China’s new colonialism in Africa – comments on a book from the US

Howard W. French „China’s Second Continent. How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa.“ Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher, NY 2014.

French draws the picture of a new colonization of large parts of Africa by China. He portrays the activities of Chinese state-owned companies in many African countries; they are building roads, bridges, dams, ports, hospitals, stadiums etc. and the Chineses government endows them with apparently limitless capital, manpower and good contacts to the respective African goverments. Its easy for them to undercut competing companies from, say, Europe, if there are still any at all.

Whereas these activities, though, have already met some international advertence, there is more going on in Africa, something at least equally important in French’s opinion: a wave of informal, individual migration of hundreds of thousands, soon perhaps millions of single Chinese, their clans or their informal networks to Africa. There they establish themselves as salespeople, farmers, entrepreneurs..

These two components together are the foundations, in French’s view, of a new colonial empire in Africa.

This newly arising empire (French’s view) is partly different from the old European colonialism, above all by its enormous momentum, deeply penetrating and revolutionizing Africa’s societies. It is backed by a nation of 1,3 billion people, with the gigantic capital amassed there during the past three decades and now seeking international expansion. On the other hand, though, it is less different with regard to certain questions, e.g. which kind of development of their own the African societies are enabled to or  allowed by this new intruder from abroad. According to French, today’s Chinese capitalist expansion into Africa is completely dominated by the strive for “making money”. Africans are allowed only to menial jobs, if hired at all, are scarcely trained and are looked upon by their Chinese bosses with a disdain badly known from the old times of colonialism. ‘They are hardly fit for work’. The new empire instead of serving Africa’s own development out of its own ressources, its raw materials and its cultures, means a new pillage of Africa by a foreign power, pillage and domination on a much larger scale than the old colonial powers ever were capable of.

When French’s analyses and perspectives are to be assessed critically, his appalling neglicence of the US’ historical and present role in Africa has to be kept in mind. This subject is hardly mentioned in his book, and if it should turn up, only neglibilities are told. Neocolonialism, the way the US has been practising it, with its large and often decisive global role during the whole of the 20th century, still striving  to secure and even expand its profits and its political influence amidst today’s international sea-changes, is never mentioned by French. Colonialism to him means the old-fashioned colonialism by the Portuguese, the French – even the British “brother”-nation finds only marginal mention. The US’ impact in Africa, for French, embodies itself in the presence of one or another sclerotic diplomat or an Anti-AIDS-program from the US government. Apparently, French has never heard word of the role of the US financial industry in Africa or of the US military, which has been gaining bases and bases in Africa during the past decades, chiefly under the pretext of ‘fighting terrorism’. Or he is playing ignorant. Its no far cry to assume that French’s  book has been written under the auspices of US imperialism that feels seriously threatened by China’s inroad in a continent that, so far, was largely under the US’ supreme control – a control less institutional than informal, nourished by a thousand economical,  political channels and secret services, of course, having to bear the responsibility for a considerable part of the African misery which is now being exploited by the Chinese. [i]

In spite of this almost queer one-sidedness, or rather just because of the US’ high sensitivity towards the rising superpower China, that is already reining in the US at least in Africa, French’s depictions of the Chinese way of advancing are to be taken serious – imho.


In Africa, there are appr. one billion people living today, a great part of whom has still to eke out a living under conditions of elementary poverty and archaic structures. Large parts of Africa have been under European colonial rule for longer or shorter periods of their history, and the states of today are mostly followers of colonies. Only a few states – Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa – were less affected by colonialism. Under colonialism, modern development could hardly take place, but even after colonialism had come to an end during the period from the end of Second World War to the seventies of the 20th century, the lack of fundamental economic and social advances had to be deplored. This is a fundamental phenomenon calling for a multitude of explanations, also and especially with regard to Africa’s immesurable natural richness. Africa is home to immense resources, mineral resources of every kind – gold, uranium, iron ore and every other metal in enormous quantities, rare earths, oil, natural gas, coal – and, not less important, gigantic and still undeveloped resources of agrarian top soil, forests etc. etc.

All of these resources, according to French, are scattered over many states of today. In quite a few of them you can find them almost complete together, as in Mozambique, in the West-African countries as Guinea, Ghana, Mali, Liberia, Sierra Leone, in the center of Africa (Zambia), in Namibia etc. From these countries French is reporting in this new book of his, on the basis of numerous interviews with Chinese people working there, but also with some government officials, NGO-activists etc.

As he puts it, the Chinese migrant community, with the Chinese government in the background, throws itself predominantly on tapping metallic resources, oil, natural gas and coal, badly needed for China’s inwardly and outwardly expanding capitalism, but increasingly also on agriculture, fishery and the export of timber. .

