Eric Olander and Cobus van Staden are the duo behind the China Africa Project and hosts of the weekly China in Africa Podcast. They’re here to answer your most pressing, puzzling, even politically incorrect questions about all things related to the Chinese in Africa and Africans in China. If you want to know something, anything at all… just hit them up online and they’ll give it to you straight:
Dear Eric & Cobus, I am a high school student from La Jolla, California and I am doing a paper for school on China-Africa relations. While researching the paper, I had to explain why the Chinese are so interested in Africa and basically, for me at least, it seems that they just want raw materials (minerals, oil, gold). Why did the British, French and Belgians go to Africa? For raw materials, right? So what is the different between what the Chinese are doing in Africa today and what the Europeans did in the past?
— Sarah from La Jolla, California via Facebook
Dear Sarah, let’s get the easy part out of the way first. Yes, superficially there are some striking similarities between China’s mercantilist policies in pursuit of Africa’s natural resources and the imperial agendas of the European powers during the colonial era. No doubt. Over the past 10-15 years, China’s surging engagement in Africa was heavily driven by the country’s voracious appetite for timber, oil, bauxite, copper, ores and countless others raw materials. Just as the British and the French would focus their infrastructure development from mines to the ports, China too has focused a significant portion of its own infrastructure development programs in Africa on areas that are rich in valuable natural resources. So as you can see, it’s easy to draw a comparison between what the Chinese are doing in Africa today and what the Europeans did in the past. Many critics of the Chinese in Africa, particularly in the West, use this very argument to say that the Chinese are just “re-colonizing” Africa and are only interested in the value that lies in the ground. This is only part of the story though. The rest is far more complicated than how these critics frame the argument and draw what I regard silly comparisons between the behavior of the Chinese and Europeans.
The Chinese are buying up vast amounts of Africa’s natural resources but the operative word is buy . The Belgians, British, French and Portuguese did not buy those same natural resources during their imperial reign in Africa, they stole them.
It is intellectually dishonest to compare in any way 21st century globalized capitalism with imperialism that began in the 16th century. The Chinese are not trying to conquer Africa throughout violent occupation, subjugate entire populations under brutal imperial law or maim and kill millions of people in pursuit of cultural and economic supremacy. That is what the Europeans did in Africa. To draw any comparison to the mind-wrenching violence of that era only minimizes the true horrors that occurred under European colonial rule. No matter what Western media tells you, there was nothing romantic about the European conquest of Africa and any reference to a modern-day equivalent of that time is just wrong.
The Chinese don’t need armies to get what they want from Africa. They just have to buy the stuff. Chinese companies are using the very tools of globalization, largely pioneered by the West, (capital markets, free trade agreements, advanced shipping methods, digital technology, etc…) as part of their “Go Out” agenda to find new sources of raw materials, open new markets for their goods and extend China’s diplomatic influence around the world. The methods the Chinese to do this are unique to the 21st century.
The words “colonialism” and “imperialism” have enormous historical weight in places like Africa and to use them carelessly disrespects the honor of the millions of people who suffered and died under these immoral regimes.
If you focus on just economic or trade aspects of European colonialism in Africa you’re missing a big part of the picture, and another reason why the Chinese and European experience is so vastly different. Britain, for example, devoted enormous resources to ensure that its colonies in Africa implemented commonwealth law, systems of weights and measurements, Christianity and countless other aspects of British social, political and cultural life. British, and European colonialism as a whole, was all encompassing affecting every aspect of life in a colony such as Kenya.
The Chinese are doing no such thing. Sure, they have 40-50 language and cultural centers known as Confucius Institutes spread across Africa to teach Mandarin – a far cry from any vast secret imperial cultural agenda. The Chinese are buying up vast amounts of natural resources but the operative word is buy. The Belgians, British, French and Portuguese did not buy those same natural resources during their imperial reign, they stole them. Pure and simple. If African governments do not want to sell their gold or oil to the Chinese, that’s OK. The Chinese will move on to somewhere else to buy it.
Finally, it’s important to put the Chinese presence in Africa in context. Although China is now Africa’s largest trading partner, it is far behind when it comes to investment. So when we’re talking about loaded words like “colonialism” and “imperialism,” investment is critical to that discussion and, there, the Chinese are actually minor players in Africa relatively speaking.
I don’t want you to think that I am in any way defending the Chinese. Not at all. They are more than capable of doing that for themselves. Nor am I trying to excuse or justify any of the reprehensible behavior committed by some Chinese companies (labor abuses, environmental destruction, corruption) or the government (arms sales, support of dictators, unfair loans) in Africa.
So my key message to you on this subject, while you do your research for your paper, is to be careful with language, because words like colonialism and imperialism have enormous historical weight in places like Africa and to use them carelessly disrespects the honor of the millions of people who suffered and died under these immoral regimes.
The Chinese may be a lot of things (both good and bad) but global imperialists they are not.
Good luck with your paper!
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