The controversial Spring Festival Gala performance, carried by CCTV last year, made headlines throughout the world for its use of blackface and primitive depiction of Nairobi and Kenyans. The Gala performance, aired in February 2018, was taken in some sectors of Western media as evidence of Chinese racism toward Africans. However, the black faces seen on Chinese television are not just negative stereotypes.
Known as Hao Ge (郝歌), Nigerian-born Emmanuel Uwechue has attained celebrity status in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Starting in Lagos, Nigeria as a singer at the House of the Rock Pentecostal Church, Uwechue traveled to China and began a musical career in the early 2000s, eventually garnering enough attention to be asked to sing at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. 1 Both the blackface controversy and Uwechue’s musical career speak to a larger relationship linking the world’s second largest economy and the 54 nations of the world’s second largest continent. Importantly, because of its relationship with African nations, China is changing greatly—even as it impacts Africa.
But what exactly is this relationship(s)? Is there, as some editorials suggest, an effort to impose a new version of colonialism “with Chinese characteristics?” Or, as the Chinese government and pro-Beijing outlets suggest, does investment from the PRC offer an alternative option for investment and business deals? What are the long-term implications of China in Africa? How then can the church be attentive and responsive to this very vital and important relationship?
This essay will help to show some of the depths and complexities of Sino-African relations we see in the early twenty-first century. It entails racism and exploitation but also opportunity and possibility. This article will sketch some of the historical background as well as introduce some of the contemporary issues in China-Africa relations. I am a historian of China who researches Maoist internationalist outreach to Africa and African Americans during the heights of the Cold War. My perspective is geared toward both the reality and the rhetoric of China’s relationship with African nations in the twentieth and early twenty-first century.
In thinking about China-Africa relations, it is useful to examine how both regions experienced the twentieth century. While the Republic of China (ROC) government struggled to exercise effective control over its nominal territories up to 1937, Africans throughout their continent bristled under the heel of European colonialism. The end of the Second World War, both the defeat of Axis Japan as well as the impoverishment of Allied colonizers, catalyzed a wave of decolonization beginning in Asia and later sweeping Africa.
A shared history of foreign domination and the wave of decolonization was used by PRC leaders, such as Zhou Enlai, who adapted a spirit of cooperation between African and Asian peoples following the Bandung Conference in 1955, to showcase Beijing’s position to lead emerging African nations in pursuit of a world revolution to overthrow the old colonial order. The post-Bandung creation of a “Third Way,” or “Third World,” separate from the two Cold War poles of Washington and Moscow, brought the PRC into a close relationship, playing “big brother,” to emerging independent African nations under a banner of revolutionary change and world socialism. While the power dynamics between Beijing and its African allies have always been questioned and critiqued, less attention has been given to how African nations have shaped China’s development as a major power.
Relations with African nations began to pay diplomatic dividends for Beijing during the decolonization era of the sixties and seventies. African nations were among the major supporters who voted for the PRC being admitted into the UN in 1971. The TAZARA Railway, also known as the Tan-Zam Railway, was celebrated as a major feat and propaganda coup for Beijing’s policy in Africa as the longest railway in sub-Saharan Africa and the PRC’s single largest foreign aid investment.2 Uniting the copper belt of Zambia to the coast of Tanzania, and financed with interest-free loans from China, the TAZARA Railway was criticized in European and American newspapers as a way for the PRC to control Africans and their resources through debt while boosting China’s position on the continent. Criticism of Chinese investment in Africa in our own day continues to echo along the lines of predatory financing, resource extraction, and lack of concern for local people.
While the PRC under Mao pushed for an African policy and relationship based around Third World solidarities and world revolution, the start of the Reform and Opening policy in 1979 marked a major shift in Sino-African relations. Political relations would continue; however, economic restructuring would necessitate a much larger role for trade and business development as a major pillar of the China-Africa relationship. This new economic relationship would bring new issues, problems, and solutions both to China and African nations. Third World solidarities, once political, would also come to describe economics and denote vast differences in prosperity and poverty.
The integration of China into the Washington-centered world order occurred in stages. From joining the UN in 1971, normalizing relations with the US and restructuring economic policies in 1979, to more recently joining the World Trade Organization in 2001, the Sino-African relationship played a large and, as yet, still largely understudied role in facilitating the “Chinese miracle.” But what does that mean in 2019? What has been built on the diplomatic and economic relationship linking China and Africa?
