

China’s leaders blame the West for failing to successfully engage African nations in mutually beneficial trade, but China’s goals seem to have more in common with the Western imperialism and neo-imperialism of the 20th century than Beijing’s leaders would like to admit. The goal is raw materials, cheap and a-plenty, along with markets for finished products. Strategically, China may not overtly seek to impose its will on its African “partners,” but several African nations are deep in China’s debt, leading the G7 last year to chastise China for the practice of overlending to African nations with wobbly credit. Anthony Kuhn reported on NPR this morning that China claims its aid won’t be burdened by the political demands of Western nations. The PRC continues to sell arms to states, such as Sudan, that probably don’t need any more guns floating around their borders or cities. China also continues to resist intervention in Darfur. While China has provided aid and infrastructure projects in Africa, “with no political strings attached,” Kuhn’s report notes that China expects continued support in the UN against attempts to censure the PRC for human rights violations and it also requires its African “partners” to reject Taiwanese membership in the UN and other world bodies. This seems somewhat stringy to me. Maybe it’s just “stringy with Chinese characteristics.”

If China is sincere about fostering mutually beneficial patterns of trade in a part of the world sorely in need of help and aid, then I am all for it. European imperialists of the 19th century and American and Soviet cold warriors of the 20th century were more interested in their own strategic and economic objectives than dealing with the crushing poverty, warfare, and health crises that afflict many parts of the African continent. I’d like to think that there is somebody in this century who can do a better job providing help to Africa. I’m just not sure–given the signs out of Beijing this week–that that “somebody” is going to be China.

Cross posted at Jottings from the Granite Studio

The Discussion: 9 Comments

Calling China’s relations with individual African states “imperialist” or “neo-colonialist” simply reflects the intellectual inadequacy of feeble-minded bourgeois journalists with pretensions towards adequacy.

A) China does not seek to politically control any African state or territory

B) China does not exercise administrative control of either economic or political policy of any African state

C) China has yet to massacre a few million Africans as the Belgians, French, British, Germans, etc were all wont to do

D) All the West aid projects to Africa are naturally duplicitous and it is a case of an extremely dirty pot calling the kettle black.

November 4, 2006 @ 9:23 am | Comment


Agreed there’s quite a bit of pot and kettle calling here. “The West” (however defined) made quite a mess in Africa (however defined).

That said, it would be impossible to label China’s current gambit as entirely altruistic. Ivan mentioned in the post above some political reasons. I add economic and geopolitical motivations. China is seeking raw materials. Cheap raw materials. It is also looking for markets for its goods. The economics of the situation (raw materials on the cheap in exchange for finished goods that compete directly with local industry) should seem familiar.

As for direct political and military control of African territory, you make a very good point. Hence my statement that China’s goals have much in common with past experiences of Western imperialism and colonialism but (I think it’s almost too obvious to reiterate) the parallels are not exact. We are talking a few shared motivations, not whole pages ripped from the playbook.

(For China’s adventures in imperialism and colonialism by force, one might want to look closer to home than Africa.)

November 4, 2006 @ 9:34 am | Comment

Jing, you pathetic aging Marxist intellectual-wanker in denial of history’s verdict on the bankruptcy of Marxism and of the superstitions to which you have devoted your entire, utterly pointless life:

A. At this point China is not ABLE to control any African state. That does not prove anything about China’s intentions or long term aspirations. At this time, China is not able to invade Taiwan, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t like to.

B. See above. China is not able at this time.

C. See above. China has never been ABLE to massacre a few million Africans. But Communist China has done a fine job of murdering tens of millions of Chinese people, and given the deep and disgusting racism which is endemic in China (and is even more crude than the European kind ever was), I wouldn’t count on them to be any more altruistic toward the (Black, perceivedly inferior) “Foreigners” of Africa then they were to their own tens of millions of murdered Chinese.

D. ALL Western aid to China is duplicitous? Good God, man, did you ever leave High School? That kind of sweeping, pouting, faux-cynical statement is something I’d expect from a 15 year old girl at a dinner table spat.
Or from a pathetic aging Marxist wanker like yourself.

November 4, 2006 @ 2:42 pm | Comment

The Chinese think they are being pius if they do not mandate change in the countries the quietly conquor?

Rubbish! They are doing nothing for the man on the street if they do not use their power to force change. They are one thing:

ONLY CONCERNED WITH THE BOTTTOM LINE. China is acting only in its self intest with no regard for the populations of Africa. Africa was better off under Western Colonial Rule. At least the British and French tried to estbalish justice through their attempts to set up constitutional law. Do you see what has happend since the west left Africa? The Continent has failed. Round two via the Chinese will not be nearly as rewarding for the average African….

