Chinese Investment in Africa
Just as the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the road to Chinese success in Sub-Saharan Africa has been paved with over a half-century of failed Western ventures and interventions.
This post examines China’s investment in based on the China Global Investment Tracker database maintained by Derek Scissors at the American Enterprise Institute. It is one of series which include so far “Chinese International Investment: Energy and Metals Sectors” (6 July 2022), and “Buying the Copper Mountain was only the Beginning: China and South America” (16 June 2022).
Below we will focus more on what the data reveals, and less on what various politicians, celebrities turned saviors, or public intellectuals have asserted — and so often asserted in ignorance or outright denial of the facts on the ground. Hence our review of the literature to accompany the data may seem arbitrary, even contrarian.
Sub-Saharan Africa, where your author lived and worked from 2005 to early 2010, is likely not what you think it is — and certainly not how the MSM consistently portrays it. Your author accepts no responsibility to uphold approved narratives.
Left: For Tabasksi (Eid ul-Adha) on the road to Rufusique, Senegal. © 2006. Right: Teletubby gris-gris in Dakar, Senegal (taken with permission of taxi driver). © 2007.
Existing, Emergent, and Imagined Permutations of Reality
Likewise, in academia alone, China-Africa has become a scholarly industry. Once upon a time, even your author Data Humanist published on the same in a peer-reviewed scholarly journal. (Parts of this discussion will self-plagiarize that earlier work). Moreover, when accounting for what political figures, journalists and MSM pundits have added (or not) to the discussion, the bibliography itself on China-Africa is easily book-length and growing. A contentious, ongoing conversation about existing, emergent, and imagined permutations of reality.
Not a consensus, but contentious, ongoing conversation about existing, emergent, and imagined permutations of reality.
What you may believe is a consensus about Africa, and hence about China in Africa, is not: or, rather, it is manufactured consent for the American public by our power elite to serve a particular set of policies and interests.
“Si La Justice Flanche Les Pots De Vin Tranchent” [Justice fails because of bribery and corruption]. Protest mural on Cheikh Anta Diop Blvd, Dakar, Senegal. © 2007
The Food Supply Crisis That Wasn’t
For example, in the early 2010s, a horde of the usual suspects invoked the following moral panic: China was buying up huge areas of farmland in Africa. China was taking control of the African food supply. The Chinese would be eating up the African production, starving Africans. The Chinese were planning to resettle Chinese citizens onto these presumed purchased agricultural expanses, colonizing control over the food supply. So on, etc. In various forms, these allegations circulate as fact to this day
Deborah Brautigam, currently the Bernard L. Schwartz Professor of Political Economy at John Hopkins University, led a team of researchers on the ground in Africa (where she has considerable experience) to explore these concerns. Based on the actual evidence, she and her team found the various allegations about China buying up vast areas of farmland, and/or taking control of the African food supply, and/or resettling Chinese into African agricultural regions, and et cetera, had NO merit. Just not factually true. Her book summarizing her team’s finding, Will Africa Feed China? (2015), should be required reading for concerned parties. The scholarly world did take notice. The horde of usual suspects — celebrities saving Africa, MSM pundits, and policy-influencers with established agendas — either ignored her work or trivialized it. China is colonizing Africa. End of story. If we got some details wrong for now, what does it matter?
The Neocolonial Debate
But to some of us, both the details and the language do matter. The 20th century saw the USA emerge as the world’s dominate political, economic, and cultural power. Reality check: China is actively seeking to replace the USA as the global hegemonic power. China’s investment in and trade with Africa is part of that larger goal, even as these economic activities also serve domestic Chinese agendas.
Beyond doubt or denial, the data will show China’s extensive and expanding engagement with Africa. But as both Hillary Rodman Clinton and Tucker Carlson have done, among many others, is it helpful or even accurate to call that engagement colonialism?
