China in Africa: Myths, Realities and Opportunities

By Ncube, Mthuli; Fairbanks, Michael | Harvard International Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

China in Africa: Myths, Realities and Opportunities


Ncube, Mthuli, Fairbanks, Michael, Harvard International Review


Myths and realities about China's ambitions in Africa abound: China is monolithic, mired in stale ideology, subverting the Bretton Woods system, and unwilling to provide global public goods. Another is that China has no "soft power," that is, the ability to engage almost one billion Africans by persuasion, attraction, and market relations rather than brute economic and military force.

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These myths, which cause some to conclude that China is interested in a "resource grab," or aiming to displace the West, may cause strategic errors by other nations or the global governing institutions. It hurts the interests of Africans who have made great strides to eradicate poverty, build democratic institutions, and integrate into global networks of trade and investment.

China's History in Africa

China's involvement in Africa, which dates as far back as 618 A.D., is seen as a unique advantage (see Figure A). It may be divided into three periods. The first period leading up to 1949 is the episodic phase where The T'ang (618-907 A.D.), Sung, and Ming dynasties traded tusks and horns, slaves, and light-manufactured goods, respectively. In the late nineteenth century, the first wave of Chinese immigrants came to Africa, especially after the Boxer rebellion in 1899. The second wave of immigrants came to Africa after the formation of the People's Republic in 1949.

The second period is the ideological or "symbolic phase" and began in 1960 and lasted until 1989. This was characterized by open conflict and competition with the Soviet Union and the West, and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Other salient events of the time included the construction of the Tan Zam railway (1970-1976), China replacing Taiwan on the UN Security Council with African support in 1971, and in 1982, when the Communist Party of China (CPC) defined the principles of "Mutual Respect and Non-interference."

The third or "symbiotic phase" began in 1990 and persists to the present. It is characterized by the modernization of the People's Liberation Army, the restructuring of State Owned Enterprises, and the development of the "Socialist Market Economy." China went from oil exporter to oil importer, and in 1996, China's acquisitions in Africa take off. Consequently, a "Third Wave" of Chinese immigrants to Africa begins.

Comprehending the history of China in Africa is fundamental because it forms the basis of China's identity in Africa as another developing nation, a benign not colonial presence, which sets the foundation for their espoused strategy of "mutual benefits," and non-interference in sovereign issues.

Demographics drive Strategy

China's strategy in Africa may be partly linked to its demographics. The greatest challenges facing China are aging population, gender disparity, migration to cities, rural health care, and income inequality. Poverty declined from over 60 percent to less than 7 percent since 1978, eradicating more poverty than in the rest of human history.

China has been the world's most populous nation for many centuries. Its national population density (137/[km.sup.2]) is not very high. The overall population density of China conceals major regional variations; that is, the western and northern areas have only a few million people.

China now has an increasingly aging population; it is projected that 11.8 percent of the population in 2020 will be 65 years of age and older. Health care has improved dramatically in China since 1949. Many major diseases have been brought under control. Life expectancy has nearly doubled.

According to the 2010 census, males account for 51.3 percent of China's 1.34 billion people, while females make up 48.7 percent of the total. In most western countries the sex ratio at birth is around 105 boys to 100 girls. In some parts of China, the number may be as high as 128 boys to girls. …

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