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Bilateral relations between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Algeria can be traced back to the 1950s, when the PRC Government established close ties with Algeria’s national liberation movements. The 1955 Bandung Conference, also known as the Afro-Asian Conference, which was attended by Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and delegations from Algeria’s National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale, FLN), was a milestone in this sense. China viewed itself as the natural vanguard of emancipation movements, and the Bandung Conference was a golden opportunity to promote its own experience with guerilla warfare and combating imperial powers. Zhou’s speech on that occasion explicitly stated that China would side with the Third World, fighting imperialism and colonial domination.

In this vein, China played a central role in supporting Algeria’s struggle for independence from French colonial rule. Not only was China an early supporter of the FLN, but also it was the first non-Arab state to recognise the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA), in December 1958, barely two months after its establishment. Between 1958 and 1962, China assistedImen Belhadj, Degang Sun, with the assistance of Yahia Zoubir. 2015. ‘China in North Africa: A Strategic Partnership.’ In North African Politics: Change and Continuity, edited by Yahia Zoubir and Gregory White. London and New York, NY: Routledge. the National Liberation Army (Armée de Libération Nationale, ALN)—the armed wing of the FLN—with funds, arms, and training for Algerian fighters. As early as 1958, a group of GPRA representatives was invited to China to meet Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials across the country. The following year, China hosted‘China Salutes Algeria.’ Peking Review, 7 April 1959, 3. an Algerian military delegation to ‘Algeria Week’. In 1960, two years before Algeria’s independence, Ferhat Abbas, the GPRA’s president, was received by Zhou Enlai to celebrate the PRC’s founding.

Algeria’s nationalism was rooted in socialist thought as an alternative paradigm to the oppressive nature of the capitalist colonial system. Yet, the relationship between Maoist China and the FLN was not simply based on abstract ideological affinities but was arguably a strategic alliance that worked in the interests of both parties. Overwhelmed with the consequences of the Great Leap Forward, the CCP used its support for Algeria to reaffirm its commitment to revolutionary ideology and expand its influence in North Africa. The FLN relied on the help of China to gain a monopoly on the representation of the Algerian nationalist movement.

After Algeria gained independence in 1962, political ties between the two countries intensified. Algeria played a key role in United Nations Resolution 2758Ann Kent. 2007. Beyond Compliance: China, International Organizations, and Global Security. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. See page 48. , which allowed the PRC to take over the representation of China at the UN Security Council, replacing Taiwan, in 1971. The PRC won with 76 votes in favour, 35 against, and 17 abstentions. This win would not have been possible without the support of 26 African countries, including Algeria, which played a crucial role in rallying other African states. As acknowledged by Mao Zedong himselfQuoted in Anshan Li. 2013. ‘China and Africa: Policy and Challenges.’ China Security 3(3): 69–93.: ‘We were brought back into the United Nations by our African friends.’ In recent years, Algeria joined leading regional Chinese-led platforms, including the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and the China–Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF). Overall, China’s relations with Algeria followed a trajectory from ideological affinities and political interests in the first three decades after the PRC’s founding in 1949, to economic pragmatism starting from the 1980s, reflecting evolving domestic imperatives in both countries.

BRI Status

Algeria signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to join Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in September 2018 on the sidelines of the FOCAC in Beijing. In July 2019, the North African country ratified the MoU through a presidential decree signed by interim President Abdelkader Bensalah and published in the country’s Official Gazette. The decree stated that Algeria and China would cooperate in the fields of policy coordination and infrastructure interdependence, among other things.

Before joining the BRI, Algeria was the first country in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to enjoy a comprehensive strategic partnership and the highest level of bilateral relations with China. Visiting Algeria in November 2014, Yu Zhengsheng, Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, China’s top political advisory body, stated that the goal of this partnership was to ‘enhance exchanges at all levels, cement mutual political trust and promote pragmatic cooperation’ between the two nations. In 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping concurred with this statement by pledging to promote further development of the partnership and continue the trend towards closer diplomatic ties. During the UN COP27 climate summit in Egypt in 2022, Algeria signed a second five-year strategic cooperation pact with China aimed at further strengthening bilateral cooperation.

Within the BRI framework, Algeria has inked a myriad partnerships with Chinese firms in various sectors, including infrastructure, industry, telecommunications, and energy. One of the hallmark projects of the BRI in Algeria is the Port of El Hamdania near the central city of Cherchell. The 3.3-billion-USD deepwater port is being built by a Chinese-Algerian consortium of firms, including the state-owned China Harbour Engineering Corporation, China State Construction Engineering Corporation, and Algeria’s Public Port Services Group. This infrastructure project is co-financed by the Algerian Government and the Export–Import Bank of China. However, progress has been slowLina Benabdellah. 2021. ‘Frozen in Time: China-Algeria Relations from Socialist Friendship to Pandemic Opportunism.’ In Routledge Handbook on China–Middle East Relations, edited by Jonathan Fulton. Abingdon: Routledge. since the first exploratory studies, back in 2012. More generally, despite much fanfare, the BRI has yet to lead to significant investments or job opportunities in the country.

Economic Relations

China has evolved from being a supporter of Algeria’s independence to one of its major economic partners. While diplomatic relations between China and Algeria can be traced to the early days of the establishment of the PRC, economic relations picked up only at the turn of the twenty-first century. In North Africa, Algeria holds the strongest commercial relations with China and is the leading construction market for Chinese firms.

Trade: Trade between Algeria and China increased significantly in the 2000s, making China Algeria’s top supplier, surpassing France in 2014. Mirroring key features of China’s trade patterns with the rest of the African continent, its exports to Algeria are dominated by finished manufactured goods such as electronics, automobiles, mobile phones, and clothing, while crude oil constitutes the bulk of Algeria’s exports to China. It is important to note that unlike trade relations with Gulf states, data on Sino-Algerian trade indicate a significant trade deficit for Algeria. For instance, in 2020, Algeria’s imports from China were worth about 5.6 billion USD, while its exports to China did not exceed 1 billion USD. This puts the trade deficit at 4.6 billion USD for 2020 alone. Overall, while Algerian consumers have benefited from the price competitiveness of Chinese products, Algeria’s manufacturing sector has suffered from the inflow of Chinese goods, which has accelerated the country’s de-industrialisation.

Source:Compiled by the author using data from the China–Africa Research Initiative, Johns Hopkins University (n.d.). Link.

Investment: Following Beijing’s ‘Going Out’ strategy in the late 1990s, many Chinese enterprises, both public and private, ventured to invest abroad, and Algeria witnessed an upsurge in the presence of Chinese multinationals. According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce’s annual Statistical Bulletin on Chinese Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), Chinese FDI stock in Algeria increased from 34.5 million USD in 2004 to 2.45 billion USD a decade later. A confluence of factors led to a decrease in Chinese FDI stock in the country, to 1.64 billion USD, in 2020. One such factor is linked to the political uncertainty in Algeria following the Hirak, the social uprising that began in February 2019 with a series of protests against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s ambition to run for a fifth presidential term and later ballooned into a large-scale movement demanding meaningful political change.

Chinese investment in Algeria remains marginal, considering the volume of trade and contracts attributed to Chinese firms in the country. The distinction between service provision and FDI is important because these two types of transaction generate opposing financial flows. Algeria’s East–West Highway, the new airport in the capital, Algiers, and the Great Mosque of Algiers—all often described by the media as Chinese ‘investments’—are, in fact, juicy contracts awarded to Chinese construction firms by the Algerian Government. It is estimated that Algeria became the most significant market for Chinese construction firms, with the country granting an estimated 70 billion USD worth of contracts to Chinese firms between 2009 and 2019.

Source: Compiled by the author using data from the China–Africa Research Initiative, Johns Hopkins University (n.d.). Link.

Since the 2014 drop in oil prices, Algeria’s infrastructural catch-up plans have slowed, with the country’s foreign reserves shrinking from almost 200 billion USD in 2014 to about 49 billion USD in late 2020. The fall in hydrocarbon prices led to a decrease in the value of Chinese contracts in the country, as shown in Figure 2.

As a middle-income hydrocarbon exporter, Algeria is not a major recipient of Chinese aid and loans, however, the country has been the beneficiary of Chinese assistance programs since its establishment. In 1963, just one year after Algeria’s independence, China sent its first medical assistance team to the North African country, boasting once again of its solidarity with the FLN. More recently, during the Covid-19 pandemic, China was quick to make various contributions to Algeria’s fight against the virus. It provided personal protective equipment and shared technical and medical expertise. Sinopharm even launched a partnership with Algeria’s state-owned Saidal to produce its Sinovac vaccine for the domestic market.

Key Controversies

Corruption: Major controversies have emerged in recent years regarding the practices of Chinese businesses in Algeria. Executives of Chinese companies seeking market access have been charged with paying illicit commissions, bribes, and kickbacks. The most notorious corruption scandals in the history of Algeria’s telecommunications sector involved Chinese-headquartered Huawei and ZTE. A court in Algeria held two ZTE and one Huawei employee responsible for paying bribes totalling 10 million USD between 2003 and 2006 to obtain contracts from state-owned Algérie Telecom. The two Chinese firms were banned from tendering for public telecommunications contracts for two years in Algeria.

Algeria’s East–West Highway, which spans 1,216 kilometres, connecting Morocco to Tunisia, was also marred by corruption scandals. A Chinese consortium between CITIC and China Railway Construction Corporation won a bid to build about half the highway for 6.2 billion USD. However, large kickbacks were paid in the construction process, resulting in a significant increase in the final price. It is worth mentioning that these scandals were not peculiar to Chinese firms but had more to do with president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s (in office from 1999 to 2019) mode of governance, which was characterised by endemic corruption.

