The views expressed in this article belong entirely to the authors of “China and Africa: A Century of Engagement” and do not represent the views of the US-China Perception Monitor or the China Program at The Carter Center.


Discussing international relations between two tremendously large areas, the People’s Republic of China and Africa, is no small endeavor.  The ability to maintain unbiased details across sectors, over a century, adds to this feat.  David Shinn and Joshua Eisenman masterfully execute this in their book China and Africa a Century of Engagement. The book’s unique structure allows Shinn and Eisenman to discuss generalities and overall trends followed by an exploration of each African nation’s individual relationship with China, highlighting details and contexts. 

David Shinn is a career American diplomat, having served as the U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso.  Ambassador Shinn now teaches international affairs at George Washington University. Joshua Eisenman is a Senior Fellow in China Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council.  Dr. Eisenman received his PhD in political science from UCLA and teaches at New York University. Shinn and Eisenman have both independently authored previous books on Chinese and African politics.

Details in History


Shinn and Eisenman give a powerful historical overview starting with the East African voyages of Zheng He, a Chinese admiral, and the subsequent focus on trade.  This introduction chronicles the dynamic nature of Chinese-African relations. This engagement ebbed and flowed during different historical eras. The authors outline motivations for decreasing contact including power struggles in the Ming court, which led to the belief among Chinese elite that maritime exploration was extravagant and dependent on barbarian contact. Modern realities are also described including increased engagement during the 1960s as many African nations fought for independence amidst Cold War tensions and were increasingly viewed by China to have strategic benefits.

The nature and characteristics of the political outreach, led by the Communist Party of China (CPC), to African countries are thoroughly examined and characterized. This extensive outreach to political parties had a Maoist period which constructed revolutionary propaganda, but over time has shifted to a more pragmatic approach. Seven guidelines have been developed to govern CPC interaction with foreign political parties. These include a purpose to promote state-to-state relations, no judgements on the achievements or mistakes of foreign parties and ideological differences not being obstacles to establishing relations.

Historically, the CPC only interacts with the political party in power, these party to party exchanges are most common in African countries employing a single party political system.  Increasingly, in more democratic African countries, the CPC is interacting with opposition parties in an effort to ensure an audience with future leadership regardless of political affiliation.

Sensitive Challenges


Like any bond spanning centuries, challenges have presented themselves between China and Africa. According to Shinn and Eisenman, the most visible example is Taiwan or the Republic of China (ROC). Taiwanese diplomats have competed with diplomats of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for recognition by African countries. Currently only three African countries have embassies in Taipei: Burkina Faso, Swaziland and Sao Tome and Principe. This rivalry has fostered “dollar diplomacy,” as each competes for relations with as many African countries as possible.

Islam was used by the CPC for public diplomacy, connecting China with African Muslims. The China Islamic Association paid particular attention to the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Pilgrimage trips sometimes included detours to Egypt, Tunisia or Sudan but occasionally ranged as far as Guinea, Senegal or Mauritania. Chinese Muslims spent months telling African Muslims about religious freedoms enjoyed under the CPC.   In turn, African Muslims were invited to China for Muslim festivals or to worship in Chinese mosques.

Recent issues, such as Islamist terrorism and China’s crackdown on the predominately Muslim Uighur minority has strained China’s relations with Muslim nations in Africa. Terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), have targeted Chinese interest in response to China’s policies towards minority groups.  Islam, once seen as a uniting factor between China and African countries has become divisive.

Shinn and Eisenman highlight that, although China faces considerable criticism surrounding Tibet and its human rights records from the international community, these issues are not a key concern for the majority of African nations.  The notable exception to this generalization being South Africa, where prominent citizens, including anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu, criticized China and the South African government after the Dalai Lama was denied a South African visa. 

