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China in Africa: soft power, hard results

By Loro Horta - posted Friday, 20 November 2009

The second China-Africa summit meeting in Egypt recently, which witnessed the Chinese pledge $10 billion in concessional loans to African countries, has again brought to the fore the debate over China’s growing profile in the continent. Is it a boon to Africa as China and many commentators maintain or is it a return to neo-colonial exploitation, as many critics claim? The truth, as usual, may be somewhere between the two.

The debate on China’s meteoric rise in Africa has been dominated by two extreme and opposite views. One tends to see China's presence in the continent as generally negative and generating a lot of resentment among Africans. The second view is inclined to see the Chinese presence as largely beneficial providing African states with generous aid in the form of soft loans, major infrastructure programs, but, above all, providing a balance to traditional European and American dominance of the region.

How do Africans see China after all? Based on 163 interviews and over a decade of living in Africa, I shall argue that both views are wrong and right, depending on to what region of Africa and to which group of Africans one is referring.


African elites in general seem to welcome China’s new found enthusiasm for the continent. China provides many African governments with generous and large loans, allowing them to develop badly needed infrastructure, expand agriculture, and strengthen their security apparatus. Perhaps most attractive of all, Beijing asks no questions or imposes any conditionality on such investments, at least for now.

China’s so called non-interference policy and its no-strings-attached approach to aid has gained it many friends and admirers among African elites. Moreover, China’s model of a strong government and its focus on economic growth is looked upon by many African despots, and even some democratic leaders, as an example to follow. Frustrated with decades of instability and corruption, which many African elites tend to blame on the West and its liberal democratic model, the continent’s elites are fast embracing the Chinese model.

Out of the 67 African officials interviewed from six countries across the continent and ranking from junior military officers to a former President, 63 expressed quite positive views about China. In contrast, out of the 98 non-government affiliated people interviewed - among them street sellers, teachers, and small business people - 73 expressed highly negative views about China, some bordering on racism. From this small sample, hailing from Angola, Mozambique, South Africa, Namibia, Cape Verde and Zambia it becomes apparent that African elites clearly welcome the Chinese presence, while the people are growing increasing ambivalent.

These discrepancies result from the different ways in which China touches different sections of African societies. In Angola, where Western companies rely primarily on local labour, Chinese companies bring 70 to 80 per cent of their labour from home. For instance, while nearly 90 per cent of Chevron’s workers are Angolan, including specialised personnel such as engineers and managers, Chinese oil companies employ fewer than 15 per cent Angolan labour and usually at the end of the pay scale. For instance in 2006 at a Portuguese run construction site in Maputo, Mozambique, there were only five Portuguese out of 120 workers. While nearby, a Chinese run site had 78 Chinese workers and only eight locals, three of which were night watchmen.

The influx of thousands of Chinese migrants into Africa is becoming a major source of grievance for the local population. In Angola, Chinese street sellers are fast putting out of business thousands of locals and Malian sellers who have been there for generations. The fact that many Chinese tend to live in isolation with little or no contact with the local population further aggravates the resentment already present.

China has also been accused of serious environmental damage in Mozambique, Southern Sudan, and Equatorial Guinea to mention a few. In Southern Sudan, local villages attacked a Chinese oil team, killing its leader, whom they accused of poisoning their land. Chinese workers have also been killed in Ethiopia, and Equatorial Guinea; while in Nigeria, rebels warned Chinese companies to stay way from the oil rich Niger delta region.


Although African elites and the Chinese government sing the song of friendship and mutually beneficial south-south co-operation, there is growing resentment at the grassroots level that has so far been ignored. It should be mentioned that this resentment is not common or equally acute in all countries. For instance, in Cape Verde, one of the continent’s most successful and transparent countries, the government has imposed strict conditions on Chinese investment such has requirements on hiring local labour and environmental standards. A similar situation is maintained in Botswana and Namibia.

It should be mentioned that Chinese companies are not the only ones at fault on environmental issues. However, on the hiring of local labour, Chinese companies have by far the worst record. The large influx of Chinese migrants, many of whom are illegal, has caused severe damage to China’s image as a great power in the eyes of the Africans. As noted by a Mozambican high school teacher:

They say China is a great power just like America. But what kind of great power sends thousands of people to a poor country like ours to sell cakes on the street and take the jobs of our own street sellers who are already so poor?

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Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online ( Copyright © 2009, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.

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About the Author

Loro Horta is a Visiting Fellow with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He lived in Africa for several years where he worked for humanitarian relief organizations and in law enforcement. His articles have appeared in the Australian Financial Review, Straits Times, Asia Times and the Jakarta Post.

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