Natural and human resources as well as markets throughout the African continent continue to play a major role in China’s economic ascent and, conversely, China has proved a major financier of Africa’s economic development. Chinese firms, both private and state-owned, invest in natural resources from copper, gold, and petroleum to agriculture yields. Chinese investment in Africa spans the continent from Egypt to South Africa and from Senegal to Ethiopia. In addition to mining, many independent Chinese investors, as well as state-owned enterprises (SOEs), have increased their stakes in African agriculture from rice in Cameroon to palm oil in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).3
According to a 2018 study by Deloitte, Chinese investment was estimated to be in a third of all regional and continental projects in Africa that year with a large footprint in East and Central Africa, at 54.7% and 38.5% respectively. Further, the largest share of Chinese funded and built projects were targeted in transportation. These major investments were a part of Beijing’s multinational project called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Announced in 2013 by then new Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, BRI was designed to strengthen Beijing’s commercial relationships with nations throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa. It is attempting to recreate the China-centered economic world of the Silk Road with trade uniting Europe to China through Central Asia and Africa to the Indian Ocean via China. African nations make up 37 of the 103 countries that signed to join the BRI.4 Recent infrastructure projects, such as the construction of a Chinese rail in Kenya’s port at Mombasa, are also related to BRI.
The nature of Chinese investment in Africa is the topic of frequent debate by scholars and journalists. Chinese media celebrate the achievement of deepening Sino-African ties as a triumph of China’s rising economic prowess and of mutual benefit to Africans and Chinese alike. These ties have a “no strings attached” policy to economic aid and business deals that bring more benefit to Africans than Western policies that attach political conditions to aid and investment. While Western investments in Africa are often based on a measure of human rights assurances or environmental protections, Beijing’s policy has been criticized by Western newspapers as friendly to autocratic governments with records of human rights abuses and contributing to environmental degradation in African nations. News headlines in Western newspapers often focus on the ramificationsof African nations’ increasing reliance on Chinese banks and enterprises as a source of foreign investment, arguing that Beijing’s offer of easy money baits weak and inefficient governments into a trap of dependence on the PRC. For many in Africa, this contested nature of Chinese investment is not an academic question but one of economic survival and immediate political consequences.
A world of scholarship and analysis of China-Africa relations has emerged in response to the deepening ties between these two economic regions.5 New areas of exploration shift from political and economic relations to an examination of environmental impact, migration, cultural exchange, and Christianity as areas of common interest to Chinese and Africans. CNN recently profiled a small community of Chinese Christians who converted while living in Kenya.6 While China-Africa relations can include political, economic, and cultural aspects, as we will see in the other articles in this issue, there is also an important spiritual component of this relationship.
The relationship between China and African nations is a major topic of concern around the world. It is multi-faceted, and there are many interests in play, not just for the Chinese but for Nigerians, Senegalese, South Africans, Egyptians, Congolese, and citizens in other countries throughout the continent.
China-Africa relations also encompass industries ranging from mining and agriculture to infrastructure and shipping, and between private and state-owned enterprises. The end result is a complex relationship linking China and Africa, a relationship that is deep enough to include both the allegations of Chinese racism and exploitation as well as the increased economic opportunities coming to the African continent. This complexity in China-Africa relations, from economic and political to cultural spheres, demonstrates the significance of these two regions to the wider world.
- Jimmy Wang, “Nigerian Finds Pop Stardom in Beijing,” New York Times, March 15, 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/16/arts/music/hao-ge-a-nigerian-becomes-a-pop-star-in-china.html
- See Jamie Monson, African Freedom Railway: How a Chinese Development Changed Lives and Livelihoods in Tanzania (Indiana University Press, 2009)
- “A Look at Chinese Investment in African Agriculture,” https://gro-intelligence.com/insights/articles/a-look-at-chinese-investment-in-african-agriculture.
- Hannah Edinger, Jean-Pierre Labuschagne, “If you want to prosper, build roads,” Deliotte Insights. https://www2.deloitte.com/insights/us/en/industry/public-sector/china-investment-africa-infrastructure-development.html.
- More prominent examples include the China Africa Research Institute (CARI) sponsored by Johns Hopkins University http://www.sais-cari.org/, ChinaFile’s The China Africa Project http://www.chinafile.com/library/china-africa-project, and the China Africa Podcast https://chinaafricaproject.com/.
- Jenni Marsh, “As churches are demolished at home, Chinese Christians find religious freedom in Kenya,” CNN, May 21, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/28/asia/china-christians-africa-kenya-intl/index.html.
Michael Hicks is a PhD candidate in History and African American Studies at Penn State University. He is currently writing a dissertation on Chinese internationalism with African nations and African American activists during the Cold War.View Full Bio