Yellow Man's Burden

The Chinese are recolonizing Africa.

It's well recognized that in many ways, the nations of sub-Saharan Africa are one basket case after another.  Decades of altruism, Peace Corps workers, and other resources have been poured into this area to little good effect; we've reported how Oprah Winfrey, one of the world's richest and most determined women, was unable to successfully operate a girl's school in South Africa.

Surprisingly enough, however, there are those who are optimistic about the future of Africa.  The article "Opportunity Knocks" in the Economist starts out:

Take a snapshot of the main news stories around Africa.  In Nigeria, its most populous country, the insurgency in the oil-producing Delta region grows fiercer by the day.  Zimbabwe's agony continues as President Robert Mugabe and the new prime minister, his opponent in the last election, Morgan Tsvangirai, fail to agree on the composition of a face-saving coalition government; meanwhile, the country's official rate of inflation has topped 11m%, with the unofficial rate put at more than 531 billion%.  The president of Sudan, Africa's largest country, has officially been accused of genocide and war crimes by the International Criminal Court.  In Somalia, the tragedy of a lawless and ungoverned country only gets worse.  Even in South Africa, the continent s biggest economy, political uncertainty has set in after the ousting of the former president, Thabo Mbeki, in a bitter political feud.

Anyone who googles Somalia, Sudan, Congo, Kenya, Zimbabwe, or almost any other south African nation will find plenty of articles about bad governance, kleptocracy, incompetence, and the unending failure of outside aid initiatives such as Ms. Winfrey's.  But despite this almost unbroken history of economic doom and gloom, the Economist describes an optimistic future for Africa:

Yet all this has been accompanied by a steady drumbeat of optimism about the continent, and confidence in its prospects.  Despite the litany of problems, the 48 countries of sub-Saharan Africa (hereafter referred to as plain Africa) are, by several measures, enjoying a period of unparalleled economic success.  And despite the turmoil in the world's financial markets, international investors still think they can make money there.

The Economist then spends several pages discussing problems due to population growth, corruption, lack of jobs, clapped-out infrastructure, and scant concern for human rights but nevertheless ends on an air of optimism.  How can they possibly be optimistic?  With all the wars and rumors of wars, why would anyone believe that any country in Africa would be stable long enough to make a profit on a major investment?

Stability From Abroad

The article "China's Recolonization of Africa" published in the Trumpet explains a major stabilizing trend in Africa:

Believe it or not, Africa's biggest untold story surrounds the steady, yet sure, recolonization of its nations. [emphasis added]

Africa is destined to be pulled apart to meet the voracious appetite for energy and natural resources of three emerging power blocs [China with Russian support, Germany as part of the EU, and Iran].

China has been steadily pushing its way into Africa since the 1950s. As the cry for independence arose across Africa following World War II, China threw its weight behind emerging independence movements, penetrating academia and the school systems.  This resulted in generations within Africa becoming steeped in the communist ideology.  Bright young Africans often finished their education within the Soviet system in Russia.  South African President Thabo Mbeki is a product of intense Russian communist training.  In fact, both Russia and China competed for favor with Africa's anti-colonialist movements during the Cold War era.

In the mid-1990s-with the Anglo-Americans and the EU distracted by events in the Balkans and Middle East, and Japan's economy sliding into the doldrums-the Chinese initiated a more aggressive policy to push into Africa.

All this effort has consummated in the development of significant links economically, politically and militarily by China with most of the Dark Continent's 54 countries.

After a century or so of intense geological surveys and satellite reconnaissance, the Chinese are even more aware of the mineral wealth to be found in Africa than King Leopold of Belgium, whose efforts to wring profit from the "Belgian Congo" have become a byword for ruthless exploitation of native peoples.  Mostly unwatched by Western liberals, the Chinese are every bit as rapacious as Leopold, better armed, and more numerous.  To start the process, the cash-rich Chinese have been making major infrastructure investments in Africa.

