Africa Watch

China’s mixed image in Africa

Wang Yi, defending China’s Africa intentions
Wang Yi.jpg

China’s foreign affairs minister declared that his country wants to improve its image in Africa, but there are some hurdles to clear. (Read more)

During his five African states visit in January China’s new minister for foreign affairs, Wang Yi, remarked: “Chinese diplomacy has a good tradition that Africa is always the first destination of the foreign minister’s annual overseas visits. This move is to send a clear signal to the world that it has always been an important cornerstone of China’s foreign policy.”

 Wang Yi’s remark is backed up by the following statistics:

 ·       China is Africa’s biggest trading partner by far and last year, China-Africa trade reached US$210 billion. Beijing’s goal is to increase trade with Africa to reach US$400 billion by 2020; 

·       Currently more than 2,500 Chinese companies operate in Africa;

·       China has already signed bilateral investment treaties with 32 of Africa’s 54 states and established joint economic commission mechanisms with 45 African countries; 

·       The China-Africa Development Fund agreed to invest US$2.385 billion in 61 projects in 30 African countries. US$1.806 billion has already been invested in 53 projects; 

·       Overall investment from China in Africa totalled nearly US$30 billion in 2014; and

·       More than half of China’s foreign aid goes to Africa.  Between 2010 and 2012 it totalled more than US$14 billion. 


China’s role and objectives in Africa is a topic for much debate and opinions differ on Beijing’s true intentions.

Trade rivals, particularly the United States (US), are lashing out at what they describe as “Beijing’s cheque book” policy. 

To some extent China can afford to ignore the disapproval and criticism from other trade rivals, but Beijing cannot discard or ignore the growing criticism emanating from within Africa.   

Recognising the potential danger, the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, during his visit to Africa in 2014, acknowledged that the relationship between Beijing and Africa had suffered “growing pains” and assured that it will receive attention.

During his African trip foreign affairs minister Wang Yi explained in a TV interview in Kenya extensively how Beijing intends to improve its image in Africa. 

He was adamant that China’s intentions towards Africa are entirely benevolent and denied any accusation that China “is building an empire in Africa” and said that Beijing will not copy “western colonialists.”

Wang Yi insisted that, “Politically, we always speak up for African countries and uphold justice. Economically, we help African countries to enhance development to achieve prosperity ... In China’s exchanges and cooperation with Africa, we want to see mutual benefit and win-win results. I want to make clear one point, that is, China will never follow the track of western colonists and all cooperation with Africa will never come at the expense of the ecology, environment or long-term interests of Africa.”


There is no denying that China’s involvement has benefitted Africa enormously and its soft power approach has much more appeal than the military factor that features so strongly in the West’s involvement, particularly the US and France.

New roads, bridges, railways, ports, airports, power stations, dams, where previously there were none, the many new sport stadiums across the continent, the US$200 million headquarters of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa - a gift and a “symbol of deepening relations”- constructed with Chinese funds and assistance beat any counteroffer by the West. 

China’s expressed policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of African countries and its mantra of a “win-win economic partnership” with its African partners carry the enthusiastic support of most of Africa and strike a chord with those leaders whose countries have poor human rights records.

But all is not as benevolent as the Chinese foreign minister claims.


Although Beijing’s thirst for Africa’s natural resources has become indispensable to the economic growth and stability of many African nations it constitutes what critics call “resource colonialism”.

China’s appetite for Africa’s raw materials is undeniable and is not limited to raw materials but is also for Africa’s exotic timber and wildlife products. For many, China is responsible for and synonymous with Africa’s widespread environmental devastation.

The destruction of the indigenous forests in Northern Mozambique is one such an example.

China features strongly in the highly controversial illegal rhino horn and ivory trade. The negative image it portrays is forcing Beijing to respond. In an attempt to counter this negative image Wang Yi said that “cooperation with Africa will never come at the expense of the ecology or the environment”. He then went on to announce a US$ 10 million dollar anti-ivory initiative, but Beijing will have to follow this up with more initiatives to convince the cynics that China is serious about conserving the African environment. 

There are also indications that China might have adopted a more stringent approach in looking after its investments and interests and will in all probability intensify if, as is predicted, the Chinese economy slows down.

Despite denials by the Chinese foreign minister to the contrary, the recent deployment of 700 Chinese soldiers to bolster UN peacekeeping in South Sudan is interpreted by many commentators as a calculated move by Beijing to look after its extensive interests in that country. 

Wang Yi’s explanation that “China’s mediation of South Sudan issues is completely the responsibility and duty of a responsible power, and not because of China’s own interests” is to many analysts doublespeak.


Another hint in this regard surfaced when Beijing recently insisted on the secondment of its own officials to key Zimbabwe parastatals to ensure that Chinese loans for government projects are not lost to “leakages”. Beijing also insisted on Zimbabwe adopting Chinese models of parastatal reforms.

Zimbabwean officials expressed concern that the Chinese government is aiming for a greater stake in, and control of, Zimbabwe’s natural resources and government entities with one official lamenting, “There are some among us who believe the Chinese have in a way colonised us as they are taking over the economy and are now moving into parastatals.”

China’s refusal to give President Mugabe a US$4 billion rescue package to revamp his country’s ailing economy for which he is mainly responsible, and  demands that  Zimbabwe meet its obligations by settling arrears on loans advanced in the past, is interpreted as a sign that Beijing is getting wary of the limited returns on some of their investments.

China might find it challenging to improve its image while at the same time adopting a firmer approach in safeguarding its interests and investments. As one observer of China’s evolving African policy cautions, “Intent on protecting its own national interest, China is increasingly becoming like a ‘normal’ global power, leveraging its economic resources and military muscle to influence domestic political developments abroad ... it will become increasingly difficult for Beijing not to be embroiled in domestic upheavals across Africa and stick to a purely business-oriented foreign policy model.”

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by Garth Cilliers

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