Chinese Colonialism and Investment in African Rail Lines (RELS 348)

An article by the BBC from an unnamed author about the planned development of a high speed rail network in East Africa funded by China demonstrates some interesting developments regarding colonialism. In order to facilitate trade between China and the East African community, the Chinese are heavily investing in transportation infrastructure in East Africa. The author includes details about the rail line which will originally be exclusively in Kenya, but will eventually expand to include lines in various East African countries. 90% of the funding for the high speed rail line will be Chinese and the contractor who will build the lines is Chinese. Before closing the author takes a detour to describe the current railway lines in Kenya built by the British in the early 1900s, a construction project which cost the lives of over 2,000 workers. Overall the article indicates that economic cooperation between China and East Africa is increasing with the Chinese willingly becoming the backers of African infrastructure, and the rail lines facilitate the removal of primary resources from African states to be sold in China.

By making mention of the British rail lines built during the colonial period of Kenyan history, the author alludes to a belief that China is practicing new forms of colonialism and imperialism in Africa. Recently Chinese immigrants have been flocking to Africa in order to enjoy its economic opportunities and vast natural resources, demonstrating a colonial approach. Rather than force of arms, China appears to be pursuing a sort of imperialism by strengthening economic ties with African countries to the point that African states become dependent on Chinese economic and political support, as demonstrated by 90% of East Africa’s new rail transportation network being funded by Chinese investment. Using economic dependency as a tool of control with the help of African intermediaries reflects the system of indirect rule employed by European imperialists in Africa during the 19th Century. Some criticism persists that the Chinese are treating African infrastructure development as a canvas by which to display Chinese economic power. Edward Said argues in Orientalism that Westerners viewed the ‘Orientals’ as being removed from history and having static development, a view which some Chinese immigrants allegedly have regarding Africans.

Although the author of the BBC article appears to subtly imply that China is exhibiting some colonialist and imperialist traits regarding Africa, it seems to me that drawing parallels between European imperialism in the past and Chinese endeavors now is at this time an exaggeration. In an article in The Economist magazine, an author describes how Chinese interests in Africa are substantial, but the Chinese are just one of the many foreign states acting on economic interests in Africa. It appears to me that the reality of Chinese colonial efforts is that they are being pursued by Chinese migrants and investors in Africa, but not with the vigour of European efforts to civilize and Christianize Africa during the period of European colonialism and imperialism.




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