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China’s Rush for Africa: a critical analysis of China’s development aid empire


Given China’s expanding role as an agent of development in the African continent, Sino-African relations in the 21st have become an issue of increasing importance to both scholars and policymakers worldwide (Large, 2008, 46). China’s increased cooperation with African states has challenged the pre-eminence of Global North (GN) countries in the continent. It has also altered the way in which scholars perceived the flow of international development aid, diverting away from the misconception that development predominantly consists of aid from the GN to the Global South (GS)(Quadir, 2013, 322). According to Chris Alden, most African governments have responded positively to this change (Alden, 2005, 148). However, many in the GN remain skeptical of China’s motives in the region, as well as the implications of Chinese development internationally and regionally.

The purpose of this essay is to investigate the question: does China provide a better development prospect for Africa than the countries of the GN? By analyzing the extent of China’s involvement in Africa as well as Chinese geopolitical and economic motives, this paper will demonstrate that it is still unclear whether Chinese development will offer better prospects for Africa. In presenting this argument, the paper will critically assess the positive versus negative effects of Chinese development on the state and the ‘every-day life’ of individuals within those states. The essay will also address some of the flaws that emerge from existing literature on the subject.

To justify the above arguments, this paper will first deconstruct the definition of Chinese development, to portray how it differs from GN development in Africa and to also illustrate why it has been widely adopted by several African states. Next, the paper will briefly examine China’s motives for increasing its foreign aid and expanding its engagement with Africa. Proceeding, it will investigate how Chinese development would contribute to the development of necessary state infrastructure while at the same time how it could impede the growth of local economies. Lastly, the paper will compare the effects of this new developmental approach, to observe which local agents benefit and which are hurt the most, allowing for a better understanding of those most likely to burden the negative consequences of Chinese development.

A new player in international development

At a time of increased international instability, China’s amassing influence in the African continent has taken a backseat to more eye-catchy news stories of ongoing military and diplomatic conflicts (Kragelung, 2008, 556). This lack of coverage can also be attributed to GN’s overall unproportioned representation of current events in the Global South. Regardless of the reasons, China’s actions have gone unnoticed by the general citizenry of the GN. As a result, the public’s perception regarding international development still holds the belief that development in Africa is primarily sponsored by the governments of countries in the GN, such as US, France or Japan. Though this a greave misconception of the reality. There is a plethora of scholarly literature, from a variety of different disciplinary fields, that has since demonstrated the rise of Chinese activity in Africa (Broodman, 2006; Zafar, 2007). Recent studies conducted by Aiddata, a research index on foreign aid, confirms China’s gravitation towards Africa by revealing that from 2000 to 2015 China had contributed USD 354.4 billion in aid, 63% of which was provided to Africa (Dreher et al., 2017, 18). This data exhibits China’s growing involvement in Africa, but it also indicates the willingness of African governments to accept this form of aid. The question that remains is why have Chinese development and foreign aid garnered such popularity?  The appeal to China’s foreign aid and model of development stems partially from China’s foreign policy. The Chinese government self-proclaims that it "unswervingly pursues an independent foreign policy of peace .... [with a goal of] propelling common development (People’s Republic of China, Ministry of Foreign Affairs).” This statement exhibits China’s attempts to portray itself as a neutral state, promoting global economic partnerships and peace. Given these policies China’s foreign aid development packages are known for being based on fewer political constraints, except disputes arising from states engage in diplomatic relations with Taiwan (Taylor, 2002, 129). The foreign aid and development assistance that had been offered by the GN are notorious for enforcing a series of socioeconomic and political conditions, that had negative domestic consequences. For example, aid sponsored by the World Bank, an institution established by the GN, required that recipients of aid adhere to a strict series of economic policies. These policies made the establishment of free-markets compulsory, which was extremely counterproductive in countries with fragile economies and fragile governments (Woods, 2008, 1211). Thus what has attracted many African states toward China’s version of development is its relatively low number of conditions and general lack of involvement in the domestic affairs of states. This has been extremely attractive to rogue states that do not abide by international human rights regime, and who would have had to change their ways to obtain aid from GN. This is not surprising since the Chinese government has been criticized for suppressing the civil liberties of its citizens. For better or worse, China’s lax approach to development has attracted many African countries.