Trade and Investment Flowing


Trade between China and Africa, unlike political engagement which historically waxed and waned, has remained constant, but grew exponentially since the late 1990s.  This has been fueled by the African demand for cheap consumer goods and Chinese needs for natural resources. Trade is the largest area of economic engagement which represents 13.5 percent of Africa’s total trade and 4.3 percent of China’s. 

China exports a wide range of products to Africa while African exports are much more narrow. Chinese-African trade relations are highly dichotomous with resource rich African nations enjoying trade surpluses while less endowed nations have trade deficits with China. 

Chinese overseas investments are relatively new. As of 2006, China’s Export Import Bank states there were around 800 Chinese companies in Africa and 85% were privately owned. The majority of these companies are small and medium sized enterprises with loose ties to local African firms.  As the two official sources of China’s foreign direct investment, the Ministry of Commerce and the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, do not publish data, exact figures are unavailable.

Extensive Collaboration


Sino-African relations have a broad scope with increasing cooperation in military aid and peacekeeping, media, education and cultural relations.  China’s security relationship with select African countries began with support for independence movements and several revolutionary groups that opposed conservative African governments. This theme of solidarity and anti-imperialism has remained a cornerstone of China’s engagement with Africa.  Military assistance has blossomed, yet remains controversial and secretive. China has supported UN and African Union peacekeeping efforts which are almost universally praised. As of 2011 China has 1,550 soldiers, 40 police and 42 military experts assigned to six UN peacekeeping operations in Africa.

Media, specifically China’s state-controlled Xinhua News Agency and China Radio International, have an increasing African presence, most likely in response to increased Chinese investment. Xinhua, as of 2010, maintains 23 overseas offices in Sub-Saharan Africa with the mission of “publicizing China and reporting on the world”. Xinhua’s reputation is mixed and often not viewed as a trusted news source due to its ties with CPC’s propaganda apparatus.

Educational exchanges date back to 1958. With few Africans having detailed knowledge on China, educational contacts are in high demand.  During the Cultural Revolution, Beijing eliminated all African educational exchanges and expelled foreign students.  African students were readmitted in 1973 and educational cooperation is now developed through the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). In 2012, China promised to train another 20,000 professionals and offer 5,500 Chinese government scholarships to African students.

Confucius Institutes are growing as Chinese officials hope educating a new generation will facilitate economic and political relations. Startup grants are offered by the Office of Chinese Language Council International to African universities. China spends 12 million USD a year on Confucius Institutes plus 25 million USD a year to support teaching Chinese as a foreign language.

Case by Case Details


Describing African-Chinese engagement to be a bilateral relationship is misleading.  Africa constitutes 54 sovereign nations with diverse ethnic groups, varied histories, contrasting economic realities and unique foreign policies. Shinn and Eisenman provide additional context and details by examining the relationships on a country by country basis in the final chapters.  This structure adds an important element to the book which is lacking in other publications. The reader sees how different Chinese initiatives link together in particular countries and how Sino-African relations are hardly a one size fits all operation.

China and Africa is extremely dense; the large amount of charts, data and tables maybe off putting to the casual reader, but individuals looking to gain a detailed, data driven examination of this relationship will find satisfying. The constant backing of claims by data highlights an extremely unbiased examination which is rare. 

China and Africa have had relations for generations.  While China’s presence in Africa has grown rapidly and has recently been brought to the attention of the Western media, it is important to realize the deep roots of this cooperation. Chinese-African relations are multifaceted and so much more than mineral extraction. With the sheer size of this engagement, each country has a different reality on what it means to work with China.

William Pierce holds the graduate assistantship for The Carter Center’s China Program. He is a masters student at Rollins School of Public Health, with a policy and management concentration. Mr. Pierce served in the Peace Corps, living in a Ghanaian village, carrying out public health programs from 2013 to 2015. William holds an executive position in the Rollins Returned Peace Corps Committee.  He has worked at CARE International within the new business development department, responding to U.S. government solicitations, including those from USAID.  William holds a bachelor of science degree in biology from the University at Buffalo. He speaks Hausa and Buili.