Chinese in Africa / Africans in China network 5th International Conference (Brussels, 28 – 30 June 2018)

Infrastructures of power: Chinese investments and dynamics of State reproduction in Africa

Panel organized by Antoine Kernen, Didier Péclard and Guive Khan-Mohammad


Over the last twenty years, the Republic of China has gradually increased its engagement with African countries until becoming one of the main development partners of the continent. Although it has adapted to a certain extent the forms of its cooperation to international standards, in many respects China nevertheless represents an alternative to the hegemonic offer hitherto formulated by traditional donors. At the doctrinal level, Chinese cooperation affirms its singularity by articulating its commitment in Africa around the dimensions of non-interference and “win-win cooperation”. At the level of practice, Chinese cooperation also marks its difference by focusing mainly on the construction of major infrastructure projects. Through the financing of and the direct participation in the construction of dams, power stations, roads, ports or railways, China contributes to bringing back a whole area of international development cooperation that had been abandoned for many years by traditional donors to the benefit of projects focused mainly on macroeconomic balance or institutional strengthening issues. This approach, which, in the eyes of African governments and their people, constitutes the “exceptionalism” of Chinese cooperation, thus contributes to giving a new materiality to development.

This panel proposes to explore the field of Sino-African cooperation from the perspective of these major infrastructure projects. However, contrary to the exclusively contemporary and often sino-centric approach adopted by many works dedicated to this form of cooperation, the idea here is to place these major projects in the historicity of Africa’s development, and in so doing to underline the endogeneity of these projects. Indeed, there are still few research works that replace these major projects in the history of the post-independence developmentalist ambitions of African states. In a large number of cases, however, these major infrastructure projects are in line with projects already devised by African administrations in the second half of the 20th century, which then came to a halt due to the pressure of structural adjustments programmes. By helping to revive these major projects, Sino-African cooperation allows African states to reconnect with the developmental ambitions of the 1960s and 1970s. As such, these infrastructure projects are of course ideal objects for observing the “Exceptionalism” of Chinese cooperation, but also and above all, privileged spaces of analysis of the contemporary redeployment of African states in the planning of their own development.

By focusing on these Sino-African major infrastructures projects, the communications gathered in this panel aim above all to offer a better understanding of the modalities, the nature and the scope of this contemporary redeployment of African States. To do this, the contributions adopt an ethnographic approach, while privileging perspectives derived from the historical sociology of the state. Therefore, particular attention is given to the socio-history of the projects considered. The aim here is to present in detail the conditions of their elaboration and of their contemporary re-emergence. The communications of this panel also reflect a special interest for the sociology of the actors involved in these projects (ministries, representatives of the Chinese cooperation, companies), or ,on the contrary, of those who risk being side-lined by these new developments (traditional bi- and multi-lateral donors, NGOs), as well as for the power relations which are established between them. In addition, the political life of these major projects is also at the center of this panel. This leads us to question their instrumentalization for the purpose of legitimizing power and maintaining political stability. Finally, these communications also question a possible transformation of the modes of governance of the African continent. Indeed, do major infrastructure projects illustrate a possible redistribution of powers within African states or do they fit into a logic of reproduction of pre-existing power structures?



The China Model of Development: Multiple Conceptualisations and Praxis in Africa

Obert Hodzi, Department of Cultures, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland. 

Does China have a replicable model of development? Outside of China, political leaders in Africa allude to a China model of development inspiring their own national development trajectories. In China’s internal discourse, there is denialism and reluctant acceptance of a replicable model of development. The emergent paradox is that if China has not yet articulated the fundamental components of a model that is exportable and implementable in other contexts, what are African countries claiming to follow the China model implementing? Assessing understandings and conceptualizations of the ‘China Model of Development’ among state and non-state actors in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, this paper examines complexities of diverse understandings and praxis of the China Model of Development in Africa to the making of an alternative global development model.

Obert Hodzi is postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Cultures at the University of Helsinki, Finland. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Lingnan University, Hong Kong (2016). He has previously been a visiting researcher at the Renmin University of China (2017) and at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies, Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia (2015). His research focuses on emerging powers and global governance, China-Africa security and economic relations, and politics in Africa. His forthcoming publication is a book entitled:  The End of a Non-intervention Era: China in African Civil Wars, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan (London).’

