Oxford University

China Africa Network

The Two Challenges of Writing China-Africa Relations

Posted on: 03-Feb-2016

The spectacular phenomenon of China-in-Africa has attracted unprecedented levels of interest by researchers and the public at large. Often working with limited established theoretical frameworks or historiographies, this group of researchers while embracing the need to transcend the Anglo-American orthodoxy, have encountered a series of frustrations and confusions. I am no exception. My current research project looks at Chinese involvement in post-independence Kenya and Zambia between 1960s and 1990s. Although I call myself foremost a historian, in fact I have a fairly interdisciplinary background including African studies.

In the course of my research, I engage with the bulk of the literature on China’s engagements with African countries in areas such as diplomacy, trade, investment and migration. At least two challenges emerge in the process of developing research ideas and gathering data for analysing these Sino-African relations, one epistemological and the other methodological.

This epistemological challenge is two-fold. To start with, there is a problematic tendency towards oversimplified ‘dragon in the bush’ analogies. According to Daniel Large, the trap for the scholarship is to ‘describe China’s rise in Africa in terms of a monolithic Chinese dragon in an un-variegated African bush stripped of historical and political content.’ In this vein, there are two Chinas in one’s imagination.

Viewed through the lens of the Cold War, the Chinese Communist Party remains in the shadow of its Marxist-Leninist roots whose world view is rooted in the absolute domination of power, a command and control economy, and a vehemently anti-capitalist revolutionary agenda. Viewed through this prism, China’s financial assistance to several African liberation movements and the construction of the Tanzam Railway were driven by a Communist take-over. On more than one occasion, Sir Roy Welensky, the Federal Prime Minister of the then Rhodesia and Nyasaland, warned the British government that Communism was a real threat to Central Africa.

Yet there is another China in this popular imagination, which embraced a market economy and a pragmatic foreign policy since Deng Xiaoping’s ‘Opening-Up’ reform in 1978. This new China, driven by strong economic demands, started to reach out widely for resource ‘grabbing’ and market expansion in emerging economies, often in the global South.

The difficulty for many analysts and policy makers to understand the changes and continuities within China itself often determines that the European experiences in Africa offer little to draw meaningful parallel. Therefore, two ends of the spectrum tend to emerge in the popular discourse – sceptics highlight the more exploitative aspects of Chinese engagement while pragmatics emphasize the opportunities presented by it.

Secondly, the moral underpinning of this China-Africa literature is surprisingly strong. This is partly because of the colonial history of this so-called ‘dark continent’ and partly because of the deeply seated Western fear of the ‘Yellow Peril’. Both having been portrayed in racial terms, the growing synthesis of China and Africa in the 21st century exemplifies a fundamental challenge to the world order dominated by Europe and subsequently, the U.S. More than a simple connotation of the South-South cooperation, Sino-African relations transcend our common understanding of human encounters across geographical landscapes to embrace a more encompassing cosmopolitanism. This increasing Sino-African synthesis fuelled by mutual expectations of modernity, one that does not necessarily correspond to the Western ideal, clearly pushes the boundaries of the long-held view of the global trajectory of human evolution, beyond Fukuyama’s ‘the end of history’.[1]

After overcoming the moral trap, the next issue for China-Africa scholars to cope with is related to their methodology. For the bulk of international scholars interested in this matter, only a tiny number of them are able to read and communicate in Chinese, and they usually have to rely exclusively on the sources in European languages. At an extreme, some analysts exaggerate claims to their intended audience. Reports such as ‘China’s land grabs in Africa’ and the import of prisoners as labour forces in Africa have been criticised severally as deeply flawed.

Consider for instance, an essay published by the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) which claimed that ‘China wanted to grow rice in Mozambique to ship back to China, use Chinese farmers to do it, and had pledged $800 million toward this goal’. But the writer neither did fieldwork for his research nor contacted agricultural experts in Mozambique. Deborah Brautigam, who has conducted extensive fieldwork on Sino-African agricultural cooperation, pointed out that between 2000 and 2009, no African country exported rice, soybeans, sugar or cereals to China. Besides, the Zambezi Valley that was sensationally characterised as ‘China’s first agricultural colony’ in fact never existed because its office failed to attract Chinese investments.

Perhaps we should stay calm in front of the hot money in pursuit of any hurriedly published conclusions. This subject area is indeed very young compared to other well-established domains and an easy entry sometimes makes manipulation more likely to happen. However, the interdisciplinary nature of this strand of research allows more possibilities in terms of the triangulation of sources, innovative analytical frameworks and additional angles to existing social realities. My previous research conducted in the Zambian Copperbelt reveals that historical memory plays an important role in influencing the mutual expectations between Chinese and Zambian workers, a perspective that has never been taken seriously before.[2]

Maybe it is time for us to reflect on a fundamental question raised by Bogumil Jewsiewicki in 1986 regarding African historiographies: ‘What history for which Africa?’[3]On one hand, there is more than one historical trajectory of human evolution called liberal democracy or market economy. The past three decades have witnessed the emergence of a robust Chinese economic model embedded on its own political culture. On the other hand, ‘the Africa’ we are talking about all the time is really not a country and has its own dynamics.

By considering Africa as a recipient of Chinese offensive, we have a tendency to underestimate the agency of individual African countries in trying to define their own foreign policy and development model, not mentioning the wisdom and resilience of the people. In order to overcome both epistemological and methodological challenges, we must always be aware of the complexity of the subjects of study, and get our hands dirty with committed fieldwork. The challenges are real but the call for vocation is urgent.

 Yuzhou Sun is a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Oxford


[1] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1992).

[2] Yuzhou Sun, Dissertation on ‘The deployment of history in the exploitation of minerals: The past in the present of China-Zambia relations’ (Oxford: University of Oxford, 2014).

[3]Bogumil Jewsiewicki and David S. Newbury (eds.) African Historiographies: What History for Which Africa? (Sage Publications, London, 1986).



The information and views set out in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the OUCAN. Neither OUCAN nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.

Reproduction is permitted provided the source is acknowledged.

Edited by: Yuzhou Sun


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