By Meseret Carver | May 2, 2019

Today, China is using its historical relationship with Africa to appeal to the continent as a friend rather than a colonial power. In the 1950s, China started competing with the Soviet Union for influence over African nations rebelling against imperial powers. The Chinese claimed that Russia was like the the colonial powers of the West and that China would treat these nations as equals. Although the Chinese were not able to expel the Soviet Union from the areas, this campaign did lead to a reform in Chinese foreign policy toward Africa in an effort to distance themselves from the imperial powers that these countries were rebelling against. China framed itself as having the same history as the African nations because in 1954, the People’s Republic of China took control over China, but struggled to gain legitimacy within the global community.[1] African nations were facing the same problem. Here, China saw an opportunity to emerge as a global leader by creating a common identity as states fighting against Western oppression.[2] In their time of need, both on the battlefield and economically, China reached out to independent nations such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, Mozambique, and South Africa; those ties supposedly bound Africa and China in partnership for mutual benefit.[3] In 1964, the Chinese also announced the “Eight Principles for Economic Aid and Technical Assistance to Other Countries.”[4] These principles emphasized a partnership based on equality, friendliness, and the mutual benefits that Africa was missing from its former relationship with the colonial powers. In 1963, Premier Chou En-Lai toured ten countries in Africa and stated:

That aid must be extended upon the basis of equality and mutual benefit, with no strings or special privileges requested by the donor; that the most favorable terms should be extended, with emphasis upon projects requiring minimal investment, yielding quick results, and aimed at launching nations on the road to self-reliance and independent economic development, not making them dependencies of China; that only equipment of the best quality should be sent and indigenous personnel should be fully trained by the Chinese; and that all Chinese experts would live at the same level as the experts of recipient countries, requesting no special favors.[5]

Slowly, but surely, African states began to recognize the People’s Republic of China and as they did, Chinese aid flowed through the continent. When the PRC applied for UN recognition in 1971, it was with the support of 26 African countries.[6] As their relationship developed, China sought more and more influence over the continent. Today the symbol of the Sino-African imagined community is the Tanzania-Zambia railway, which stands as the biggest Chinese investment on a foreign project in history at $570 million dollars.[7] That railway stands as a symbol of the historical bond between the African states and China today, but is China getting more credit than it deserves? The balance of power lies with China. Will they use that power as the colonial powers did, or will this imagined community act as an equalizer? Has China kept its word in investing in Africa 1) without requesting special favors or attaching strings, 2) by working on the principle of future “self-reliance and economic independence,” and 3) by training African citizens to work on the projects propelling their nations? In 2009, the World Bank reported that China had officially passed the U.S. as Africa’s number one trade partner, and since then, they have only increased their investments, namely in infrastructure and energy.

The TAZARA railway was only the beginning of China’s investment in African transportation and infrastructure. Transportation has been a large part of that investment as China has spent billions of dollars connecting countries like Ethiopia and Djibouti, Kenya and Mombasa with plans to pursue even more. According to the World Bank report on Chinese investment in Africa, the Chinese have invested over $3 billion dollars in the construction of ten hydropower projects amounting to about 6,000 megawatts of energy. One megawatt can power about 750 homes, and as of now, the average African can’t access the energy it takes to light one lightbulb.[8] However, how do these projects affect Africans currently? The dialogue that the Chinese have created with African nations, especially Tanzania, is one based on future independence and self-sufficiency, but such idealistic claims have not yet been proven true.

The rhetoric around the TAZARA railway painted it as a socially and politically liberating project as it signified the end of African dependency on South African and colonial regimes.[9] In the past, the colonial powers in Rhodesia (now Zambia) controlled transportation. Tanzania depends on the cooperation of those colonial powers to transport material to factories and ports to their country. TAZARA would allow natural resources to be transported from the Zambian copper belt to the port in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania that opens to the Indian Ocean without the help of colonial powers.[10] The government began to dub TAZARA the Freedom Railway to associate this movement with the socialist movement for equality and freedom from Western colonialism. They also wanted to use the railroad for the purpose of modernizing rural populations living nearby. These populations were “relocated” or forced to migrate near stations where they would have better access to the railway. Some of the railroad was built through farmlands on which families made their living. Not only did those families have to relocate, but they could hardly get the government to reimburse them for the loss of land and livelihood.[11] The sacrifices that local populations made for the construction of the railway were hidden behind this idea of “freedom” pushed by both the Chinese and Tanzanian governments, but that idea, in reality, was not the main priority of these two governments.

