Debunking sinophobia, myths and stereotypes about Africa-China relations

Gideon Chitanga

Gideon Chitanga

Published Jan 24, 2024


Since the evolving role of China as Africa’s biggest trading partner, a splurge of unfounded misconceptions and negative narratives surrounding the dynamic relationship between the resource-rich African continent and the emerging global power, China.

While some of the myths encompass vested interests filtering into bilateral and multilateral policies to deliberately undermine the growing mutually beneficial economic relations between Africa and China founded on historical political solidarity, others are driven by the twin evils of Sinophobia and ingrained racism – a prejudice and fear of the other, hence it is important to flag them in a bid to lay a better foundation for understanding what is growing into important and dynamic relations in a complex multilateral context.

Despite some improvement in discourses, understanding and appreciation of the transformative character and nurture of bilateral and multilateral relations between Africa and China, particularly on the continent, the quantum of biased malicious public information has not relented, and will probably not do so in the short to medium term.

The overall picture portrayed in hegemonic private media and dominant Western scholarship and policymakers, including in facets of digital international relations and digital diplomacy, the fast emerging sub-disciplines of diplomacy and international relations is characterised by scepticism and negativity steeped in Sinophobia and racism feeding into the unfounded fear of China as a threat to Western hegemony, or what most Western scholars call their system of democracy and international order.

By international order, Western scholars and media mean Western unipolar hegemony in the world under the coercive architecture of the political and economic liberal order globally led and policed by the US and its allies since the fall of the Berlin wall, marking the end of the Cold War and the unilateral rise of the West.

The mix of Sinophobic stereotypes and misconceptions about Africa-China relations also reflects condescending racist attitudes towards African leaders and the people at large, questioning their intellect and agency in their dealings with Chinese partners. While Sinophobia is commonly defined as a fear or hatred of China, Chinese culture and people of Chinese heritage, including its diaspora and, in a broad sense, Asians, it is rooted in racism and is generally reflected in extended stereotypes of Chinese people, Asians and Africans.

And while some of it could be pardoned as emanating from ignorance or limited awareness, it is problematic where it is reflected in the failure to understand critical policies and or in their deliberate distortion, creating false or negative narratives. Sinophobia, and racism in a broader sense, is fuelled by fear, hatred and resentment which can be dangerous for human relations and existence.

There is a huge body of policy and academic literature which questions the role of Africa and Africans, while portraying them as either passive recipients of Chinese investment and aid with little power, influence or control in their relations with China, or simply inadequately equipped to exercise their agency to advance their own national and continental interests.

In many ways, China is portrayed as a craft predator devouring African resources on the cheap, mimicking historical racist narratives which projected Africans as innocent, pitiable and helpless subjects, more like children who need the protection of their parents or older figureheads, in this case, a Western big brother to police their relations and manage their interests for them.

Apparently, such Western arrogance towards and condescension of Africa is deeply entrenched in Western relations dating from the earliest political and cultural contact with the continent. It is at the root of violent colonial occupation and exploitation, as well as subtle post-colonial enticement and control.

The approach also informed many economic interventions in Africa by the West, particularly the Bretton Woods institutions, whose experts were major players during the imposition of the Washington Consensus through failed structural adjustments projects of the early 1990s.

Such experts, most if not some of them, have since been revealed as under qualified, not so qualified or lacking the proper understanding of the African socio-historical contexts, became imposed government advisers in economic experiments whose legacy remains one of the most understated historical disasters for much of the post-colonial Africa.

The most prevalent Sino-phobic myth about Africa-China relations is the suggestion that Beijing is engaging in new forms of colonialism in Africa, characterised by the plundering of the rich resources on the continent. Linked to the stereotype is the argument that China has crafted and is implementing debt diplomacy, loading African countries with debts they cannot pay so that the former can take control of critical strategic resources as payment.

Such stereotyping feeds on the view that China is exploitatively engaged in the exploitation of cheap resources in Africa, particularly but not exclusively, minerals such as strategic minerals driving new technologies. The “debt trap diplomacy” suggests that China deliberately overloads African countries with politically and economically disabling debt to allow Beijing undue influence over them.

The claim which is targeted at China’s proliferating investment projects in infrastructure, natural resources, new technologies, agriculture and trade deals across the continent is malicious and lacks evidence.

Many NGOs are at the forefront of criticising Chinese projects in Africa for disregarding environmental sustainability, especially the mining sector. Indeed, mining poses major risks to the environment everywhere where large-scale mining operations are taking place.

The biggest cases of struggles against transnational companies in Africa over environmental sustainability probably implicates huge Western companies that have exploited mineral resources in Africa for more than a century, extensively damaging natural environments and ecosystems without compensating communities and rehabilitating the environment.

For ages, the Ogoni people of Nigeria fought to protect their land against oil pollution, with minimal success. There are many historical cases of displacement and destruction of African environments in the process of primitive accumulation driven by Western companies on the continent, which barely makes it into contemporary discourses.

There is no doubt that African leaders and citizens are proactively engaged with their Chinese counterparts, through state-to-state institutions, multilateral platforms, as well as people-to-people and cultural diplomacy. More importantly, relations between Africa and China have thrust the language of mutually beneficial co-operation as an aspirational and policy value system in international engagement not only between China and Africa, but also Western countries which are increasingly applying the term in their engagement with the continent.

African leaders are using bilateral (Focac) and the Belt and Road Initiative to negotiate terms that align with their countries’ development goals, seeking to secure favourable economic investment terms for diversifying projects, from infrastructure development projects to technological investments.

Focac has become a critical platform for dialogue and co-operation, facilitating discussions on economic development, trade and cultural exchanges. More importantly, African leaders play key roles in setting the agenda, contributing to action plans by participating as equal partners in the process and outcomes of Focac.

And although the initial phases of co-operation between Africa and China were dominated by huge infrastructure projects, an irreversible trend of diversification is broadening co-operation in extensive diverse portfolios denominated by mutual interests, and the need to transform and better the welfare of humankind through employment creation, skills and knowledge transfer, as well as shared technological advancement.

Initiatives, such as the BRI, emphasising infrastructure development is poised to connect Africa, Europe and Asia to global trade routes, significantly leveraging the potential benefits of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) to link Africa internally and externally, fostering regional connectivity while facilitating international trade and economic co-operation.

Despite intense propagation of the debt trap discourse, there is no evidence suggesting that China has used court arbitration over unpaid loans or resorted to asset seizures. There is no doubt of the need for capital and financing among African countries.

However, the responsibility for decision-making over debt sustainability requires informed decision-making, transparent financial agreements, responsible borrowing, proper debt management and efficient use of borrowed funds by African governments.

Where African governments have struggled to secure financing from Western institutions, China has provided significant financing channelled towards economic development under concessional interest rates and longer repayment periods compared to traditional Western lenders.

Moreover, African countries’ debt to China represents a relatively small portion of their overall external debt, and not all African debt can be attributed to China. China has also provided debt relief to the most burdened African countries, while pursuing measures to providing economic breathing space to countries like Ghana and Angola.

Evidently, the stereotyping and narrative trap only serves to tarnish the growing progressive co-operation between Africa and China the anchored on historical solidarity and true friendship.

Gideon Chitanga, PhD, is a research associate at the African Centre for the Study of the United States, University of the Witwatersrand.

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Gideon Chitanga