Sino-African relations: China's expansion into Sub-Saharan property, economy and industry


Hamish Cassidy examines the expansion of China into Sub-Saharan Africa

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By Hamish Cassidy

Since the Belt & Road initiative of 2013, which saw Chinese investment expand into international infrastructures across 70 countries and organisations, China’s involvement in Sub-Saharan African property, economy and industry has increased exponentially. Chinese companies (government-associated and private) have nestled strong footholds in the premature markets; considerably early given the continent’s pre-modern structure. Albeit beneficial, China’s growing influence in the Sub-Saharan is cause for international concern.

The proposed ‘Eko Atlantic City’ (E.A.C), a high-end Nigerian real estate complex, is a prime example of the current economic stratification developing throughout the continent; purposefully propelled under the direction of Chinese corporations (in this case, China Communications Construction Group). It demonstrates wider growth of corporate Chinese influence in the Sub-Saharan under the guise of environmentally-friendly property gentrification.

Although the E.A.C project champions reclamation over the eroded Lagos coastline, as well as provision of clean energy and local self-sufficiency, it simultaneously instills the problem of the ‘environmental citizen’ in Nigeria. It is Africa’s richest 250,000 that will relish in the complex: not just its luxury and mercantile opportunity, but also the green-elitist image commonly romanticised with such lifestyle. Such is the emerging ‘environmental elitist class’ that separates those that can afford expensive environmentally-friendly living from those, outside high green walls, that cannot.

Chinese companies are not simply aiding Nigerian property development. They are also expanding the proprietary approach to ‘green living’ in Sub-Saharan society. This means broadening the identity-gap between Nigerian classes through property complex. They have done so whilst concurrently broadening their own state-vested influence in the wider Sub-Saharan property sector.

Property is not the only Sub-Saharan sector that corporate China has burrowed its way into. Under the same environmental guise, Chinese companies have made a broad entrance into African energy development. With 120 million Sub-Saharan people gaining access to electricity from 2010-20, and 56 percent of such added capacity being renewable sourced, it is clear such involvement does possess genuine sustainable benefits.

Yet this energy development becomes questionable when considering the extent to which such companies influence the infrastructural, and thus in extent political, direction of the localities they benefit. Of the Chinese companies involved in the Sub-Saharan energy sector, 90 percent are state-owned enterprises (SEOs). Although they’ve made clear strides for the continent as a whole, the extent to which aforementioned state-vested interests hold influence in the sector is rather foreboding. Previous Nigerian Commonwealth Secretary, General Emeka Anyaoku, addressed such risks: urging that the evidential success of Sino-driven energy development in the Sub-Saharan not lead to a ‘compromise of Nigerian independence’ in attempts to sustain development. But similar to their property sectors, that may be exactly where many Sub-Saharan governments are headed if the Sino-African relationship is not advanced with great caution and consistent re-evaluation.

Perhaps it is then China’s involvement in African industry, most prominently the mining sector, that displays a genuine form of international altruism. With China’s high domestic expenditure on research and development since 2000, the crucial knowledge and skills transfer that has occurred through Sino-African cooperation has played a considerable role in attempts to keep the dwindling industry afloat. However, Sub-Saharan industry has continued to diminish; a particularly damning aspect for a continent that had been verging on a propulsive mass-industrialisation.

China’s support continues nonetheless. If sufficient changes occur, there is potential for the Sub-Saharan to reach the ‘drive to maturity’ (featured in Rostow’s economic model). This would see the continent’s industrial production undergo critical mass-diversification. Yet the Sub-Saharan path to modernisation is markedly different from those before it. The required political and economic changes for further modernisation will be continuously monitored and guided by the now insurmountable Sino-influence that has slowly contracted its way into African industry. Whilst China’s support of the Sub-Saharan industry has certainly been positive, there is again an apprehensive presence of foreign-state influence in a continent that is yet to emerge into its own industrial prime.

There is a clear upside to China’s involvement in the Sub-Saharan, primarily in their conversion of regional properties and energy capabilities to more sustainable sources. Overall however, the extent to which the Chinese state now holds influence in African futures is alarming. Not only is the Chinese hand now deeply embedded into the functioning of much Sub-Saharan property, energy and industry - this hand is, for the most part, guided directly by the Chinese state itself. It is clear the Sub-Saharan has welcomed China into the driving seat in hopes of a guided journey into modernisation - but it is unclear exactly where the Sub-Saharan will be driven now.