#19 event report: Mutual Interest? China’s Role in Africa

October 11, 2012, Bridge Café (Wudaokou)

Speaker: Prof. Dr. LI Anshan 李安山, Peking University, School of International Studies


Professor Li’s presentation discussed the big picture regarding the Sino-African relationship. In the beginning, he discussed the converging points between the Chinese and the African societal discourse, the most significant being the shared experience of being colonized. In many ways, the humiliation caused by Western colonizers has shaped both sides’ worldview; it has also provided them with a common code of communication. However, both sides have managed to rebound back from the post-colonial depression – while one does not really need to discuss China’s recent achievements, it is important to see what Africa has done – if one leaping from the status of a “hopeless continent” to the status of a “promising” continent. Professor Li stressed China’s resourcefulness – not only in terms of energy and rare earth minerals, but also its rich cultural heritage and the human resources (such as Mendela, the president of Senegal etc)

Regarding the history of Chinese aid to Africa, Professor Li stressed that it is not a new phenomenon, but something that has been ongoing for decades now. The Chinese paradigm of providing aid shouldn’t be only analyzed in the light of contemporary developments; its roots are to be found in Zhou Enlai’s Eight Principles announced back in 1963.

Professor Li then provided a brief overview of the aid/cooperation between China and Africa, and the ways in which China has been an important agency of the development of the continent. He emphasized the cross-sectorial nature of the relationship: it is to be found not only in the areas of economy and trade, energy and resources, but also in for instance in the field of health protection. He emphasized the role of research and scholarly cooperation, and academic exchange, discussing some of his own experiences and perceptions.

Finally, he critically overviewed some of the growing concerns about the future of the relationship and noted that there are ever-more frequent accounts on existing problems – however, problems are to be seen primarily as a positive sign, as a sign of deepening contact and increased relationship, and moreover, as an opportunity to solve them and enhance the relationship.


The presentation was followed by a fruitful Q&A session. One question discussed in particular the ways in which China benefits from the relationship – which according to professor Li is an overwhelming political support on the global scene, and of course, a stable import of energy – currently, Africa provides one third of the oil China imports. Another issues that were discussed were the prospects of the financial/investment relations, and the possible impact of China’s hard/soft landing on Africa’s economy. Another question in depth analyzed the nature of the medical assistance China has provided for African countries – starting during the Algerian War of Independence, and spanning to the Sudan conflicts and other contemporary cases.

There have been couple of critical inputs by the public who pointed out the fact that in the contemporary international order, all actors look primarily for their own interest – China being no exception – it takes what it needs from Africa, and dresses it up as “cooperation.” Negative aspects of the Sino-African relationship were discussed as well.

However, one discussion by an African participant provided a different perspective, by contrasting China’s involvement in Africa with the one of the United States and the European Union, arguing that Chinese aid revolves around investment, providing infrastructure and transferring technology – and creates jobs, while Western aid comes along the lines of charity and is has very limited impact.

Other issues that were discussed were the EU-China-Africa trilateral relationship and the lack of trust and understanding on the Beijing-Brussels line; the internal debate in China on how to do it and how to supervise investment in Africa, and the growing issues regarding Chinese migrant workers to Africa.