Stephanie Rupp, Associate Professor at CUNY Lehman College, has cogently argued (2008; 2013) that the Sino-African relationship fails a number of basic tests for colonialism or neocolonialism. Brautigam (2009; 2015) and Moyo (2012) have made related and overlapping arguments. To summarize, China has no territorial claims in Africa; nor (despite MSM claims to the contrary) any policy of encouraging Chinese immigration to Africa; nor any mission to “civilize” Africans according to Chinese standards of morality, culture, or law. Furthermore, China respects the national sovereignty of African states; it actively cultivates diplomatic and political relationships with the same; and it treats African citizens as potential consumers of goods and services rather than as conscripts for manual labor or the military.
Moreover, and in contrast to however we might understand China’s conduct in the South China Sea region, China does not play the political hegemon in Africa and does not interfere with the internal affairs of African states. Li Anshan (2008) has pointed out that Chinese-African relations are “characterized by summit diplomacy, equality, co-development, and cooperation”; and Moyo (2012), who is unafraid of controversy and who has made alarmist claims about China’s desire to dominate key commodity markets, nonetheless has argued that “China is not going down this [the neocolonial] path. China’s modern-day interests [in Africa] are largely transparent and driven by its dogged and narrow motive to establish commercial relationships.”
At American Exile, we hold that China’s motives in Africa are not so narrow as Moyo (2012) has declared. In contrast, China does want to reinforce the South-South alliance, and along with its partners in BRICS, offer developing nations an alternative to the Bretton Woods institutions, the World Bank and the IMF (both of which themselves been accused of neocolonialism bias. For a start, see “BRICS to launch World Bank and IMF rivals” (15 July 2014), Aljazeera.com; “World Bank work on land supports ‘a new form of colonialism’” (17 June 2010), the Bretton Woods Project; and the Bretton Woods Project: Critical Voices on the World Bank and IMF, passim).
Moreover, China also does seek to cultivate and maintain political allies for UN voting procedures and more. Please see Yiqin Fu, “Who Votes with China?” (10 June 2018); and his outstanding online data app, “United Nations General Assembly Voting Patterns” (2020). Finally and vitally, China affirms the One China Principle (Taiwan as an inalienable part of China) as central to its international relationships in Africa and elsewhere (Brautigam, 2009). Not news. True for decades.
Excursus on Taiwan
For those Americans who are now just discovering Taiwan, China has affirmed the One China Principle for over half a century. Starting with diplomatic games during the Cold War and seeking to play China against Russia, the USA in turn has acknowledged the One China Concept for decades. Any feasibility of the USA committing to Taiwanese independence expired sometime between the Nixon-Ford and Carter administrations. GONE. The current high-level noise-making about Taiwan is a dangerous distraction from our failing domestic agenda and the disastrous USA-supported (if not induced) war of attrition between Ukraine as proxy and Russia. Do not fall for the hype about Taiwan. But otherwise, bottom line: China has a larger set of agendas in Africa than strictly economic.
Still Fails the Test
Yet all of this again fails the test for neocolonialism (towards Africa). In Africa, China is developing partnerships and not interfering with the internal affairs of sovereign nations. China has likewise has shown no interest in Sinicization of Africa, unlike it has historically — and some would argue, currently — with the South China Sea region. If anything, Han Chinese ethnocentrism makes assimilation a non-starter. Kenyans are not Cambodians — not traditionally understandable as our exotically backwards country-cousins to the South (Zhou Daguan, 真臘風土記 [The Customs of Cambodia], circa 1300). China in Africa has no indigenous equivalent of the White Man’s Burden — no greater religious-like “civilizing” mission which demands cultural and social change from or conformity to. Furthermore, because of its interest in African citizens as consumers of Chinese goods and services, but not as peoples to be subjugated, China benefits from promoting greater general African economic prosperity — and not just enriching the local elites.
Protesting Corruption Mural on Cheikh Anta Diop Blvd, Dakar, Senegal. © 2006.
Good versus Evil — Telling or Asking?
This is not to whitewash China, which is actively striving to replace the USA as the dominant global power. But the claim the China is colonizing Africa obscures more than it reveals. It also distracts from the existing and emergent realities in Africa and elsewhere. The Global South seems slowly but surely to be coalescing against the USA, and for this China is not the sole force, cause, or reason.
