The first two decades of the 21st century have been characterized by the meteoric and unparalleled economic growth of China. Since 2000, China’s annual growth rate has only fallen as low as 7% and peaked at twice that in 2007. However, underlying the façade of the rising power lies the secret ingredient to Beijing’s economic miracle: neo-colonialism.

According to the standard literature on colonialism, for a state’s actions to be considered colonialist, there are three specific conditions. First, the colonizing state must have full or partial political control over the “colony” state. Second, the “colony” state must be occupied by settlers from the colonizing state. Finally, the “colony” state’s economic resources must be exported to the colonizing state.

However, in the 20th century, a new theory of colonialism was necessary. The concept of neo-colonialism was developed by the first Prime Minister and then first President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah. Nkrumah defined his new concept in his 1965 essay “Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism”:

The essence of neo-colonialism is that the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality, its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside.

Rather than direct political control of one nation onto another, Nkrumah points out that neo-colonialism operates behind closed doors. It runs on the appearance of autonomy.

A closer examination of Sino-African relations reveals the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has developed and implemented a neo-colonialist system in sub-Saharan Africa using soft power and massive foreign investment to prop up China’s massive manufacturing, trade, and construction sectors.

What is Soft Power?

In the 21st Century, the tools of colonialism have changed. No longer can nations divide up entire continents, like Europe did with Africa during the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, or Spain and Portugal did with the “New World” in the Treaty of Tordesillas nearly four centuries earlier. Rather, the neo-imperialist toolkit has now changed from coercion to attraction. Instead of conquering and seizing political control militarily, states now gain favors and political control through networks of trade, favors, and personal relationships.

This new toolkit of international affairs is called soft power. Coined by Harvard Political Scientist Joseph Nye Jr., soft power is defined by a policy of attraction rather than coercion. The instruments of soft power carry different names: foreign direct investment (FDI), infrastructure spending, and educational programs. The results and goals, however, stay constant: political influence and control over natural resources.

Soft power is also governed by a different set of rules. A soft power strategy depends on three important tenets: (1) soft power is the result of being esteemed, valued, or respected; (2) soft power is mental, it is based on intangible assets; and (3) soft power varies from state to state and situation to situation. Thus, the game has changed, and China must – and has – adapted.

The need for a soft power toolkit is diplomatically necessary for Africa because of the continents troubled history with Western powers economic and political exploitation. The history of Africa is riddled with betrayal by the West: whether it was the physical selling of bodies by Europeans during the transatlantic slave trade for profit and goods, the division of the continent in the 19th century, or a series of predatory loans from Western financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank that plunged the continent into debt.

These horror stories have cultivated a natural distrust of capitalism and Western intervention, both financial and political. This, in turn, has created an opening for China. The Middle Kingdom’s hybrid capitalist-socialist economy and a shared history of exploitation during the era of Western colonial expansion, make it a natural partner for Africa, and the soft power toolkit – based on trust, economic success, infrastructure, and development – enormously successful.

Africa is also the perfect target for China’s soft power due to Africa’s abundance in natural resources. In the eyes of the CCP party bosses, the metric for success is economic growth. It benefits both the ruling party, as it cultivates an ethos of joint success and maintains regime legitimacy, and the Chinese people because it creates a culture of personal opportunity.

However, over the past decade, China has seen a constant decline in economic growth, from a high of 14% in 2007 to under 7% in 2015. This largely is a by-product of a global shift away from manufacturing: manufacturing as a percentage of GDP has declined by 5% over the past two decades globally and it accounts for 30% of the China’s economy. Hence, China has been forced to make moves geopolitically to maintain this essential sector of its economy and Africa, which has massive quantities raw natural resources, is a natural target.

The CCP has focused on developing a strategy that utilizes and prioritizes soft power. The origin of this new international tact can be traced back several decades. However, in 2007 the Politburo elite and Chinese Prime Minister Hu Jintao declared that China’s new international strategy would focus on developing and executing a soft power scheme. In his speech to the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Prime Minister Hu stated:

Culture has become a more and more important source of national cohesion and creativity and a factor of growing significance in the competition in overall national strength… [We must] enhance culture as part of the soft power of our country to better guarantee the people’s basic cultural rights and interests.

Not only does Hu explicitly state China’s intentions, he reveals the specific weapons Beijing plans on utilizing. As revealed in the state-run Xinhua News Agency’s “highlights” of Prime Minister Jintao’s address, Beijing is developing the CCP’s propaganda wing, investing in key industries and companies, and focusing on cultural education.

