More than a decade ago when I was doing field research among Christian communities in Wenzhou, in coastal city in southeast China, I was told by two English teachers at a local technical college that their school was mobilizing funds among its staff for an investment project in Africa to improve teachers’ welfare. Since the turn of the 21st century, China’s intensified investment in Africa has managed to channel such decentralized flows of funds from grassroots groups to the expanding and globalizing market economies on the continent. Although small and medium-sized Chinese enterprises in Africa have been linked through transnational networks of credit and distribution that extend from ordinary Chinese to wealthy merchants, they are also increasingly backed by Chinese state-owned financial institutions.
On August 26, 2021, in preparation for the upcoming 8th Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Dakar, the Beijing-based China-Africa Business Council released a study titled “Market Power and Role of the Private Sector: Report on Chinese Investment in Africa”, which highlights the significant role of Chinese private sector finance in facilitating China-Africa trade and investment cooperation. The high-profile ceremony to launch the publication, attended virtually by Chinese, African, and UN officials, signaled strong official encouragement of private commercial engagement in Chinese state-led economic expansion in Africa.
In analyzing Chinese investment and private Chinese entrepreneurs’ involvement in the continent, it is important to transcend the conventional dichotomous perception of the state-society conflict. Growing evidence indicates that private Chinese entrepreneurs operating in Africa do benefit from their connections with the Chinese state. This seems particularly true for those who run relatively large-scale private enterprises in resource-rich African countries.
The Chinese model of development in Africa
Sensationalist media accounts using such loaded words as “conquest” or “invasion” can obscure the fact that Africans have differing views on the Chinese presence in Africa. A 2011 New York Times article titled “Africans are asking whether China is making their lunch or eating it” vividly captured the mixed feelings. On the one hand, African political elites tend to support major Chinese investment projects, especially public infrastructure for development. On the other hand, ordinary African people, especially at the grassroots, show rising resentment against the rapid spread of small-scale migrant Chinese ventures that compete with local enterprises in such low-end commercial activities as the sale of cheap manufactured goods or poultry farming.
In resource-poor Tanzania, for example, the government stated that Chinese were welcome as investors but not as “vendors or shoe-shiners”. In some African countries the massive influx of cheap Chinese manufactured goods has affected the local labor market and purchasing power in complex ways that preclude sweeping conclusions. The impact of Chinese imports and investments is further complicated by inefficiency and corruption in some African governments.