On Display: China’s presence in Africa – From Zheng He to Hu Jintao

According to the Chinese calendar, the Year of the Hare begins on February, 2, 2011. The characteristics of the hare go well together with the topic “China in Africa”: perseverance, restraint and efficiency describe well China’s engagement on the African continent for quite some time. President Hu Jintao has visited 20 African countries, the Chinese government and (private) entrepreneurs concluded hundreds of contracts, credits worth billions were granted. Nearly a million Chinese live in Africa.

This intensive connection between China and Africa is anything but new: As early as during the Ming dynasty, therefore prior to the Europeans, Eunuch-Admiral Zheng He (also called Cheng Ho, 1371 – 1433?) was sent west with a huge fleet of 63 ships and 28.560 men and he sailed several times along the eastern coast of Africa (from present day Kenya to Mozambique). On board were translators, physicians, pharmacists and explosives. Besides lucrative state trading he brought back home African and Arabic diplomats who returned to Africa two years later on the next journey (video intro).

In a nutshell, China’s engagement in Africa can be described as visible, inexpensive and quick. According to experts it is a combination of “aid” and “business” – African commodities in exchange for Chinese support of industry and infrastructure. Heavy criticism in the western world often lables this arrangement as neocolonialism. Naturally, Africans have a much calmer view. After all, the Chinese-African cooperation has the favourable effect of an extraordinary economic growth of 6% – the highest since the 60s (compare the paper by Helmut Asche).

For more recent books and articles on the subject China in Africa see the results of ilissAfrica.

In recent years also other Asian countries like India and Japan became of interest for African Studies scholars and led to some important publications.

Anne-Marie Kasper, Africa-Department, Frankfurt University Library