Countless flaws, as found with most of the African governments, above all their corruptibility, enable the advancing Chinese to almost every kind of rude pillage on a large scale, setting aside the interests of the population – according to French. The autochthonous agriculture in the African countries described by French, as well as their own industrial starting-points (e.g. textiles) are being disadvanteged and ousted by Chinese competition. At the same time, the governments cash in only very modest shares in the exploitation of the resources, e.g. by way of taxes, and this cash is often redirected into the pockets of the respective ruling clique. The population decries persisting general underdevelopment. What concerns the Chinese employers, they are criticized because of starvation wages, elimination of the most elementary union rights, disinterest in training indigenous people and in employing them at all, even subordinate jobs being manned by Chinese migrants. On the whole, the picture of a tightly colonialistisc policy, plundering and disenfranchising the population as it is known from the past in countless depictions.

French’s book is in my opinion worth reading, in spite of its one-sidedness and prejudices, and it is so primarily because it offers insight into the practices and the ways of thought of Chinese players, by means of the numerous renditions from interviews amounting to 80% if the book, which seem plausible against the backdrop of the history of China and especially of the rise of Chinese capitalism during the last decades.


Now, I don’t want to continue reporting what I was so free as to extract from French’s book as essential. Instead I want to address some questions emanating from China’s progress in Africa as depicted by French.

1. Inner contradictions of contemporary Chinese society that produce the new outward drive.

2. Differences between the colonial agenda of the capitalist West, especially the US, as compared to the Chinese one.

3. Are there better opportunities for development of the African societies emanating from the new imperialistic competition in and around Africa?

4. What is the significance of the struggles in and around Africa for the global relations of power, for the so-called questions of geostrategy?

Ad 1. French’s book may itself be used here for some hints. In several interviews, Chinese migrants themselves speak out about the inner conditions of present China: they cannot recognize opportunities for their own development because of the pervasive corruption, the complicity between powerful owners of capital and the governing bureaucracies, because of the squeeze and the denaturation of the living conditions in general. They migrate in order to make their fortune as hard-working free single entrepreneurs, supported, though, by the cohesion of the Chinese migrant collectives in the African countries and the flux of capital and manpower from the families, clans and other networks at home.

French himself gives some considerations especially to questions of the Chinese society’s future food supply, a society which by the way will massively develop into a pensioners’ society in the decades to come, see the One-Child-Policy and its consequences.

He supposes that the Chinese grasp on African agricultural soil, happening between the governments as well as informally by Chineses settlers, will become vital for China’s population. Apart from this he suspects, too, that the Chinese system aims at getting control of food production and supply in African countries themselves. Such controls would afford considerable leverage to Chinese politics as against African governments and populations.

In China itself there probably are deep problems concerning the development of agrarian production, namely food production. China’s modern bureaucratic gangster capitalism seems little concerned about that, it prefers, according to reports, expelling peasants from their land and using it for more or less speculative business.

Adding to this is the urbanization policy of the Chinese governments during the last years. There are still appr. 600 million Chinese still living in the countryside, and 300 millions of them are to be drawn into urban settlements in the decades to come. Such political plans apparently have many dimensions. In any case, here we have one of the most profound concepts for doing away with inherited basic social structures and traditions of China. Following this concept, there will be left only a clear minority of the Chinese population that commands, by laws of land use, a food base of their own and consequently a certain political standing. These laws had been created by the socialist period under Mao Zedong.

In this regard, it is about an enormous program of disenfranchisment and uprooting of large parts of the Chinese population for the benefit of capitalism, which is interwined with the various bureaucratic levels of China.  It has be put into question if modern Chinese capitalism for its part will be capable and willing to develop the inner agrarian base under the conditions of predominantly large and middle-large capitalist property. Moreover, it must be asked which social and political potentials are possibly arising in such an immense urbanized Chinese population that has been made, within short time,  even more dependent upon the Ups and Downs of the capitalist, international, imperialist development. Pressure from within for a massive imperialist expansion of China will therefore certainly not decrease but increase. At one point (p. 172) French cites a – non-governmental – political proposition in China demanding the migration of 100 million Chinese to Africa. What about Siberia, for example? What will Russia say?

It is easy to figure out the Chinese government thinking about the necessity of getting large agricultural resources abroad, under the auspices of such disruptive processes as the urbanization which are centrally deliberated. and decided. It may seem as if the beginnings are already to be seen in Africa. Future international cooperations, but also heavy conflicts can easily be imaginated, starting from these points.


Ad 2. Reading French’s book it turned up on me that there are probably enormous differences between the amounts of capital which “the West” and China respectively are investing in Africa. Might there be some political roots to the obvious inferiority of Western capital investment in Africa during the last decade, as compared to the Chinese? I think it should be taken into consideration that Western capitalism has become in general very reluctant investing in large-scale processes of economic development (perhaps it has even been behaving this way since long, at least intermittently). Following the Eco-doctrine, the development of further large parts of the globe is the devil himself. For justification, the questionable teachings about the depletion of resources are offerred (see f.e. Club of Rome, “Global 2000”, Al Gore etc.), but in practice it is all about preserving the preexisting international capitalist structures, about securing their power and the streams of graceless exploitation and profiteering emanating from these structures. Just think of the media hype which for quite a long time was sustained, especially in Germany, what a catastrophe mankind would have to expect with such developing countries as China and India industrializing themselves on top of all…

Meanwhile, these countries as well as a lot of others have made clear that they are not keeping to such prescriptions (and that, at least for some time still, German capitalism has a chance to muddle on, providing machinery, cars etc. to these countries himself, countries which according to his own political and media elite should never have been allowed to develop this way…)

Measure it against the – if you will – deliberate policy of capital scarcity from the part of the West vs. Africa, Chinese largesse during the past couple of years must constrast positively in the eyes of the African population. In spite of a lot of negative features attached to the Chineses activities, the impression is likely to arise that through the these activities there is at last some development of infrastructures taking place.