From rebuilding oil-rich Nigeria's railroads, paving Rwanda's main roads, operating a major timber outfit in Equatorial Guinea and Zambia's largest copper mine, to inroads into supermarket and textile companies in Lesotho, China's African penetration is aggressively on the increase.  Further, the Chinese are active in widespread searches for oil and gas throughout the continent, in addition to rebuilding neglected electricity grids and telecommunications infrastructure. [emphasis added]

Note that the Chinese are "rebuilding neglected infrastructure."  Contrary to popular belief, much of Africa had a modern, working infrastructure at one time.  The Europeans found out long ago that exploiting African resources profitably required investments in railroads, roads, electricity, schools, hospitals, and all the other multifarious components of modern industrial civilization.

As long as significant numbers of European colonizers lived in Africa, they were keenly interested in bringing the benefits of modern technology to their own homes and businesses.  When the European colonizers lowered their flags and turned Africa over to native leaders, most countries had decently functioning road, water, and telephone networks.  In some cases, their infrastructure was actually superior to what was operational in Europe, thanks to the continent-wide destruction wrought by World War II.

Unfortunately, the newly minted independent African nations were not able to maintain their inheritance.  The Pittsburgh Gazette published an article "Nothing's Left in Liberia" explaining how 14 years of civil war destroyed any possibility of maintaining a technological culture.  The Washington Times article "Resources amid ruins" described how the Congolese economy was destroyed after independence:

Not long after independence in 1960, the nation's profligate dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko -- a Cold War ally of the United States -- began siphoning off much of the town's mineral wealth for himself. The company started laying off workers. Production fell. World tin prices collapsed in the mid-1990s. More workers were laid off. The workers who remained seldom drew a paycheck.

Even countries which managed to avoid civil war were not able to maintain the road and rail networks which they'd inherited because there were too few trained people to make repairs.  As infrastructure decayed all across Africa, economic output declined steadily despite economic growth almost everywhere else in the world.

It's not easy to make money in Africa, but the Chinese are making the huge investments which are needed for there to be any economic growth at all.  Why are the Chinese making so many investments?  Why have they invested so much effort winning influence with various African governments?  How can they overcome the endemic African disorder long enough to get a return on these investments?

The Yellow Man's Burden

The answer is pretty straightforward - the Chinese are repeating Leopold's well-known methods of wringing wealth from Africa, they're enslaving the natives.  In an article "How China has created a new slave empire in Africa," the Daily Mail reports:

These poor, hopeless, angry people exist by grubbing for scraps of cobalt and copper ore in the filth and dust of abandoned copper mines in Congo, sinking perilous 80ft shafts by hand, washing their finds in cholera-infected streams full of human filth, then pushing enormous two-hundredweight loads uphill on ancient bicycles to the nearby town of Likasi where middlemen buy them to sell on, mainly to Chinese businessmen hungry for these vital metals.

To see them, as they plod miserably past, is to be reminded of pictures of unemployed miners in Thirties Britain, stumbling home in the drizzle with sacks of coal scraps gleaned from spoil heaps.

Except that here the unsparing heat makes the labour five times as hard, and the conditions of work and life are worse by far than any known in England since the 18th Century.

The Daily Mail gives the same explanation as the Trumpet:

Out of desperation, much of the continent is selling itself into a new era of corruption and virtual slavery as China seeks to buy up all the metals, minerals and oil she can lay her hands on: copper for electric and telephone cables, cobalt for mobile phones and jet engines - the basic raw materials of modern life.

It is crude rapacity, but to Africans and many of their leaders it is better than the alternative, which is slow starvation. [emphasis added]

Although there has been some economic growth in Africa since the time the Europeans put down the "White Man's Burden" and granted independence to nations all across Africa, that economic growth has not kept up with population growth.  The Economist points out that "The population [of Kenya] has grown sixfold since 1950 to 37m, with a bulge in the cohort of young men age 15-24; most will be, at best, underemployed."

