New Directions in Africa-China Studies

Yi Sun

The interactions between China and the continent of Africa can be traced back as far as the Chinese Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE); at that time, Africa–China’s connections were mostly built on commodity trade (e.g. silk and porcelain). Contemporary Africa–China political and economic relations started in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Due to political isolation caused by the Cold War period, China reached out to African countries to seek international support. In the 1980s and 1990s, China’s domestic development and opening-up policy enabled the nation to expand its relations with African countries within different areas of interest. In particular, trade between Africa and China increased by 700 per cent during the 1990s.[i] In October 2000, with the establishment of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, China had built strong economic ties with African countries and became Africa’s largest trading partner.

The increased trade exchange and cooperation in various fields brought great migration from China to Africa, and Africa to China. Statistically, by the end of 2012, an estimated one million Chinese citizens were residing in African countries and 200,000 Africans working in China.[ii] Nowadays, Africa–China relations covers many aspects, including historical, political, economic, social and cultural perspectives; it requires the research to be ‘more seriously reflecting on questions of theory, method, and, with these, epistemology and the politics of knowledge’ (p. 3). In this respect, New Directions in Africa–China Studies edited by Chris Alden and Daniel Large is a timely reference to related topics. The compilation reviews Africa–China cooperation and their achievements of the past 60 years, offers a comprehensive analysis and multi-disciplinary contribution to the field of knowledge, and introduces trends of its future studies.

As Africa–China studies covers a wide variety of topics, it reflects deeply on questions regarding how those related topics have been, is being, and can be studied; it is essential to ask and define: What is Africa–China studies? Is Africa–China a field of study? What should or can we study in Africa–China studies? In order to address these questions, the book is divided into three sections. It begins with Africa–China’s historical development through personal reflections, historiographical survey, and ethnographic research. By applying these methodologies, issues concerning race, gender, identity, discourse, and media in Africa–China relations are analyzed in the subsequent chapters of the second section. Unique to literature on Africa–China studies, this book studies Africa as a plural form (countries) rather than a singular form (a continent); first-hand case studies and field researches cover Tanzania, Kenya, Benin, Mauritius, Angola, Mozambique, and more. The third part of the book offers new perspectives and theories, evaluates trending research themes (e.g. China’s extraversion, Chinese model for Africa, neo-patrimonialism, engagement and limitations on new structural economics, new global economic patterns and security), and explores alternative and future possibilities of Africa–China studies.

In the past, most of the Africa–China researches were conducted in the socio-economic field and limited in several African countries. Moreover, ‘African’s perspectives on China’s engagement with Africa were marginalized in a discourse largely dominated by American, British, and European researchers and media outlets’ (p. 21). In other words, ‘imagery articulated in the African media and some academic work as ultimately being derived from the dominance of Western knowledge production prevalent in a variety of forms across the African continent’.[iii] If African countries borrow the second-hand topiary of the West, ‘they are in the midst of adopting, interrogating, shedding and remarking their understanding of “China-Africa” today’ (p. 331). With the expansion of global research interest in both China and African countries, this book has sought to synthesize and demonstrate post-colonial studies ‘with its focus on discourses, social hierarchies and enduring structures of power’ (p. 330). Therefore, one significant trend in Africa–China research nowadays calls on the use of global frames and methodological approaches that take scholars beyond the limiting confines of methodological nationalism in diverse ways. Following the trend, Africa–China studies has the potential to become a global study. As Jamie Monson noted, ‘we not only need new paradigms for the study of global Africa but we also need new institutional models that are collaborative and consortial across national and regional boundaries’ (p. 140). As part of Monson’s advocates, who encourages the African diaspora, African universities, and scholars to take future initiatives to support new visions in research and development.

Another trend in Africa–China studies lies in China’s domestic developmental model and its application in other parts of the world. Economically, China’s domestic development and its engagement with Africa’s economy has brought wide attention beyond China and the continent of Africa. Politically, China’s growing power and role in the world has enhanced its foreign policy capacity and taken Africa–China relations into a new stage. Therefore, in the broader context of China’s rise in global economy and affairs, particularly with regard to China’s Africa policy and its One Belt On Road Initiatives; arguments and debates over discerning ‘China’s real motivation’ (p. 6), ‘soft power and spread of culture’ (p. 7), and ‘possibilities for win-win outcomes’[iv] became central in Africa–China studies. Although the application of political economy approach helps to better understand China’s role and its political relations with the others, it neglects ‘wider structural forces’ (p. 11) as Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong criticized, Africa–China research has ‘the tendency to isolate and magnify China’s role’ (p. 11) in its global capitalist relations. Signs of a shift towards adopting ‘Sino-centric’ (p. 339) concepts has shown in some recent academic works.

