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China’s Influence in Africa360°CONTEXT

What are the implications of China's growing influence in Africa?

Background

Africa and China have enjoyed centuries of trade relations. Early trade and commerce picked up during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) and culminated in an expedition by the Chinese admiral Zheng He to modern-day Somalia and the Mozambique Channel. The trip was a success and in an unprecedented move Zheng even returned with two giraffes brought from Somalia as gifts for the Yongle Emperor.

In the past two decades modern political and economic relations between the two have resumed briskly. Today there are over 800 Chinese corporations in Africa employing 750,000 Chinese nationals. China is Africa’s largest trading partner, and according to the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), trade between the two reached US$16bn in 2012, an enormous increase from just US$2bn in 1999. China is extremely fond of the natural resources in Africa such as metals, minerals, and cocoa, while droves of private Chinese firms have settled in the continent to invest in infrastructural projects such as roads and railways as well as construction projects in both the public and private sectors.

African economic activity is also present in China, particularly in the southern city of Guangzhou, where as many as 200,000 African businessmen and laborers are said to reside due to its importance as a manufacturing hub. Their stay has raised legal issues, as many are individuals who are doing business whilst overstaying their tourist visas.

Why is China’s Influence in Africa Relevant?

China is an attractive economic partner for many African countries because it does not cite a specific form of governance as a prerequisite for economic cooperation. This breaks precedent from Western governments, NGOs, and businesses who often demand good governance from countries and their firms.

In doing so, China also opens itself up to criticism from the West. For instance China is often criticized for supporting autocratic regimes like Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and for acting in a “neo-colonialist” manner in the region due to exploitation of Africa’s natural resources and laborers by Chinese firms. These firms have also been accused of corrupt business practices and doing poor-quality work on their African projects. Of course, given that the West’s history of mistreating Africa, there is also the argument that any Western criticism towards China in this part of the world originates from a fear over vanishing influence in the region as much as anything else.

Away from economic matters, African countries are also valued by China as diplomatic partners. One example is the election of Margaret Chan to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Director General post in 2007. This was achieved through attaining virtually all of the votes from the WHO’s African delegations in combination with China’s vote. The FOCAC’s founding in 2008 reflects the continued diplomatic warmth between much of Africa and China.