November 4, 2006 @ 8:52 pm | Comment

For the past 2 years, Africa has a reverse of fortune – the highest GDP growth in 25 years. Economists from OECD and IMF – institutions hardly for China’s courses – summarized the reasons in one word: China.
While China trades with Africa, it brings Africa together – not a traditionalist’s devide and conquer. China, while poor still by itself, also spends dearly in Africa debt cancellation, aid, education, frihting for marlaria, TB, AIDS,….., if China just want cheap oil, that’s the money it can use more cheaply, and at most only 4 or 5 Africa countries will get invited to China.
Reading newspaper commentaries from the west, to me, is a chilling and dissappointing experience about this.The far-fetched fantasies about “expansionism” “hedgemony” etc…, yet China is the only country in the world to force its own population to decrease by national will. and Chinese harbor no racial superiority, no religious fundamentalism, no unilateral pre-emptive full-spectrum dominance regime change, no manifest destiny of any kind whatsoever.

November 6, 2006 @ 6:07 pm | Comment

@Peter Wang: While I do believe that Western media coverage of China in Africa has indeed been hysterical and I object to use of such words as “colonialism”, comparisons to European imperialism in Africa and the unmentioned hypocrisy when it comes to propping up dictators, I would dispute:

1) “Chinese harbor no racial superiority” – there are too many examples of how ideas of Marxist stages of civilization, nationalism and even straight out racism are part of Chinese society to claim that there is no commonly found notions about the superiority of one group over another.

2) “No manifest destiny” – try telling that to the Uyghurs. They could also tell you a thing or two about how China views minorities as their primitive younger siblings.

@Jeremiah: from everything I’ve seen, the loans from China, as well as India and increasingly Japan (which never get all this attention), are relatively stringless compared to the World Bank’s track record of demanding cuts in social spending, opening resource markets to foreign ownership, and other similar Washington Consensus demands which have earned the wrath of half of Latin America (Joseph Stiglitz has been a rock star in Brazil, for example, for years).

I am not saying that what China is doing is necessarily good, but what has been extremely frustrating is that the media memes being repeated about China in Africa are stunningly economics and history free and very clearly whipping up a sense of ominous disaster with alarmist rhetoric. Meanwhile, there is little or no attempt to distinguish between the very disturbing ties to Sudan and Zimbabwe from trade ties with, say, Nigeria, Senegal or Kenya. This is unforgivable.

November 6, 2006 @ 6:36 pm | Comment


I stand by my statements about Chinese having no “racial superiority” and “no manifest destiny”.

I think the Uyghur issue is used by the west media as a whipping stick for China. These is an issue of national border – to which, China resolved this with Kazakstan, Kyrgze and Tajik, in 2001, with border treaties, where the international border actually moved very slightly outward from China – a fact that China’s claim of national border is supported by indisputable historical and legal evidence, yet had to settle for much less for practical considerations. If Xingiang is not part of China, how can the national border even proven to be further west?

There is also an racial issue about Uyghur and this is complex. A few weeks ago, Rebiya Kadeer was named Nobel Peace Prize candidate – an exceedingly smart and sweet millionare having 11 children. She has some legitimate grievances – logically for some one advocating for independance – yet if you see thru the news, you can imagine:
– When she were having the 11th child, how many Han Chinese women were looking at her with incredible envy, because they were not even allowed to have the 2nd, yet Uyghurs are not bound by this law. (In 1950s, Han Chinese accounted for 96% of Chinese population, now 92%, expected to be 91% by 2010 – the decrease is mandated by the law, as you can see)
– She were self-made from rags to riches, with state fund earmarked for Uyghurs only, in less than 20 years.
In addition to these, Uyghurs are eligible for social benefits, free education up to the university level and pay no income tax. Even though I don’t agree with Beijing on all their minority policies, I honestly don’t think I should blame Beijing for lack of trying.

November 6, 2006 @ 11:07 pm | Comment

@Peter Wong: To the Uyghurs, it is manifest destiny. I’m not an advocate of Uyghur independence or separation – I think it’s simply a bad idea economically and politically infeasible. I’ve criticized Rebiya Kadeer and the diaspora movement here at PKD for keeping the fantasy of independence alive when it is much more important to focus on the real issues of inequality and discrimination that plague Xinjiang. However, it stands as fact that the Han population of Xinjiang, was 30% of the population in the early 19th century, less than 10% of the population in 1941, and now stands at 50%. That’s from 187,000 in 1941 to an estimated 9 to 10 million now. If that’s not a land rush, I don’t know what is. I will grant you that there is no General Custer.

And it’s hardly Rebiya Kadeer or any other Uyghurs fault if the government’s one child policy was not applied to them until recently (and even then with two and three child limits). If Chinese people look at her with envy, then perhaps they should take it up with the government instead of blaming the Uyghurs.