Moreover, Chinese development in Africa is popular among some states because of it provides technical features that are comparatively different from the preeminent GN development methods that had been introduced in the region. Drawing lessons from its own development experiences Chinese foreign assistance is based on an economic model that seeks socio-economic progress and modernization by focusing on the industrialization of production and infrastructures. This is a departure from the foreign assistance regime of the GN that emphasized on improving the standard of education and public health. For instance, the Marshall Plan the GN largest foreign assistance package that was provided to victim states of WW2, successfully aimed at reconstructing war-torn areas of Europe and providing assistance to displaced civilians. Foreign assistance regimes of GN have tried to replicate a similar model of development in Africa, but have failed to consider the fact that unlike Europe many African states never had the infrastructures necessary to pursue self-sufficient industrial development (Robinson, 2012, 47). Hence, unlike in the past simply throwing money at the problem was not going to achieve much. Chinese foreign assistance strategies do not follow suit, they focus on the provision of infrastructure such as highways, factories and energy plants (Alden, 2005; 155; Alden & Soares, 2008). The legacy of GN development policies in Africa has also been tarnished by the African Economic Crisis of the 1980s, which has contributed to the exorbitant deficit of some African countries and hindered progress (Lancaster, 1983, 151). China manages development projects through its agents (firms or state representatives) and constructs the infrastructure by hiring locals, stimulating jobs growth in the region’s economy. Although Chinese development strategies in Africa shares some distinct similarities with the aid provided by the GN, it applies unique socioeconomic models that are more appealing to African leaders.

Lastly, China’s involvement in Africa is also considered to be a novel and appealing process because China itself is a GS country, and it was not long ago that it received foreign assistance from GN countries. Like many other GS countries, China shares a common history as a former colony. At various points during the 18th, 19th and 20th century China was exploited for its large population and natural resources, devastating its local economy and diminishing its political stability. Therefore, China in this sense is a symbol of the turning point in the history of development, signalling the important role to be played by GS countries in promoting development in other parts of the GS. China’s shared past with African states have detached it from suspicion of neo-imperialistic ambitions, which the GN foreign aid regime has repeatedly been accused of (Morais, 2011, 73). Thus, China’s impressive rise from poverty within the last four decades as well its history of oppression by European powers, has made the countries aid regime more appealing to African states.

The above explanation of the nuances of Chinese foreign aid strategies in Africa justifies the many reasons it becomes so widely accepted but also how this new form of international development aid differs. Though what can be observed from this analysis is that the implications of this new form of development have not been fully examined because they were only recently introduced and their effects will only reveal themselves in years to come. Therefore, the prospects of China’s development aid in Africa is still extremely uncertain. The next section will consider China’s reasons for expanding its development role in Africa.

Why Africa?

The reasons for Chinese interest in Africa can be categorized into three groups. The first group is broadly understood as the need to ensure the security of finite resources (Alden & Soares, 2008). As the world’s largest economy, China is highly reliant on raw natural resources to maintain its economic development. For centuries, African states have served as a periphery in the global chain of production, by extracting natural resources required in the process of production. China sees the vast potential in Africa, given the continent’s abundant access to natural resources. For example, China has invested significantly in the natural oil and gas reserves of many developing African countries, such as Angola and Kenya (Hatton, 2017). Classified under the same category, another reason China has become more involved in Africa is the state increasing desire to guarantee is food security (Kane, 2001, 63). Food security, defined as a countries supply of food measured against the consumption of food and an individual’s access to food in said country, is a principal concern for many countries (64). With a projected linear increase in population, China’s current agricultural production will not meet the needs of future generations. To make matters worse the widespread repetition and increased severity of drought and other climate-related events caused by human-induced climate change, has had a disproportionate effect on the agriculture of many GS such as China (Financial Times, 2004). Thus to maintain a secure source of food, China has invested in the development of African agriculture. This has provided the economic superpower with several advantages diplomatically, as the country will not be reliant on the agricultural products of the GN.

Another major component of China’s ambitious expansion into Africa is the need to forge new strategic economic and diplomatic partnerships. According to Deborah Brautigam China is in the process of building an aid empire to fruition its own global and regional geopolitical ambitions (Bräutigam, 2011, 204). Deborah claims that this form of international aid is akin to that provided by the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War as they were competing for expanding their spheres of influence (209). This is not surprising given the fact that the provision of foreign aid and development assistance is not an apolitical process. Instead, it is deeply embedded in the real politick of international affairs (Duffield, 2014). In the case of China’s involvement in Africa, garnering the support of African states can be highly beneficial to the state’s plans of progressing their political and economic agenda in various intergovernmental institutions. African states constitute the largest voting bloc within the context of intergovernmental organizations. By obtaining the votes and support of the largest voting bloc through cooperative interaction, China will be able to frame the agenda of international affairs, providing the state with even more influence. The best example of this is Beijing’s successful attempts at hindering the development of diplomatic relationship between Taiwan and other African states (Taylor, 2002, 128). This has prevented for the quasi-independent state from meeting the requirements to be deemed as a sovereign state under international law. Though some African countries do recognize Taiwan as an independent state, the majority of African states that receive Chinese investment or foreign aid have refused to accept Taiwan’s diplomatic missions.

Furthermore, as suggested by several International Relations and Political Economy scholars, China’s interests in Africa are also significantly influenced by the untapped potential investment opportunities. Africa is a hub for new consumers of low-value Chinese exports (Muekalia, 2004). At a time when Chinese exports are declining in GN countries, the shift of exporting said goods can support China’s expanding economy. Moving away from the orthodox economic lens, some scholars have indicated the beneficial cultural prospects of Africa for Beijing. After all, China’s increasing interaction with African states has allowed the government to also export their culture, a form of soft power. The use of culture in this way would let Beijing “shape the preferences of other [states] through appeal and attraction of its own culture (Nye, 2005, 6).” Symbolically this non-coercive technique has enabled China to modify how it is perceived through establishing itself as a prestigious emblem of Eastern industrial development (8). The migration of thousands of Chinese citizens to various parts of the African continent best exemplifies how China has been exporting its culture. As one news agency reports, certain urban metropolises in Africa have a visible population of Chinese foreign workers, that have shaped the people’s view of China (Power et al., 2010, 481). The intersection of Chinese and African culture has produced a positive feedback by fostering closer relations.

China self-motivated interests in Africa have undoubtedly been a source of contribution in Beijing’s policies to enhance its foreign assistance role in Africa. The discussions above illustrate the vast potential of political, cultural and economic benefits that China would obtain through its interactions with African states and the African Union. What remains to be considered is the impact of this engagement on the various states of Africa.

                Calculating the cost of China’s foreign aid and development in Africa

The difficulty in assessing the prospects of China’s development in Africa is caused predominantly by the fact that it produces varied effects. Africa is an extremely diverse continent, consisting of countless different states, each with its own unique ethnic, national and religious identities. Thus, analyzing the general impact of China’s foreign assistance programs in Africa is exceptionally challenging because each program is novel and produces distinctive outcomes. In many ways, this challenge explains what is problematic about the current literature regarding Africa’s experiences with Chinese development. This literature is flawed due to its predisposition to observe and study Africa as a single entity. Thus the remarks of critical scholars that have been extended towards the Eurocentric study of development can also be applied to the way in which scholars have studied the prospects of Chinese development in Africa. It is for these reasons that this essay will narrow its focus by examining the outcomes of Chinese development in a number of different African states. These states have been chosen for their important role within the unique political culture of Africa, and because they present a diverse representation of the distinct regions of the African continent.


