China's rising influence in Africa

01 Aug 2008|LiAnne Yu

The story about China in the Western media is shifting, from celebrated miracle economy to potential global threat. In particular, the Western media is paying more attention to the developing trade relationships between China and Africa and the implications of that on China’s access to resources from regimes that the U.S. does not support. As an example, many, including Steven Spielberg and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have spoken out about China’s role in escalating the humanitarian crisis in Darfur by its support for Sudan. It sells weapons to Khartoum, while Sudan provides two thirds of its oil reserves to Beijing. Trade between the China and Africa has topped $55 billion in 2006, and China hopes that two-way trade will hit $100 billion by 2020.

The Western media tends to portray this as an “unholy alliance” that is emerging out of nowhere. However, China’s interest in Africa shouldn’t come as a surprise if we pay closer attention to the history of Chinese-African relations.

The Chinese Communist regime has, for over 50 years now, fostered relations with other “third world” countries as a way to encourage national liberation and revolution, and to offer a different vision of development than what has come out of the first world. To encourage that, China has, for many decades now, sponsored and encouraged students and scholars from Africa to live in China and learn Chinese.

When I lived in China as an exchange student in 1990-1991, I was initially shocked at how many foreign exchange students there were from Africa. In my dormitory, a good third of the students were African (another third from Japan, and the rest a mix of European and American). My dorm neighbors were all African, and since we didn’t have any other common language, we all reverted to Mandarin to communicate with each other. I vividly remember my neighbor teaching me how to make Nigerian stew, giving me instructions in perfect Chinese. She was doing PhD work on the history of African-Chinese trade, and doing all her coursework in Chinese, by the way.

I also remember some of the tensions between Chinese and African students, particularly when it came to interracial dating. Some Chinese students reacted very negatively to the sight of African men walking on campus with Chinese women, and these couples were often in danger of having things thrown at them. One man from Kenya told me that life was lonely for him as an exchange student in China. There weren’t any women from his home land there, and he felt too conspicuous walking around with locals. He pretty much confined himself to the foreign exchange student dormitory.

NPR recently aired a program on Chinese-African relations. Some call this a new form of colonialism. Others argue that China’s attitude towards Africa is very different than that of the Europeans, that China accepts Africa on its “own terms” and treats the region as an equal. As it says in the NPR article, “China’s reluctance to delve into domestic affairs has raised concern internationally, but the trade-without-conditions approach has been hailed by many African leaders who are tired of being dictated to by their Western peers.”

Whatever the case may be, the reality is that China and Africa have forged deep ties that have not sprung up overnight, as we seem to believe here in the West. These ties are rooted in policies and practices that have been in place for several decades. It is important for us to understand this history in order to better understand the implications of China-African alliances.

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