Book Review

Sino-African Relations and International Contexts


China and Africa: A Century of Engagement, by David H. Shinn and Joshua Eisenman. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. Hardcover, 544 pp., ISBN-10: 0812244192; ISBN-13: 978-0812244199. Available at Penn Press and Amazon.

Sino-Africa relations have increasingly drawn public attention in recent years, especially since China’s Belt and Road Initiative took off in 2013 with the aim to stimulate China’s involvement in infrastructure development and investments overseas, including African countries. In order to put newspaper headlines, political science theories, and daily anecdotes into context for understanding perspectives of different parties at play in a less subjective way, it is essential to know the nuts and bolts history of Sino-African relations and international contexts in each era.

China and Africa: A Century of Engagement, by David H. Shinn and Joshua Eisenman, is a high-level introductory book in this field. Dr. Shinn is an adjunct professor of international affairs at The George Washington University and former ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso; Dr. Eisenman is a China researcher who currently teaches at the University of Texas. American diplomat and scholars as they are, Shinn and Eisenman admirably balance competing narratives “through the eyes of the Africanist, Sinologist, and policymaker” (p. 362). One can be convinced of the book’s comprehensiveness by the diversity of its source types, the languages in which data were collected, as well as interviewees’ nationalities, roles, and social class.

The book starts with an introduction that analyzes the nine key themes and historical trends in China-Africa relations and summarizes academic literature in Sino-African relations (and lack thereof). Shinn and Eisenman contend that the contemporary literature is framed by a debate between optimistic researchers who see China as a benign business partner and loyal friend of Africa, and pessimistic observers who believe that an authoritarian China supports political illiberalism on the continent.

In chapter two, the authors trace Sino-African trade and diplomatic relations from the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) to the People’s Republic of China (1949–present). Since the beginning of the Cold War, some key factors influencing China’s involvement in Africa include Sino-Soviet conflict, the Cultural Revolution, China’s economic reform and opening up policy, and the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

The following five chapters examine the key areas of China’s engagement with Africa, namely political relations, trade, investment and assistance, military and security ties, media and cultural relations, and ties with Chinese communities in Africa. Chapters eight through eleven delve into the bilateral relationships between China and individual African countries from 1949 to 2011. Lastly, in the conclusion, Shinn and Eisenman make eight predictions about Sino-African relations based on their research.

The book’s strong analysis of the evolution of Chinese diplomatic strategies highlights China’s pragmatism in its engagement with Africa since the 1970s which is different from its focus on support for African national liberation and revolutionary movements in the 1950s and ’60s. Such diplomatic shift is consistent with both Chinese and African countries’ domestic changes and the escalating Sino-Soviet split.

From the perspective of China, the shift was out of the need to compete with Taiwan for diplomatic recognition, especially at the United Nations; to repair quickly the damage brought by the Cultural Revolution, a great calamity brought about by the state; and to be diplomatically “independent” and economically robust. Such pragmatism explains the political nonconditionality of Chinese investments and aid in Africa and the greater focus on bilateral relationships instead of multilateral organizations. Until today, China does not promote any particular development models, as many contextual factors make China’s economic growth irreplicable, though there are aspects that have attracted interest and are being learned.  

China’s practical focus on commercial ties, joint ventures, and technical services makes its diplomatic moves more predictable. However, with the decrease of previous “Third World” policy that claims that China is a socialist developing country which will not seek to become a super power, it concerns some whether China still holds to this principle. Nevertheless, it may be worthwhile to think about what the end of the Cold War means for China’s ideological needs and what has changed and what has remained in the views of Western common observers towards China.

Another component that is interesting and relevant to this particular audience is the role of Chinese communities in Africa and Africans in China. They are heterogeneous yet with traceable patterns. Shinn and Eisenman categorize the Chinese communities in Africa into three types: (1) professionals who staff embassies, aid missions, and Chinese companies; (2) contract Chinese laborers; (3) and small traders and business persons. They all vary in the levels of language skills, integration into local society, and willingness to stay in Africa permanently.

The authors observe that despite relatively ample understanding on the official level, local level conflicts do occur, leading to hostility on both Chinese and local communities’ sides. This can result from a variety of reasons: lack of cultural sensitivity, ignorance on both sides, spread of antagonistic or generalizing narratives (which is a fascinating topic by itself), corruption, and the asymmetry of power dynamics or the perception of it. The manifestations and consequences of the local conflicts vary case by case. The official and grassroots efforts to directly tackle such tensions are not mentioned in the book, possibly because they were not noticeable enough by the time it was published in 2012.

Africans in China, on the other hand, are mostly traders, diplomats, and students. They concentrate in several major cities. Being in a largely homogenous country with less flexible visa policies, many African traders (predominantly West African) face inspections of their illegal overstay, while the local police express concerns about drug trafficking and other crimes where Africans concentrate, such as in several districts in Guangzhou City. The authors find it “not surprising” that many Africans studying in China have returned home feeling lonely and disillusioned “given the linguistic and cultural differences.” That being said, some Africans have been able to find professional success in China and build their own cultures and communities there.

To sum up, Shinn and Eisenman have been successful in creating a well-informed synthesis of historical facts and past analyses, providing a deeper understanding of the evolution of China’s engagement with Africa, and modern Sino-African relations. The book summarizes and compares various interpretations of Sino-African relations history based on balanced analysis, which makes it an excellent reference text for anyone who wants to understand this topic in broad strokes. However, the book is not among those that break new ground of theories or facts in this area; neither does it go into more nuanced analysis at individual or firm levels, even though these actors can respond to events differently from a state or political party.

For readers like us, this book is recommended because getting the facts straight helps us engage Chinese communities in meaningful and respectful ways when going deep into a particular topic. Furthermore, the presentation of various narratives makes sense of how people have been informed differently on the same topics.

Luxi (Lucy) Liu

Luxi (Lucy) Liu is an international development practitioner and researcher who has worked on China-Africa cultural and economic exchange issues. A Chinese native, she holds a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and a bachelor’s degree in international politics from Fudan University. View Full Bio