Syllabus: the Myth of Chinese “Imperialism” and China in Africa — by The Qiao

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Chinese and African laborers work at the construction site of the TAZARA railway. In the 1970s, China sent experts, specialists and about 15,000 workers to help build the strategic railway, which linked Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to central Zambia and reduce regional trade dependence on apartheid Rhodesia and South Africa.

This short reading list compiles articles, papers and books on China and Africa’s relationship that challenges hegemonic Western tropes of Chinese “neocolonialism” and “debt-trap diplomacy.” As these readings make clear, these narratives mainly serve to obscure ongoing Western financial and military hegemony on the African continent, where Chinese state and private investments remain a relative newcomer and Chinese military presence is all but non-existent.

While significant Chinese investment in Africa is guided by private commercial interests, these readings also show that Chinese state-owned investments provide unique opportunities for African labor, environmental, and national development interests that provide an important, if imperfect, alternative to Western predatory investment. Likewise, African participation in the Belt and Road Initiative has the potential to realize billions of dollars worth of infrastructure which has long been a hurdle to African economic independence and sustainable development.”

Articles and Talks

Bräutigam, Deborah. “China in Africa is not “Neo-Colonialism.” The Washington Post. April 12, 2018.

Bräutigam, Deborah. “Challenging the Myths of Chinese Land Grabs in Africa.” The China Africa Project. November 6, 2015.

Brown, Nino. “Five Imperialist Myths About China’s Role in Africa.” Liberation School. May 14, 2019.

Erskog, Mikaela. Remarks at Teach In: U.S. Aggression China: Laying Out The Problem. The People’s Forum. November 29, 2020.

  • In this short talk, Mikaela Erskog (Pan Africa Today, TriContinental: Institute for Social Research) unpacks what she calls a U.S. “misinformation media campaign” to derail China-Africa relations, calling attention instead to historical Chinese support for African liberation movements as well as Chinese infrastructure, education, and medical investment and aid on the African continent.

Martinez, Carlos. “Is China the New Imperialist force in Africa?” Invent the Future. October 8, 2018.

Matlhako, Chris. Remarks at No Cold War: An International Peace Forum. No Cold War. September 26, 2020.

  • Chris Matlhako (Deputy General Secretary, South African Communist Party) offers a South African communist perspective of China-Africa relations, arguing that the U.S. and Europe have pushed a narrative of “Chinese neocolonialism” to buttress their own neocolonial project on the African continent. Matlhako offers critical support for China-Africa cooperation, the Belt and Road Initiative, and people’s exchanges in the interests of people’s development and multilateralism.

Melin, L.E. “The Elephant in the Chinese Room.” The Elephant. December 5, 2020.

  • Writing for the Nairobi-based media outlet The Elephant, political commentator L.E. Melin shows that 90% of BRI investments in Africa have gone towards critical infrastructure such as 90% transport, power, water, health, and education infrastructure. Using the case of Argentina’s debt restructuring under IMF austerity, Melin argues that the Belt and Road Initiative offers a sustainable way to finance massive infrastructure projects to a region historically infrastructure-poor under Western neocolonialism.

Moore, Gyude W. “Africa’s Position in the New Cold War.” The China Africa Project. August 7, 2020.

  • Former Liberian Minister of Public Works W. Gyude Moore unpacks the hypocritical fear mongering of the Western powers when it comes to Chinese infrastructure investment in Africa, which Moore argues better aligns with African development objectives than any Western alternative. As Moore writes: “If China has built more infrastructure in Africa in two decades than the West has in centuries, China is also our friend.”

Onunaiju, Charles. “China and the End of Poverty: Implications for Africa.” Vanguard. December 24, 2020.

Qiao Collective. “China’s Response to 2020 Guangdong Anti-African discrimination.” June 3, 2020. [Twitter thread]

Umi, Ahjamu. “China in Africa: A Critical Assessment.” Hood Communist, November 21, 2019.

  • Ahjamu Umi offers a Pan-Africanist, scientific socialist perspective on the question of Chinese investment in the African continent. Umi argues that so long as Africa remains subjugated by structural underdevelopment and neocolonialism, Chinese engagement alone will not transform the African condition. However, recognizing the advantages of Chinese infrastructure deals in Africa, Umi pushes back against painting China with the same brush as the Western imperialist powers.

