Chinese Investments in Africa: Who Cares?

By Olivia Jochl


Thousands of miles separate Beijing and the near-most corner of the African continent. Despite this physical distance, China and Africa have never been more intricately connected. In today’s globalized world, the international nature of economics encourages the powerful relationships between Beijing and many African states. As these governments grow in closeness and Chinese investments in Africa increase, cultural and economic changes are sweeping the region. Even as the African economy continues to grow each year, the majority of the average population sees limited positive change. Despite parallel trends of economic growth throughout Africa and Chinese ventures within the continent, China’s extensive “no strings attached” investments and the introduction of corporate projects negatively impact a large portion of the population, both economically and socially.


The controversial relationships between China and many developing African nations began during the Cold War as a result of a political strategy against the superpowers and signalled the start of China’s ongoing hunt for resources. Modern interactions between China and Africa began during the mid-1950s and attempted to combat the overwhelming international power of Soviet Union and The United States. To establish its own relevance on the international stage, “China challenged the superpowers through foreign aid to Africa in order to cement ‘South-South’ relations.” Through these actions, China hoped to gain an economic and political foothold in Africa while also drawing African states away from the control of America or the Soviet Union. In return, Africa expected technological and economic advancement. Despite the seemingly cooperative nature of this relationship’s origins, many scholars suggest the reason for Chinese involvement in Africa stemmed from China’s need for large quantities of raw materials. Presently, as economic growth in China continues to skyrocket, the increase in raw material imports from Africa supports the suspicions of these academics. The pattern of oil imports from Africa, for example, follows the trend of Chinese economic expansion. Today, China’s growing dependence on African materials has triggered a simultaneous increase in African economic activity; however, the apparent motives behind China’s actions in Africa create the potential for regional exploitation and political corruption that hurt the population.


China’s hefty investments in Africa throughout the 2000s reveal a pattern of rapidly increasing involvement and also enable the People’s Republic to manipulate economic and political activity on the continent. While China grew its relations with Africa throughout the later half of the 20th century, the end of the Cold War and the swift progression of Chinese development signalled an exponential increase in China’s activity within Africa. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, “the amount of Chinese investment in the continent nearly tripled between 2010 and 2015, to $35bn.” Unlike aid and wealth infusions provided by Western nations, the money extended by the Chinese government comes without set conditions or explicit expectations. Ironically,“governments receiving such investments face pressure only to deliver what Beijing seeks–access to resources.” Such loyalties reflect the manipulative effects of introducing large infusions of foreign capital without restrictions or political ultimatums into a socially and economically developing region. Known as unconditioned wealth, these money infusions create subtle, yet powerful, unspoken conditions that enable China to control Africa’s leaders. At a Beijing Summit in September 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged 60 billion dollars in aid to African states. Xi’s offer came with a “no strings attached” promise that exemplifies China’s strategy and the nature of unconditioned wealth. By providing large sums to Africa “condition free,” Xi and the Chinese government indirectly ensure loyalty from their African recipients.


As China continues to invest in Africa, many African people see few improvements in their opportunities for economic growth. As displayed by Xi Jinping’s 2018 aid pledge, “China does not require recipient countries to implement the kinds of anti-corruption measures that many Western governments and institutions require.” The lack of structure surrounding these investments increases opportunities for governmental corruption. For example, a 2017 report by The Carter Center revealed that “more than half of $1.163 billion in loans from China to Congo... had gone missing with no evidence that the money had been disbursed for infrastructure projects.” As long as Beijing sees returns from its efforts in Africa, China has a strong motive to continue investing; however, the means by which Africa provides these returns holds little value to the Chinese. This enables the continuation of political corruption and human rights violations that exist in developing regions of Africa. Additionally, by supplying African leaders with hefty, unmonitored sums, China decreases the likelihood of internally stimulated economic development. As a result, the capital entering Africa could have limited effects for the majority of the population. Much of the invested money goes towards the construction of infrastructure and the extraction of natural resources. Yet, despite the potential for a massive increase in job opportunities for the African people, many of the Chinese projects and corporate developments employ Chinese workers. Incoming Chinese projects predictably and selectively employ Chinese migrants, and this “preference to hire Chinese nationals... is causing conflicts,”such as protests, cultural backlash, and racism. In Namibia, the China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) publicizes that Namibians make up half of their staff. While such statements appear to prove the existence of large opportunities for the African public, CHEC and similar Chinese ventures conveniently avoid explaining that the rest of their employees are Chinese immigrants. Massive sums of money and jobs continue to move into Africa; however, much of the African public lives on without experiencing the benefits of its developing economy.


As economic opportunities stagnate and dictators continue to receive unconditioned wealth, African people face a growing threat to their cultural identities and societal freedoms. As early as 2009,“Upwards of 750,000 Chinese people recently lived or worked in Africa.” Many of these Chinese migrants travel to Africa seeking employment with the increasing number of Chinese projects, but an even larger number set off for Africa and establish their own small businesses as shopkeepers, restaurateurs, and traders. Consequently, the incoming Chinese nationals automatically infuse their own cultural beliefs and values into the regions they inhabit. While the newcomers rapidly establish themselves in Africa through employment and small business ventures, African natives struggle to maintain their locally fueled economies and cultures. As a result, discontent regarding “the Chinese presence in Africa [is] rife among ordinary people, even as their governments encourage and support it.” Such a disconnect between the population and the governing body reveals a potentially powerful instability that further decreases the likelihood of societal improvements. The imbalance of power created by China’s offerings of unconditioned wealth and the resulting dependencies of African leaders lessens the responsibility these leaders have to their own people. By receiving outside stimulations in addition to promoting the increasing number of Chinese immigrants, African leaders ultimately hurt their own populations by dampening the perceived value of African cultures and identity. Furthermore,“China's approach not only provides potentially corrupt leaders more opportunities to enrich themselves, it also does not hold accountable those leaders who do so.” The inability of citizens to demand internal responsibility and loyalty from their leaders defines China’s ability to control the development of Africa. Many Africans continue to struggle while their leaders face no consequences for their actions. Such a structure eliminates any expectations of social or political reform. Even as money moves into Africa and development slowly progresses, native people face the threat of their cultures declining and of their social and political rights stagnating.


As Chinese influence and prominence in Africa continue to grow as a result of China’s large investments and increasing presence, the general population ironically falls further behind in the rapidly globalizing world. The swift cultural and economic changes encouraged by Chinese ventures decrease the necessary interaction between African leaders and their people. With the incoming Chinese workers, projects, and culture, many African people face the challenge of maintaining their diverse cultural identities. Meanwhile, as the economy appears to develop thanks to the infusion of unconditioned wealth from China, Africans see few increases in their job opportunities and economic prospects. The growing disconnect between the people, their leaders, and the Chinese interests defines the negative impact of China’s investments on the African population and will determine the direction of the relationship as the world moves forward.