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Why It Could Be Argued That the Relationship between China and Africa Is a Neo-Colonial One

Updated on June 29, 2016

Neo-colonialism is the retention of influence by one country over another, often by economic or political measures. China therefore has a significant neo-colonialist relationship with the majority of the continent of Africa; the proportion of Sub-Saharan Africa’s trade with China is increasing at a much faster rate than with the US, and the EU’s share is declining. Since the mid-1990s, China has focused heavily on sending foreign direct investment to Africa, with $135 million and 77 new Chinese companies in 2004 alone. Whilst a large part of this investment is intended to boost African development to increase future returns in the form of strongly connected trade links and returning foreign direct investment, China has been criticised for its monopolisation and exploitation of African resources, such as oil from Sudan, and timber from Mozambique, the latter of which received particular condemnation, since in 2013, 93% of Mozambique’s timber was illegally harvested, and most of it went to China.

China’s increasing economic dominance over Africa is arguably most explicitly evidenced by the transfer of oil and other energy commodities. With the Middle-East focused on supplying the USA and Europe, China has turned to Africa to counteract its own oil deficit; a $2 billion loan was given to Angola in exchange for a contract to supply ten-thousand barrels of oil per day, and Angola now supplies China with more oil than Saudi Arabia. The loan was an example of tied aid; most of the money was to be invested in infrastructure, but 70% was to directly benefit Chinese companies. This has been criticised by non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam, which claim that such ‘aid’ programmes benefit the donor country more than the receiver. This denouncement by organisations connotational of the West is reminiscent of recognised French neo-colonialism in its former colonies in the 20th century, in which multinational corporations were allowed to monopolise natural resources.

China’s path to development has so far been unique; it is by far the most economically successful communist country, and has a long history of self-containment; it has no significant historical relationship with Africa, unlike France. This could imply that China’s massive investment into 21st century Africa is also unique; it is an attempt at a ‘win-win’ situation; a new approach to international development.

Many Africans have a wholly positive opinion of the Chinese – over a million of whom now work in Africa – and the Chinese infrastructure projects help Africa to help itself, e.g. massive road and rail networks, and shopping centres. On the other hand, some of these rail networks have become mobile stalls for impoverished people to sell low-value goods to a wider market, which is unlikely to provide any significant economic benefit to Africa, and the shopping centres, hotels, and other similar facilities, are typically restricted to the wealthier section of the population, much of which is the Chinese workers, who, with their more reputable work ethic and obvious link to the Chinese managers, take many of the highest paying jobs; many Chinese people working in Africa do not speak the natives’ language, and so a segregated ‘community’ arises, with a sense of invasion – colonialism.

China’s economic involvement in Africa supports dependency theory; resources flow from the poorer, disconnected periphery, to the wealthier core country. Some believe that Africa is becoming to China what China has been to the West, that is, a country to provide cheap labour, and therefore the mass-manufacture of a diverse range of products – a new economic frontier for the emerging core-country. However, the West did not engage in neo-colonialism in China; China’s established economic power and ability to maintain a relatively closed and independent culture prevented excessive western influence. However, Africa has no such economic power, and no tightly guarded culture, leaving it susceptible to Chinese neo-colonisation. Africa has already begun to rely on China for investment. A third of Congo’s oil is exported to China. China’s demand for oil is increasing rapidly, in tandem with its growing middle class, and so Congo is likely to become increasingly dependent on China for income. If China’s demand were to suddenly drop, it would have a considerable effect on the economies of Congo and other countries where a high proportion of exports go to China.

China’s retained influence over Africa is clearly shown by 4,000 Chinese troops claimed to be guarding Sudanese oil pipelines; Sudan supplies 7% of China’s oil imports, and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) is the largest shareholder in the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company which controls Sudan’s oil fields. 70% of Sudan’s exports go to China, up from 10% in 1995. These facts all show China’s increasingly integral role in Sudan’s economy, and Western criticism of China for supporting the Sudanese dictatorship emphasises the political connection between the two countries, with China taking a dominant role, given its economic power.

Only five African nations still recognise Taiwan; China has exerted political influence over the others enough to turn them against Taiwan, which it wants to return to full Chinese rule. This is one example of China’s sustained political influence over the African continent.

China has heavily invested in countries across Africa; whilst it has helped to develop the continent’s infrastructure, a large part of its investment has self-centred motives. Many Chinese people move to Africa to start businesses. They employ fellow Chinese people, and are able to pay them more than the average local wage. The employees then send a large percentage of their wages back to China, therefore bypassing economic prosperity for Africa, and keeping it relatively impoverished. China builds roads, railways, and buildings in Africa; it trades and gives loans, but only so that the countries are able and willing to return resources to China, almost leaving them with no overall benefit, as explained by dependency theory.


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