In Southern Africa, Angola is one of China’s largest trading partners and one of the countries that receives the largest percentage of development assistance from the Chinese Export-Import Bank (CEIB) (Arewa, 2016, 112). Since 1975, Angola had been the setting of conflict between various GN and GS countries, leading to a devastating civil war that lasted until 2002. The elongation of this conflict had for many years stalled the industrialization of the government and the creation of necessary infrastructure. Since the end of civil war, Angola’s government has relied on various Chinese credit institution, such as the China Construction Bank and CEIB, to implement the development of necessary infrastructure (Cain, 2017, 478). These projects have focused on urban housing, the energy sector (petroleum) and transportation (491). They were considered to be very successful because they established Angola as Africa’s largest exporter of petroleum and helped the government tackle issues of unproductivity. Furthermore, they paved the way for addressing Angola’s growing problems with the lack of access to basic amenities and housing through the construction of affordable housing, as well as new sanitation and water service infrastructures (Kiala, 2010, 315). However, not all of China’s activities in Angola have produced positive outcomes. There are growing local and international concerns on whether China is lending money to governments responsibly, or is it robbing the state of its ability to become self-sufficient. Other scholars and local activists have also critiqued the quality of certain African projects, arguing that they are cheaply built, faulty in design or are never fully completed (Kiala, 2010; Morais, 2011). These criticisms infer that China’s development strategies have made the African country dependent, without solving the longstanding infrastructural issues that persist.


Ethiopia, an Eastern African country is another regional player that has been the site of growing Chinese foreign aid and investment. The projects in Ethiopia have been notable for seeking to combat the digital divide that has left African markets in the dark (Woods, 2008, 1216). More recently the two countries ratified a bilateral economic treaty to eradicate on taxations of each other’s imported commodities (Adem, 2010, 147). One of the largest contributions of China in Ethiopia is the construction of factories in designated ‘special economic zones’ (SEZ) that receive have special economic laws applied than other parts of the country. These SEZs have provided the state with the ability to develop the necessary means of production that best compliment the comparative production advantage of the state, namely they focus on the production of electrical machinery and construction metals (metallurgy products). This is a major socioeconomic improvement for it expands the state's options, allowing them to pursue the same economic policies of the industrial nations of the GN. The implications of the results of these productions have received some criticism. In comparison to Angola, Chinese foreign assistance in Ethiopia has been more received more positively by policymakers and locals, though certain issues persist. One concern that has proliferated is the level of corruption (Wheatland, 2015, 8). When measured against lack of government transparency, accountability of government officials, bribery and embezzlement, has become a fundamental issue within the country’s energy sector. Another negative component of China’s role is its displacement of small-scale business entrepreneurs, which prohibit the necessary market processes of innovation and creative destruction. Thus there are evidently certain risks associated with Chinese foreign aid.


Located in West Africa, Nigeria is another country that has seen increasing cooperation with China, in a variety of different forms. There are several factors that make the case of Nigeria unique. First, the country is one of the most stable and well-developed economies according to most recent reports published by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)(Bräutigam, 2010). Second, China and Nigeria have strategic military alliances to assist the Nigerian government’s fight against various insurgency groups, the likes of Al-Shabaab. Third, Sino-Nigerian relation date all the way back to the 1970s, indicating the long-standing presence of China in African foreign relations. With regards to development policies of China in Nigeria, in 2006 Beijing provided a USD 1 billion loan for a project to modernize Nigeria’s railway and establish transportation links with other African markets (BBC, 2017). The contributions of China have had a direct impact in enhancing Nigeria’s market, bringing in new foreign direct investment from a host of different states. Additionally, the urban landscape of Nigeria has been transformed by new Chinese development projects, as seen in Abuja and Lagos (Arewa, 2016, 138). The projects have by some accounts contributed to the increasing prosperity of Nigerian people, with an increased quality of life and economic opportunities. Nevertheless, skepticism about the implications remain. One main controversy attributed to China’s foreign assistance projects is Nigeria’s growing problems of socioeconomic disparities in both rural and urban areas. China’s actions have been accused of expanding the number of Nigerian millionaires while ignoring the growing population that lives below the poverty line (Akinwotu, 2017). In addition, anti-globalization movements in Nigeria have highlighted how Chinese imports have flooded Nigerian markets, impeding the growth of local business much like the development strategies of the GN.