Kenya was regarded as one of the most stable countries in Africa, yet passions over a close presidential election combined with so many unattached, idle young men resulted in rioting during which thousands died.  So how are the Chinese going to make a profit?

Chinese Are Accustomed to Corruption

One of the reasons the Chinese have been able to make so many inroads in Africa is that they are far more tolerant of corruption than Europeans and Americans.  The Daily Mail article cited above explains:

Everyone in Africa knows China's Congo deal - worth almost £5billion in loans, roads, railways, hospitals and schools - was offered after Western experts demanded tougher anti-corruption measures in return for more aid.

To the Chinese, Congolese corruption is more or less what they've become accustomed to at home.  There have been a long series of food and drug safety problems in China starting with contaminated pet food and toothpaste sold in America and most recently involving contaminated infant formula.  Despite such scandals, as the New York Times reports, Chinese courts are not exactly paragons at administering justice.

When a 6 month-old baby died from drinking contaminated milk, the parents' lawsuit against the milk company was dismissed.  As the Times put it,

Companies that produce shoddy goods rarely face financial penalties from the legal system, run by the Communist Party.

Chinese officials, under pressure to promote fast rates of economic growth and to enforce social stability, routinely favor producers over consumers. Product liability lawsuits remain difficult to file and harder still to win, especially if the company involved is state-owned or has close connections to the government. [emphasis added]

Given that their own legal system is under the close control of their government which emphasizes economic growth above health, safety, welfare, environmental cleanliness, or almost any other factor, Chinese businessmen may feel more comfortable making deals with dictators.  African dictators may have fewer resources and education than the Chinese bureaucracy, but they control their courts the same way the Chinese government controls Chinese courts.

Regardless of the intent of the contracting parties, deals in America are subject to the unpredictable and costly whims of American courts whereas as the Times reports, business conditions are much more predictable in China and in Africa - particularly for someone with a suitcase full of cash ready to hand and a willingness to make the most effective use of it when need be.

Well aware of the history of wars, coups, and assassinations all over Africa, African dictators value political stability above all else.  They are painfully alert to the threat to stability posed by the millions of underemployed young men who can't afford to marry.  African leaders may or may not not care how well their people live, but they do understand how economic growth might give these men something to do besides rebel.

In valuing concrete goals such as political stability and economic growth over abstract ideals such as justice, the Chinese and African governments are on the same page.

Chinese Are Accustomed to Uneducated Masses

There are about a billion and a half Chinese, some 300 million of whom are educated.  Rural schools have not worked effectively for the past several generations, so roughly a billion Chinese have low levels of education.

One reason Chinese factories can produce goods so cheaply is that as agricultural productivity improves though the use of machinery and fertilizers, uneducated farm workers become unemployed.  Like Africans who would rather mine cobalt and copper by hand than starve, these people are happy to take pretty much any job they can get.

The Chinese learned long ago how to deal with excess people - put 'em to work.  When the Emperor Shih Huang-ti unified China in 222 BC, one of his first official acts was to connect the many existing walls along the northern frontier.

This project, which resulted in one of the few man-made artifacts which can be seen from outer space, took ten years and cost the lives of countless laborers.  In anticipating Mao Tse-Tung's reeducation camps by a couple of millennia, Shih exiled his political opponents and put them to work, lending historical depth to the 1960's phrase "up against the wall!"

The Chinese have always been major players on the international stage whether the global effects of whatever they did were recognized or not.  As Will Durant put it in Our Oriental Heritage, Simon and Schuster (New York, 1963) p. 695:

" [the wall] was the ruin of one generation," say the Chinese, "and the salvation of many."  It did not quite keep out the barbarians, as we shall see, but it delayed and reduced their attacks. The Huns, barred for a time from Chinese soil, moved west into Europe and south into Italy.  Rome fell because China built a wall. [emphasis added]

All the World's a Stage...