Such a topic for another post, but consider the following remarks made by the great John J. Mearsheimer (2019) :
“Under Presidents Bush and Barack Obama, Washington has played a key role in sowing death and destruction across the greater Middle East, and there is little evidence the mayhem will end anytime soon. American policy toward Ukraine, motivated by liberal logic, is principally responsible for the ongoing crisis between Russia and the West. The United States has been at war for two out of every three years since 1989, fighting seven different wars.”
Which nation, the USA or China, over the past three decades has the better record in terms of cooperating internationally, promoting peace, and creating shared prosperity? How different parts of the globe would answer that question might come as a rude surprise to many Americans.
The Danger is Real — Overseas and at Home
That said without apology, your author has also lived and worked in mainland China, from 2013 to 2018. (Yes, hard time on the ground in South China as well as in West Africa). Your author has seen the Chinese system at work firsthand, and does not want the Xi Jinping Doctrine to become the global default. Nor is your author thrilled at the other candidates seeking to emerge from the void which will be created by collapse of the American empire.
As an American nationalist without apology but with some qualifications, your author prefers what was our Constitutional Republic. We have commented elsewhere how the USA is (for) now in transition to an Administrative State, and how those who were Citizens — along with Legal Residents and Illegal Immigrants — are being transitioned to Subjects of that State. A return to or a revitalized version of a Constitutional Republic may not be in our future — the void may claim the USA as well. With the full support of our power elite, Big Tech, and the MSM, President Gavin Newsom might well do for the nation what he has done for California. Facing this scenario, China-Africa seems but a background distraction — albeit one with vital and far-reaching global impact and implications.
Let the Data Speak
We will start with an overview for Chinese investment in Africa for the years 2006 to 2021. The reported US dollar values are in the millions and unadjusted (not scaled for purchasing power to a baseline year).
The map and bar chart immediately above above reveal that the Chinese investments are extensive but strategic, and by no means evenly distributed. The top four nations over this time period have been Congo DR (Kinshasa) at $15,360 million; South Africa at $12,770 million; Nigeria at $9,860 million; and Egypt at $5,990 million. These four nations are also highly strategic for security reasons.
Investment by Sector
Having just covered the gross investment totals per nation for the time period 2006-2021, let us break down the gross investment totals per sector for the same.
Although Chinese investment in Africa targets a diverse range of fairly distinct sectors, two items immediately standout. First, and as American Exile discussed at length earlier (6 July 2022), China has a long-term Metals and Energy strategy which will position it as the essential manufacturer of Green Technology while maintaining dominance in the global marketplace for rare earth elements. Second, the Chinese investments in the Agriculture sector — as Brautigam (2015) correctly argued— are comparatively insignificant. Rounding up slightly, the investment percentages by sector are Metals at 38.9 %; Energy at 35.1%; and Agriculture at 0.8% (at less than 1%).
Yes, Africa has suburbs.
On the same, please note that the Real Estate sector, which accounts for 9.44% of Chinese investment, is more typically urban and suburban development. (Yes, Africa has suburbs). Apartment condos for the middle class; McMansions for the elite; shopping malls for both. In addition to time on the ground in Sub-Saharan Africa, your author had a good friend from Guangdong Province who sold and managed properties in Ghana for a Chinese firm. So, yes, the Real Estate sector could include some agricultural land — but such is not the emphasis.
Sector by Year
To understand the Chinese investment patterns better, we can break down the sector investments by yearly totals and yearly percentage. The montage below does so.
For the time period considered, the amount invested varies considerably per year with an average of $6,088.12 million per year, a median of $6,555 million per year, and standard deviation of $3,383.33 million per year (over ½ of the average or median value). The Chinese are NOT on a simple investing/buying spree; and as we will review shortly, on a per nation basis, the investment amounts and sectors can differ greatly. But two general trends do emerge from the data, as well as the refutation to one previous popular claim.