The analysis above sheds light on the complexities of assessing the prospect of Chinese development in African states. As demonstrated by the three broad case studies, the impacts of China’s foreign aid and development vary significantly from country to country. Therefore, it is not possible to generalize the implication of China’s activities on the entirety of the African continent. The comparison above indicates several trends that can be further examined to understand the prospect of Chinese foreign assistance. With regards to Chinese activity in Africa, there is a consistent interchangeable use of investment versus development aid or grant. This interchangeable reference to these distinct processes indicated a blurred line in our understanding of China’s multifaceted role in African state. This is an important trend to observe due to its overall implication on the evolution of international development practices. Another common trend seen is the inequitable distribution of the consequences of Chinese development. The examples showcase the varied implications of China’s foreign aid on different groups of people. This presents the notion that even under circumstances where economic benefits are achieved via China’s economic support, certain groups of people endure negative consequences. The next section will shortly depict the influence of China’s development strategies on the ‘everyday-life’ in various African countries.

A different way of looking at future of Sino-African relations

For the contexts of this paper, the everyday life is considered to be the shared living experiences of an assembly of people, determined by socially constructed concepts of group identities. Entertaining this notion within the context of Chinese development in Africa is of vast importance since it encourages a change in the perception of their impacts. Similar to the state level an analysis researching the influence of Chinese development on the individual everyday life of local actor indicates that there is no black and white answer to the question of the prospects of China’s development aid. However, it adds further to our understanding by highlighting that the uncertainty can be better comprehended when the viewing the consequences of China’s new aid empire in Africa as a spectrum.  A spectrum is a more appropriate method of ascertaining the necessary information because it would account for the unique settings of each country and different experiences of each individual impacted by the aid policies. Take for example China’s development of the agricultural sector of various countries such as Ghana and Ethiopia. In both Ghana and Ethiopia, China’s acquisition of land, which is dubbed land grabbing, has become a topic of serious academic and political debate. This is not surprising because the Chinese land grabbing has displaced hundreds of farmers, depriving them of basic economic livelihoods (Anseeuw, 2013, 160). Though at the same time it has provided several benefits to a portion of these countries populations, by producing a stable source of agricultural goods and bringing in a flow of new foreign direct investment. Though apart from showing the multifaceted experiences of China’s development, a spectrum also reveals how marginalized groups of people such as women or religious minorities are often those who burden the negative consequences of China’s foreign aid regime (Habtezion, 2013). Within in-group classifications that categorize people according to religion, gender, race or class, subdivisions exist that encourage further marginalization. The impoverished women of the GS serve as a great example. The institutional systems which impose greater struggles on impoverished men are magnified towards impoverished women, due to the systems that oppress the latter. Applying this to above, China’s foreign activities that lead to land grabbing have more damaging consequences on female farmers, than on male farmers. Thus, it becomes evident that China’s development aid is subject to different experiences, given the varied implications it could have on a group of people. This further reaffirms the thesis that the prospects of China’s development in Africa are uncertain.


Regardless of whether you take a utilitarian approach, whereby you measure the prospected of China’s development through a calculation of the benefits provided to the majority of the population in comparison to the rest; or a moralist approach that examines the moral and human aspects of the development, there are no certainties in the future implications of Beijing’s foreign assistance. This essay demonstrated the challenges of seeking to engage such a difficult question, showing the varied ramifications of China’s development activities at the state and individual level. This multilevel analysis portrays some major shortcomings of existing literature and provides some consideration for further research in this area. As the volumes of discussion on topic will undoubtedly expand, most scholars concur on the increased involvement of China, though they offer different accounts of the causes and consequences on the continent as a whole. To elicit more thoughtful studies, this essay would suggest increased research that narrow’s its analysis on the effects of Chinese development in specific local communities, as opposed to a continent or grouping of countries. A collective analysis of such a narrowed calibre would enable researchers to submit more applicable consideration of Chinese foreign assistance strategies, taking into account the necessary information that has been long neglected by mainstream literature on poverty and development.

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