There is more to this. The involvement of Western capitalism in Africa has at least in wide areas during the past decades grown into such cruel, mass-killing and destructive forms that almost every kind of Chinese activities cannot but positively contrast. I’m thinking above all about the way Western capitalism engineered the exploitation of resources (gold, diamonds, Coltan etc.) in many African countries by means of inciting civil wars, overthrow of legitimized governments, insurrections as in Ruanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and several West-African countries, by means of establishing leaders of militias who were to protect the plundering of the resources in favor of Western (perhaps also some non-Western) companies without any costly governmental interference. They were allowed to instigate ethnical strife, massakers, recrutation of child soldiers and any kind of atrocity without an end, and some are still practising all of it.

Only once French comes near to mentioning these things, p. 128f., where he writes about the crimes of militia leader Sankoh in Liberia. French “forgets” to mention which Western companies received the diamonds robbed by Sankoh.

All of that could take place during the past decades, especially after the killing of Laurent-Désiré Kabila, president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who had come up with a program to curb illegal international exploitation of the country’s mineral resources. It took place in the Congo, in other parts of Africa as well, whereas in the Western countries, where the international leaders and profiteers of these crimes could make their  deals without hindrance,  governments, churches, NGOs and media molested the public with their idyllic tales of small smaller smallest development in Africa, without industry, of sinking small wells and of the devilishness of large dams…

The US’ policy of establishing military bases, so-called military assistance pacts and the like in many African countries is a further element of the Western activities in Africa during the past decades. Frequently, such “cooperations” are justified or forced from African governments on the grounds of “fighting terrorism”, a terrorism the US government is quite skilled in using for the justification of their geostrategic military deployment.  No wonder China has quite a good reputation in Africa as it neither has relations with terrorists – other than the US who besides the relations with the government has often also relations with the terrorists, rebels and militia commanders – nor demands bases for its military or orders military interventions. So far at least, it cannot, though, be excluded that China will resort to such means, too, if – colonial – time come.

Ad 3. I must be very reserved. Are there new, better opportunities for the development of the African societies arising from the new constellation of imperialist competition in and around Africa resulting from the specific Chinese model of colonialism which has meanwhile arrived in full? Even if it bears some ugly features and most probably will display even uglier ones in the future, I suppose some positive input, too. A part of the productive forces of Africa is being developed by China in a much broader und more modern fashion than previously by the old colonial powers or by neocolonialism of the US type, World Bank, IMF etc., not to forget the frequently incompetent and corrupt domestic elites. Perhaps Africans have better opportunities to realistically weigh their potentials and chances in this changing situation, and more political awakening will happen.

Ad 4. finally, I have to be even more  vague concerning speculations about the effects of the Chinese African involvement on international power relations, on the relations between the US, China, Europe, Russia etc.

Without doubt, though, China’s economical weight in the global economy will further increase by the broadening and deepening capitalist-colonialist relations with Africa or essential parts of Africa. Control over large parts of the immense natural resources and food potentials in Africa would further stimulate the formation of a – at least economical – superpower by far outflanking the US – and would boost the potentials of military confrontation, e.g. with the US, about the oceanic transport routes between China and Africa.

Consequently, aside the “Eurasia”-complex, which presently is top in the comments mainly with regard to the Ucrainian conflict, we would have a further concept of an international cramp, desired chiefly by China. China would certainly attempt to integrate other nations into the ranks of beneficiaries; in the case of the silk road concepts Russia and the EU; in Africa some African nations, naturally, and perhaps some other nations in Asia.

In French’s book there is hardly even an approximation to such problematic fields. The above comments Pt. 1-4 cannot or hardly be traced back to him.


[i] There are more points which show French’s direct political and ideological affiliation to US-imperialism, for example his barmy polemics against Mao Zedongs domestic policy (Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution), or his devote reiteration, time and again, of the doctrine called “the depletion of resources”, in fact an agenda to set tight limits to global human development. Whereas the US society has been and still is producing lots of important scientific and technical contributions helping, among other goals, to overcome the possible depletion of conventional resources and find better ones, the mainstream of media and politics has for decades been preaching the sermon of human self-restriction because of the alleged depletion. In this way, too, they help maintain the continuous enrichment of the imperialist upper strata which knows no self-restriction at all. This trend is still prevailing in the entire “West”: China’s expansion thwarts this propaganda, and its African agenda, too, doesn’t follow it.


Translation is mine, wgr. Please condone my English where it is necessary.

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