Imperial China’s Soft Power Regimes

Soft power is not a new concept to the Chinese state. Rather, since the advent of the Han Dynasty in 206 BC, China has been utilizing the traditional tools of soft power.

The ancient Chinese Tribute System was a series of concentric economic, political and military treaties that positioned China as the regional hegemon of the Asia-Pacific. The Tribute System demanded that other regional nations and empires pay a tribute to China in exchange for access to its markets and goods. These deals often described as “win-win” alliances and attracted other nations into a Sino-centric international order. For centuries, the tributary system defined Chinese political thought and was the premier tool in China’s international playbook. Working from a position of perceived superiority for China, the Tributary System established an international order in the Asia-Pacific through a series of asymmetric relationships with China at its core.

More important than the inner workings of the system, however, is how it is portrayed in the present. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in its recent efforts to harness this past legacy, has been implementing the three basic concepts underlying this system. According to George Washington University Professor David Shambaugh, the tenets of Chinese diplomacy lie in this system. Namely, Professor Shambaugh points at three specific principles that have trickled down through centuries of Chinese diplomatic thought: (1) the desire for a Sino-centric international order, (2) asymmetric alliances, (3) and intense nationalism. The first of these tenants are the end goal of the CCP diplomatic plan, a world in which China returns to its pre-“Century of Humiliation” glory (a perceived superiority of China, interrupted by Western imperialization). The latter concepts are the soft power means by which this end shall be achieved. Thus, China’s new soft power offensive, as decreed by Prime Minister Hu Jintao, pulls from the geopolitical ploys of China past, and seeks to create a new Sino-centric international order.

The CCP’s Relationship with sub-Saharan Africa

How has Chinese soft power manifested itself in sub-Saharan Africa? The journey begins with the founder of the CCP and its ruthless Chairman, Mao Zedong. In 1974, Chairman Mao unveiled his Three Worlds Theory: that there was a “third world” beyond capitalist and communist superpowers. However, unlike its Western brother, Mao’s system revolved around the concept of exploitation. The Western concept of three worlds revolved around developed and developing, and placed China in the “Second World.” Alternatively, Mao’s Three Worlds theory placed China in the “Third World.” This was a strategic maneuver. Deng Xiaoping, China’s historic reformer, who publicly unveiled Mao’s theory in his 1974 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, stated:

The Third World countries strongly demand that the present extremely unequal international economic relations be changed, and they have made many rational proposals of reform. The Chinese Government and people warmly endorse and firmly support all just propositions made by Third World countries.

Deng Xiaoping’s famous address marked a radical switch in Chinese foreign policy. By aligning China with the “Third World,” Xiaoping and Mao drew in the “Third World” by emphasizing a history of shared struggle against the traditional Western imperial powers. This effectively allowed China to become the “rags-to-riches” success story and to profit from the ills of past colonizers – in the name of Third World kinship – thereby laying the foundation for any future interactions with sub-Saharan Africa. China’s relationship with sub-Saharan Africa is based on the shared experience of Western imperialism and the “brotherhood” of exploited states.

As the 20th Century came to a close, China’s claws sunk deeper into sub-Saharan Africa. After renewed interest in Africa and repeated visits of Chinese officials throughout the 1990s, Chinese President Jiang Zemin announced the creation of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 1996, proudly proclaiming, “the Chinese government encourages mutual cooperation, broadening trade, increasing African imports, and finally promoting the balanced and fast development of China-African trade.” Jiang also proudly laid out the public foundations for Chinese trade in the region. As reported by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs these are:

  1. To foster a sincere friendship between the two sides and become each other’s reliable ‘all-weather friends,’
  2. To treat each other as equals and respect each other’s sovereignty and refrain from interfering in each other’s internal affairs,
  3. To seek common development on the basis of mutual benefit,
  4. To enhance consultation and cooperation in international affairs,
  5. To look into the future and create a more splendid world.

While these precepts and principles appear like mutually beneficial concepts, a closer examination of the bilateral relationship reveals that they are no more than just concepts. They represent the party line on China’s relationship with Africa, that of “all-weather friends” or a “win-win” relationship; in reality, China’s involvement on the continent is anything but.

Pulling on Mao and Xiaoping’s Three Worlds Theory, FOCAC appears on the surface as a mutually beneficial intergovernmental organization (IGO) to foster joint and equitable development. FOCAC, according to its members, was founded as a “framework for collective dialogue between China and African countries on the basis of equality and mutual benefit and that to seek peace and development.”