Modern times have brought no change to the basic Chinese philosophy of development regardless of human cost; Chinese contractors expended lives lavishly in constructing the buildings for the Beijing Olympics.  In making a highly-visible announcement that China was a major player on the global stage, the Olympics merely confirmed Chinese wealth, status, and influence which have been growing since the 1950's.

Westerners prefer to forget that the Chinese emphasis on growth is pretty much the same as Western government policy during the industrial revolution.  Environmentalists are uncomfortable with the fact that as manufactured goods became more available during the early stages of industrialization, life spans increased.

Despite the environmental costs of the early stages of industrialization, economic growth was good for the population at large - they lived longer.  Eventually, they grew rich enough that they started to care about being able to breathe the air and drink the water; in the United States today, for example, we have more acres of forests than when George Washington was president.  We are starting to see the first glimmerings of this effect even in China, as its newly wealthy urbanites start complaining about nasty messes they don't like.

The decision of when and how to trade off the life-shortening effects of industrial pollution against the life-lengthening effects of economic growth is a decision for the Chinese government.  The Chinese way is not our way, but it works for them.

Considering Chinese attitudes towards what Westerners call "corruption" and knowing the way the Chinese handle their courts and deal with excess population, African rulers find far more kindred spirits in the Chinese than in the European powers.

The Chinese recolonization of Africa is well underway and probably cannot be stopped regardless of what Westerners may think.  Rome fell because the Chinese built a wall in southern Mongolia; what will happen as the Chinese build railroads and roads in southern Africa?

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
The Economist reports that China is still interested in investing in the Democratic Republic of Congo

And yet, at a time when Congo seemed most in need and in the worst negotiating position, its government appears to have gained the upper hand in a row with foreign donors over a mining and infrastructure package worth $9 billion that was agreed a year ago with China. The IMF objected to it, on the ground that it would saddle Congo with a massive new debt, so is delaying forgiveness of most of the $10 billion-plus that Congo already owes.

China's ambassador in Kinshasa has accused the IMF of blackmail. Though Chinese companies have yet to complete a feasibility study of the deal, they have begun infrastructure projects across the country. President Joseph Kabila thinks the agreement with China is the jewel in the crown of his otherwise drab economic policy. "No, we will not revisit this contract," says the head of his special commission to oversee the Chinese deal. "The Congolese government is making sacrifices to benefit from debt relief, but it is also needs to renew its infrastructure."
April 19, 2009 2:54 PM
The Economist now reports that many Africans resent the presence of Chinese in Africa.

Chinese money is helping to drive infrastructure investment in many developing countries, but in its wake has also come a big rise in Chinese immigrants and overseas workers that has proved less popular. As the number of attacks on Chinese citizens and property increases, domestic pressure may grow on China's government to respond assertively, undermining its doctrine of non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states.

The last few months have seen another outbreak of anti-Chinese rioting in countries that casual observers might have been surprised to find even had a Chinese minority. In Algeria this August, clashes broke out between Chinese and locals in the capital, Algiers, leaving several people injured and a number of Chinese shops looted. Chinese shops around the capital were closed for the period following the violence, and there were calls from some Algerian traders for the expulsion of all Chinese immigrants from the country. Across the world in Papua New Guinea even more serious violence was witnessed after anti-Chinese rioting, reportedly involving thousands of people, broke out in May. At least one person was killed and Chinese-owned businesses were pillaged in several cities (including the capital, Port Moresby) and towns throughout the country.
August 15, 2009 8:07 AM
Sigh. The NY Times just doesn't get it. They bemoan the fact that Chinese aid corrupts African governments.

China Spreads Aid in Africa, With a Catch for Recipients
Anticorruption crusaders complain that China's foreign aid secrecy invites corruption, and that corruption debases the assistance.