It’s a complete lie that Uyghurs are given full free education or pay no income tax. An outright falsehood. There are subsidies for primary and secondary schools in poor prefectures I lived and worked there for 3 years and every Uyghur I knew paid tuition and taxes (or tried to work around them). School fees were instituted across the board for Han and minorities in the 1980s and have been raised several times since. University tuition is the same for all these days, though there are grants similar to minority scholarships. These are not falling off trees. There are lower minimum exam scores for minorities, but then again they also have to learn two additional languages (Chinese and English) and are the overwhelming majority of the impoverished. And now in primary and secondary education they are, stupidly, going to be taught mathematics in Chinese, which will simply make them poorer at math, since precise concepts cannot be understood precisely when you are grappling with translating in your head. Math is the universal language after you learn it, not during.

Meanwhile, Uyghurs are discriminated against in employment in a way that makes my jaw drop. I watched friends literally turned around at job fairs without even getting their ass in the seat or opening their mouths before the Han interviewer said “no minorities”. Uyghurs are virtually nonexistent in the biggest cash cows of Xinjiang, oil and cotton, except at the lowest levels of agricultural work. Then there is the “Strike Hard” campaign and the clear discrimination it has used in targeting Uyghurs.

The special dispensations granted to Uyghurs and other minorities are clear given under Marxist ideologies of uplifting the “backwards” minorities, whose cultures and peoples are judged inferior and condescended to. Meanwhile, the average Han population practices discrimination on a personal level, from employment to constant stereotypical drivel that they are lazy, unscrupulous, dirty, violent and stupid. If this is not racially based, it is only on the facile premise that Uyghurs are also of the “yellow race”. There is the constant drum beat that Uyghurs are good at singing and dancing, yet if you turn on Hunan TV you get Han women singing Dao Lang songs. Askar, at best, gets good work from a foreigner – Ang Lee. Other great Uyghur musicians go completely unnoticed while Wang Lequan is regarded as a national hero.

I do not dispute that people of other ethnic groups in Xinjiang are also treated badly or unfairly, and this is equally abhorrent. I do not dispute that there has been good done in Xinjiang by the PRC and by Han people – there have been genuine improvements and successes, as there have been in other parts of China. And I do not dispute that the Uyghurs have their own bigotry and problems that they ought to address. Finally, I too am not terribly satisified by the media coverage of Xinjiang. Too often Western news articles are cookie cutter, repeating the same information so well that sometimes I believe they are actually phoned in from somewhere in Maryland, by the same person using different pseudonyms. But to claim that there’s no institutional or societal discrimination in Xinjiang that places one ethnic group over another is simply indefensible.

November 7, 2006 @ 12:20 am | Comment


I am sorry that I feel your logic is quite confusing while you told me that I was telling lies.

I never said that the Chinese women blamed Uyghurs for one-child policy, just the fact that the Uyghurs are exempt from this policy -please read my post closely again – even a fool can see that I mean this as a good policy gesture for the Uyghurs.

By the way, I was born and raised in Taiwan, educated in the US and traveled and live in the US and Western Europe for a long time and now also travel extensively in China. I feel strange that I am defending what Beijing’s Uyghurs’ policies that you, an American, sounded like a descending angel on earth having proprietary monopoly for the truth about Bejing’s Uyghurs policies – typically for some self-righteous American attitudes.

For the Uyghur educational support, you said there was none, then you said it is not falling off trees, then you said it is exempt for poor prefectures, then you said it is the Maxists’ philosophy for “uplifting ….” …..well, what eaxactly are you trying to say?

Yes, there are more Chinese in Xingjiang now than 50 years ago, just as there are more Uyghurs in Beijing and Shanghai – in fact, there are small Uyghur communities in Beijing and Shanghai – if you are so knowledgeable, you must know this. The ultimate fact about this is still that the Han Chinese accounts for less pecetage in the whole population – by the national policy. The movement of people – within national border – is not to be confused as a minority issue – or do you think that New Yorkers moving into Florida is an act of atrocity against Seminole Indians?

Wur Kaixi, Uyghur by ethnicity, was elected as one of the top 3 leaders by thousands of Beijing university students – the elitest Han Chinese students – in 1989. After the tragedy, again he is received almost royally in Taiwan. This tells you something about personal level Chinese bigotry. The educational support he received as a Uyghur student is his own account – up to the Beijing university. In Xingjiang, if a Han Chinese makes a racial slur against a Uyghur, he gets prison sentence – by law. How stronger affirmative actions do you think still missing?

I can’t expect – and no one can – to completely rid the social stero-typing in a large population. I agree with you that the Han Chinese as well as the Uyghurs both have their fair share. Relatively speaking, the younger generations are much better than the older generations – old memories die hard. This gives us hope.

Also, as you also pointed out, the west media print stories about Xingiang and Uyghurs almost completely out of touch with reality. Even in Ameria. This, why, I leave to the smart minds to figure it out.

November 7, 2006 @ 5:25 am | Comment

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