Written by Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong.

Some US politicians try to endear themselves to voters by kissing babies. If another country’s leaders said these politicians are sexual abusers of children because both they and pederasts kiss children, the charge would be derided as illogical and politically-based. The same should apply to Western elites’ political ploy of “Chinese neo-colonialism in Africa.”

Most such claims are based on Africa exporting raw materials to China, while China exports manufactured goods to Africa. That trade pattern was first forced on Africa as part of European colonial underdevelopment of the continent.1 Compelled underdevelopment continues and Africa still exports few manufactured goods. Indeed, the key African textiles and clothing industry was eviscerated in the late 20th Century, by used clothing exports from the US and Europe, before the onset of large-scale Chinese exports to Africa.2

Developed countries also mainly trade manufactured goods for African raw materials, but that trade pattern alone cannot make a relationship neo-colonial. If it did, Canada, Australia and India would, absurdly, be conceived as “Chinese colonies,” as they too mostly sell raw materials to and buy manufactured goods from China. In contrast to what colonialists did moreover, Chinese build Africa’s hard and soft infrastructure, the precursors of industrialization.3 There is also growing Chinese manufacturing in Africa. Our database of some 600 Chinese enterprises indicates an average 85% of their employees are Africans, with many learning industrial skills.

The Essence of Colonialism Ignored

The key characteristics of colonialism and neo-colonialism in Africa are irrelevant to the Chinese presence in Africa. We have shown in detail elsewhere that modern colonialism has typically been a relationship in which alien rulers

in subdued overseas lands, practiced exclusionary authoritarian rule; imposed an explicit racial hierarchy; enriched metropolitan and colonizing elites by monopoly exploitation of colonies’ natural resources, labor and trade, and often depleted and impoverished native peoples, while extirpating the cultures of the most vulnerable among them.4

Colonialism involved a full-scale loss of sovereignty and often an almost total exclusion from power of local elites.5 Europeans ruled Africa, making key decisions and waging wars of suppression: the Congo at independence in 1960 had 10,000 Belgian officials6 and under Belgian rule, some 10 million Congolese — half the country’s population — perished.7

The Ghanaian independence leader who popularized the concept of neo-colonialism stated that its essence “is that the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside.” Post-independence administrations of African states termed neo-colonies have had policy-making officials and troops from and beholden to France.8 Western-headed international financial institutions, through structural adjustment programs, have exercised immense leverage in African states.9 US hard power in Africa includes one large and several smaller military bases from which wars are waged and, the US mainly arms African authoritarian regimes, while most Chinese arms sales go to African liberal democracies.10

China is not fighting anywhere in Africa, no Chinese administers any African country and no Chinese government determinative influence has been shown to exist anywhere on the continent.

A UK business journal reported in 2015 that “Chinese immigrants in Africa chuckle at the idea that they could lord it over the locals.” Scholars’ studies show African elites exercise agency in relation to China;11 for example, they mainly call the shots on investment.

It is not even clear that Chinese companies as a whole are profiting in Africa, as “65% of Chinese foreign direct investments make a loss; compared with a 50% international norm.” Chinese firms must accommodate African laws and rules, leaving no possibility that Chinese, unlike the colonialists, could impose a formal racial hierarchy on African societies. The growing interest in Chinese culture in Africa is not at all comparable to Western cultural hegemony or even soft power.12 The degree of Chinese sway in most spheres of African life has been hugely exaggerated,13 while the Chinese/locals gap in standards of living is much less than that between Westerners and Africans.14

US and EU elites only speak about what they are giving to Africa; Chinese scholars argue that “China needs Africa more than Africa needs China.” China’s leaders appear to concur: Chinese official development aid (ODA) does not go disproportionately to African states with corrupt, authoritarian governments, but to those states that align with China at the United Nations.

Actions Incompatible with Neo-Colonialism

Chinese officials must take African interests into account in making decisions that affect both Chinese and African interests. State-owned enterprise leaders, for example, have adopted policies their Western counterparts cannot contemplate. During the Global Financial Crisis in 2009, Switzerland- and UK-headquartered copper mining firms in Zambia dismissed some 15,000 workers. China Non-Ferrous Metals Mining Co. (CNMC) adopted a “three no’s” policy of no lay-offs, no investment cutbacks and no abandoning of Zambia operations expansion plans.

Instead, CNMC hired 2,580 more locals. In 2014-2015, with civil war raging in South Sudan, its government asked Chinese oil firms there to keep their workers on the job, which they did. During West Africa’s Ebola crisis, Chinese SOEs maintained their personnel in danger zones. China’s ambassador to Ghana said in 2015 that “In face of the temporary economic difficulties in Ghana, Chinese enterprises do not withdraw investment, do not stop production, do not lay off workers and do not diminish social responsibility.” Such actions are in contradiction to the one-sided, self-serving actions of states that have engaged in neo-colonialism.

