Mr. Xi I Presume: China’s modern colonization of Africa

This is an essay originally written while at the University of Oregon


By Jen Jackson

An Economic History:

Contemporary African history has the long dark shadow of imperialism cast across it. The 1980’s saw the recognition of the last remaining imperialized African Nations as independent. The decolonization of Africa is a process that spanned the entire 20th century, with nations gaining independence as early as 1910 in South Africa. The fight against imperialism across the continent was long and hard won, but independence did not come without dangerous shifts of power and economy in the struggle for self-governance.

Botswana became independent of the United Kingdom in 1966 and elected their first president, Seretse Khama, in that same year. Khama was both a leader of the independence movement, and the natural-born king of the Bamangwato people. Botswana is one nation that experienced a peaceful transition to independence. Under Khama’s presidency, and within those first several decade, Botswana flourished economically and socially. The discovery of diamond mines and other precious minerals laid the foundation for an independent economy, and the development of infrastructure, healthcare and education systems.

    Unfortunately, even a well intentioned government can’t prevent disaster. Gaining a foothold in the 1980’s, Botswana has since experienced one of the most severe HIV/AIDS epidemics in the world. Both the economy and life-expectancy were hard hit by the catastrophic disease. As of 2006, life expectancy has dropped by nearly half, from 65 to 35 years.

    Botswana’s story of triumph and tragedy is echoed in the history of nations across the African continent.

    Meanwhile, China was beginning to feels the effects of the 1979 economic reforms which opened up the state-monopolized People’s Republic to privatization and entrepreneurship. The goals of the reform were to quickly expand exports and catch up to global markets by overcoming severely inadequate transportation and communication systems, and a deficit of coal, iron, steel, building materials, and electric power. Under these reforms the Chinese economy skyrocketing, quickly becoming a global competitor. New wealth lead to the idea of the “Chinese Dream,” popularized in part by President Xi Jinping, and associated with a rise in nationalism and the cultural value of international influence.


    Since the economic boom in the 1980’s, China has seen unparalleled growth, becoming the world’s second largest economy in the matter of a few decades. This economic success has brought with it a mentality of expansion and the urge to find new, untapped markets. China has also found itself with an excess of the iron, steel, and building materials it previously lacked.


A Growing Trade:

    Across Africa new superhighways and corridors are cropping up with incredible speed. These roads help connect people in remote regions with healthcare, education, employment, and each other. Highways bring with them new jobs, new opportunities to escape poverty, and new problems to developing Africa. At the forefront of African road building are Chinese-funded mining companies, ever in search of natural resources to extract and ways to ship them

    China has found it’s new market. Since the 1990’s, China has invested more in trade with Africa than any other nation worldwide. Seven of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies are in Africa. Many African leaders prefer making trade deals with China. China’s lack of transparency and “no-strings-attached” business practices means that a trade deal that would take Western nations a couple of years, can be signed in a couple of days and quickly begin creating work.

Chinese investment can hugely benefit local communities and developing nations. Sino-African trade creates opportunities for countries to build strong economies, and African leaders are savvy to Chinese intentions as economic superpowers. Many people, however, fear China’s invasive business practices and  hunger for natural resources. China’s economic influence is a classic example of exerting soft power, and nobody knows just where the line is.

    With it’s economic roots firmly planted, China’s political and social influence is growing fast. Free Chinese education and training programs target African students; An estimated 12,000 were studying in China in 2013, and journalists in various countries across Africa are trained by the Chinese. Roughly $76 billion in foreign aid the last decade has been committed by China, though only a fraction of it would qualify as aid under the standards set by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Last year, South Africa refused entry to the Dalai Lama due to Chinese pressure, resulting in the boycott and cancellation of the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates which was scheduled to be held in Cape Town. China has even forayed into the media, making state run news agency Xinhua the largest wire service operating in Africa.        

A Double Edged Sword:

War in Darfur broke out in 2003 when rebel groups attacked the Sudanese government, and continues to this day. Since 2003, more than 300,000 people have died in ethnic cleansings carried out by the Sudanese government and its militia allies. Between 2003 and 2006, China sold circa $55 million worth of arms to the Sudanese government. In 2008 it was discovered that China had absolved some of the nation’s debt, sold them aircrafts, and were even alleged to be training aircraft pilots for Sudan.

Sudan sells the majority of its oil to China. During the peak of the genocide, in 2006, the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation renovated the refinery in Khartoum, doubling its capacity.

    This is far from the only example of shady dealings between African countries and China. These dealings are also rarely one sided. Complicit governments see the chance to make money and seize. In Ethiopia the government continues it’s practice of land grabs, wherein entire villages are forcibly removed so the government can sell the land to foreign corporations.

Another impact of China’s strengthening ties in Africa is immigration. In the last two decades, over a million Chinese migrants have spread out across the continent seeking new opportunities and following the wealth. At times, this migration brings with it echoes of imperialism. This year in Nairobi, Kenya, a Chinese restaurant owner attempted to ban Africans in the evening.

Chinese-African relations also take a devastating toll on Africa’s other natural resource: Wildlife. In the last decade, the gains made by a recovering elephant population has been more than erased, and devastating numbers of elephants, rhinos, and gorillas have been killed.  China is one of two nations with a legal ivory trade. The government sets a quota on how much ivory can be legally imported each year, but once ivory has been smuggled into the black market there is no way to tell it’s source. Legal and black market ivory often sit side-by-side on the shelves.

Chinese officials and diplomats themselves have been behind a large quantity of smuggling animal products like ivory, rhino horns, and gorilla paws. The latter two are most often used in traditional medicine. Smuggling by Chinese delegations is reported to have contributed to the decimation of half of all Tanzania’s elephants between 2009 and 2014.

In one instance a Chinese national was caught with 81 elephant tusks he intended to sell to Chinese naval officers. A 2013 visit to Tanzania by China’s president, Xi Jinping, coincided with skyrocketing sales which doubled the price of black market ivory.

According to a joint report by two non-profit conservation organizations, roughly 400 tonnes of ivory was trafficked in 2013. With an average value of $3,000 USD per kilogram, that makes for a $1.2 billion dollar a year industry. Ivory trade is often deeply rooted in regions of conflict, and fund violence in countries like Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Poaching funds atrocities by the Sudanese government in Darfur, and Nigeria’s Boko Haram reportedly target elephants in Cameroon.

    The impacts of Chinese-African relations and exploitations are widespread and not always well understood. Consequences of both a positive and negative nature are continually seen and felt by all demographics. There is danger in dealing with the economic aspirations of a booming nation like China, and balancing the needs of growing African economies and the needs of the people is not easy. Africa’s people and landscape have a difficult road ahead of them as the scramble for resources continues to become more dire.

Data Illustrated

Further Readings and References:

100,000 Elephants Killed by Poachers in Just Three Years, Landmark Analysis Finds. National Geographic

 African elephants. World Wildlife Fund

Africa's road-building frenzy will transform continent. NewScientist

China and Africa: What the U.S. doesn’t understand. Fortune

China Beyond Borders. NPR

China commits billions in aid to Africa as part of charm offensive. The Guardian 

China’s Economic Rise: History, Trends, Challenges, and Implications for the United States. Federation of American Scientists for the Congressional Research Service

Experts report highest elephant poaching and ivory smuggling rates in a decade. TRAFFIC

Historical GDP of China.

Ivory poaching funds most war and terrorism in Africa. NewScientist

Modern Genocide: The Definitive Resource and Document Collection

National Economic Accounts for Countries and Regions around the World. Nations Online

Rhino population figures. Save The Rhino

Jen JacksonComment