Regime Support: Chinese officials did not miss the opportunity to reiterate their support for the Algerian regime during the 2019 Hirak, or popular uprising, that aimed to topple it. Although after the protests began in February 2019, President Bouteflika was forced to resign, the army, Algeria’s true powerholder, prevented a genuine democratic transition by imposing a regime insider as head of state. Yet, when the European Parliament adopted a critical resolution entitled ‘The Situation of Freedoms in Algeria’, criticising the regime’s arrest and harassment of political opponents, human rights activists, and journalists, China’s Ambassador to Algeria, Lie Lianhe, was quick to back the Algerian regime’s response by declaring that China was opposed to any ‘interference’ by foreign powers in the country. Building on the historically friendly relations between the two countries has proven useful in consolidating bilateral ties that have served the interests of both in maintaining regime stability domestically.

Key Sources

Benabdallah, Lina. 2021. ‘Frozen in Time: China–Algeria Relations from Socialist Friendship to Pandemic Opportunism.’ In Routledge Handbook on China–Middle East Relations, edited by Jonathan Fulton. London: Routledge.

Calabrese, John. 2021. ‘“The New Algeria” and China.’ All About China Series, 26 January. Washington, DC: Middle East Institute. Link.

El Kadi, Tin Hinane. 2019. ‘The Promise and Peril of the Digital Silk Road.’ Expert Comment, 6 June. London: Chatham House. Link.

El Kadi, Tin Hinane. 2021. ‘China and North Africa: History, Economic Engagement and Soft Power.’ In Routledge Handbook on China–Middle East Relations, edited by Jonathan Fulton. London: Routledge.

Pairault, Thierry. 2017. ‘La Chine au Maghreb: de l’esprit de Bandung à l’esprit du capitalisme [China in the Maghreb: From the Spirit of Bandung to the Spirit of Capitalism].’ Revue de la régulation. Capitalisme, institutions, pouvoirs [Review of Regulation. Capitalism, Institutions, Powers] (21). Link.

Pairault, Thierry and Fatiha Talahite. 2014. Chine–Algérie: Une relation singulière en Afrique [China–Algeria: A Peculiar Relationship in Africa]. Paris: Riveneuve Éditions.

Zoubir, Yahia H. 2019. ‘Les relations de la Chine avec les pays du Maghreb: la place prépondérante de l’Algérie [China’s Relations with the Maghreb Countries: The Prominent Position of Algeria].’ Confluences Méditerranée 109(2): 91–103. Zoubir, Yahia H. and Youcef Hamitouche. 2019. ‘China’s Relations with Algeria: A Strategic Partnership?’ In The Politics of Algeria: Domestic Issues and International Relations, edited by Yahia H. Zoubir. London: Routledge.


Historical Background

Relations between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Angola have been shaped by the PRC’s involvement in Angolan anti-colonial movements and the protracted post-independence civil war, but cooperation between the two countries hit a high note during postwar reconstruction. During the period of armed struggle for independence from Portugal (1961–74) and in the early years of the Angolan civil war (1975–2002), China provided varying forms of support to competing groups vying for political control. These included the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), and the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Seeking to counter Soviet influence in the Third World and perhaps recognising affinities between UNITA’s guerrilla tactics and Mao’s rural-based revolution, China for a time favoured UNITA over the MPLA. However, by the late 1970s, the MPLA, claiming to represent the government of Angola, began talks with Chinese counterparts, and in 1983 the two countries officially established diplomatic relations.

Perhaps due to the inconsistency of bilateral relations during the civil war, it took China another two decades to powerfully reassert itself as an ally of the Angolan state. In 2002, the death of UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi heralded the official end to the civil war. In need of financing for postwar reconstruction, the MPLA, under the leadership of President José Eduardo dos Santos, initially sought support from Western donors. However, by the end of the war, donors who had once been interested in promoting peace in Africa had shifted focus to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Angola was also unable or unwilling to meet the conditionalities that would have accompanied funding from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The Angolan government therefore turned to China. In 2003, a framework agreement was signed between the Angolan Ministry of Finance and the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, under which lines of credit worth 4.5 billion USD would be released from Chinese policy banks for funding the National Reconstruction Programme. Repayment of these loans was to be guaranteed through regular shipments of oil from Angola to China. In 2004, the Angolan government received an additional source of financing from China International Fund (CIF), a private company based in Hong Kong that is thought to have close connections to members of both the Chinese and Angolan governments. CIF provided several billion dollars in oil-backed loans for infrastructure construction and established a joint venture with the Angolan state-owned oil and gas company Sonangol to conduct exploration and trade in the petroleum sector.

The following decade saw a flurry of public infrastructure construction to fulfill both the immediate needs of postwar reconstruction and the development goals of the Angolan state. As oil production increased and oil prices rose, the country experienced double digit economic growth. Drawing a contrast against relations with Western countries, in 2006 President dos Santos described bilateral relations with China as ‘pragmatic’ and devoid of ‘political conditions’. This ‘pragmatic partnership’ between China and Angola facilitated the entry of both Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and private entrepreneurs into the booming Angolan market. Chinese media had been reporting for several years on Angola as an important oil producer full of ‘golden opportunities’ for Chinese businesses. Moreover, as a condition of the Export–Import Bank of China, the majority of construction and civil engineering projects funded by the concessional loans would have to be awarded to Chinese firms on a list of approved SOEs, and at least half of equipment and supplies would be procured in China. By 2010, then Chinese ambassador to Angola Zhang Bolun reported that there were over 50 state-owned and 400 private Chinese companies ‘involved in Angola’s national reconstruction’. Pressure to quickly complete projects like the reconstruction of roads, water supply, and other basic infrastructure served as justification for employing thousands of Chinese technicians to do the work. Between 2006 and 2012, the number of Chinese citizens reported to be working in Angola grew from less than 5,000 to more than 250,000.

The prominence of ‘resources for infrastructure’ exchanges in the relations between China and Angola gave rise to the term the ‘Angola model’, a widely used, though disputed, concept which implies that Chinese loan agreements with oil-rich Angola have served as a template for engaging with African countries and the broader developing world. However, recent political and economic events have shifted the terms of the relationship. From mid-2014 to early 2016, the price of oil—which in 2012 accounted for 46% of Angola’s GDP and 96% of its exportsplummeted by 70%. Facing a crisis during which food was rationed and foreign currency became impossible to access, the Angolan government requested a freeze on repayment of its debt to China, which had by 2016 grown to an estimated 25 billion USD. At the same time, it began to reach out to other lenders, like the World Bank. In 2017, for the first time in 38 years, Angola elected a new president, João Lourenço, who launched a sweeping anti-corruption campaign targeting MPLA elites like the children of former president dos Santos, thus dismantling some of the personalistic structures that had supported China–Angola relations in the past. Angolan officials voiced interest in attracting investment and loans from countries other than China, which in 2017 held nearly 70% of Angola’s 32.7-billion-USD external debt. In 2018, Angola negotiated an unprecedented 3.7-billion-USD credit facility with the IMF; this reportedly included a commitment to stop taking oil-backed loans from China.

BRI Status

In September 2018, Angolan President João Lourenço attended the Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), at which a memorandum of understanding (MoU) related to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was signed between Angola and China. Returning to Beijing only one month later, Lourenço was the first African leader to make an invited state visit to China after the FOCAC meeting. Angolan and Chinese officials have described a ‘new phase’ of China–Angola relations, in which emphasis has shifted from postwar reconstruction to ‘economic development’. Chinese representatives express a desire for greater ‘efficiency’ in the implementation of Chinese-financed projects in Angola, with an aim to support ‘more sustainable’ development in the country. At the same time, the Angolan government has attempted to attract Chinese investment in priority sectors like agriculture, fisheries, tourism, and industry—part of a broader effort to diversify the economy and avoid overreliance on oil. An unprecedented privatisation programme is currently underway in Angola, with the aim of attracting foreign investment in formerly public entities.Chinese initiatives to support education and technical training in Angola have become more prominent in recent years. In 2018, the Chinese government agreed to donate 28 million USD to set up an Integrated Technology Training Centre (CINFOTEC) in Huambo Province, and construction began in February 2021. In August 2020, it was reported that Huawei had signed an MoU with the Angolan Ministry of Foreign Affairs to support training in information and communication technologies. The Chinese telecom company announced plans to build a technology park in Luanda worth 60 million USD by the end of 2021.

Current Economic Relations

Economic relations between Angola and China have historically been heavily influenced by bilateral agreements and lending arrangements from Chinese policy banks. These structures, which have facilitated financial, commodity, and labour flows, resist neat compartmentalisation into distinct categories of aid, trade, and investment. However, trade and investment activities that fall outside of the scope of oil-backed loans have been encouraged by both governments in recent years.

Trade: China’s initial lending agreements with Angola might best be understood as a type of financing designed to facilitate trade. Since 2007, Angola has consistently ranked as China’s largest trading partner on the African continent. However, this position is largely determined by Angolan oil exports to China. Angola has become the second largest source of oil imported to China, after Saudi Arabia, and in 2019, 68% of Angolan crude exports reportedly went to China. According to Chinese government sources, in 2019 Chinese exports to Angola amounted to around 2 billion USD, while Chinese imports from Angola were valued at over 23 billion USD. This positive trade balance for Angola belies a relationship in which petroleum dominates Angolan exports to China, while China exports value-added products to Angola—a discrepancy that can perhaps only be addressed through development of Angolan industrial capacity.

Investment: While loans from Chinese policy banks should not be considered investment per se, they have expedited the Angolan government’s public investment programme and facilitated investment by Chinese companies. SOEs that came to Angola to fulfill government contracts financed by Chinese credit lines have taken up additional projects in the country or expanded into other sectors. Many private Chinese companies, pushed to go abroad due to domestic market competition, set up businesses in Angola importing construction materials or other commodities related to postwar reconstruction. China is currently the leading source of proposals for foreign private investment in Angola. Reports from the Catholic University of Angola have specifically singled out Guangde International Group, owner of a shopping centre for furniture produced in Angola and factories for lead batteries, for investing over 230 million USD, contributing to job creation, national production, and exports from non-mineral sectors. They also cited Jiangzhou Agriculture for its significant agricultural investment in Huambo.

Source: Chinese Ministry of Commerce.