The Chinese have invested in the Metals sector for every year under consideration (2006-2021), making a total of 61 unique investments over that time. In the Energy sector, the Chinese did not invest for the years 2008 and 2020, but otherwise have a total of 39 unique investments over the same time period. These commitments are consistent with China’s investments elsewhere globally, and hence the overall Chinese strategy. Respectfully, American Exile refers you to our earlier discussions: “Chinese International Investment: Energy and Metals Sectors” (6 July 2022), and “Buying the Copper Mountain was only the Beginning: China and South America” (16 June 2022).
For Agriculture sector, the Chinese invested only in years 2011, 2012, and 2014 for a total of 4 unique investments. For American Exile’s final word on that particular controversy, Professor Deborah Brautigam is a world-class scholar, nobody’s fool, and not an apologist for any nation or regime. There can be NO credibility assigned to any discussion of China in Africa which ignores her work or which does not engage her major findings. Full stop.
Top 14 Nations by Sector
The montage below shows the top African 14 nations for Chinese investment ($2,500 million dollars or more). As mentioned previously, the top 4 are Congo DR (Kinshasa) at $15,360 million; South Africa at $12,770 million; Nigeria at $9,860 million; and Egypt at $5,990 million.
We will focus below on Congo DR (also known as Congo-Kinshasa), South Africa, and Egypt as these nations both occupy significantly distinct portions of the continent and show insightful differences in Chinese investment.
Maps from CIA World Factbook. Public Domain.
China now controls a majority of industrial (non-artisan) mining sector in Congo DR (Kinshasa), including the copper and cobalt mines (ASPI, 6 December 2021; SCMP, 3 April 2022). The ubiquitous usefulness of copper is well known. Cobalt is another essential green metal, used for fuel cells (including lithium batteries), high-tech steel alloys, and much more.
Congo DR is also rich in coltan reserves, which after much processing yields Niobium (atomic number 41; aka, Columbium) and Tantalum (atomic number 73). Both Niobium and Tantalum are defined as technology-critical elements by the USA Department of Energy (2010-2021) and by the UN (2020). China is a leading processor of coltan from various sources.
In truth, only China knows what metal and mineral resources it is extracting from Congo DR. But if the West wants better governance, why have Western firms not made the necessary commitments to operating on the ground in Congo DR? The short answer is they were doing so — and for decades helped establish Congo DR (aka, Zaire) under Mobutu Sese Seko as the archetypal kleptocratic failed state. Mobutu, of course, came into power in 1965 from a USA-backed regime change.
For an historical sense of the American leadership mindset, please see the NYT Magazine article “The CIA and Lumumba” (2 August 1981), which captures neatly the Cold War obsession with the Dark Continent becoming Cuba without the cigars. A danger beyond description. Congo DR was not the only intervention; Mobutu, not the only Big Man supported by the West. Lindsey A. O’Rourke, Associate Professor of International Politics at Boston College, noted in her highly praised Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War (2018):
“Eisenhower launched as least two assassination plots against Congo’s democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. Johnson launched covert missions in Mozambique, Angola, and Somalia; Ford revived the covert operation in Angola; and Reagan intervened covertly into Chad, Ethiopia, Liberia, Libya, and Angola.”
This list does not include interventions by other Western nations which the USA either green-lighted or lent logistical support. We have played dirty dirty. Then wiped our hands MSM-clean by supporting dubious elections in the name of Democracy.
Mobutu’s regime ended in 1997, with catastrophic consequences. His large-scale looting of the nation’s natural resources, at the expense of his people and with the cooperation of the international community, gave way to the First and Second Congo Wars, the latter of which has been called “Africa’s world war” and directly involved the nations of the Congo DR (formerly, Zaire), Angola, Chad, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi as well as various regional militias, warlords, and nonstate actors (Prunier, 2008, passim). It also resulted in an estimated 2.7–5.4 million deaths (BBC News, “DR Congo”, 20 January 2010), with local conflicts still ongoing.