However, in reality, it has acted as a tri-annual conduit for Beijing to exploit the African Continent. At the first meeting of FOCAC – notably held in Beijing at the turn of the millennium – the group instituted Chinese educational programs, massive debt forgiveness, and, most importantly, promoting political cooperation to create a favorable environment for China-Africa business affiliation and trade. The operative word is “favorable.” From the institution of this policy to the fifth meeting FOCAC in 2012, China has become sub-Saharan Africa’s single largest trading partner (it has spent more money in the region than the World Bank since 2000), maintained a trade surplus for 10 years, and its importation of sub-Saharan African goods accounts for 17% of the continent’s trade. Thus, the reality of China’s relationship with Africa is that of a “favorable” unequal relationship for the its own gain, rather than the “win-win” relationship broadcasted by the Politburo.

China’s Neo-colonialist System

With the help of FOCAC and other IGOs, Beijing has embedded itself into the continent, but the real danger of China’s renewed interest in sub-Saharan Africa is economic exploitation and its accompanying political power.

The extent to which China is involved in Africa is staggering. Between 2000 and 2010, the CCP and Chinese firms have promised upwards of US$67 billion in FDI, loan packages, and infrastructure spending. This is a whopping US$12 billion more than what the World Bank loaned out during the same time period. China has funded opulent infrastructure projects such as the brand new US$200 million African Union Headquarters in Addis Abba, Ethiopia. In fact, China has funded infrastructure projects in 50 of 54 countries in Africa, including whole cities in Angola, Tanzania’s entire railroad system, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) highways, and Addis Abba’s subway system. These massive infrastructure projects, however, are a prime example of China’s soft power offensive. The monetary benefits attract countries to the CCP, and then it traps them in the neo-colonialist system through massive amounts of debt and economic control under the guise of a “win-win” relationship.

Specifically, the primary vehicle for China’s economic attraction is the low-interest resource-for-infrastructure loans (R4I), which allow the CCP and Chinese firms to corner markets and set prices, and by extension, seize control of impoverished nations’ economies. From a fiscal perspective, an R4I loan is a low-interest loan that exchanges Chinese infrastructure investment for Africa’s natural resources. While this may appear as a win-win for both parties, as it allows for a symbiotic relationship – China needs natural resources to sustain its manufacturing sector and Africa desperately needs infrastructure – there are two factors that make these loans predatory vessels of China’s neo-colonialist gambit: lack of diversification of economic partners on the part of the African nations, and the liquidity and debt crises that R4I loans cause. Once ensnared in debt, China extorts political favors ranging from breaking promises on local African employment and ignorance for local labor laws, to offering exorbitant packages for nations to vote with China in the United Nations, or break ties with Taiwan.

The economic profile that China targets for predatory loans allows for them to easily manipulate markets and seize control of the exports and trade of their debtors. Of China’s top eight debtors in Africa, five have signed R4I loans – Angola, Sudan, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ghana, and every one of these nations owes China billions of dollars in natural resources. Furthermore, at the time the R4I loans were issued, three of these five nations (Angola, Sudan, and DRC) had recently exited bloody civil wars, all five nations had unranked or junk bond designation by the three major credit rating agencies (S&P’s, Moody’s, and Fitch’s), and all five nations were in the bottom ten or had unranked economic complexity indices (ECI), which declined since the nations began dealing with China. Thus, these nations were perfect targets for risky, low-interest loans that were backed and paid for by their precious hydrocarbons and minerals, as they have low quantities of hard currency to pay back their Chinese debtors and extremely concentrated and weak economies.

The central African nation of Angola is a case in point. Angola signed its first R4I loan with China in 2004 leveraging its massive petroleum reserves in exchange for US$2 billion of infrastructure investment, including the “ghost city” Nova Ciudade de Kilamaba. However, as the price of oil has fallen, Angola’s oil backed debt has snowballed to upwards of US$25 billion and Angola has consistently fallen behind on loan payments. This has forced Angola to sign an extension and a new R4I loans to try to gain new lines of credit in 2007 and 2009 respectively.