Beyond Chinese infrastructures in Cameroon : The arduous journey to an industrial-led development

Guive Khan-Mohammad, Global Studies Institute, University of Geneva

In 2009, the Republic of Cameroon, through the Ministry of the Economy, Planning and Territorial Development, published a strategic document entitled “Cameroon Vision 2035”. With this planning document, the Cameroonian government intended to “formulate a proactive vision of long-term development” (DPPS, 2009, p.4) aiming to make Cameroon an emerging country by 2035. In the pursuit of this objective, industrialization was presented as “the foundation and cornerstone of Cameroon’s long-term development vision” (DPPS, 2009: 36). While such a desire for industrialization has led to the adoption of new pro-industrial policies, it has so far expressed itself mainly in the implementation of major infrastructure projects (dams, ports, railways, roads , …). These major projects, classified under the label of “structuring projects” and placed at the center of the political program of President Paul Biya, are thought to be an indispensable first step for the development of a competitive Cameroonian industry at the national, regional and international levels. In Cameroon, as in many other African countries, the Republic of China has established itself as the main partner in the implementation of these major infrastructure projects. Whether in the form of preferential loans or through their direct involvement in the construction of these projects, the Chinese State and the Chinese companies thus participate in providing materiality to Cameroonian industrial ambition. Behind these great achievements, however, Cameroon’s industrialization process is confronted with numerous obstacles, linked, on the one hand, to an unfavourable international conjuncture, but also and above all, on the other hand, to internal structural conditions limiting the industrial development. In this communication, we therefore support the idea that if the large infrastructures provided by China contribute to give shape to the Cameroonian project of an industrial-led developementalist State, the blockages that limit for the moment industrial development shed light on the nature of a Cameroonian State that is primarily characterized by rentier, extraverted and neo-patrimonial logics, and whose main objective is much more oriented towards the maintenance of political stability than to the structural transformation of its economy. In order to support this idea, this communication is based on field research and interviews carried out between August and September 2017 with the Cameroonian administrations and with numerous economic operators active in the cities of Yaoundé and Douala.

Chinese freight-led infrastructure in Kazakhstan

Linda Yin-Nor Tjia, City University of Hong Kong, Hong-Kong

Ever since China announced the ‘Vision and actions on jointly building Silk Road economic belt and 21st century maritime Silk Road’ and elaborated on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2015, academic research, policy reports and journalistic commentaries have been sceptical of the intentions and potential outcomes of such a massive infrastructure plan. It is not surprising that China’s slowing economic growth, the unprecedented problem of overcapacity and inevitable development bottlenecks will continue to drive speculation and interest into the study of the hidden agenda, development imperatives, unsustainable economic outcomes and undesirable socio-political trajectories for the engaging countries. Following the perspectives adopted by studies on China’s overseas investments, foreign trade and non-conditional aided programme during the ‘going-out’ strategy in the 2000s, much of the research on BRI focuses on controversial geo-strategic frameworks and highlight state-level negative aspects such as extractive neo-colonialism, military expansionism and authoritarian statism.

Although China’s geo-strategic influence in the region is a legitimate concern, its geoeconomic implications are of no less importance. This paper seeks to analyze the sub-national activities in Kazakhstan through an empirical study of an on-going yet under-researched economic activity and its related infrastructure projects along the Belt and Road: The China-Europe freight train services. The first freight train service between China and Europe has been in service since 2011. The local government of Chongqing brokered a critical deal with the American company Hewlett Packard (HP), offering 50% government subsidies on the transport cost for HP to ship their products by railway from Chongqing to Duisburg. In return, HP moved its production facility and Asia accounts settlement centre to Chongqing.

With this freight-led developmental strategy, China is moving away from an export-led model to a domestic-consumption model by developing more sophisticated industries, displacing the labour-intensive economic activities to less developed countries, and exporting various infrastructure to facilitate the freight-related transport and economic development. For example, the dry port in Khorgos at the China-Kazakhstan border, of which the China COSCO Shipping Corporation and the Jiangsu Lianyungang Port co. together own 49%. The Chinese actors are also involved in the building of the distribution centre and the special economic zone in Almaty and Astana.

Based on the framework of sub-national relations and China’s local state developmentalism, the effects of such freight-led development on the cities en route are heterogeneous and controversial. Focusing on the political and economic development of Kazakhstan as a country en route, this study will unpack the freight-related infrastructure and economic activities and explain the resulting outcomes. It is hypothesized that the positive-sum outcome depends on the cooperation between two connecting regions for which the goals of the respective sub-national actors are compatible. Moreover, these local actors must be powerful and resourceful enough to resolve social and political obstacles and make way for entrepreneurial and innovative developments. As such, systematic documentary and fieldwork research will be carried out to identify key stakeholders in different cities and analyse the outcomes of their interactions in terms of goal compatibility, interest alignment, power distribution, resources endowment, leadership style, market structure and local perception on Chinese involvement in the region.

Dr Linda Yin-Nor Tjia is a political economist who specializes in infrastructure development in China.  Her solely authored book on Explaining Railway Reform in China was published in 2016 under the Routledge Contemporary China Series.   She also studies ports and logistics development; cross-boundary movement of people and social integration; as well as social capital, social economy and social development.   Dr Tjia received her doctoral degree at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.  She is currently an assistant professor at the Department of Asian and International Studies, the City University of Hong Kong.  Prior to her academic endeavors, she has extensive working experience in the railway sector in Hong Kong and the Mainland.