China, the new imperialists in Africa? Management Implications

I’ve just finished reading Henning Mankell’s novel The Man from Beijing, where, as part of a sub-plot the Chinese are preparing to ship thousands of China’s rural poor to farm under-cultivated tracts of  land in sub-Saharan countries. I’m not quite sure where Mankell is coming from as he presents this almost as fact, or at least it does create the impression – with other aspects of this novel – that China is all set to colonise Africa. According to Brautigan’s excellent book The Dragon’s Gift (2011, Oxford) this certainly is not based in fact. She notes that there is absolutely no evidence for such a ‘land grab’.

To assess the claim that China is the new imperialist in Africa, it is necessary to first look at the West’s history of involvement in Africa, which is quite different to that of China.

It could be argued that the motives for Western colonialism, the need to subjugate periphery countries, the motive to impose a ‘civilizing’ religion and more latterly the neo-colonial motives to impose a Western liberal democratic governance structure and universal human rights, all add up to a pejorative portrayal of local knowledge and values that appears reflected in the modernizing project in management and organisation.

Modernization Theory in its various guises has over the last decades underpinned the West’s policies on international development. This has become largely institutionalized through the prominence of economists from the ‘Chicago School’ (emanating from Milton Friedman and his neo-liberal philosophy) in the IMF and World Bank. Aid from these two organizations has been conditional on the countries’ governments implementing structural adjustment programmes that required them to restructure their economies and societies in line with neo-liberal theory (Ritzer, 2011). This has of course included many African countries. This theory of development became known as the ‘Washington Consensus’ because it was so closely linked to the economic and political position of the US, as well as the location of these supranational organizations in the US’s capitol. This Consensus has been underpinned by a view that ‘unimpeded private market forces were seen as the driving engines of growth’ (Cavanagh and Broad, 2007: 1243), and an absence of  ‘…any concern for equity, redistribution, social issues, and the environment’ (Ritzer, 2011: 39)

Conditionality has been fundamental to Western countries’ development programmes in Africa, hence their concern with China’s apparent different approach. Campbell (2008: 92-3) reports a spokesperson of the World Bank and IMF saying that China has ‘…undermined years of painstaking efforts to arrange conditional debt relief’, and that the then head of the World Bank ‘Paul Wolfowitz argued that China would weaken the hold of the IMF and World Bank over Africa and accused it of fostering corruption’ going on to report that ‘This was before the head of the World Bank was himself removed because of corruption’.

Western involvement in Africa can be traced back further than colonial times, to the ultimate ‘human resource’ project: the transatlantic slave trade. China’s engagement with Africa can be traced back to trade during the Han dynasty (206BC-220AD), and the 1950s and 1960s in modern times. This appears qualitatively different from European involvement in the wake of the slave trade. Following the China-Russia split in 1956 much of the anti-colonial struggles in the Third World had ideologically allied themselves with China, as a result of its ‘..apparently disinterested substantive support to liberation movements or hard-pressed front line …… states, particularly in Mozambique, South Africa, Southwest Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe, its populist orientation towards the peasantry and the need for an agrarian revolution, towards struggle from below, and its emphasis on guerrilla warfare and armed struggle against imperialism..’ (Young, 2001: 188). Its role in the decolonization of Africa was therefore significant.

Unlike the trajectory of the Western modernizing project, which informs much of the management literature on Africa, underpinned by centuries of colonialism, and critiqued among others by Postcolonial Theory, the coming to Africa of China has been quite different. One could logically expect the outcomes of Chinese organizations in Africa also to be different. In addition, the way this relationship and these dynamics are critically theorized would also, correspondingly, have to be different. If the Europeans’ coming to Africa was motivated by what David Livingstone, the 19th century British missionary-explorer, termed the three ‘C’s’ of Commerce, Christianity and Civilization (Pakenham, 1991), can we really transpose this type of motivation to China’s involvement. My argument here, as previously, is that to understand Chinese organisation and management in Africa, and other regions, it is necessary to understand motive. To understand motive, it is necessary to understand the historical context of what has motivated China’s engagement. To understand any cross-cultural interaction, it is necessary to understand the motivation behind that. Of course it is also necessary to understand what pushes China to Africa and other regions (China’s own economic development, for example), as well as the likely nature of that engagement. Until we understand these issues, how can we understand and analyses Chinese management and organisation in Africa.


Bräutigam, Deborah (2011) The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Campbell, Horace (2008) “China in Africa: challenging US global hegemony.” Third World Quarterly 29(1):89-105.

Cavanagh, J. and Broad, R. (2007) Washington Consensus, in J A Scholte and R Robertson, (eds) Encyclopaedia of Globalization, New York: MTM Publishing

Pakenham, T. (1991/2001) The Scamble for Africa, London: Phoenix Press

Ritzer, George (2011) Globalization: The Essentials, Oxford:Wiley-Blackwell.

Young, J. C. (2001) Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction, Malden, CA: Blackwell.

One comment

  1. What pushes China into Africa: sheer greed. Think: very few black people in China’s population and how they have historically treated their minority groups. I don’t see a great thing happening where Africa will just be another playground for 21st century exploitation.

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