Aid: China’s foreign aid to Angola has taken the forms of construction of low-cost housing, construction of schools and hospitals, deployment of medical teams, humanitarian aid, training workshops, and debt relief. Some recent Chinese aid projects include an international relations institute and an agricultural demonstration center, both delivered in 2019, and a vocational training center which was established in February 2021. 

Other Finance: According to the calculation of SAIS-CARI, Angola has received more loans from China than any other African country, totalling 43.2 billion USD in 2019, including from China’s policy and commercial banks. While these loans are often confused with Chinese ‘aid’, many of them do not fall into the Chinese government’s official categories of aid nor the ‘official development assistance’ (ODA) defined by OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC). Some of the loans, such as those from the China Development Bank (CDB), are commercial in nature.

Key Controversies

Chinese–Angolan engagements in the context of postwar reconstruction were consistently criticised for allegedly benefiting the Chinese state, companies, and individuals, as well as Angolan elites—specifically President dos Santos and his close associates—at the expense of broader Angolan society. Many facets of Chinese construction have been cited as evidence of this. For instance, the Luanda General Hospital, built by a Chinese SOE with funding from a Chinese government grant, began showing serious structural deficiencies and had to be evacuated only four years after it was built. Premature deterioration of roads and other public infrastructure built with Chinese funding and construction companies may have been partly attributable to poor management and/or corruption on the part of Angolan institutions and individuals, but Chinese actors were nonetheless viewed as complicit partners if not cynical opportunists.

The massive influx of Chinese workers to Angola during national reconstruction triggered concerns about job creation for local labourers as well as some Chinese nationals’ movement from construction into other sectors, where they would compete with Angolan workers and entrepreneurs. Although no evidence to support this claim was ever produced, Chinese men living and working on construction sites were rumoured to be convict labourers. Also, voices in Angolan civil society expressed alarm at the sight of Chinese hawkers competing against impoverished Angolan women street vendors. In the initial years of postwar reconstruction, Chinese companies were found to engage in exploitative and sometimes illegal labour practices in their treatment of Angolan employees. However, over the past ten years, Chinese firms may have significantly improved their labour practices, employing more local workers and providing pay and benefits that could contribute to poverty alleviation.

The benefit of some Chinese projects to Angolan citizens has also been debated, with the colossal Kilamba Kiaxi housing project attracting particular attention in international media due to its scale and perceived unsuitability to the local context. Projects funded by China International Fund (CIF), such as the new Luanda International Airport, have been scrutinised for their opacity and for the alleged corruption of associated high-profile individuals. Large projects involving Chinese contractors and funding have also been criticised for expropriating land from local residents or for their ecological impacts.Debt sustainability remains a significant point of contention in bilateral relations. China has been involved in negotiations to restructure Angolan debt in the face of impacts from the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying fall in oil prices.

Key Sources

Local Media Outlets:

Scholarly Publications and In-depth Reports:

  • Alves, Ana Cristina. 2013. ‘Chinese Economic Statecraft: A Comparative Study of China’s Oil-Backed Loans in Angola and Brazil.’ Journal of Current Chinese Affairs 42, no. 1: 99–130.
  • Cain, Allan. 2017. “Alternatives to African Commodity-Backed Urbanization: the Case of China in Angola.” Oxford Review of Economic Policy 33, no. 3: 478-495. Link.
  • Campos, Indira and Alex Vines. 2008. ‘Angola and China: A Pragmatic Partnership.’ Center for Strategic and International Studies website. Link
  • Centro de Estudos e Investigação Científica (CEIC), Universidade Católica de Angola. 2019. “Relatório Sobre as Relações China-Angola À Luz das 8 Iniciativas Propostas na Cimeira de Beijing do Fórum para a Cooperação China-África (FOCAC 2018)”, August. Link.
  • Centro de Estudos e Investigação Científica (CEIC), Universidade Católica de Angola. 2020. “Segundo Relatório Sobre as Relações China-Angola À Luz das 8 Iniciativas Propostas na Cimeira de Beijing do Fórum para a Cooperação China-África (FOCAC 2018)”, January. Link.
  • Corkin, Lucy. 2011. ‘Uneasy Allies: China’s Evolving Relations with Angola.’ Journal of Contemporary African Studies 29, no. 2: 169–80.
  • Corkin, Lucy. 2013. Uncovering African Agency: Angola’s Management of China’s Credit Lines. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing.
  • Jura, Jaroslaw, Kaja Kaluzynska, and Paulo de Carvalho. ‘“The Big Brother We Appreciate” or a “Mafios”’? The Emergence of Stereotypes Concerning China and the Chinese in Angola.’ Journal of African Media Studies 10, no. 3: 251–71.
  • Marques de Morais, Rafael. 2011. ‘The New Imperialism: China in Angola.’ World Affairs 176, no. 6: 67–74.
  • Oya, Carlos and Fernandes Wanda. 2019. ‘Employment Patterns and Conditions in Angola: A Comparative Analysis of the Infrastructure Construction Sector and Building Materials Industry.’ IDCEA Research Report, SOAS, University of London. Link
  • Power, Marcus and Ana Cristina Alves (eds.). 2012. China and Angola: A Marriage of Convenience? Cape Town: Pambazuka Press.
  • Soares de Oliveira, Ricardo. 2015. Magnificent and Beggar Land: Angola Since the Civil War. Oxford: Hurst Publishers.
  • Schmitz, Cheryl M. 2014. ‘Significant Others: Security and Suspicion in Chinese-Angolan Encounters.’ Journal of Current Chinese Affairs 43, no. 1: 41–69.
  • Schmitz, Cheryl M. 2018. ‘Performing ‘China in Africa’ for the West: Chinese Migrant Discourses in Angola.’ Asian and Pacific Migration Journal 27, no. 1: 9–27.
  • Schmitz, Cheryl M. 2020. ‘Kufala! Translating Witchcraft in an Angolan-Chinese Labor Dispute.’ HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 10, no. 2: 427–86.
  • Tang, Xiaoyang. 2010. ‘Bulldozer or Locomotive? The Impact of Chinese Enterprises on the Local Employment in Angola and the DRC.’ Journal of Asian and African Studies 45, no. 3: 350–68. 

Cover Photo: Angola. Credit (CC): Oscar Megia.


Historical Background

Djibouti is the capital of the Republic of Djibouti and a strategically located port city overlooking the southern entrance to the Red Sea. Despite considerable income from ports and foreign military bases, the majority of the country’s population—around one million people, most of whom live in the capital city—is extremely poor. The state gained its independence from France only in 1977 and established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China two years later. Until the late 2000s, there was little that was remarkable about Sino-Djiboutian ties. A low-key aid program saw China construct the state’s main sports stadium (which opened in 1993 and is named after the country’s first president, Hassan Gouled Aptidon) and provide limited economic assistance. Djibouti’s naval significance increased only in 2008, when China launched its first anti-piracy missions in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden. People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels increasingly used Djibouti’s port facilities alongside Western navies.

In 2012, China financed and began construction of a railway linking Ethiopia’s highland capital, Addis Ababa, to Djibouti’s main port. In July 2012, Djibouti’s President, Ismaïl Omar Guelleh (in office since 1999), attended the Fifth Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), which led to the establishment of a bilateral Joint Ministerial Commission and the deepening of civil, naval, and military ties. Before Beijing’s formulation of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, China Merchants Group (CMG) had already invested in Djibouti. In December 2012, CMG announced it had bought a 23.5% equity stake in Djibouti’s hitherto entirely state-owned Port Authority. CMG has since invested heavily in Djibouti—notably, the Doraleh Multi-Purpose Port (MPP) and several smaller regional ports. It also has a major stake in the Djibouti International Free Trade Zone (DIFTZ) alongside other Chinese investors. Djibouti is also a hub for undersea fibre-optic cables, including a Chinese-funded link to Gwadar in Pakistan.

In August 2017, the PLAN opened its first ‘overseas logistics base’ in Djibouti, which was effectively an armed annex of CMG’s MPP. China thus joined the United States, European Union, France, and Japan in having a permanent military presence in Djibouti. A few months later, in November 2017, Djibouti’s prominent position as an important diplomatic partner was reflected in China’s high-profile reception during a state visit to Beijing of the Djiboutian President—the first African head of state to be received by President Xi Jinping—following the Nineteenth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.

Overall, Chinese investment has transformed the Red Sea state into a key logistics hub for a wide range of Chinese trade, investment, and naval activities in East Africa. Despite this, people-to-people ties remain limited; the small size of Djibouti’s rentier economy and hot, arid climate mean that links between large Chinese investors and ordinary Djiboutians are limited, and opportunities for small-scale trade are negligible. Chinese investment has brought little long-term job creation. An authoritarian, patronage-based political state, coupled with a tightly controlled media, means public criticism of China’s economic presence or environmental impact is hardly heard.

BRI Status

Djibouti signed a Memorandum of Understanding to cooperate with China on the BRI in September 2018, following a meeting between Presidents Guelleh and Xi in Beijing at the seventh FOCAC. In April 2019, the two countries further signed a ‘Cooperation Plan’ for co-constructing the BRI.

Current Economic Relations

Trade: Economic statistics for Djibouti are unreliable and trade data are doubly problematic. This is because the bulk of Djibouti’s international trade are goods in transit to neighbouring Ethiopia (for which Djibouti is the principal port) and Somaliland. The transhipment of containers, which arrive from China and are reshipped to smaller East African ports, further complicates trade data. Djibouti exports almost no local produce but partially covers its trade deficit from port fees. China accounted for around 45% of Djibouti’s imports in 2019. Alongside consumer goods, the bulk of these were imports for Chinese-financed infrastructure projects. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and India are Djibouti’s other main trading partners, with the Arab states importing Somali livestock that transits through Djibouti’s ports.