However, rather than usher in financial resurgence, China has gained control of Angola’s economy and its massive petroleum reserves. Over the last decade, Chinese imports of Angolan goods has consistently risen and now accounts for over 35% of the African nation’s economy. Furthermore, the portion of Angola’s petroleum reserves that is shipped to China has increased from four or five of Angola’s 50-60 tankers per month, to upwards of 40-50 tankers per month, a whopping 1,000% increase. Thus, Angola is trapped between a rock and a hard place. If they disobey the Chinese, their economy is at risk and but if they listen, they continue down the rabbit hole with no escape in sight. Hence, Angola has become a “neo-colony” of China, with all the “outward trappings” of economic autonomy, but in reality, it is at the beck and call of the Politburo and its pocketbook.

China’s resource gambit is not just confined to petroleum. China’s massive manufacturing sector, which accounts for 30% of the Chinese economy, requires access to the massive mineral reserves found in Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa has over 50% of the world’s cobalt reserves, 77% of the world’s manganese reserves, and 88% of the world’s platinum group metal reserves. It is also home to the “copper-cobalt” belt, a massive swath of resource rich land with large quantities of copper and cobalt, both of which are necessary for manufacturing.

One of the major countries along this belt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In early 2007, through an R4I loan, the DRC agreed to transfer a large portion of the stake in its highly resource rich mines to Chinese companies. However, it appears that the price that Chinese firms paid for the mining rights to this land was drastically undervalued. Much like Chinese petroleum exports, the trade was pushed through and incentivized by the Politburo. The CCP approved a US$6 billion credit line for African infrastructure along with the deal and has since produced hundreds of thousands of tons of copper from the mine, providing China with US$500 million USD in unrefined copper and cobalt resources per year.

Real Political Consequences

This system of economic entrapment has evolved into political exploitation and has real human consequences and effects on local politics. Within the past six months, over thirty Chinese nationals were arrested in Zambia for a variety of illegal mining practices, such as but not limited to child labor and unlicensed smelting. China, which has invested over a billion USD in the Central African nation, claimed that the evidence presented by the Zambian government was not substantial and demanded that the Chinese nationals be released. Within 48 hours, all 31 Chinese miners were on a flight home to China.

This too is an example of neo-colonialism and, ironically, the very same extraterritoriality which China suffered at the hands of 19th century Western imperial powers. The Chinese government, using its economic influence, exerted political control over the situation while preserving the “outward trappings” of autonomy. This is not unique. In 2013, Zambia dropped attempted murder charges against two Chinese nationals who shot 13 Zambian miners after repeated pressure from the Chinese government. It is also not confined to Zambia. Chinese nationals have committed crimes across the continent and been asked to leave African countries rather than stand trial for their actions. In Ghana, 160 Chinese nationals, were asked to leave the country for crimes that range from polluting water supplies with cyanide and pesticides to the deaths of illegal miners inside their illegal gold mines. China, as previously mentioned, has spent billions of dollars in infrastructure deals and R4I loans in the country and sent diplomats to secure their release.

Furthermore, the majority of the massive infrastructure and aid projects that appear represent the African “gain” from the relationship have unfairly benefited China, Chinese construction firms, and Chinese workers. Many of the skilled and unskilled workers who work on these large infrastructure projects are Chinese expatriates sent from China. They account for over one-third of the 1 million Chinese migrants to Africa and displace jobs from the extensive number of unemployed Africans – Sub-Saharan Africa’s unemployment rate is 7%, well above the global average of 5%.

Furthermore, nations with massive debt are unable to divert national funds to tackle unemployment. An example of this is Ghana, where youth unemployment rate is a whopping 48%. Since Ghana has massive amounts of debt to China – it leveraged its massive mineral and petroleum reserves in exchange for US$2 billion in Chinese loans – it lacks enough financial means to create programs to tackle its unemployment. This has created two problems for the West African nation: (1) an unskilled labor force (2) a growing resentment of the Chinese laborers with jobs. Furthermore, this benefits the Chinese, as the lack of skilled laborers allows for Chinese firms to employ Chinese, flout labor laws, and destabilizes economies creating demands for more lines of credit and predatory R4I loans.

In addition to local politics and unemployment, China’s political exploitation also has geopolitical ends. One example of the political ends of the Chinese checkbook is the “One China” policy and Taiwan. In recent years, it has become apparent that the CCP and China have been offering large packages to sub-Saharan African nations in exchange for cutting diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Burkina Faso, one of the few remaining sub-Saharan African states with diplomatic ties to the island nation, perennially receives multi-billion-dollar infrastructure packages in exchange for dropping formal diplomatic ties. In January of 2017, Bloomberg reported that Beijing offered Burkina Faso upwards of US$50 billion in infrastructure spending. Foreign Minister Alpha Barry, however, reaffirmed the West African nation’s commitment to Taiwan saying, “We get outrageous proposals [from China] telling us, ‘if you sign with Beijing we’ll offer you $50 billion or even more,’…Taiwan is our friend and our partner. We’re happy and we see no reason to reconsider the relationship.”