The study of Africa–China therefore, is a field of power relations; it is fundamental to understand the epistemology regarding ‘how knowledge is constructed, by whom and to what ends’ (p. 139). Based on Alden and Large, one crucial contention in Africa–China studies is, ‘China in Africa as a scholarly subject was “invented in the West” due to the way in which China approached Africa “through the West”’ (p. 15). As China embraces greater openness and collaboration in globalization, both of its national and foreign policies are shaped by the combined force of the traditional ideologies and the Western concepts. Therefore, China’s engagement with Africa ‘has in part used knowledge produced in the West’ (p. 16) and may have the potential to reinforce knowledge reproduced in Africa. In this sense, Alden and Large inquire: Are the discourses of solidarity and South–South cooperation generated by developing countries of sufficient depth and co-constituted meaning to peoples in Africa and China to account for difference and disputes (p. 335)? In order to address this concern, Africa–China higher education cooperation has the potential to cultivate young scholars to form new knowledge and redefine their roles’ in the global discourse. Some recent analyses showed that instead of ‘exporting the China model’ (p. 11), ‘the role of ideas and selective appropriation and application by African ruling elites as part of processes involving importing and customizing ideas according to political circumstances and needs’.[v] Beyond China’s assistance in education, several African universities have taken initiative in establishing research networks to address their developmental problems.

Africa–China studies is a substantial field of study; it is not a study only about China or African countries or both. From an understanding of Africa–China’s historical background, ethnographic origin, and theoretical framework in its early studies, the field of study is now richer in its content. It has ‘moved the focus from national-level macro analysis to multiple level of dynamic connection, from community and individual to transnational and transregional, and identified a connected need to factor in a multiplicity of actors’ (p. 13). In addition to previously mentioned trends in Africa–China studies, there are many sub-fields that have arose from the expanded interests of scholars. Monson reminds us not to neglect the power of language (e.g. syntax) in research. For example, ‘China–Africa’ shows the connections between the two parties, ‘China in Africa’ constructs an interventionary image of China in Africa, and ‘China and Africa’ identifies or suggests a partner relationship. In this regard, some scholars in the field have also advocated the use of different languages in future research. Tu Hyunh and Yoon Jung Park examine race in Africa–China research; they attempt to unpack the existing literature and claim that race and racism are socially constructed. Race and racism, therefore, need to be analyzed rigorously within the context of a global racial hierarchy of which both China and Chinese are constituting a part. Moreover, Africa–China’s higher education cooperation encourages migration and the flows of people from African countries to Chinese cities. This trend shows the changing geography of the global economy and political climate, and illuminates in terms of ‘diverse and fine-grained human dimensions of Africa-China relations’ (p. 11). In addition to these mentioned themes, Cobus van Staden and Yu-Shan Wu explores how media has been playing ‘dual role’ in shaping Africa–China relations. Honita Cowaloosur and Ian Taylor examines the implications of dependency dynamics by applying Mauritius special economic zone’s case study; they indicate the importance of choosing the right strategies for preventing dependency reproduction within underdeveloped countries.

To conclude, whether it is studies of Africa–China, studies of China in Africa, or studies of Africans in China, future research in related fields need more in-depth fieldworks and first-hand resources. Africa–China studies also anticipates more younger scholars of China, African countries, and other countries in the world to participate and conduct collaborative fieldworks. Africa–China is not only a field of study but also an alternative critical approaches that encourage the exploration of ‘the nature, construction, or mobilization of discourse, challenges the empiricist ambition and do so in a markedly different and rapidly evolving context’ (p. 17). More important, this book draws on various disciplinary perspectives, reflects a growing interest in approaching in Africa–China studies, reframes neglected issues of method and theory, and demonstrates how pursuing questions concerning China and Africa have ‘the potential to open up and contribute towards new ways to grapple with global changes’ (p. 340). Presenting a wide range of perspectives and insights by leading and emerging scholars, New Directions in Africa–China Studies is an essential and up-to-date resource for scholars and graduate students of modern Africa and China relations.

[i] Jean-Christophe Servant, China’s trade safari in Africa, Le Monde Diplomatique, May 2005,, accessed 7 March 2019.
[ii] Africa and China: More than minerals, The Economist, 23 March 2013,, accessed 7 March 2019; Gordon Mathews and Yang Yang, How Africans pursue low-end globalization in Hong Kong and mainland China, Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, 41(2), 2012: 95-120.
[iii] Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong cited on p. 113.
[iv] Li Anshan cited on p. 6.
[v] Elsje Fouriecited on p. 11.