Investment: France, the former colonial power, now has negligible commercial assets in Djibouti and, since 2013, China has become by far the largest investor in the country, primarily in rail and port infrastructure. Arab investors, notably from the UAE, have also invested in Djiboutian infrastructure in the past two decades. The UAE’s largest project was the Dubai Ports World (DPW) Doraleh Container Terminal (DCT), which is not to be confused with CMG’s MPP, which lies just to the west of the DCT. This clarification is important as many analysts and journalists confuse the two ports, which have similar names and are both located on the same strip of coast called ‘Doraleh’. However, CMG’s investment in Djibouti caused three complex and closely interlinked legal disputes. The first was between the Djiboutian Government and Mr Boreh, the Djiboutian appointed to head the DCT. A former close confidant of the president, he was accused of corruption in favour of DPW. This merged into a second substantive dispute, between the Djiboutian Government and DPW, as the former sought to revoke the company’s control of the DCT and its exclusive rights to operate the country’s ports, which were granted in the mid-2000s. The London Court of International Arbitration ruled against the Djiboutian Government twice, in August 2018 and July 2021. The other legal dispute occurred when DPW sued CMG in a Hong Kong court for inducing the Djiboutian Government to breach its agreement with DPW. The case is still pending as of August 2021.

CMG is the leading investor in Djibouti today; it has a minority stake in the state’s Port Authority. When CMG took the 23.5% stake in late 2012, the authority was formally transformed into a private share company. This took the legal name Port de Djibouti S.A. (PDSA), with the Government of Djibouti holding the remaining shares, while the management company is known formally as Djibouti Ports and Free Zones Authority (DPFZA). In 2017, CMG opened its 190-hectare Doraleh MPP, just west of the capital, encompassing container, general, and bulk cargo facilities. Begun in mid-2013, the port was inaugurated in May 2017. The 1.2-kilometre quayside provides deep-water moorings that can accommodate up to six of the world’s largest cargo ships simultaneously. The MPP cost 590 million USD to build and was jointly financed by DPFZA and CMG. CMG, along with Dalian Port Group Corporation Limited—another Chinese state-owned port operator—and other investors, is also the key stakeholder in the DIFTZ, which is linked to the MPP.

In 2017, the president of CMG claimed the group’s aim was to transform Djibouti City and its ports into the ‘Shekou of East Africa’, replicating their ‘Port–Park–City’ model in CMG’s historical home port of Shenzhen. In December 2020, CMG signed a 350 million USD investment deal with the Djiboutian authorities to completely rebuild the old port of Djibouti as part of an ambitious real estate makeover of Djibouti’s historic capital. However, this is not the first futuristic plan for Djibouti’s redevelopment, and CMG’s vision of skyscrapers and a Dubai-style waterfront appears unrealistic.

China’s largest investment in the Horn of Africa is the 750-kilometre-long Addis Ababa–Djibouti railway. The project cost 3.5 billion USD and entered commercial service in 2018. Conceived and contracted before the launch of the BRI, this is a transnational project, with 650 kilometres of track in Ethiopia and the remaining 100 kilometres within Djibouti. The Djiboutian section of the project was covered by a separate, 505 million USD contract, awarded by the Djiboutian Government to the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), a subsidiary of China Railway Construction Corporation (CRCC), in February 2012. The contract was the subject of a dispute in 2015 over whether the Djiboutian Government or China was responsible for the cost of electrifying the line. This was resolved via the CCECC taking a notional equity stake in Djibouti’s portion of the rail operating company.

Contractually, the Doraleh MPP is separate from the surrounding DIFTZ. When (or if) completed, the DIFTZ will encompass 4,800 hectares and the total investment is estimated to be 3.5 billion USD, making it the largest free-trade zone on the continent. The DIFTZ, which was inaugurated in July 2018, is billed as being central to the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

Aid: China has supplied aid for a growing number of diverse projects in Djibouti since 2012. These include extensive educational and medical support. By 2020, China had sent 20 medical teams to Djibouti as part of its foreign aid program. China gifted new buildings to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a major infrastructure project signed in 2011. More recently, it constructed research centre facilities, including the building for the National Library and Archives, which was opened in 2020.

Other finance: In January 2013, China’s CGCOC Water Company Ltd was contracted to construct a 339-million-USD pipeline to supply water from Ethiopia to Djibouti. This has the capacity to supply 100,000 cubic metres of drinking water daily to Djibouti City from a source 70 kilometres inside Ethiopia. Djibouti reportedly borrowed 322 million USD in preferential export buyer’s credit from the Export–Import Bank of China (Eximbank) to cover the project.

Eximbank was also the key financier of the 100-kilometre Djiboutian section of the Addis Ababa–Djibouti Railway, to the tune of 491 million USD, in the form of a commercial loan (85% of the total cost of 578 million USD, with the remaining 15% to be funded by CCECC). Also, in 2013, the Eximbank of China provided mixed loans of 405 million USD for port infrastructure (the rest of the total 580 million USD cost was to be funded by the Djiboutian Government). However, the actual disbursed debt remains somewhat unclear, although a significant debt rescheduling occurred in August 2019.

In 2013, CMG also announced a potential 70 million USD investment in a livestock port at Damerjog, close to the eastern frontier with Somaliland. However, construction of this appears to have been delayed. Damerjog, just to the southeast of Djibouti’s capital, is also the proposed site for a gas pipeline terminal. If constructed, this would handle gas from Chinese-managed fields in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, significantly increasing China’s involvement in Djibouti’s economy.

Key Controversies

Djibouti is a small, authoritarian, patronage-based state. Official media and political discourse are tightly controlled. Public controversy over the rapidity and scale of China’s engagement in Djibouti is therefore negligible, particularly given that Djiboutians have long been used to French, US, and Arab presences in the country.

Private criticisms tend to be limited to the fact that China’s investment has brought minimal stable job creation. However, there are growing concerns over the potential impact of further port developments in the Gulf of Tadjourah, which has a unique maritime ecosystem, with pristine coral reefs and breeding grounds for whale sharks. There have also been complaints about factory fishing by Chinese vessels off Djibouti’s coast. This is formally illegal, yet the small artisanal fishing communities in Arta, Tadjourah, and Obock recorded incursions by Chinese fleets in 2017.

References to Djibouti in the so-called debt diplomacy debates increased in 2018, when US officials trumpeted allegations that the country was falling into a ‘debt trap’. However, there is no evidence that China is intent on seizing control of the Doraleh Container Terminal, while comparisons with Sri Lanka, where CMG obtained equity stakes in the Hambantota Port at a time when the Sri Lankan Government was in urgent need of foreign exchange to repay its foreign debts, appear misplaced.

Djibouti has nevertheless seen a sharp rise in its debt burden occasioned by the scale of Chinese infrastructure lending, with loans for railway, port, and water infrastructure since 2011 topping one billion USD. Given the reality of the country’s very weak fiscal system and limited income, further rescheduling of debt appears likely. China negotiated an initial, substantive rescheduling of Djibouti’s debts in 2018–19. While Djibouti’s new terms were not published, they are believed to mirror those offered to Ethiopia, with repayment periods extended from 10 to 30 years and interest rates lowered from 3% to 2.1% above the London Interbank Offered Rate. Nevertheless, one expert estimates Djibouti’s annual debt service payments to be 104 million USD for 2021. While the debt is significant in relation to Djibouti’s tiny economy, in absolute terms, it is dwarfed by Beijing’s exposure to the debts of Ethiopia and other major African states, such as Angola and Kenya. As such, debt rescheduling for Djibouti is likely to follow the financial concessions made to Ethiopia and be informed by Djibouti’s symbolic and strategic value to Beijing.

Key Sources

Media outlets

Academic publications

Barton, Benjamin. 2021. ‘Agency and Autonomy in the Maritime Silk Road Initiative: An Examination of Djibouti’s Doraleh Container Terminal Disputes.’ The Chinese Journal of International Politics (Online first).

Chiré, Amina Said (ed.). 2013. Djibouti Contemporain [Contemporary Djibouti]. Paris: Karthala.

Le Gouriellec, Sonia. 2020. Djibouti: la diplomatie de géant d’un petit Etat [Djibouti: The Giant Diplomacy of a Small State]. Lille: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion.

Pairault, Thierry. 2018. ‘La China Merchants à Djibouti: de la route maritime à la route numérique de la soie [The China Merchants in Djibouti: From the Maritime Silk Road to the Digital Silk Road].’ Revue Espace Géographique et Société Marocaine, nos 24–25.

Styan, David. 2020. ‘China’s Maritime Silk Road and Small States (Djibouti).’ Journal of Contemporary China 29(122): 191–206.

Styan, David. 2020. ‘Djibouti: Geostrategic Balancing between the Horn and Red Sea.’ In Africa’s Thorny Horn: Searching for a New Balance in the Age of Pandemic, edited by Giovanni Carbone, 52–76. Milan: Ledizioni LediPublishing. Link.Updated on 25 August 2021.

Cover Photo: (CC) Coastal Djibouti (Archive: NASA, International Space Station.

Republic of the Congo

Historical Background

Republic of the Congo (RoC) and China were connected long before the African country achieved independence from France in 1960 and even before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. In 1929, a few hundred Chinese workers were recruited by the General Government of French Indochina to work in the mountainous region of Mayombe to build the Congo–Ocean Railway (also known by the French name Chemin de fer Congo–Océan) linking the Atlantic port of Pointe-Noire to Brazzaville. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the then newly independent RoC and the PRC in 1964, the two countries have remained on good terms. RoC President Denis Sassou Nguesso, who first came to power in 1979 and has ruled the country for 37 of the past 42 years, has visited China 15 times since 1980 (as of May 2021), while Xi Jinping has visited Congo once, in 2013, on his first diplomatic tour of African countries as the President of China.

From 1964 to 1978, trade between the two countries increased rapidly and was conducted through a barter-like system in which both sides took account of the goods traded and kept the trade in balance, without using foreign exchange. In 1978, both countries began to use foreign exchange for the payment of trade. From 1983 to 1992, exports from the PRC to the RoC experienced a downturn due to the decrease in oil income in Congo and the shortage of major goods in China, such as rice and dried fish, for export to Congo. Only later in the 1990s, and especially after the short but bloody civil war that erupted in the RoC in 1997–98, did bilateral trade resume its steady growth. China has been the RoC’s largest trading partner since 2014 and, according to the latest available data at the time of writing, in 2019, the bilateral trade volume had reached 6.5 billion USD.