They say "corruption debases the assisstance." They just don't get it. The purpose of the aid is to aid Chinese interests, which it it surely does.
September 22, 2009 4:57 AM
Eager to Settle Into China's Embrace
In Niger, China is sealing its reputation as Africa's
behind-the-scenes force, ready to do business regardless of who is in power or whatever outrage exists about it.

Just a few months ago, China was widely derided here as the financial backbone propping up an autocratic president, Mamadou Tandja, giving him the confidence to ignore international condemnation as he chopped away at Niger's democratic institutions.

But now that Mr. Tandja has been overthrown, China appears to be settling into a new role: business partner to the good-government-preaching military officers who ousted Mr. Tandja under the banner of restoring democracy.

"Our diplomatic relations with China were not affected by the coup d'état," said Mahaman Laouali Dan Dah, a spokesman for the military junta now running the country.
April 25, 2010 6:44 AM

It took a while, but other publications are catching on.

China Now Controls Africa

When we think of colonialism, we tend to think of men like Christopher Columbus and Charles Du Gaulle; and countries like France, Portugal, and Spain. In other words, we tend to think of colonialism in the past tense, as something that occurred long, long ago.

Today, however, millions of people across the globe still live under colonial rule. Some will scratch their heads and ask how? But, it's important to note, colonialism looks a little different today. It's less explicit, less violent, and less obvious.

In Africa, let's call it "colonialism with Chinese characteristics."

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is busy constructing bridges, ports, roads, and state-of-the-art facilities in Africa. These projects come with a significant price, and that price is freedom.

Of the 54 countries in Africa, 45 have already signed up to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This year, Congo became the 45th African member. Shortly after signing on the dotted line, the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa entered into an "unconscionable" mining deal with Beijing. Congo is the world's leading producer of minerals like metal, cobalt, and copper. Sadly, the Chinese regime now controls the country's mining industry.

The BRI saddles members with unimaginable levels of debt. In November, The Diplomat's Mercy Kuo warned that, ever since the BRI was launched back in 2013, "China has outspent the U.S. on a more than 2-to-1 basis." However, it "has done so with debt rather than aid, maintaining a 31-to-1 ratio of loans to grants."

To compound matters, Kuo found "that the average [recipient] government is now underreporting its actual and potential repayment obligations to China by an amount equivalent to 5.8 percent of its GDP."

Not surprisingly, a number of BRI participant countries are experiencing a sense of "buyer's remorse." Why wouldn't they? More than one-third of BRI infrastructure projects have "encountered major implementation problems-such as corruption scandals, labor violations, environmental hazards, and public protests," noted Kuo. Moreover, "project suspensions and cancellations are on the rise."

Kuo's findings are backed up by a recent study carried out by AidData, a research lab at the College of William and Mary's Global Research Institute. According to Bradley Parks, AidData's executive director and a co-author of the report, unreported debts alone "are worth approximately $385 billion." The hidden debt problem, he warned, is likely to get considerably worse.

What does all of this mean for Africa? In short, nothing good.

Take Equatorial Guinea, for example, a country heavily indebted to Beijing. The CCP is currently attempting to build its first permanent military base in the West African country, according to American intelligence reports. The small nation, home to just 1.4 million people, has an abundance of offshore oil reserves-a fact not lost on the CCP. According to Maj. Gen. Andrew Rohling, the new base will allow China to establish "naval presence on the Atlantic" and directly compete with the United States.

Even countries not signed up to the BRI cannot avoid the ominous shadow of the CCP. China has invested in 52 out of the 54 African countries; 49 of the 54 countries (more than 90 percent) have signed memoranda of understanding (MoUs) with Beijing. These MoUs are the equivalent of entering into a Faustian bargain. By accepting large sums of money from Beijing, African countries have allowed the CCP to enter their backyards and exploit their resources.

This would be OK if it resulted in economic growth, but this rarely works out. Any ideas why not?

December 24, 2021 2:27 PM

Now they're going after Afghan resources - a lot closer to home.

April 21, 2023 9:54 PM
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