Chinese investment and involvement in Africa has been a subject of great concern for Western nations, especially the United States, for most of the 21st century. While the fear of socialism spreading to the developing African nations has long since dissipated, the new consternation of the West is that China’s rising economic and political influence in the continent may eventually lead to the end of U.S. hegemony. While there is much debate of the legitimacy of these fears, it is undeniable that China’s influence in Africa continues to grow everyday.
The most recent indicator of China’s influence is the construction of two electric-powered, standard gauge railways in East Africa — the 300-mile long Mombasa-Nairobi line and the 450-mile long Addis Ababa-Djibouti line. These projects, costing $3.8 billion USD and $4 billion USD respectively, are the largest infrastructure projects in Africa’s post-colonial period history, which began over 50 years ago. While the Chinese claim that the decision to invest so heavily in East Africa is purely altruistic, that explanation isn’t convincing anyone.
Both of the projects present their respective nations with immense opportunities for growth and prosperity, and China’s involvement in any future successes is unlikely to be forgotten. In Ethiopia, the Addis Ababa-Djibouti line, which opened at the start of this year, will become the nexus of the Ethiopian National Railway Network. The line, which connects the landlocked Ethiopia to the sea through the port of Djibouti, is expected to greatly benefit the local economies. As such, more than 95 percent of Ethiopia’s trade passes through Djibouti, and is responsible for 70 percent of the activity in the port. When the railway becomes fully operational in October, it will cut travel times from Addis Ababa to Djibouti to 12 hours. Tan Jian, the Chinese ambassador to Ethiopia, stated the railway “… is regarded by many as a lifeline project for both countries, for Ethiopia and for Djibouti. And we see this as a railway of development; as a railway of cooperation; and as a railway of friendship.”
The Nairobi-Mombasa line in Kenya has a similar story. Prior to the opening of the railway in May of 2017, the previous railway between Nairobi and Mombasa — a 19th-century British built railway colloquially called the “Lunatic Express” – had a journey time of 12 hours. The new railway, named the Madaraka Express in honor of the country’s independence day, shortens the journey to just four-and-a-half hours.
These projects are results of Africa’s improved relationship with China, and are indicative of the comparative decay in relations with the West. Mekonnen Getachew, a project manager at the Ethiopian Railways Corporation, said that “China doesn’t give simple aid. They do give loans. You work, and you return back. That’s a good policy. Aid is just making slavery.” Furthermore, American aid, which Getachew quips as being useless, is likely to be reduced in the coming years as President Trump advocates his “America first” agenda.
Consequently, it’s not surprising that China, whose president Xi Jinping said of the continent that “a friend in need is a friend indeed,” is on the ascent in Africa, while the United States, whose president referred to the nations of Africa as “shitholes,” is on the decline. Besides lacking the condescending and ignorant mentality that Trump holds, China is seen in Africa as a superior ally than the West for several reasons. First, China is a shining example of what post-colonial development could and should look like. Zhang Huarong, a chief executive of an Ethiopian-based shoe company, remarked that “Ethiopia is like China was 40 years ago. Even though this place is pretty tough, we think within five or 10 years, its economic development will be pretty good.” China’s shared legacy with Africa as being the victim of western imperial ambitions certainly helps make relations with Africa and China amicable.
Furthermore, as Getachew eluded to, dealings with the Chinese are simply more efficient and productive than dealings with the West. Aubrey Hruby, investment advisor to projects in Africa, noted that while Chinese companies have paid bribes in the past, they’re more interested in conducting business effectively. They look for other ways to solve the problem.
Regardless of the reasons, China has undeniably gained irreversible traction in a continent with perhaps the most untapped potential in the world. While the West greatly fears this sort of development, African nations that feel neglected by their former colonizers welcome these projects. While we may not see the benefits this relationship holds for Africa just yet, deepening ties with the rising superpower for now has the potential to bring great prosperity in the future. So hop aboard the proverbial electric-rail, standard gauge train, and see what Africa can become with China’s help.