In 1984, the two governments signed an agreement to establish the Mixed Commission for Economic, Trade, and Technical Cooperation (Commission mixte de coopération économique, commerciale et technique), a body tasked with facilitating bilateral trade and economic cooperation. This platform remains active and held its tenth meeting on 29 October 2020. In 2000, the Congolese and Chinese authorities also signed an agreement on the promotion and protection of mutual investment. This agreement set up a framework for coordinating such issues as investor privilege, expropriation, compensation, transfers of capital and profits, and dispute resolution in trade and investment between China and Congo. During the state visit of President Sassou Nguesso to China in 2016, the relationship between the RoC and the PRC was elevated to the level of ‘comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership’—one of the highest categories of bilateral relations in China’s diplomatic jargon.

BRI Status

The RoC has been involved in a series of cooperation programs with China, including the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In 2016, during President Sassou Nguesso’s state visit to China, the RoC was listed as one of the ‘pilot countries’ for cooperation in productive capacity between China and Africa (中非产能合作先行先试示范国家). A series of potential projects has been launched under this framework, including the Special Economic Zone of Pointe-Noire. The framework agreement for this cooperative project was signed during the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2018. Also during this summit, the two governments signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation in the BRI.

Yet, rather than the BRI, most of the recent cooperative projects between the two countries fall under the framework of the ‘Eight Major Initiatives’ (EMI) between China and Africa proposed by President Xi at the FOCAC. The EMI covers industrial promotion, infrastructure connectivity, trade facilitation, green development, capacity-building, healthcare, people-to-people exchanges, and peace and security. As China’s Ministry of Commerce has explained, the EMI overlaps with the BRI in many aspects. The EMI was central to the agenda of both the latest meeting of the Mixed Commission in 2020 and the fifth Investing in Africa Forum (Forum Investir en Afrique), an event sponsored by the Government of the RoC, China’s Ministry of Finance, the China Development Bank, and the World Bank. Held in RoC’s capital, Brazzaville, in September 2019, the forum formulated the direction of the cooperation between China and the RoC towards the realisation of the EMI’s goals.

Current Economic Relations

Trade: The RoC enjoys a trade surplus with China due to exports of crude oil, minerals, and timber. In 2019, China’s exports to the RoC were valued at 440 million USD, while its imports from the RoC were worth 6.05 billion USD. The RoC is the second-largest African exporterp.35 of crude oil to China, after Angola. Congo exported its first 23,000 tonnes of iron ore to China in April 2019, joining the ranks of iron ore–exporting countries.

Investment: Foreign direct investment (FDI) by China in the RoC was worth 94.59 million USD in 2019, bringing the stock to 610 million USD by the end of the year. A few Chinese-invested projects are worth more than 100 million USD. Among them is the Kayo Oil Field, prospected and exploited by Wing Wah Petrochemical, a subsidiary of the Southernpec Group (南方石化集团), which is now in regular production. Another noteworthy project is the Soremi copper mine, which started production in 2017. Soremi is the first overseas project of the state-owned China National Gold Group Corporation (中国黄金集团), and the first mine in Congo that integrates mining and smelting. In the financial sector, the Agricultural Bank of China (ABC) has formed a joint venture with Congolese public and private investors to form the BSCA Bank, in which the ABC holds half of the shares. In 2019, the Congolese Government partnered with West-African Group (西非集团), a Chinese private company, to set up the Fonds national de développement du Congo (FNDC), which aims to promote investment in agriculture, industry, tourism, health, and education in RoC.

Figure 1

Source: Chinese Ministry of Commerce.

Chinese companies play a major role in the construction sector in the RoC, with a market share of more than 70%. In 2019, Chinese companies won 38 contracts for construction projects worth a total of 297 million USD. Examples of new large-scale construction projects include housing projects in Pointe-Noire and Owando contracted to the Shandong Zijian Construction Group and the maintenance of National Roads 1 and 2 contracted to the China State Construction Engineering Corporation.

Aid: China has been a significant provider of aid to the RoC, ranging from turnkey construction projects to medical teams. Recent aid projects include the grand library of the University of Marien Ngouabi, delivered in 2016, the Sino-Congolese Friendship Hospital, completed in 2013, and the new parliament building, delivered in 2021. Since 1966, China has been sending medical teams to Congo to provide medical services to local people as part of its foreign aid program, with the twenty-seventh such medical team dispatched in October 2020, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, China has also donated medical supplies to RoC.

Key Controversies in Bilateral Relations

A significant, controversial aspect of China’s engagement with Congo is debt. Congo’s major creditors include multilateral development banks, bilateral creditors such as China and France, and major commodities trading companies such as Glencore and Trafigura. As of 2019, RoC’s total public debt stood at 85% of its gross domestic product (GDP), with China the country’s largest creditor. Negotiations on restructuring the RoC’s debt with China, which amounted to 2.2 billion USDp. 33 as of September 2019, started in 2017, and concluded in April 2019. In June 2021, it was reported that Congo had again requested further rescheduling of its debt with China, to which President Xi agreed.

According to the agreement reached between RoC and the Export–Import Bank of China in 2019, Congo will repay one-third of the debt owed to China generated between 2010 and 2014 in the three years after the agreement comes into effect, while the maturity on the rest will be extended by 15 years. The loans covered by the agreement involved eight construction contracts, most of which if not all were contracted to Chinese companies. The annual interest rate on seven of the loans was fixed at 1.5%, and at 2% for the other. Since 2015, many Congolese and Chinese companies have experienced great difficulty in getting paid for the work they had already done, and many projects under construction have been halted, as observed during the author’s fieldwork. The 2019 debt restructuring agreement opened the way for the RoC to negotiate a bailout program from the International Monetary Fund, as the restructuring of the debts with China was an essential part of this program. China also provided pandemic-related debt relief, forgiving interest-free loans granted to Congo that matured at the end of 2020, although the value of these loans is unclear.

Key Sources

Local Media Outlets:

La Semaine Africaine

Les Dépêches de Brazzaville

Vox Congo

Books and Reports:

Bokilo, Julien. 2012. La Chine au Congo-Brazzaville: Stratégie de l’enracinement et conséquences sur le développement en Afrique [China in Congo-Brazzaville: Roots Strategy and Consequences for Development in Africa]. Paris: L’Harmattan.

Cover Photo: Panorama Mayombe, Niari, Republic of Congo. Credit: (CC) Christophe André.

South Africa

Historical Background

South Africa’s official diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) began on 1 January 1998 following a long period of relations with Taiwan. During the 1970s, the apartheid regime in South Africa, subject to an embargo and isolated internationally, turned towards Taiwan, equally in search of international allies. The ensuing engagement resulted in the influx of capital and investors from Taiwan (benefitting from special incentives), with the latter often setting up factories in proximity of bantustans or homelands, specifically created during the apartheid years as a way to segregate population groups and create basins of cheap labour. If, according to official accounts, the PRC had no diplomatic or trade relations with apartheid South Africa, in reality ties were much more complex. Due to the tensions between Maoist China and the Soviet Union, Beijing provided support to the largely ineffective Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) from the mid-1960s to the end of the 1980s, as the African National Congress (ANC) was shouldered by the Soviet Union. As detailed in the book Apartheid Guns and Money, evidence from declassified documents shows that Beijing did in fact supply the apartheid military with guns and bombs from at least 1980. The PRC proved to be at ease playing both sides. 

With the advent of democracy in 1994 and the subsequent normalisation of diplomatic relations with over 180 countries, the new ANC government debated the salience of maintaining ties with Taiwan. When President Mandela took office, the new government was keen to drop the image of the past while trying to draw closer to countries able to help its development trajectory. Mandela first suggested a dual recognition, which was rejected by Beijing due to its One China Principle. Eventually, South Africa could not avoid establishing official ties with Mainland China, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and, at the time, an emerging economic power. During Thabo Mbeki’s time in office (1999–2008), South Africa’s agenda was primarily focused on bringing forth an African renaissance and the launch of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) in 2001, with the aim of strengthening aid and investments linkages with G8 countries. Relations with the PRC, although friendly, remained somewhat secondary during this period.

The sudden ousting of President Mbeki in 2009 provided an opportunity for Beijing to draw closer to one of the main economic drivers on the African continent. In parallel, the delayed repercussions of the 2008 financial crisis in South Africa and the recognition of the PRC’s ability to weather the negative consequences of the crisis led the new government of Jacob Zuma (2009–18) to develop an interest in learning from China’s developmental state approach. This mutual wish to strengthen cooperation and exchanges led to the elevation of bilateral ties to the level of ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ during a state visit to China by President Zuma in 2010. At the same time, South Africa’s relationship with the PRC was also reinforced through the country’s membership in other broader international groupings such as the BRICS (that is Brazil, Russia, India, China, and after 2010 also South Africa) or the G20. As a reflection of its political and economic weight (whether regionally or continentally), South Africa not only hosted the sixth ministerial Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit in 2015, but also received official visits from both Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping (in 1999 and 2010 respectively), when they were vice-presidents on their first official Africa tours. Since taking office in 2013, President Xi Jinping has visited South Africa three times in 2013, 2015, and 2018, and received Zuma in 2014. His successor Cyril Ramaphosa was received by Xi Jinping in 2018.

While the official relationship between the PRC and South Africa has intensified over the last decade, public diplomacy displays mean little to ordinary South Africans. In reality, the tangibility of the Chinese presence in the country transpires primarily through the numbers and diversity of migrants. Chinese migration to South Africa has been tied to different waves and histories. The earliest dates back to the late nineteenth century and was driven by the gold rush, followed by Taiwanese industrialists in the 1970s, then entrepreneurs from the mainland from the late 1980s onwards, most of whom arrived after the turn of the century. In the absence of official figures, estimates have ranged from 350,000 to 500,000 during the mid-2000s, with a very likely decline in recent years due to a less favourable business environment. Even if trajectories, identities, and engagements with the host society vary, and economic footprints range from corporate capital to private initiatives at different scales, imaginaries of ‘China’ and ‘the Chinese’ are largely associated with wholesale trade. The combination of a dearth in supply and a high demand for large quantities of affordable goods triggered a considerable influx of migrant-entrepreneurs eager to benefit from these economic opportunities and eventually led to the mushrooming of Chinese-run shopping malls, especially in Johannesburg, the country’s economic powerhouse.  

