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Is China Colonizing Africa?

Updated: Feb 17, 2022

In 2013, I wrote a column in FPIF called Ghana’s Chinese Gold Rush. I was fascinated and alarmed by the migration of thousands of Chinese people to Ghana to illegally engage in small-scale gold mining. Researching for my novel GOLD OF OUR FATHERS, I was in Ghana to witness first-hand the destruction of the environment that invariably accompanies any kind of extractive industry, whether it be oil, gold, coal, or something else.

Large Chinese excavators dig up the earth to uncover, hopefully, gold ore, which is washed and processed for the glittery metal. On their departure from the sites, none of these miners ever back-filled the pits they had dug. Incidentally, in GOOF, a dead Chinese miner is found buried in gold ore.

Woman and child walk past mine abandoned by illegal Chinese miners in Ghana
Woman, child, and dog walk past abandoned mine pit (Photo: Kwei Quartey)

Small-scale mining (SSM), also called alluvial mining, is different from the large-scale mining of multinational companies like AngloGold Ashanti, and is hardly a reflection of China’s official activities in Ghana in total. The footprint is everywhere. On my last visit to Accra, the capital of Ghana, I noted a China-backed port-construction project in its early stages.

An arch marking the beginning of a new port in Accra Ghana with the ocean in background
Early start to a new mega-port by Chinese companies (Photo: Kwei Quartey)

Chinese companies also built Ghana’s rather impressive gray stone edifice that houses the Ministry of Defense. Chinese companies have constructed multiple dams all over the continent, as well as railways and roads.

Whether China is Africa’s new colonizer is the subject of quite some debate. The NYT Magazine took up the topic in 2017, but they’re hardly the only ones. Howard W. French’s influential book, China’s Second Continent, which I’ve read from cover to cover, examines the role of China in multiple African countries. But nothing demonstrates the influence better than the graphic representation of China’s influence in Africa and the indebtedness of the individual nations to China. Some of the countries most heavily invested in are the same countries with most debt to China, one of the most important examples of which is Zambia.

The case of Zambia

The country of Zambia, whose shape resembles a fetus, is marked with a star on the map. It lies at the crossroads of Central, Eastern, and Southern Africa. Significant Chinese investment began in Zambia in the 1990s after the privatization of the copper mining industry. Not only is Zambia rich in copper, which the Chinese really need, but it has cobalt and lithium. The Chinese enjoy advantages in Zambia that would be impossible to attain in China, like cheap labor and a whole lot of land.

Zambia’s Chinese presence is unmistakable and even jarring in a large city like the capital, Lusaka, where Chinese signage on buildings often dwarf the English equivalent, where hotels and stores have Chinese names, and where some stores cater specifically to Chinese tastes. It’s reminiscent of the postcolonial era in Ghana when Europeans and Americans shopped only at certain stores.

China famously doesn’t let a silly thing like environment get in the way of their digging up or building up something. Just take a look at the picture above. In Zambia, a Chinese development company called Kingsland is building a massive retail and housing estate on a forest reserve that was previously protected by law. The law seems to have magically evaporated. Also on that “protected land,” the Chinese have constructed housing for the Zambian Air Force. Do I hear the words, “an offer we couldn’t refuse?”

But no Environmental Impact Assessment was done before construction of these Chinese-constructed housing estates, and now, sewage from the development has been dumping into the nearby Chalimbana River.

China v the West

A colony is a territory belonging to or under the control of a distant nation. Is this the case with China in Zambia? Two stories repeatedly denied by the Chinese is that they have seized Uganda’s Entebbe Airport and Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda Airport because the respective countries defaulted on their loans. If these rumors are true (the governments deny them), then this is a sort of tyranny and domination that smacks of colonization.

Arguments go back and forth about whether the “old” colonizers like the British and French were any better, or worse, than the Chinese. But the answers are not that clear-cut. It’s usually said that China goes into African countries without making demands on Africans to reform human rights the way the West does. The Chinese are mostly interested in relative political stability of the “colony” but only in regard to whether erratic politics may hamper the commercial endeavors, not because of some lofty ideal.

Much of Africa believe western media persistently and deliberately tar the image of the Chinese who bring industry to the continent. But in all colonization, modern or ancient, western or Chinese, there is a lopsided codependence between the colonizers and the colonized, or owners and workers. The former depends on the latter to do the actual production work, and the latter depends on the former to have a job and get paid. China often builds much-needed structures in rural areas that would otherwise never have seen. In Ghana, for instance, a village chief admitted to me, sure, the Chinese did come and bulldoze some of our farmland, but they also built us a functioning borehole. That made a big difference for villagers, who up until that time had had to take a 2-mile walk to and from a water source, sometimes a polluted river. Now the village has clean water.

The Chinese also build schools and hospitals. Still, though, they remain firmly in the executive and owner position over subordinate Africans. This is a very colony-like situation where the classes are sharply drawn. But so what? some Africans say. We never had jobs until the Chinese arrived. The ultimate question for Africans is, how much are you willing to lose?

In a YouTube video, a Chinese man asks a Congolese, “You were governed by the Belgians for so long. You should’ve learned how things work.” There, I agree with the Chinese man, but possibly for different reasons. Africans should have learned by now that when invaders arrive and start taking your s**t, no matter what the invaders assure you, the African side will never come out on top.

The bottom line

Whether China is a “colonizer" might be a semantic issue. The term seems to be slightly off the mark, but I’m hard-pressed to find a suitable replacement. Settlers? Invaders? Infiltrators? Transplants? Ctrl-Cmd-Del? One term I came up with and that I think comes close is “uber-exploiters.”Watch this video by France 24 about the Chinese in Zambia, and you’ll see you how apt that characterization is. At the end of the day, the Chinese in Africa are very much there to stay.


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