Words by James Novello
The People’s Republic of China has consistently opposed the interests of the democratic West since it’s founding as a state. The scars carved by proxy wars throughout the decades-long battle between the growing influence of communism and Westernized democracy are still present, especially with regards to matters of economic control.
Chinese investments in Africa have been highly reported in Western media, depicting a power-hungry, ever-expanding Chinese economy that threatens to swallow up the resources of any nation possible through investment and nationally-funded building operations.
The foundations of international Chinese investment utilize ideas from European imperialism as well as mercantilism, which focuses mainly on the production, trade, and control of all available tangible goods. These goods normally consist of raw materials – materials that China intends to funnel straight into its manufacturing sector, as most of its economic growth is based on domestic manufacturing. These tangible goods come in the form of copper, coal, and oil, all of which are used in manufacturing and energy. The emphasis on material goods directly contrasts American and European involvement, which focuses on intangible financial control.
A culmination of the Chinese imperialistic identity can be seen in the construction of the TAZARA Railway linking Zambia to ports on Africa’s eastern coastline in Tanzania. However, the greater question of why China is involved in Africa has historical origins in the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
The rising star that was Communist China soon came into conflict with the figurehead of international communism, the Soviet Union. Under Mao, China broke off all relations with the Soviet Union and began a politicized power struggle by focusing on underdeveloped and agrarian economies. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union continued to put the bulk of its power in Eastern Europe.
Chinese foreign policy focused on nations that were economically similar to China and aligned with the core tenants of Maoist doctrine. Nations such as Democratic Kampuchea (modern-day Cambodia), the Somali Democratic Republic, and various other agrarian-based nations were supported because they fit with Maoist doctrines and policies, such as land reform and revolution spurred by the peasant class, rather than the middle or industrial classes. While the Soviet Union was more concerned with exporting communist ideology to both European states and states that already had access to industry, China focused on waging political warfare in post-colonial nations who were still using raw material production as their main source of national income, going so far as to fund opposition towards the Soviet Union in places like Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and Angola.
In the case of the TAZARA Railway established in Tanzania, the politics behind the decision included bypassing the Rhodesian nation, now Zimbabwe, which was supported by the British government. Rhodesia, an apartheid-based post-colonial state, was directly opposed to the landlocked Zambia’s political and economic interests, due in large part to Zambia funding ethnic terrorism to destabilize Rhodesia. The TAZARA Railway allowed for the exporting of Zambian raw materials, such as copper, to flow directly to the East, and sequentially, straight into China’s industry, fulfilling the ideas outlined in classical imperialist doctrine.
The driver of these decisions are purely economic, and harken back to the ideas found in the classic European imperialism model. By increasing infrastructure in an underdeveloped nation, China can easily receive a majority of the goods produced. As the sole owner of the transportation infrastructure, China is also able to cut mobility costs, receiving the raw materials at a huge discount relative to prices paid by other countries in the global marketplace.
Even now, after the rejection of Soviet-style communism and Maoist principles, China’s international investment remains focused on underdeveloped nations whose primary purpose in international trade has been the exportation of raw materials. These resources, at notably lower prices, catalyze effortless and cheaper expansion of Chinese manufacturing capabilities, and allow costs to remain low enough for outsourcing to be profitable in the nation.
The effectiveness of international investment in Africa is yet to be fully analyzed. The modern-day TAZARA Railway is a broken-down mess since ownership transferred from China to Zambia. The company itself has not had enough income to carry out basic repairs, and has been forced to fire a good portion of its working staff.
A beautiful depiction of an expanding economy under Chinese investments is seen in the documentary Empire of Dust, directed by Bram Van Paesschen. The documentary follows the China Railway Engineering Company, a company that is tasked with building a road in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Showcased in the film are the kinds of problems they face throughout the ambitious project, mostly due to cultural friction between the African workers and Chinese managers. These continuous misunderstandings between the Chinese and Congolese greatly inhibit the speed of the construction, and from an outside observer, the entire operation seems to be a snafu.
The case study brought up in Empire of Dust is seen on a larger scale in Africa’s internal politicking. Many candidates in states where China has begun to investopenly denounce China’s movements, seeing it as infringement on the rights of the individual states, sacrificing the majority population for the benefits of the elite. This disdain for Chinese intervention is found mainly in the lower classes, where many African populations commit acts of violence towards their local Chinese business owners.
WHERE TO GO FROM HERE
The expansion of Chinese economic imperialism is not unlike what the majority of the Western world does through the International Monetary Fund and other global financial institutions. Instead of controlling the flow of goods, the West seeks to control the flow of finances and debt. The two different power blocs are on opposing sides, but fighting two different economic wars. If anything, the faction in the West backing imperialism through financial investment is being slightly challenged by the less sophisticated – and much more antiquated – ideas of a Chinese economic imperialism that relies on raw goods for supporting a manufacturing-based economy.
Chinese investments in Africa catch the light of Western media because China is the only major non-Western actor in Africa. The interests that China holds in the continent are the same of any business looking to expand into new markets that were left behind in favor of economic improvement and technological progress. The power vacuum created through the emergence of service economies in the Western world has allowed China to step in and fill the role once played by former colonial powers. The only remaining question is if Chinese infrastructure investments will last longer than those of former colonial powers in Africa. If the TAZARA Railway is any indication, then we may not have to wait long for an answer.