Campaign posters of the three major political parties ahead of the 2016 local elections in Cyrildene, Johannesburg. Credit (CC): Romain Dittgen, July 2016.

BRI Status

South Africa officially joined the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) during a state visit by Chinese president Xi Jinping in early December 2015, which coincided with the sixth FOCAC summit in Johannesburg. In parallel, both governments agreed to strengthen the joint working group, initially set up in 2014 to implement an action plan covering a range of different economic areas. These included, among others, locomotive procurement, civilian nuclear energy, investment cooperation in industrial parks, trade promotion (especially focused on South African product expos and trade missions), cooperation in black industrialist programmes, financial cooperation, as well as the upgrading of the national electricity transmission and distribution system. While the signed MoU mentions the joint building of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st century Maritime Silk Road, it is difficult to assess which projects fall under the BRI, BRICS, FOCAC, or simply bilateral agreements. 

Current Economic Relations

Trade: By 2008, merely ten years after the formal establishment of diplomatic ties, the PRC had already turned into South Africa’s largest import and export partner. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, imports from main commercial partners, such as Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) members and EU countries dropped significantly. However, South Africa’s trade balance with the PRC runs a deficit. Additionally, while South Africa mainly exports raw materials, especially mineral products and base metals, textiles, precious and semi-precious stones, as well as wood products, imports from China are mainly value-added products such as electrical machinery, clothing and footwear, data processing machines, organic chemicals, iron or steel articles, and motor vehicles. From 2008 to 2018, imports from mainland China have increased from 8.6 billion USD to 16.3 billion USD, compared to 4.3 billion USD to 8.5 billion USD in South African exports in the other direction (data from the China Africa Research Initiative). However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, bilateral trade between South Africa and China fell by 27.6% in 2020, mirroring a sharp contraction in international trade and investment. The decline in exports to China (which began in 2019) is mainly due to a declining demand for ores and concentrates, possibly due to China’s changing economy. Data from the South African Revenue Service from October 2020 shows that, for the first time in over a decade, China had dropped to the third position (at 8.9%) in terms of exports from South Africa behind Germany (9.1%) and the United States (12.2%). Imports, on the other hand, remained firmly dominated by China (with 19.8%), ahead of Germany (10.1%) and the United States (7%).

Investment: Compared to the exponential growth of bilateral trade, the reality of Chinese investment is very different. Considering the size of South Africa’s economy, direct investment from China was initially very modest. Until 2007, South African companies had even invested more in China than their counterparts had in South Africa, an unusual setup considering predominant trends across the African continent. A number of factors can explain the largely cautious approach adopted by Chinese investors. While South Africa is rich in resources, it is viewed as having reached a mature stage of development, which limits interests in mining from foreign investors. Additionally, the complex regulatory environment, a rigid labour market, the influence of trade and labour unions, as well as the existence of positive discrimination policies (such as Black Economic Empowerment) have affected investor sentiment. Those who have invested in mining operations have largely opted for joint-ventures and brownfield investment. This includes the 243-million-USD purchase made by China Investment Corporation (China’s sovereign wealth fund) of 25% of the Shanduka group (a South African company with investments in energy, mining, telecommunications, and financial services), and the joint 200-million-USD acquisition of 45% of Wesizwe (a publicly listed mining corporation) by the Jinchuan Group, a provincial state-owned Chinese company, and the China-Africa Development Fund. 

The largest investment to date occurred in 2008, when the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) purchased a 20% equity stake in Standard Bank for 5.5 billion USD, becoming the bank’s largest shareholder. Over time, the interest of Chinese investors has grown, especially during Zuma’s time in office, when the foreign policy strategy geared towards establishing closer links with Asia. During Zuma’s state visit to China in 2010, South African and Chinese companies signed more than a dozen agreements covering investments in railways, power transmission construction, mining, insurance, telecoms, and nuclear power, including some projects that eventually turned out to be quite controversial, as outlined below. The opening of the China Africa Development Fund’s (CADF) representative office in Johannesburg in 2009 contributed to raising awareness about investment opportunities in the country, specifically by providing support for Chinese companies willing to invest. By the end of 2012, this private equity fund, solely funded by the China Development Bank (CDB), was involved in seven projects in South Africa, five of which were in manufacturing and two in mining, with a total investment of over 400 million USD. In 2013, a consortium led by the Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa Limited and Hebei Iron & Steel Group invested over 600 million USD (partially guaranteed through a loan by the CADF) to acquire the Palabora Mining Company from Rio Tinto. 

By 2012, about 25% of Chinese foreign direct investments in Africa had been funnelled into South Africa, followed by 11% into Nigeria and 9% into Zambia. For all that, by 2008 Chinese investments in South Africa only made up 4% (or 3.6 billion USD) of all foreign investment in the country. Between 2003 and 2019, a total of 88 (registered) Chinese companies had invested in South Africa with capital expenditure (stock) evaluated at 6.1 billion USD. Former Chinese ambassador to South Africa Lin Songtian stated that by 2017 existent and planned direct Chinese investments in the country added up to 25 billion USD (ranging from manufacturing, processing, mining, finance, energy, tourism, as well as trade and service sectors). This figure is difficult to verify, not only given the discrepancy between promised and realised projects, but also due to the reality of investments by migrant-entrepreneurs not being fully captured. Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence shows an upturn in interest from Chinese investors in the 2010s. In recent years, the Coega Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Nelson Mandela Bay has become an attractive investment destination for Chinese investors, with a Chinese firm involved in the manufacturing of solar photovoltaic cells, as well as two vehicle manufacturers, First Automotive Works (FAW) and Beijing Automotive Industry Group (BAIC), opening plants to manufacture cars to be marketed locally and across the continent (for more details, see the BAIC SA Vehicle Assembly Plant profile at this link). Furthermore, Shenzhen Hoi Mor Resources, a Chinese company specialised in mineral beneficiation, has committed to invest 3.8 billion USD to operate the 8,000-hectare Musina Makhado SEZ, situated on the Limpopo River’s southern bank in the province of Limpopo (for more details, see the South African Energy Metallurgical SEZ profile at this link). To be developed over the next years, the project comprises a metallurgical complex (with 1.5 billion USD to be spent on a ferrochrome plant and 1.2 billion USD on a stainless steel smelter) and a logistics hub to produce stainless steel. It has been touted by the South African government as the main driver of foreign direct investment in the country, with the investment figure of 2.6 billion USD in 2017 ballooning to 9.5 billion USD in January 2020, based on pledges by nine Chinese companies. Furthermore, in 2018, ahead of the 10th BRICS summit held in South Africa, Xi also pledged to invest 14.7 billion USD in South Africa, but not many details were released. The proclaimed aim was to help reboot a struggling economy, riddled by a decade of government looting and state corruption under Zuma’s presidency.

Source: Chinese Ministry of Commerce.

Aid and other finance: Although it is one of the most unequal societies, South Africa also remains one of the richest and industrially most advanced countries on the continent. Being classified as a middle-income country, aid has not really been at the forefront of its cooperation with China. A working paper by the Center for Global Development states that, between 2000 and 2011, South Africa received a total of 2.3 billion USD from China in development finance (policy-motivated loans). More recently, in light of a deflated economy and the struggling public sector, Chinese banks in 2018 lent a combined 2.8 billion USD to heavily indebted state-owned enterprises. The South African state power utility Eskom received a loan of 2.5 billion USD from the China Development Bank (CDB) and a loan of 300 million USD was extended by the ICBC to the logistics company Transnet. A few months later, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation claimed that the country had secured a commitment to loan 25 billion USD from the Chinese government, including 15 billion USD pledged in the context of the 2018 FOCAC summit. In April 2019, with the payment of the first tranche by the CDB having failed to materialise, Eskom required an emergency bailout of 355 million USD in order to stop a ruinous debt default. More recently, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-2020, the Chinese government donated personal protection equipment (PPE), which was also replicated at a lower scale by Chinese businesses and associations donating PPE and food parcels to disadvantaged areas across South Africa.