Who saw this coming? Pretty much everyone on the ground. In V. S. Naipaul’s great novel about Mobutu’s Zaire, A Bend in the River (1979), the character Ferdinand, once a school boy and now the local commissioner, remarks to the narrator Salim: “You mustn’t think it’s bad just for you. It’s bad for everybody. [. . .] Nobody’s going anywhere. We’re all going to hell, and every man knows it in his bones. We’re being killed” (p. 272). But ten years after Naipaul’s expose — and after news story after documentary after human rights abuse report about Mobutu’s Zaire, President George H. W. Bush in 1989 declared: “Zaire is among America’s oldest friends, and its president — President Mobutu — one of our most valued friends” (qtd. in Meredith, 2010, p. 308). Mobutu, the cult-of personality President-for-Life kleptocrat whose thirty-two-year reign set a mind-boggling standard for corruption and abuse — a standard which may never be surpassed.
Mobutu meets with President George W.H. Bush at the White House in June 1989.
Who knew what Mobutu was really doing to Zaire and the surrounding region? Everyone on or near the scene. Michela Wrong, in The Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo (2002), has the receipts. The USA supported Mobutu up the end, after which the thoroughly destabilized Congo DR (Zaire) and region imploded into Africa’s world war (Prunier, 2008, passim). The heat finally got too hot, and some but not all of the Western corporations either pulled out or sold out. Since not even a kitchen in hell is too hot for the Chinese to cook in, after the chaos and regional violence declined to merely absurd levels, the Chinese flush with cash from their trade with the USA and elsewhere decided to invest heavy and do business in Congo DR. Perhaps no nation on earth has richer and more vital metal and mineral resources than Congo DR — to which the Chinese now have primary access.
To the CIA operatives who helped Belgium overthrow and then murder the democratically elected Patrice Lumumba to replace him with Mobutu, American Exile says “well done.” Yet another example of regime change success. The blowback was only a continental war, to start.
Big Men & the Looting Machine
Histories similar to this can be told of a dozen or so more Sub-Saharan Africa nations. To cite just four additional examples of corrupt but Western-backed Big Men, please learn more about true legacies of President Gnassingbé Eyadéma of Togo, who reigned from 1967 to his death in 2005; President Omar Bongo Ondimba of Gabon, who reigned from 1967 to his death in 2009; President Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d'Ivoire, who reigned from 1960 to his death in 1993; and Siaka Stevens, Prime Minister / President of Sierra Leone from 1967 to 1985. (We recommend Meredith (2005), The Fate of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence; and Nugent (2004), Africa Since Independence).
These and other Big Men were propped up by the West in part to counter the delusional “domino theory” threat that if just one nation in Africa came under the influence of communism, the rest would all shortly follow. Instead, we had the Western-assisted looting of nations on behalf not of geo-political security interests but a globalist elite. In The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth (2015), Tom Burgis, a journalist who has paid his sweat dues and his blood dues in places the majority of Americans could not find even with the help of Google Maps, has brilliantly spoken truth to power:
“Where once treaties signed at gunpoint dispossessed Africa’s inhabitants of their land, gold, and diamonds, today phalanxes of lawyers representing oil and mineral companies with annual revenues in the hundreds of billions of dollars impose miserly terms on African governments and employ tax dodges to bleed profit from destitute nations. In the place of the old empires are hidden networks of multinationals, middlemen, and African potentates. These networks fuse state and corporate power. They are aligned to no nation and belong instead to the transnational elites that have flourished in the era of globalization. Above all, they serve their own enrichment.”
Amen. Praise the truth when you hear it spoken. The Chinese are comparative late-comers to the Africa game, but have come in force, with discipline, and following an overall nationalist (not globalist) agenda. Yet as Burgis (2015) again has well observed: “It is too simplistic to see China’s quest for African resources as a Manichean struggle for nature’s treasure between East and West. There is competition, but there is also cooperation in the business of resource extraction.”
When competition becomes too one-sided for the West, it cries about Democracy, Human Rights, Good Governance, and the Environment. But if the truth matters, our own transnational elites — our globalists — have an established history of exploiting these concerns to ensure their preferred kleptocrats in Africa and elsewhere attain and remain in power. Americans know what the MSM tells them. The various peoples in Sub-Saharan Africa know the actualities of their daily lives, and the history of broken promises and failed interventions.