After the construction of TAZARA was finished, the local train stops became integral to local economies by connecting farmers and traders to larger markets. However, in 1986, Tanzania began an economic reconstruction that resulted in an agreement with the International Monetary Fund.[12] Historically, financial powers like the IMF and the World Bank operated on debt repayment and structural adjustment policies that required countries to decrease their spending to pay back loans, or debt would become crippling.[13] This “structural adjustment” came in the form of decreased spending on things like schools, hospitals, and other public services.[14] In relation to TAZARA, the IMF took interest in the “efficiency” of the railway. “Efficiency” was a code word for prioritizing the needs and wants of the IMF and other economic powers over those of the local community. By this time, larger scale entrepreneurs were also taking advantage of the railway and the smaller economies with specialized markets, catering to larger markets in urban areas. “Efficiency” became a concern for the IMF because a faster running railway would be in the interest of those larger entrepreneurs that the IMF preferred. In order to meet the demands of the IMF, Tanzania started closing some of its local stops, becoming less accessible to the local areas – and therefore harming local economies – and more “efficient” and beneficial for the entrepreneurial powers that could survive without the local stops.[15]

Local communities began writing to the government, saying exactly what the government had said to them during the construction of the railroad: this railway was a symbol of the Tanzanian and Zambian freedom, and it belonged to the people, not the larger Western powers that sought control over the region. This service for the people should not be undermined by global financial powers.[16] In this fight, however, China seemed to be less vocal. China was, in fact, one of seven countries that sponsored this agreement and contributed to it financially. If China wanted to participate in the independent development instead of systematic underdevelopment of Tanzania and Zambia, how would the support of an IMF package accomplish that? China is not creating a “brotherhood” with  less developed countries but instead balancing its power to appeal to developing countries while supporting institutions like the IMF. If this happens with all future railway projects, how exactly are the Chinese treating African nations as an equal power? It seems that they are providing just enough aid to be the “good guys,” and then stepping aside as the IMF and World Bank take their old positions. If they truly wanted a partnership with the South against Western powers would they not work to eliminate the underdevelopment tactics of Western powers as well as provide aid and investment? Africa is not better off now with regards to self-sufficiency simply because China became involved. They are still dependent on aid from the IMF, which makes them vulnerable and not fully sovereign when it comes to domestic affairs, constrained by forced and restrictive loan demands.


[1]Alden, Chris, and Ana Cristina Alves. “History & Identity in the Construction of China’s Africa Policy.” Review of African Political Economy 35, no. 115 (2008): 43-58.

[2]Hanauer, Larry, and Lyle J. Morris. “How China-Africa Relations Have Developed.” In Chinese Engagement in Africa: Drivers, Reactions, and Implications for U.S. Policy, 19-44. RAND Corporation, 2014.

[3]Alden, Chris, and Ana Cristina Alves. “History & Identity in the Construction of China’s Africa Policy.” Review of African Political Economy 35, no. 115 (2008): 43-58.

[4]Alden, Chris, Dan Large, and Ricardo Soares de Oliveira. “China Returns to Africa: Anatomy of an Expansive Engagement.” 12 Nov 2008.

[5]Hanauer, Larry, and Lyle J. Morris, 2014.

[6]Alden, Chris and Ana Cristina Alves, 2008.

[7]Yu, Donghai. Why the Chinese Sponsored the TAZARA: An Investigation about the People’s Republic of China’s African Policy in the Regional Context, 1955-1970. University at Buffalo, State University of New York, 2016.

[8]Foster, Vivien et. al, Building Bridges: China’s Growing Role as Infrastructure Financier for Sub-Saharan Africa. The World Bank, 2009.

[9]Rettman, Rosalyn J. “The TANZAM Rail Link: China’s “Loss-Leader” in Africa.” World Affairs 136, no. 3 (1973): 232-58.

[10]Flores, Isabel. Dissecting Chinese Involvement in Road construction Projects in Tanzania. University of Iowa, 2017.

[11]Monson, Jamie. “Defending the People’s Railway in the Era of Liberalization: Tazara in Southern Tanzania.” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 76, no. 1 (2006): 113-30.


[13]Flores, Isabel, 2017.

[14]Ismi, Asad. Impoverishing a Continent: The World Bank and the IMF in Africa. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2004.

[15]Monson, Jamie, 2006.


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