Key Controversies

  • The aforementioned 25 billion-USD loan pledged by the Chinese government aimed towards funding a large proportion of South Africa’s economic stimulus package, has been considered controversial due to its size and lack of public information. Not knowing anything about the nature of the loan, the currency, interest rates, repayment period, and the actual expenditure, opposition parties criticised the loan as possibly steering South Africa into a ‘debt trap’.
  • Jacob Zuma’s presidency (2009–18) has come to be associated with state capture, corruption, and looting of government entities at previously unparalleled levels. The Gupta brothers, three Indian businessmen who at that time were based in South Africa, conspired with various politicians (including Zuma) and heads of state-owned enterprises to influence decision-making and advance their own business interests. One of the many scandals was linked to the partial renewal of Transnet’s locomotive fleet and directly involved CRRC, a Beijing-based rail conglomerate. By paying kickbacks to companies linked to the Guptas, China South Rail (CSR) and China North Rail (CNR), later renamed CRRC, won either large parts or the entirety of successive tenders for locomotives. In 2012, Transnet awarded CRRC a contract for 95 locomotives worth 333 million USD. In 2014, another contract for 100 locomotives was awarded to CSR for the sum of 422 million USD, roughly 114 million USD higher than what the Japanese company Mitsui had reportedly quoted. Transnet paid an excessive upfront payment of 60% before the first locomotive was even delivered. As for the largest tender, 1,064 locomotives (599 electric and 465 diesel), Transnet changed the adjudication criteria mid-stream and split both the electric and diesel bids in two, to ensure that CSR Zhuzhou (a subsidiary of CSR) and CNR were each awarded a significant proportion of the contract, despite not attaining the highest scores during the tender process. In all three instances, either the contract value had been inflated, documents altered, or the tendering process flawed. According to investigative journalistic reports, the Transnet locomotive suppliers had pledged roughly 545 million USD in kickbacks to the Guptas, 224 million of which had been paid. In December 2019, following a complete overhaul of its leadership structure, Transnet planned to approach the courts to have a number of controversial contracts linked to the procurement of the 1,064 locomotives declared unlawful, which led to a freezing of the funds. A year later, the South African Revenue Service went to court to claim back a large sum of money from CRRC, based on evidence about the company having paid kickbacks to the Guptas.
  • The Dalai Lama visited South Africa in 1996, meeting with then President Nelson Mandela, but he has been denied entry to South Africa ever since. In 2009, he was invited to a Nobel laureates’ peace conference, but the South African government argued his presence would detract attention from the 2010 World Cup. In 2011, he could not attend archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday, with a South African court ruling a year later that the failing to grant him a visa in time by authorities was unlawful. In 2014, he was again refused entry to attend the 14th world summit of Nobel peace laureates. These repeated refusals caused a political debate in the country, with some accusing the South African government of being spineless and selling its sovereignty to China, compromising on its post-apartheid mission of commitment to human rights and democracy, and others pointed to the risk of possible negative economic consequences of angering China. In 2018, Lobsang Sangay, the president of the Tibetan government in exile, visited South Africa, temporarily straining relations with China. A planned lecture by Sangay at the University of Stellenbosch had to be cancelled due to local people protesting outside. While the then Chinese ambassador to South Africa claimed that all public activities were cancelled ‘due to the furious opposition and rejection from people across society’, Sangay is no household name in South Africa. According to conversations that the author of this profile had with scholars on campus that day, some of the workers (e.g. maintenance staff, cleaners, gardeners) mentioned that they were given some monetary compensation to protest against someone they had never heard of before.
  • There are fears that the Chinese-funded Musina Makhado SEZ in northern Limpopo will have seriously damaging environmental consequences for the Limpopo River. In January 2020, opposition MPs inquired about the Environmental Impact Assessment, but no information seemed to exist on the potential impact of the controversial SEZ on the millions of people living downstream of Musina, whether in South Africa, Mozambique, or Zimbabwe. The South African government considers this SEZ initiative as a flagship project and emerging regional economic epicentre, even if the planned mineral resource extraction and connected industries are very polluting. Since the Limpopo Economic Development Agency has given priority to a Chinese investor, an earlier project by a local company, aimed at building the first zero-solid-waste eco-industrial park, has been sidelined and there are serious doubts about beneficial impacts for the province. Furthermore, the chairman of Shenzhen Hoi Mor Resources, Mr Ning Yat Hoi, and main holder of the SEZ permit, is wanted by Interpol for fraud, which, apart from the criminal aspect, has caused concerns among potential funders. 
  • In 2013, Zendai Group, a property developer from Shanghai, announced its plans to build the ‘New York of Africa’ in Modderfontein in the form of a massive 7-billion-USD urban development to be spent over 15–20 years (for more details, see the Modderfontein New City project profile at this link). The Chinese investor envisioned building a modern new city on 1,600 hectares of land, located in the northeast of Johannesburg. While approved by the provincial government, the City government of Johannesburg deemed the Modderfontein New City development to be too economically exclusive without including a sufficiently strong social and affordable housing component, subsequently forcing the developer to resubmit its plans. In 2015, Dai Zhikang, the founder and CEO of Zendai, surprisingly sold all his shares, which led to a splintering of ownership and an ensuing abandonment of the project. In addition to the controversy surrounding the nature of the project, the Economic Freedom Fighters, a leftist and very vocal opposition party, criticised the sale of 1,600 hectares of land to a Chinese development for ‘putting South African on sale in the world’s markets for the benefits of global ruthless capital’.
  • In the early 2000s, South African labour unions attributed the continuous decline of the local textile and clothing industry since 1994, both in terms of GDP and in numbers, to the growing competition caused by imports from Asia, in particular from China. The competitiveness of the South African clothing and textile industry was severely affected by the currency appreciation between 2003 and 2010 in addition to rising labour costs, and, internationally, by China’s dominant position as the leading producer of affordable textiles and clothing. Following pressure from the Confederation of South African Trade Unions, at the time a close ally of the ruling party, the South African government imposed a two-year import quota on 200 clothing items (effective between 2006 and 2008), with the agreement of China. These measures, however, had little impact and did not stop the decline of the industry.

Key Sources

English-Language Media:

Local media outlets in English include Daily Maverick, Mail & Guardian, Business Day, City Press, News24, Independent Online, and New Frame.

Research Institutes:

Books, Reports, and Scholarly Articles:

  • Alden, Christopher and Yu-Shan Wu (eds.). 2021.  South Africa-China Relations: A Partnership of Paradoxes. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Alden, Christopher and Yu-Shan Wu. 2014. ‘South Africa and China: The Making of a Partnership.’ Occasional Paper 199, South African Institute of International Affairs. Link.
  • Anthony, Ross, Sven Grimm, and Yejoo Kim. 2014. ‘South Africa’s Relations with China and Taiwan: Economic Realism and the ‘One China’ Doctrine.’ Centre for Chinese Studies, Stellenbosch University. Link.
  • Ballard, Richard and Philip Harrison. 2019. ‘Transnational Urbanism Interrupted: A Chinese Developer’s Attempts to Secure Approval to Build the “New York of Africa” at Modderfontein, Johannesburg. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 52, no. 2: 383–402.
  • Dittgen, Romain. 2017. ‘Features of Modernity, Development and “Orientalism”: Reading Johannesburg through Its ‘Chinese’ Urban Spaces.’ Journal of Southern African Studies 43, no. 5: 979–96.
  • Dittgen, Romain and Ross Anthony. 2018. ‘Yellow, Red and Black: Fantasies about China and ‘the Chinese’ in Contemporary South Africa.’ In Yellow Perils: China Narratives in the Contemporary World, edited by Frank Billé and Sören Urbansky. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 108–41.
  • Harris, Karen L. 2019. ‘Untangling Centuries of South African Chinese Diasporas: Molluscs/Abalone, Ungulates/Rhinos and Equidae/Donkeys.’ South African Historical Journal 71, no. 2: 263–81.
  • Harrison, Philip, Yan Yang, and Moyo Khangelani. 2017. ‘Visual Representations in South Africa of China and the Chinese People.’ Journal of African Cultural Studies 29, no. 1: 25–45.
  • Harrison, Philip, Moyo Khangelani, and Yan Yang. 2012. ‘Strategy and Tactics: Chinese Immigrant and Diasporic Spaces in Johannesburg, South Africa.’ Journal of Southern African Studies 38, no. 4: 899–925.
  • Huang, Mingwei. 2020. ‘The Chinatown Back Room: The Afterlife of Apartheid Architectures.’ In Anxious Joburg: The Inner Lives of a Global South City, edited by Nicky Falkhof and Cobus van Staden. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.
  • Huynh, T. Tu. 2018. ‘China Town Malls in South Africa in the 21st Century: Ethnic Chinatowns or Chinese State Projects?’ Asian and Pacific Migration Journal 27, no. 1: 28–54.
  • Huynh, T. Tu, Yoon J. Park, and Anna Y. Chen. 2010. ‘Faces of China: New Chinese Migrants in South Africa, 1980s to Present.’ African and Asian Studies 9: 286–306.
  • Le Pere, Garth and Garth Shelton. 2007. China, Africa and South Africa. Midrand: Institute for Global Dialogue.
  • Lin, Edwin. 2014. ‘“Big fish in a small pond”: Chinese migrant shopkeepers in South Africa.’ International Migration Review 48, no. 1: 181-215.
  • Park, Yoon J. 2008. A Matter of Honour: Being Chinese in South Africa. Johannesburg: Jacana Media. 
  • Park, Yoon J. 2010. ‘Chinese Enclaves Communities and Their Impact on South African Society.’ In Strengthening the Civil Society Perspective: China’s African Impact, edited by Stephen Marks. Fahamu, Cape Town: Emerging Powers in Africa Programme, 113–27.
  • Park, Yoon J. 2013. ‘Perceptions of Chinese in Southern Africa: Constructions of the ‘Other’ and the Role of Memory.’ African Studies Review 56, no. 1: 131–53.
  • Reboredo, Ricardo and Frances Brill. 2019. ‘Between Global and Local: Urban Inter-referencing and the Transformation of a Sino-South African Megaproject.’ China Perspectives, 4/2019: 9–16. 

Updates & Corrections

30 September 2021: Internal links to other project profiles in South Africa added.

Cover Photo: Johannesburg South Africa. Credit (CC): @mediaclubsouthafrica.


Historical Background

Zimbabwe’s political, economic, and people-to-people relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are regarded as some of the most robust on the African continent, chiefly owing to the historical relationship between the two countries. The beginning of the relationship can be traced back to the southern African nation’s armed struggle for independence in the 1970s. It was during this time—a period replete with Cold War proxy wars and ideological battles—that China provided the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), the military wing of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) led by Robert Mugabe, with training, weapons, and logistical support for their armed struggle, an assistance that was crucial for its final success. The ZANU also made use of Mao Zedong’s teachings on guerrilla warfare as a training manual for their cadres. The ZANLA, together with the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army, the armed wing of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union led by Joshua Nkomo (an organisation that was supported by the Soviet Union), fought against Rhodesian forces until 1979. At Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, China became one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with the new state now led by Robert Mugabe.

