China: Africa’s New Colonial Power

The decade since 9/11 has been marked by conflict, turmoil, and insecurity. On the week that marks the tenth anniversary, the U.S. is still saddled with ultra-expensive foreign wars, a huge national debt, and rising unemployment, all coupled with insecurity and fear. With the U.S. centering its attention on the Middle East and Central Asia, China has now filled the superpower gap in Africa, rising to become the continent’s new neo-colonial power, one in search of raw resources to exploit and new markets to fuel its growing economy. 

China is not a colonial power in the strictest interpretation of the term. There are no African colonies directly ruled from Beijing by Chinese bureaucrats with foreign and defense policy subsumed by China. Indeed, the days of direct, colonial rule are long gone. However, China has, through trade agreements, bilateral relations, and commercial outlets in Africa, created a “soft” colonialism, one that directly influences countries without obvious outward signs and is motivated purely by trade worth $115 billion annually.   

Chinese settlers form a crucial part of this new colonialism. They settle, build businesses, and seek advancement but do not integrate into the countries they settle in, notably Angola, Zambia, D.R.C., and Nigeria. Rather, they stay in ethnically homogenous communities that are largely cut off and sequestered from the indigenous population. Some of these settler communities are even encouraged and supported by Chinese authorities so as to enable China to have its own people help build key projects, influence local authorities, and cut costs. Equally, with 750,000 Chinese nationals already settled in Africa and millions more to come, the scope for increasingly divided and unequal communities is becoming wider.

In Africa, China also exploits individual nations through unfair and unequal trade treaties, paying little in return to the people of those nations for the resources that are exploited. Often, these already poor countries then get a diminished share of profits, and are even made to pay for the necessary infrastructure upgrades. Additionally, China’s search for raw materials and markets knows few boundaries, as is evidenced by the country's involvement in corruption to acquire exploitation rights and access. The lack of an ethical framework in China’s dealings with countries in Africa that are already renowned for rampant corruption further underlines the desire of Chinese firms to do business at all costs.

China has become heavily involved in the sale of weapons in Africa, doing so either for capital gain or, more often, for political capital. Indeed, it was involved in the abortive sale of $200 million of weapons to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s dying regime, reflecting China’s lack of moral standards when dealing in Africa. It also highlights China’s desire to use its support of African despots to enable it to more efficiently exploit the wealth this continent has to offer through various political connections and support, no matter how distasteful they may be. A case in point is the country's dealing with Zimbabwe, where China helped stifle democracy for the benefit of mining.

Finally, some have argued that the great infrastructure that China has put in place – including, the airports, highways, and bridges it has created – have allowed for countries to have the necessary structures to become prosperous. Yet, the question should be what China has sought in exchange. 

As China’s influence increases in Africa, it seems that it has taken to acting in a colonial vein with its use of settlers and exploitation of the continent’s wealth for Chinese benefit. In essence, its use of resources without counting the human cost only highlights it neo-colonial policy. Faced with an exploding population and a raw material-based economy and seeking new markets for its products, China's interest in Africa is set only to increase. The community of nations now needs to sit up and pay close attention, so that a continent already struggling with the legacy of Western rule does not face a new form of colonialism from the East. 

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