Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Is China Colonizing Africa?


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 (GOOF). Incidentally, in GOOF, a Chinese miner is found dead buried in gold ore.  

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.

Woman and child walk past mine abandoned by illegal Chinese miners in Ghana
Woman, child, and dog, walk past an abandoned alluvial mine (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 technically illegal for foreigners to practice. But leaving aside SSM, China now plays a major role in the building vital infrastructure in Africa On my last visit to Accra, the capital of Ghana, I noted a China-backed port-construction project in its early stages at the beachfront.

An arch marking the beginning of a new port in Accra Ghana with the ocean in background
Site of future Chinese-built mega-port in Accra (Photo: Kwei Quartey) 

Chinese companies also built Ghana’s rather impressive gray stone edifice that houses the Ministry of Defense.

Whether China is Africa’s new colonizer is the subject of quite some debate. The NYT Magazine took up the topic in 2017, but there are scores of other pieces on the topic. 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 respective nations to China. Some of the countries most heavily invested in are the same nations with heaviest debt to China. One important example of that is Zambia.

Chinese investments in Africa and indebtedness of African countries (Source: @samramani

The case of Zambia
The country of Zambia, marked with a star on the map, is 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. Just take a look at the picture above--destruction of the landscape is not an issue, nor is pollution of rivers with toxic runoff from mining sites. 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 the housing estates, and now, sewage from the development has been dumping into the nearby Chalimbana River.

Chinese 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.

But in all colonization, modern or ancient, 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 work of production, 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 received them. 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 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 the 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 and I’m hard-pressed to find a suitable replacement. Settlers? Invaders? Infiltrators? Transplants? Ctrl-Cmd-Del? One term 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.



  1. This is a huge issue, Kwei. The whole backstory of our A Death in the Family is the presence of the Chinese in Botswana. I was driving along a road from Kachikau to Ngoma Bridge one day when something struck me: the road was paved! A road from nowhere to nowhere was paved?? A few kilometres on I found the reason why: there was a barbedwire-surrounded Chinese village. The Chinese must have promised the paved road in return for a major project - perhaps the new airport, which wasn't ever finished by the Chiinese, or the new power station, which, if it was finished by the Chinese, was very very late and over budget. However why the road was there remains a mystery to me.

  2. In Ghana, one of the best roads from Accra to the second-largest city Kumasi was Chinese-constructed. But they didn't finish it! The last segment is still a pothole-ridden torture course.

  3. Stan and I have talked about this a lot, Kwei. I am so dismayed by the situation. Now I see that Kenya and Tanzania, where I have many friends, are deep in debt. How I wish there were something the rest of the world had done to interrupt or ameliorate the process. You are so right. This is new-Colonialism. And the Chinese will not be and more sensitive than the Europeans were. I feel as if the last human beings on the planet are now in captivity.

  4. The Chinese have also taken "control" of Greece's main port, and at the time of Gadaffi's ouster an agreement was about to be signed in which the Greeks would design a national water system for Libya to be built and operated by the Chinese. Controlling a nation's critical infra-structure has long been central to China's long term plans.