When Mugabe became Prime Minister in 1980, he pronounced and implemented an independent (non-aligned) and pragmatic foreign policy. His first speech at the United Nations in 1980 indicated this direction. This was also in line with China’s anti-imperialist foreign policy doctrine at the time. However, on the ground Mugabe had more beneficial political and economic relations with Britain and the West than with China, despite the fact that the country had helped his regime to bring about Zimbabwe’s independence. This was reflected in the fact that in 1980 China was not invited to a Disarmament, Demobilisation, and Reintegration (DDR) exercise which was chiefly conducted by the British through the British Military Assistance and Training Team (BMATT). In the following years, Mugabe went on to get a knighthood from Britain, as well as significant aid from Western countries, including the United States. This included 417 million USD from the World Bank and 204 million USD from the USA between 1980 and 1985. This funding was intended for post-war infrastructural development initiatives such as building schools and hospitals.

While leaning towards the West, true to his pragmatic policy, Robert Mugabe also maintained a cordial relationship with China. This was meant to strengthen his leverage and enlarge the room for manoeuvre in his interactions with other external partners. As a result, in 1981 and 1985 he travelled to Beijing and obtained aid and loans for various infrastructure projects, such as the National Sports Stadium in Harare. During Mugabe’s 1985 visit to China, the two countries also established a Joint Economic and Trade Commission, and the most recent meeting was held in 2017. In 1989 Robert Mugabe repaid China’s goodwill towards his regime by supporting China’s Tiananmen Square crackdown. 

However, from the turn of the twenty-first century, Zimbabwe lost favour with the West as the government led by Mugabe was sanctioned for human rights violations, resorting to state-sanctioned political violence against opposition parties, and implementing a violent land reform programme in which the state forcibly took land occupied by white people and redistributed it to black people. It was in this context that in 2003 Mugabe fully embraced the support of the Chinese government through the Look East Policy (LEP). That year, Mugabe announced that Zimbabwe was going back to those who had historically been its truest friends, that is China. As a result, China then began to increase trade with, investment in, and aid to the southern African state, and also began to defend it at crucial international fora. For instance, following a sham election run-off in June 2008, which was preceded by widespread state-sponsored violence against the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)—the opposition led by Morgan Tsvangirai—China together with Russia vetoed a proposed UN resolution to sanction Zimbabwe at the Security Council. After the removal of Mugabe from power in 2017 through a military takeover, Emmerson Mnangagwa, the new civilian leader, has continued to tout China as Zimbabwe’s all-weather friend. At the same time, some Western countries—including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia—have maintained sanctions on the country, accusing the Mnangagwa Administration of continuing to ‘use state-sanctioned violence against peaceful protestors and civil society, as well as against labour leaders and members of the political opposition’. In such a context, the political interactions between Zimbabwe and China have continued to grow in importance to the point that, in 2018, the bilateral relationship has been elevated to the level of a ‘comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership’. 

BRI Status

Zimbabwe was not invited to be part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) until 2019, after the country’s Minister of Information, Monica Mutsvangwa,  attended of the Belt and Road Forum. Although little activity or discussion about the BRI has taken place in the country since then, it is worth noting that some projects have been lined up for funding under the Initiative. These include the funding and construction of the Kunzvi Dam and the Harare–Chirundu highway, the rehabilitation of Harare’s water system, the refurbishment of the Sable Chemicals fertiliser plant, a power transmission arrangement, and an agreement for the export of citrus fruits to China. These projects are expected to increase Chinese participation in Zimbabwe’s economy as well as contribute to the country’s goal of achieving a middle-income economy by 2030, a plan popularly known as ‘Vision 2030’.

Current Economic Relations

Trade: Official trade figures for 2019 show that Zimbabwe’s exports to China were worth 974 million USD while importing 368 million USD’s worth of goods. Zimbabwe mainly exports tobacco, cotton, and various minerals to China, while imports from China include electrical goods, auto parts, and various household goods. China is Zimbabwe’s largest market for flue cured tobacco, with over 200 million USD’s worth of trade in 2017. This largely owes to the out-grower scheme used by Chinese companies, especially Tian Ze Tobacco Company, a subsidiary of the Chinese state monopoly China Tobacco, which is involved in contract farming with small holder farmers. While Zimbabwe may not be an important economic partner to China owing to its ailing economy and small population of 15 million, China presents an important opportunity for Zimbabwe to diversify its economic partnerships in an effort to defeat the sanctions imposed by the West.

Investment: Since the imposition of sanctions on Zimbabwe at the turn of the century by its erstwhile partners in the West, China has risen to be the country’s largest foreign investor. However, the investment figures still remain low relative to China’s investment in other African countries. According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, Chinese foreign direct investment in Zimbabwe between 2003 and 2019 amounted to 12.13 billion USD. At the same time, Zimbabwe media have reported some large investment deals, including 3-billion-USD investment in various sectors in 2018, and a 4.2-billion-USD coal deal for the Sengwa coal mining and power plant projects signed between the Zimbabwe government and Chinese companies in 2020. The first phase of the Sengwa Coal Power Plant is being implemented by the Power Construction Corporation of China at a cost of 1.2 billion USD. The project is being funded by the Industrial and Commercial bank of China. The bigger part of the project will be done by China Gezhouba Group at a cost of 3 billion USD. 

Source: Chinese Ministry of Commerce.

Aid and other state-backed finance: Since Zimbabwe’s proclamation of the LEP in 2003, China has availed significant lines of credit to the Southern African nation in the form of commercial, concessional, as well as grant funding. These lines of credit and grant support extend across much of the Zimbabwean socio-economic landscape. According to the African Forum and Network on Debt and Development (AFRODAD), a civil society organisation, Chinese government grants and the Export and Import Bank of China (Eximbank) have funded projects in health, water, transport, communication, power, and buildings sectors between 2000 and 2018.

China has also supported Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector. Key government staff are being trained in China. Added to these arrangements, the Chinese funded and set up a 30-million-USD Gwebi Agricultural Technological Demonstration Centre to the west of Harare. The government of Zimbabwe was also awarded with a 200-million-USD buyer’s export credit by China’s Eximbank in 2006 for the purchase of necessary inputs in the country’s agriculture. Overall, Chinese aid and other state-backed finance has created room for some infrastructure projects to be completed in Zimbabwe, in what is a very difficult economic environment.

Key Controversies

The bilateral relationship between China and Zimbabwe has a number of associated controversies. In the political realm, China is accused of aiding an autocratic regime that has survived by rigging elections and meting out violence on political opponents. Owing to its non-interference policy, China does not publicly involve itself in internal matters of independent foreign states, even when the concerned state is blatantly violating human rights. It is in connection with this policy that China has ignored ZANU Patriotic Front ’s use of extreme measures in holding on to power. For instance, in 2005 China did not criticise Zimbabwe’s Operation Murambatsvina (literally, ‘remove trash/clean up’), when the Zimbabwean government forcibly destroyed ‘illegal’ urban properties under the guise of cleaning the urban areas, which was in fact a way for the government to disrupt urban areas seen to be strongholds of the political opposition. As a result, thousands were left homeless and without a source of livelihood. A key controversy relating to Chinese engagement in Zimbabwe came to the fore in 2008, when Robert Mugabe was defeated in the first round of the general election by Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition. Just prior to the run-off election of 27 June 2008, the government unleashed a violent campaign against opposition supporters to the extent that Tsvangirai withdrew from the presidential race. This prompted the drafting of a sanction resolution against Mugabe’s government, in the UN Security Council, but this was vetoed by Russia and China. This again left China siding with an ‘illegitimate’ regime in Zimbabwe, unconcerned with the plight of Zimbabwean citizens. To make matters worse, in the same year the Chinese sold the Zimbabwean government a variety of weapons. The ship that carried the arms cargo could not dock in Durban owing to protests. Another concern dogging the bilateral relationship is the opacity and secrecy that characterises most dealings. Most major deals that involve government-to-government arrangements have allegedly not been submitted to the Zimbabwean parliament for scrutiny. Rather, they come to the parliament only for rubber stamping after the executive has already signed and completed the deals. This lack of transparency in turn leads to corruption or the suspicion of it.

Added to these concerns is the issue of the abuse of labour rights by Chinese companies doing business in Zimbabwe. There have been accusations of such companies paying low salaries or physically abusing their employees (including beatings and shootings), as well as concerns related to the lack of proper protective wear at industrial sites. In 2020, a Chinese manager at a mine operating in the City of Gweru shot and injured some of his workers owing to a dispute over salaries and working conditions. The Chinese embassy in Zimbabwe was called in to help solve the dispute and the Chinese manager was later arrested and compensation paid to the injured worker.

In-depth Sources

English-language Media:

Local media outlets in English include The Independent and The Financial Gazette.

Books, Scholarly Articles, and Research Reports:

  • African Forum and Network on Debt and Development. 2020. ‘The China-Zimbabwe Relations: Impact on Debt and Development in Zimbabwe.’ African Forum and Network on Debt and Development website. Link
  • Chan, Stephen and Hasu Patel. 2006. ‘Zimbabwe’s Foreign Policy: A Conversation.’ The Round Table 95, no. 384: 175–90.
  • Chipaike, Ronald and Paul Henri Bischoff. 2019. ‘Chinese Engagement of Zimbabwe and the Limits of Elite Agency.’ Journal of Asian and African Studies 54, no. 7: 947–64.
  • Hodzi, Obert, Leon Hartwell, and Nicola De Jager. 2012. ‘“Unconditional Ai”’: Assessing the Impact of China’s Development Assistance to Zimbabwe.’ South African Journal of International Affairs 19, no. 1: 79–103.
  • Mukwereza, Langton. 2013. ‘Reviving Zimbabwe’s Agriculture: The Role of China and Brazil.’ IDS Bulletin 44, no. 4: 116–26. Link.
  • Thompson, Reagan. 2012. ‘“Assessing the Chinese Influence in Ghana, Angola, and Zimbabwe: The Impact of Politics, Partners, and Petro.’ Center for International Security and Cooperation website. Link.
  • Zhang, Chun. 2014. ‘China–Zimbabwe: A Model for China–Africa Relations?’ SAIIA Occasional Paper, No. 205. Pretoria: Global Powers and Africa Programme. Link.

Cover Photo: Victoria Falls, Zimbawe. Credits: @Plb06 (CC).