While Burkina Faso has maintained diplomatic ties with Taiwan, other nations have succumbed to the Chinese soft power offensive. In the past year, the African archipelago of São Tomé demanded US$100 million to maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan. When Taiwan refused, São Tomé cut diplomatic ties, and summarily received millions of dollars in aid and doctors from the Chinese Government. In addition, China also considered building a deep-water port in the country.

Pulling on the success and reputation of other African states and the Chinese pocketbook, the CCP attracts nations and partners, with the end goal of achieving its own political means and economic gains. In São Tomé’s case, the goal was to isolate Taiwan diplomatically. As more nations buy into this system, the noose tightens. Countries that do not receive Chinese cash fall behind economically and become politically isolated.

China also has used their checkbook and control over the debtors to garner international support and votes at the United Nations. According to researchers at the College of William & Mary’s AidData project, in exchange for a 10% increase in voting with China at the United Nations, African countries receive, on average, a whopping 86% increase in aid. Furthermore, of China’s top eight debtors, the five who have signed R4I loans have also seen their voting patterns change. Angola, Sudan, Nigeria, DRC, and Ghana vote with China between 83% and 93% of the time, according to The Economist.

Thus, China’s neo-colonialist system of systematic economic and political exploitation follows a simple playbook. China produces extravagant infrastructure, loan, and credit packages; corners markets on valuable natural resources; forgives and renegotiates massive amount of debt; and in return receives special treatment, “favorable” trade deals, and political influence and control. This allows Politburo leaders to maintain massive growth numbers, control of China, and achieve geopolitical objectives. But to what end? What is the CCP’s endgame?

The Chinese Dream

In 2013, Xi Jinping became President of China, and his ascendance to the upper echelons of the Politburo was aided by his concept of the “Chinese Dream.” Despite channeling the rhetoric of the “American Dream,” the two concepts could not be any more different. The American Dream prioritizes individual success; the Chinese Dream is an ethno-nationalist ideology that prioritizes the country over the individual. It is the final step in the ascendance of China back to its prior greatness before the “Century of Humiliation,” and it is strategically supposed to coincide with the centennial of the People’s Republic of China in 2049. The Politburo and Xi Jinping have been publically broadcasting the “Chinese Dream” as the date that the CCP will finally deliver on its promise to “solve all of China’s problems,” running a public relations tour and publishing a book on how the CCP will deliver on its massive promise.

However, in order to achieve this end, the Chinese Government must become the global economic, political, and military leader, and it has turned its pocketbook on various regions of the world to aid in achieving this massive goal.

One such region, is sub-Saharan Africa, which has acted as an economic and political tool in achieving President Xi’s “Chinese Dream.” The neo-colonialist exploitation and soft power offensive in the region are all means to this end. The exorbitant infrastructure, aid and FDI spending in the continent has helped grow China’s manufacturing and construction sectors and resulted in many strong political allies on the continent. Finally, China’s soft power, namely its reputation and its bottomless pocketbook, has allowed it to wield massive influence on the continent, and attract other nations to its multitude of political and economic goals.

China’s actions in Africa certainly passes Kwame Nkrumah’s litmus test of neo-colonialism. The appearance of national sovereignty is preserved, but vast economic control allows China to wield undue political influence.

Sadly, this neo-colonialist system is not limited to sub-Saharan Africa. Much like R4I swaps and loans in Africa, Chinese projects in Southeast Asia have political riders attached to them. However, rather than local favoritism or United Nations votes, China has required ideological purity for its regional ambitions. Whether it is Taiwan and the “One China” policy or Tibet and the Dali Lama, participation in Chinese initiatives such as One Belt, One Road or the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, carry political provisions both spoken and unspoken. With China’s neo-colonialist tentacles spanning from Saigon to Johannesburg, Pyongyang to Accra, the question remains: who is next?

The author would like to thank Dr. Gerald Blaney for his advice and assistance in editing this paper.


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(Feature photo of Luanda, Angola, by Man-ucommons on Wikicommons, CC BY-SA 3.0)



Ryan Kelly

Ryan is a high school senior at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx, NY. His passions include local, national, and international politics. Ryan is also an avid ultimate frisbee player and hopes to study international relations, political science, and economics in college.