Research Papers

Bräutigam, Deborah. “A Critical Look at Chinese ‘Debt-trap Diplomacy’: The Rise of a Meme.” Area Development and Policy 5 No. 1 (2020): 1-14.

Bodomo, Adams. “Is China Colonizing Africa? Africa-China Relations in a Shifting Global Economic Governance System.” In Global Economic Governance and Human Development, edited by Simone Raudino and Arlo Poletti. Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2018. [full PDF]

Carmody, Pádraig, “Dependence not debt-trap diplomacy.” [full PDF] Area Development and Policy 5 No. 1 (2020).

  • Abstract: “Every few years in the West – in the media and in political circles – there is a moral panic about the rise of China. Africa often plays a central role in this: as a supposedly predatory China is counterposed against representations of hapless and powerless African victims. As Deborah Bräutigam notes in her paper, this currently takes the form of the meme of ‘debt-trap diplomacy’, which is largely unjustified. However, intensified relations of dependence are being established between China and Africa, and increasing levels of debt are both a vector and an outcome of this, which in some instance may result in a debt trap. The construction of a debt trap implies intentionality, but while this may not be the case, development outcomes may include excessive overseas borrowing.”

Chatelard, Solange. “Unpacking the ‘New Scramble of Africa’: A Critical and Local Perspective of Chinese Activities in Zambia.” In States, Regions and the Global System: Europe and Northern Asia-Pacific in Globalised Governance, edited by Christoph Schuck and Reimund Seidelmann. 2011.

  • This paper reviews the academic and political debate over China’s so-called ‘New Scramble of Africa’ in the 21st century, using local perspectives of Chinese activities in Zambia to highlight cultural, political, and economic dynamics that challenge the monolithic depiction of Chinese neocolonialism.

Deych, Tat’yana L. “China in Africa: a case of “neo-colonialism” or win-win strategy?Outlines of Global Transformations 11 No. 5 (2018): 63-82.

Singh, Ajit. “The myth of ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ and realities of Chinese development financeThird World Quarterly. [full PDF]

  • Abstract: “In recent decades China has emerged as a leader in international development finance, with the potential to provide sorely needed funds to address major global developmental gaps. However, not everyone is optimistic about this new source of lending. A narrative of ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ has emerged to describe Chinese lending to developing countries – most ardently advanced by the United States – contending that China seeks to ensnare smaller countries with onerous levels of debt in order to realise neocolonial aims. This article argues that the theory of debt-trap diplomacy does not accurately describe Chinese finance. First, investigating China–Africa relations, it will demonstrate that Chinese loans are not a major driver of debt distress. Second, it will demonstrate that China does not engage in predatory behaviour towards borrowing countries, using debt to facilitate takeovers of strategic assets and natural resources, or to promote military expansion. Finally, comparing Chinese and Western financial relations with Latin America and the Caribbean, it will demonstrate that, in contrast to the debt-trap narrative, China’s non-interventionist approach has opened space for developing countries, particularly those with governments facing hostility from the US and its allies.”


Bräutigam, Deborah. Will Africa Feed China?Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2015.

Lee, Ching Kwan. The Specter of Global China: Politics, Labor, and Foreign Investment in Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. [full PDF]

Liang Haoguang and Zhang Yaojun. The Theoretical System of Belt and Road. Singapore: Springer Nature, 2019.

Monson, Jamie. Africa’s Freedom Railway: How a Chinese Development Project Changes Lives and Livelihoods in Tanzania. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. [PDF of chapters]

  • This book details the history of the first major development project between China and Tanzania and Zambia, begun in 1967. The TAZARA railway represented a Third World construction project designed to provide participating nations with economic independence from apartheid Rhodesia and South Africa. TAZARA is often invoked today as a symbol of Sino-African friendship, and the principles of anti-colonialism, sovereignty, and national determination outlined during this project sets the tone of Chinese international development projects to this day.

Van Ness, Peter. Revolution and Chinese Foreign Policy: Peking’s Support for Wars of National Liberation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.

Credit: The Qiao Collective. Publication: The Qiao Collective. Source link: