China has continued to greatly expand its influence on the African continent over the recent period, thanks to the huge projects carried out by the Chinese government in many African countries and the pumping of further investments into various vital areas on the continent. This has helped give China a more positive image in African public opinion. It has also strengthened ties between Beijing and most of the African ruling elites as part of its policy to strengthen its presence vis-à-vis competing powers in this important geopolitical sphere. However, in recent years, China has faced a wave of resentment from a broad sector of African communities that reject some of China’s policies there—though relatively on the part of governments—especially with regard to its various projects and investments in Africa. This situation raises questions about how much Chinese influence on the continent has been affected by that wave and its future in the coming period.
Several factors signal African resentment over the Chinese presence on the continent, including the following:
1. Violations of the rights of local workers: Despite Africans’ positive view of China’s role on the continent, there is opposition to some Chinese activities, such as poor labor practices in factories and mines. African workers in mines owned by Chinese companies complain repeatedly of the poor conditions they suffer in violation of global human rights and labor standards, as well as the lack of security and safety standards at some worksites, which exposes workers to accidents and death, and the lack of medical care.
Many reports highlight a series of violations suffered by African workers at the hands of Chinese companies over the past two decades. One Chinese company has made workers take a month of forced leave with the possibility of laying them off if the dispute with the Guinean government over the Simandou iron ore project is not resolved, which prompted the Guinean minister of mines to issue a decision on 3 July 2022 to halt all project activities. At some point, mines in Zambia stopped providing health care to workers and reduced preventive health care programs. Most Africans do not get promoted to higher levels in Chinese companies, which reinforces feelings of public resentment against the Chinese.
2. Secret agreements between Beijing and African ruling elites: Facilitating the entry and control of Chinese companies into numerous African countries has raised many questions about secret agreements between Beijing and African ruling elites. This has prompted William Ruto, the likely presidential candidate in the upcoming Kenyan elections slated for August 2022, to promise to publish all contracts signed with the Chinese government if he is elected president of the country. He also pledged to deport Chinese workers residing in the country illegally. This comes amid African concerns about the content of the terms of such contracts, some of which have revealed that Beijing obtained mining concessions in African countries in exchange for infrastructure projects and linking Chinese loans to the provision of sovereign guarantees for strategic assets, such as oil, land, airports, and ports. Ruto also promised to reduce government lending from China, especially since Kenya owes Beijing about USD 8 billion.
Ruto’s position is not the first of its kind. In Zambia, former President Michael Sata, when running for office in 2006, promised to expel Chinese companies from the country if he was elected, referring to the Chinese as invaders. Before the 2011 elections, Sata declared that Zambia had become a Chinese province; he referred to the low popularity of the Chinese in Zambia and accused them of invading his country.
However, after he took power, Sata’s position toward China changed completely because of Chinese economic assistance and projects in the country. He even welcomed the Chinese, called them friends, and visited Beijing in 2013. This is an important indication of China’s ability to change adverse African positions, thanks to the inducement of pumping more economic assistance and investments into the country. Even so, the country saw some demonstrations in September of 2019, protesting the presence of Chinese companies in the country, with one political party—the Zambian Progressive Republican Party—even adopting the slogan, “Say ‘No’ to China.”
3. Charges of Chinese racism: Over the past years, China has been accused of racism against Africans. For example, in 2017, a national Chinese museum in the city of Wuhan, Hubei Province, organized an exhibit called “Africa,” which displayed a series of paintings that included a picture combining an African person and animals, sparking resentment over anti-African racism before it was removed.
This issue recurred after the Beijing government implemented discriminatory policies against the African community living in the Chinese city of Guangzhou during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Video clips showed Chinese authorities forcing Africans to leave their homes, while other communities experienced no such actions. The African response was furious: Africans expressed their outrage on social media using the hashtag #ChinaMustBeExposed, and African media drew attention to the discriminatory behavior. Growing popular pressure forced African leaders to take unprecedented steps, including publicly condemning the Chinese government. Likewise, a number of African ambassadors to Beijing condemned the discrimination faced by Africans and demanded an end to forced testing, quarantine, and inhumane treatment of Africans. Moreover, Chinese workers in some African countries have suffered harassment and acts of retaliation.
4. Promotion of the new Chinese imperialism: The African political elite’s position on China’s presence in Africa varies, and not all African leaders view China’s moves positively. Some warn against Chinese economic and trade conditions that reflect Beijing’s adoption of a new colonialist dynamic on the continent, as evidenced by China’s acquisition of raw materials from African countries, which they then resell to those countries in the form of manufactured goods, which some consider the essence of colonialism. Many international powers, led by the US, promote this idea, even describing China as the new colonial power in Africa. This comes amid US and international fears over the growing Chinese influence on the continent, which in turn is a major source of concern for the continent.
5. Charges of China’s weak attention to social infrastructure: At a time when African governments are failing to provide social services in many regions of their countries, Africans often hope that part of China’s spending will be directed at social services like schools, clinics, housing, and so on, especially in poor and remote areas, rather than focusing just on equipment and facilities. However, Chinese companies usually invest little in social infrastructure on the continent.