If Not Neo-Colonialism, then What?

Some claims of Chinese neo-colonialism in Africa reflect ignorance of colonialism’s nature. Top politicians and journalists should know concepts and facts. Because however they conceive China as an authoritarian challenge to liberal democracy or a strategic rival – ideas Chinese leaders eschew – these elites often disregard evidence that contradicts their views of China.15

That China is not neo-colonialist in Africa is not to say that the global system is just, that Chinese companies, like others, do not exploit African labor and resources or that all is well with Africa-China relations. It means we should instead focus on root causes of global social and economic inequality, including how the Chinese presence in Africa fits into that.

Little is added to the conversation by the Chinese government assertion that “win-win cooperation” is practiced in Africa. Mutual benefit among states is often less than symmetrical and elites benefit more than non-elites. A more convincing view is that Chinese practices have commonalities with those of other external actors. A study has found for example that Chinese foreign direct investment — whose stock is only 4% of Africa’s total – is not mainly in natural resources and not more so than for Western investment. Services and manufacturing predominate and are more concentrated in politically stable and skill-abundant states. They also concentrate in capital-scarce states, the tougher parts of the continent that Western firms shun.

A key issue then is just how imbricated Chinese entities are in the neo-liberal system that grows inequality through privatization, austerity, deregulation, and weakening popular agency. The Chinese state long ago abandoned its storied anti-imperialism and now participates in most institutions that serve transnational capital’s global expansion. Although it does not present an alternative, China is not necessarily a “sub-imperialist” however; for if “every country that follows the neoliberal economic paradigm, and seeks markets or an avenue for capital export to a neighboring country [is a] sub-imperialist,” then almost no country is not one.

Even as a large capitalist economy, China can only rise so far in the global system. Countries formerly could equal and displace the hegemon, as the US did Britain. That is much harder in the era of neoliberal globalization, due to US militarization, the legacy of colonial-era inequality among states, and limits on the Earth’s resources. Thus, even a state that does not fully align with the hegemon and narrows its gap with it can at most become what China is today — a semi-autonomous subaltern in a hierarchical system whose claim to irreplaceability it does not dispute. Such a state thus remains part of the problem, even if it has some practices more convivial to the interests of peoples in the world’s periphery than the actions of colonialists and neocolonialists.

Barry Sautman is a professor with the Division of Social Science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. YAN Hairong is Associate Professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Image credit: CC by 2010 World Cup – Shine 2010/Flickr.

1 Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Washington: Howard University Press, 1981).
2 Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong, “Friends and Interests: China’s Distinctive Links with Africa,” African Studies Review 50:3 (2007): 75-114.
3 David Benazeraf, “The Construction by Chinese Players of Roads and Housing in Nairobi,” China Perspectives 2014:1: 51-59.
4 Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong, East Mountain Tiger, West Mountain Tiger: China, the West and ‘Colonialism’ in Africa (Baltimore: University of Maryland Series in Contemporary Asian Studies, 2007): 21.
5 D.K. Fieldhouse, “The Economic Exploitation of Africa: Some British and French Comparisons,” in Prosser Gifford and William Louis (eds.), France and Britain in Africa: Imperial Rivalry and Colonial Rule (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971): 593-662 (660-661).
6 David Renton, et al. The Congo Plunder and Resistance (London: Zed Books, 2007]: 60.
7 Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (New York: Mariner Books, 1998).
8 Alexander Keese, “Building a New Image of Africa : ‘Dissident states’ and the Emergence of French Neo-Colonialism in the Aftermath of Decolonization,” Cahier d’Etudes Africaines 48: 191 (2008): 513-530.
9 “The Neoliberal Agenda and the IMF World Bank Structural Adjustment Programs with Reference to Africa,” in Dip Kapoor (ed.), Critical Perspectives on Neo-Liberal Globalization, Development and Education in Africa and Asia (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2011): 3-14.
10 Indra de Soysa and Paul Midford, “Enter the Dragon!: an Empirical Analysis of Chinese versus US Arms Transfers to Autocrats and Violators of Human Rights, 1989-2006,” International Studies Quarterly 56 (2012): 843-856.
11 Aleksandra Gadzala (ed.), Africa and China: How Africans and their Governments are Shaping Relations with China (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).
12 Lukasz Fijalkowski, “China’s ‘Soft Power’ in Africa”,” in Ian Taylor, et al. (eds.), China’s Rise in Africa: Perspectives on a Developing Connection (London: Routledge): 95-104.
13 Deborah Brautigam, The Dragon’s Gift: the Real Story of China-Africa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
14 Samantha Spooner, “Why Africans Need to Bash Chinese Migrants Less,” Mail &Guardian (South Africa), February 8, 2015.
15 Emma Mawdsley, “Fu Manchu versus Dr. Livingstone in the Dark Continent? Representing China, Africa and the West in British Broadsheet Newspapers,” Political Geography 27 (2008): 509-529.