Is China a Friend of Africa?

YAOUNDÉ – For many developing countries, foreign direct investment is viewed as something very positive. International companies can bring cash, skills, technology, and high ethical standards to a host country. But others do not always regard such investors favorably: many stand accused of political meddling, polluting the environment, labor abuses, and other unscrupulous practices. This debate is particularly animated with respect to Chinese investment in Africa – a continent with a long history of political, economic, and commercial exploitation by foreign powers.

The so-called “neocolonialist school,” popular among China skeptics, considers China’s economic relationship with Africa as essentially imperial. It is, they claim, focused exclusively on extracting maximum, short-term profit, with little regard for governance standards, let alone host countries’ longer-term development goals.

Others consider the relationship less a matter of exploitation than a simple function of capitalism’s free-market principles, according to which those without a strong negotiating position must accept tough terms. Still others hold a more benign view: Sino-African relations constitute a partnership, in line with the New Partnership of Africa’s Development, a pan-African organization that seeks to empower African states in their international relations.

Who is right? Any assessment must address several common accusations about Sino-African relations.