6. Doubts about the benefit of Chinese projects and contract terms: Many questions have arisen over the benefits of the infrastructure implemented by China in African countries. In 2011, rains washed away a large part of the Lusaka-Chirundu Road, which was built by a Chinese company, a while after it was established in Zambia. Likewise, Chinese construction of two large stadiums in the capital city of Lusaka provoked public disapproval in Zambia of the usefulness of those projects.
A number of African countries have already cancelled several contracts with Chinese companies because of their poor performance, as well as the contract terms of the projects. For example, the Kenyan Supreme Court ruled in July 2021 to cancel a USD 3.2 billion contract between Kenya and China to build a railway, after describing the project as illegal. Likewise, in September 2021, the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Félix Tshisekedi, called for a review of mining contracts previously signed with China in 2008, with the goal of getting fairer deals for his country.
7. Reliance on Chinese labor at the expense of Africans: The number of Chinese arriving in Africa in recent years has increased to more than one million, amid Beijing’s primary reliance on Chinese labor instead of Africans. According to 2019 statistics, 182,749 Chinese workers were living in Africa, mostly in Algeria, Angola, Nigeria, Zambia, and Kenya. This affects the African labor market and provokes a hostile public opinion of China amongst Africans. Confrontations between local residents and Chinese companies have broken out, as seen in the western part of Cameroon in 2018 due to some companies’ control over resources and wealth and their refusal to allow local residents to work for them, as well as their involvement in evicting residents without offering any compensation. Likewise, in late 2018, the Zambian city of Kitwe saw riots and looting against the Chinese for fear of losing their jobs to the Chinese.
8. Damage to the African environment: Reports show that some Chinese-funded projects in Africa have greatly harmed communities and the environment in Africa. Those concerned with environmental protection accuse Chinese companies of destroying ecosystems in their search for strategic resources and wealth, such as oil, minerals, and timber.
Many Chinese projects are encountering a violent reaction from local African communities and environmentalists, and those pressures have succeeded in stopping the implementation of Chinese projects on the continent. Some believe that Chinese investments in iron ore extraction from the Simandou Range in Guinea could destroy the livelihoods of the Guinean community. China’s Sinohydro Corporation deal with Ghana for bauxite, worth USD two billion in the form of infrastructure projects, has drawn much criticism because of the failure to do an environmental assessment of the amount of bauxite that can be extracted without polluting drinking water, thus harming the local communities there.
In 2019, a Kenyan court issued a ruling to halt construction of a USD two billion, coal-fired power plant in Lamu, after the project encountered harsh opposition for endangering a world heritage site, prompting the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China to withdraw from the project.
There are many possible effects that may arise from the increasing resentment against Chinese influence in Africa, most notably:
1. Chinese pressure on African governments: Beijing may seek to force African governments to implement Chinese projects regardless of domestic opposition. It can exploit its economic and financial capabilities to persuade African ruling elites, particularly since the experience of past years has shown China’s ability to use various tools to induce the ruling elites and push them to change their anti-Beijing stances, as happened when former Zambian President Michael Sata changed his position toward China after having used hostile rhetoric against it.
2. Intensifying clash with Chinese in Africa: This is a result of Africans’ anger that Chinese companies are using Chinese labor instead of the local African workforce. The growing number of Chinese expatriates in some African countries reinforces Africans’ fears that they may be excluded from their jobs in favor of the Chinese, causing them to commit acts of retaliation against Chinese citizens and loot their property. These activities may markedly increase in the coming period.
3. Disruption of Chinese projects in Africa: Some communities may form local gangs to attack Chinese companies and sabotage and loot their equipment in retaliation for those companies’ policies in African communities. Some local communities may cooperate with terrorist organizations to carry out attacks against the Chinese and Chinese companies with the goal of forcing them to withdraw from their areas. In addition, the rhetoric adopted by some African politicians toward Chinese projects, whereby they portray these projects as serving Chinese interests at the expense of African countries, makes it more likely that Chinese projects will be disrupted.
4. Rallying African public opinion against Beijing: Some international powers, especially the US and France, may find an opportunity to demonize Beijing as a way to check its growing influence on the continent and persuade Africans to beware of dealing with China given its policies that strengthen its political, economic, and security presence on the continent, which, in turn, is a source of threat to international strategic interests in the region. In this framework, international powers may rely on the problem of Chinese loans that give Beijing major influence within African countries.
Goodwill toward China
On the whole, despite growing resentment against Chinese influence in Africa over the past years as a result of some bad practices that have clearly damaged African communities, this will not greatly affect the positive image China has promoted in Africa, given the reserve of goodwill that China enjoys. This goodwill has been built up due to its expanded relationships with African countries at all levels, the adoption of a clear strategy focusing on implementing many huge projects and investments in Africa, and economic and humanitarian assistance to African countries, which strengthens its relationships with African ruling elites.
Consequently, China can overcome this phase by expanding its humanitarian and relief role in Africa, especially in areas affected by drought and various conflicts, as well as by playing an important role in settling disputes and conflicts on the continent and contributing to the war on terrorism, which has ramped up in many parts of Africa.
African governments are expected to continue to promote their relationships with China amid their need for more Chinese projects, investment, and assistance to support African economies that are still suffering the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and current international crises, particularly given China’s economic superiority over most other international powers.