China’s Influence in Africa

I took advantage of a fascinating talk today by a visiting scholar, Dr. David Shinn, who was formerly our Ambassador to Ethiopia (among other positions), and who is now a professor at GWU. I went at the last minute based on an email from my Japanese History professor, and I’m quite glad I did. Thanks to my China knowledge (mostly gleaned from majoring in it…Check that out mom & dad—I actually learned something at college!) and my greater-than-average Africa knowledge due to the scenarios we worked with at NYLF/National Security, I learned a even more from the talk.

Since I’m pressed for time, I’m just going to bullet point some of the more interesting tidbits I collected from the talk, for you, my loyal reader (yes, you, sitting over there by yourself) to peruse at your leisure:


  1. Of the 53 African nations currently, only 4 still recognize Taiwan over the PRC, and they’re frankly the insignificant ones (Burkina Faso, The Gambia, Sao Tome & Principe, and Swaziland). Even those will likely change soon. This means that China’s efforts in Africa can potentially garner a large chunk of support votes in the UN—almost a quarter right there.
  2. The US has a significant trade deficit with Africa (although this is of course overshadowed by that with other nations). China is much closer to being neutrally balanced in terms of trade with Africa, which puts it in a stronger position.
  3. By 2010, China will have surpassed the US in trade with Africa. Of that, 85% of China’s trade is with only 5 of the largest African nations. Also, despite all of that, only 3% of China’s trade is with Africa.
  4. Through 2007, China had over $20 billion in investment (mainly in oil and extractive industries) in Africa; $6 billion in Sudan alone. This is a tremendous amount compared to virtually all other nations.
  5. Since 2000, China has been pushing their “Angola Model” in Africa. Basically, Beijing gives large “loans” at very low interest rates (~1.5% only!), payable over long periods. Sounds great, right? Well, in reality these are more like barter agreements, where the recipient nation then pays back the loan in resources (oil from Angola, minerals from DRC, tobacco from Zimbabwe, etc), and on top of that, China agrees to develop the necessary infrastructure to access those resources—but it’s usually stipulated to be done by mostly Chinese companies and labor! Nevertheless, both sides seem pretty happy with this (e.g. Angola is really enjoying the deal since they won the “oil lottery” and are able to pay back their loan quite quickly due to the high prices commanded by oil).
  6. China is not completely profit driven in Africa, as they have cancelled over $1 billion in debts throughout Africa. Not as much as Western nations, but still a significant amount, and mostly for the poorer nations that needed it most.
  7. China does a fantastic job of government-to-government relations: Beijing has staffed embassies in 48 of the 49 African nations that recognize her (Somalia is the only one left out due to security and safety issues). No other nation has that many embassies in Africa. Africa is also always the first place outside of China that the new Chinese foreign minister goes to when taking office.
  8. However, despite that, China is still pretty bad at dealing with non-governmental players, from NGOs to opposition parties, etc. This occasionally leads to great difficulties, since when a government in Africa does change, Beijing has already alienated them by not having had relations previously.
  9. Between 2002 and 2004, high-level Chinese officials made 64 trips to Africa, and African officials and leaders made 69 trips to China in the same period. Can you imagine someone like Condi going to Africa even twice in two years, let alone dozens of times?
  10. Beijing regularly provides training for African diplomats.
  11. Some problems with China in Africa:
    • Beijing undercuts the IMF and World Bank’s reform efforts, which involve loans and grants with stipulations for reform, by giving assistance and funds with no political stipulations at all. China in this sense is like a pressure relief valve for Africa, negating any pressure put on questionable governments by the West.
    • China doesn’t pay much attention to where their arms shipments end up in Africa.
    • China participates and funds egregious environmental practices, from protected timber clearcutting, to blatant ivory trade.
    • Chinese trade is continually driving local African textile and other goods manufacturers out of business.
  12. Some interesting effects of Chinese influence:
    • China’s use of barter with many African nations actually serves to lessen corruption; corrupt leaders are much less likely to “misplace” a thousand computers shipped in from China than they are to lose track of a million dollars sent in by the IMF.
    • Whether good or bad, it is interesting that China will deal equitably with Islamist Khartoum, Autocratic Equatorial Guinea, and Democratic South Africa…all that matters to Beijing is who’s in power.
  13. There are roughly three classes of Chinese in Africa:
    • The Professional Class, who are the ambassadorial, administrative, managerial, and banking etc personnel. These people behave like their Western equivalents, living in communities, speaking the local languages, taking their families, and usually getting along with the locals.
    • The Laborers, who are mostly uneducated, stick to themselves, don’t have their families with them, eat Chinese food, drink, and don’t like the locals. They are simply there to make a higher wage than they would in China, and most end up returning to China after a few years.
    • The Traders and Entrepreneurs, who are the largest group, and mostly urban. They run businesses, usually integrated with extended families back in China (networking much like Jewish traders did a few centuries ago). They are there unofficially, but Beijing doesn’t discourage them. They are the most likely to live in Africa their entire lives, even though they speak of returning home.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *