Several years ago, during a visit to Tanzania, I was struck by what I thought was a truly bizarre sight. Our bus was hurtling along a dirt path, choking on its own cocktail of dust and diesel fumes as we bounced around like pinballs trying not to asphyxiate. Nearby snaked a glistening, newly paved asphalt road: we couldn't access it yet, because the pavement was drying, but we could see the work crew resting nearby. Twelve Tanzanians, and their foreman, a Chinese guy.
At the time, this site was completely novel to me, and probably to most in the West. Largely unbeknownst to us (or to me at least), China was making inroads throughout the African continent, building highways in Tanzania, financing electricity projects in Sub-Saharan Africa and constructing whole towns in Angola. Now, of course, this is all common knowledge: as the West has moved out of hard infrastructure sectors, China has sensed an opportunity to fill this gap and has profited handsomely. According to the London-based Africa Research Institute, trade between China and Africa surged from approximately $10 billion in 2000, to more than $160 billion in 2011.
Africa–China relations refers to the historical, political, economic, military, social and cultural connections between China and the African continent.
Little is known about ancient relations between China and the African continent, though there is some evidence of early trade operations. Highlights of medieval contacts were the 14th century journey of Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan scholar and traveler, to parts of China, the visit of Sa'id of Mogadishu, the Somali scholar and explorer to China and the Ming Dynasty voyages of Chinese admiral Zheng He and his fleet, which rounded the coast of Somalia and followed the coast down to the Mozambique Channel.
Modern political and economic relations commenced in the era of Mao Zedong, the first leader of the Chinese Communist Party, following the Chinese Civil War. Starting in the 21st ceantury, the modern state of the People's Republic of China has built increasingly stronger economic ties with Africa. As of August 2007, it is estimated that there are more than 750,000 Chinese nationals working in different African countries. There are perhaps as many as 20,000 Africans working in China.
Trade between China and Africa increased by 700% during the 1990s, and China is currently Africa's largest trading partner. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was established in October 2000 as an official forum to strengthen the relationship. A few Western countries, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, have raised concerns over the political, economic and military roles China is playing in the African continent.
Although Sino-African diplomatic relations were first established in the mid-1950s, ties have only recently grown significantly stronger. During the late 1980s and 1990s, China began concentrating on Africa because of its rapidly growing domestic economy and export-focused manufacturing sectors, which specifically prompted trade ties with many countries in the commodity-rich continent. Because of this, China has made Africa a high priority: in 2005 the Chinese Communist Party promised to select the continent as the destination for every year’s first major high-level diplomatic trip. It may sound surprising to some that this superpower would choose this region of the world, but it’s for good reason—China-African trade increased by 681% from 2001 to 2007 and surpassed the United States as Africa’s biggest trading partner in 2009. In that year alone, 79% of China’s imports from Africa were mineral products.
China insists that its interactions with Africa are “mutually beneficial”, yet this claim has sparked debate around the world. Enthusiasts of Sino-African relations argue that it is beneficial for three main reasons: first, that China’s growing aid to the region has allowed for the improvement of African infrastructure; second, that the trade between the two regions has increased African earnings; and finally, that China is willing to support the continent with “no strings attached”—unlike Africa’s typical ties with the United States and Europe. Yet critics question if China’s recent economic activity in Africa is but in fact neocolonial and that China’s principle of ‘non-interference’ towards the continent allows Chinese enterprises to operate freely despite African state issues of respect of democracy, human rights, and environmental norms.
China and Africa have a history of trade relations, sometimes through third parties, dating back as far as 202 BC and AD 220.The first mention of Africa in Chinese sources was in the Yu-yang-tsa-tsu by Tuan Ch'eng-shih (died 863), a compendium of general knowledge where he wrote about the land of Po-pa-li (referring to Somalia).
Archaeological excavations at Mogadishu, Somalia and Kilwa, Tanzania have recovered many coins from China. The majority of the Chinese coins date to the Song Dynasty, although the Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty are also represented, according to Richard Pankhurst. In 1226 Chao Jukua, commissioner of foreign trade at Quanzhou in the Fujian province of China, completed his Chu-fan-chih (Description of Barbarous Peoples) which discusses Zanzibar (Ts'ong-pa) and Somalia (Pi-P'a-Lo).
Archaeologists have found Chinese porcelains made during the Tang dynasty (618-907) in Kenyan villages; however, these were believed to have been brought over by Zheng He during his 15th century ocean voyages. On Lamu Island off the Kenyan coast, local oral tradition maintains that 20 shipwrecked Chinese sailors, possibly part of Zheng's fleet, washed up on shore there hundreds of years ago. Given permission to settle by local tribes after having killed a dangerous python, they converted to Islam and married local women.
Now, they are believed to have just six descendants left there; in 2002, DNA tests conducted on one of the women confirmed that she was of Chinese descent. Her daughter, Mwamaka Sharifu, later received a PRC government scholarship to study traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in China.
The establishment of modern Sino-African relations dates back to the late 1950s when China signed the first official bilateral trade agreement with Algeria, Egypt, Guinea, Somalia, Morocco and Sudan. Zhou Enlai made a ten-country tour to Africa between December 1963 and January 1964. Relations at that time were often reflective of China's foreign policy in general: China "began to cultivate ties and offer economic, technical and military support to African countries and liberation movements in an effort to encourage wars of national liberation and revolution as part of an international united front against both superpower"
Early modern bilateral relations were mainly affected by the Cold War and the communist ideology. China originally had close ties with the anti-apartheid and liberation movement, African National Congress (ANC), in South Africa, but as China's relations with the Soviet Union worsened and the ANC moved closer to the Soviet Union, China shifted away from the ANC towards the Pan-Africanist Congress. China adopted several principles, among them supporting the independence of African countries while investing in infrastructure projects.
The Somali Democratic Republic established good relations with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War era. When Somalia sought to create a Greater Somalia, it declared war on Ethiopia, with the aid of the Soviet Union, Somalia took the Ogaden region in three months, but the Soviet Union shifted its support from Somalia to Ethiopia, and Ethiopia retook the Ogaden region.
Since 1997, around 40 African heads of state have visited the PRC. The ministerial meeting, Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), held in Beijing in October 2000 was the first collective dialogue between the PRC and African nations.
China has been engaged in a kind of "health diplomacy" towards Africa since the 1960s. Health care development and medical assistance have been one of the main successful areas of cooperation. Between the early 1960s and 2005, more than 15,000 Chinese doctors have been sent to Africa to help treat different cases[clarification needed] in more than 47 countries. The medical teams, known as yiliaodui, have treated more than 170 million patients during the same period.
In 2001, the member nations of G8, formed the United Nations-backed Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria with an initial budget of $10 billion. In 2007, another additional $1.1 billion was approved in Kunming, China, of which 66% was dedicated to Africa.
Military cooperation goes back to the Cold War period when China was keen to help African liberation movements. Apart from some traditional allies such as Somalia and Uganda, China also had military ties with non-aligned countries such as Egypt. Military equipment worth $142 million was sold to African countries between 1955 and 1977. Two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, military relations are now based on business interests rather than ideology.
There is no Chinese military presence in Africa other than that used in peacekeeping. In 2004, China deployed around 1,500 soldiers under the UN umbrella, dispatched between Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. China is also present via its military attachés; as of 2007, it has 14 attachés in 14 different African countries while there are 18 African countries who maintain their attachés in Beijing. Apart from peacemaking, China provides military training and equipment to a few countries, though this does not require military forces to be deployed.
Due to the low prices of Chinese-made weaponry and military equipment, an increasing number of African countries shifted their source of supply from traditional providers such as Russia to China. However, the selling of arms to some states accused by Western countries of war crimes, such as Sudan, have prompted criticism in the West.
Africa is a host of three Chinese cultural centers. The first overseas Chinese center was opened in Mauritius in 1988. Two other followed in Egypt and Benin. The Confucius Institute, which focuses on the promotion of the Chinese language and culture, has 20 centers distributed around 13 African countries.
Historically, little is known about early African immigration to China. Due to recent developments in relations, many have been relocating for better opportunities. Places dubbed 'Little Africa' and 'Chocolate city' are increasingly receiving new immigrants, mostly Nigerians. Most of the African immigrants are concentrated in the area of Guangzhou with an estimated number of 20,000. It is estimated that there are around 10,000 illegal African immigrants in Chinae and police crackdowns have intensified since early 2009.