Recitations at the Islamic School in Djenne, Mali. © 2008
Keeping in mind the earlier mentioned geo-political shenanigans, let us briefly review over fifty years of development futility:
William Easterly (2006), and Dambisa Moyo (2009) among others have observed that Africa over the past half century has received more than $1 trillion (USD) in development-related aid — but this aid has proved largely ineffective in reducing poverty.
Moreblessings Chidaushe (2007), then of the African Forum and Network on Debt and Development (AFRODAD), has claimed “more people [in Africa] are poor today because of development aid than they were 25 years ago” (p. 112).
Sanou Mbaye (2010), a former senior official for the African Development Bank, has argued: “’Aid’ as it now stands is an industry allowing the West to keep hostage Africa starved, bound, and addicted to handouts” (p. 51).
Just as the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the road to Chinese success in Sub-Saharan Africa has been paved with over a half-century of failed Western ventures and interventions. Every and any credible discussion of China in Africa must confront the recent history of the West in Africa: what the West practiced and not what it professed, the real outcomes and not the alleged intentions.
South Africa and Egypt
Maps from CIA World Factbook. Public Domain.
Let us briefly examine Chinese investments in South Africa ($12,770 million) and Egypt ($5,990 million). Although both nations do have investments in the Metals and Energy sectors, the patterns are otherwise quite different. Again, Chinese investment is both strategic and opportunistic: neither a simple shopping spree for extractable resources nor a hubristic display of wealth. Do not underestimate the Chinese.
According to the World Bank classification (2021), South Africa is one the five upper-middle income economies in Africa (the remainder are either lower-middle income or low income economies). Moreover, South Africa likely has the “most industrialized, technologically advanced, and diversified economy in Africa overall” (Wikipedia, 2022). In Africa, China has invested exactly three times so far in the Finance sector — all in South Africa, and during the years 2007, 2011, and 2018 respectively.
Egypt, for geo-political security concerns, is critical as it controls the Suez Canal. China is building the new Egyptian capital (SMCP, 20 July 2022); China has already built Africa’s tallest skyscraper in the same new capital (Xinhua, 18 June 2021); and China is building et cetera and so on (Xinhua, 26 May 2022). To no surprise, the current Egyptian and Chinese governments enjoy an exceptionally cozy relationship (Aljazeera, 5 February 2022).
As the Chinese do, we must understand the Suez Canal as now part of China’s 21世纪海上丝绸之路 (21st Century Maritime Silk Road). For that matter, so are also the Straits of Hormuz given China’s investment in and partnerships with the UAE and Iran. At American Exile, we are hard-pressed to discover where internationally the USA is NOT being out-maneuvered by China. Despite the vast global presence of the USA military with estimated 600 (Mother Jones, 16 July 2012) to 750 military bases (The Soldiers Project, 2 June 2022) outside the USA and across roughly 80 foreign nations, China is well positioned to disrupt the global supply chains — from commodities to manufactured and high-tech goods to commercial transportation.
China as Global Hegemon: When rather than If?
Map courtesy of the Belt and Road Research Platform.
If the USA goes to war with China, the world loses — and will not forgive us. Why? Because China is a top trading partner with over 120 countries and regions (CIIE, 24 March 2021); as well, China is an investment partner with 128 nations thus far (China Global Investment Tracker database). These trading and investment partners want and even need what China has to offer — and do not want the sanctimonious lectures on pronouns or the hypocritical gestures on climate change which USA now seems only able to offer. We have forfeited our economic power through deficit spending, and are now forfeiting our soft power on behalf of the WEF oligarchs. Yet outside of open war, if the USA does not check and balance Chinese power and influence, the authoritarian-biosecurity Administrative State becomes the global default. The Xi Jinping Doctrine prevails.
At American Exile, we presently have no answers.
We do have a forthcoming data visualization and breakdown on China-Africa trade (imports and exports), based on the China-Africa Trade data base maintained by the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at John Hopkins University.
Standard disclaimer: Our link to or citation of any source or person does NOT imply that source or person in anyway endorses American Exile. Our preferred pronouns remain: “small fringe minority” & “unacceptable views.”
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