Chinese fossil fuel investments in Africa


Toxic mud from bauxite mining in Guinea PHOTO/Shutterstock

African countries need investments, China needs raw materials, and African activists are fed up with the resulting corruption and environmental damage.

China’s relationship with Africa is multifaceted. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) shares ideological bonds with many African countries because of early ties to anti-colonial struggles and through the Non-Aligned Movement. Every African country recognizes the PRC with the exception of eSwatini (Swaziland), which has diplomatic relations with Taiwan). Many African countries preserved trade relations with Beijing after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, and those commercial links have only grown stronger. China has been Africa’s leading trading partner since surpassing the United States in 2009.

Many African governments seek Chinese assistance through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to bridge the continent’s infrastructure gap, while China in turn seeks access to a number of key strategic resources, including fossil fuels, minerals, and also access largely untapped markets. In addition to being rich in natural resources, some African countries attract Chinese interest because of relatively cheap labor, poor governance, and lax environmental standards. In 2017, McKinsey reported that more than 10,000 Chinese companies are likely operating throughout Africa.

The amount of money involved is staggering. According to a 2021 report from the Shanghai University of International Business and Economics, China has since 2000 invested a total of $47 billion throughout Africa (in 52 out of 54 countries), with new investments adding up to $2.96 billion in 2020 (an increase of over $200 million from the previous year). The vast majority of Chinese investment—87 percent—has been concentrated in four sectors: energy, transport, metals, and real estate. China’s Export-Import Bank provides much of the financing for infrastructure projects in Africa, but a number of commercial banks have also established branches throughout the continent.

Yet, despite these numbers, Africa attracted only 2 percent of Chinese foreign investment in 2019.

The impact of Chinese economic interactions with Africa can also be measured at an individual level. “There are no individuals in Nigeria who don’t have Chinese goods,” reports Tijani Abdulkareem, the executive director of the Socio-Economic Research and Development Centre in Abuja. “It’s the food that they eat, the wristwatches they own, the clothes that they wear.”

China’s footprint in Africa, however, has caused considerable anger, resentment, and pushback from communities in and around the projects that China has financed, constructed, or promoted, particularly those involving extraction industries. Criticisms have focused on adverse environmental impacts, violations of labor laws and human rights, and corrupt practices.

In a webinar entitled Voices from Africa: Activist Perspectives on Chinese Investments, sponsored by the Africa Climate Justice Group, six representatives from civil society organizations around Africa provided their on-the-ground perspective on Chinese activities in mining and extraction in their community followed by commentary from an expert on Chinese investments in Africa. The following report is a synthesis of their presentations.

Infrastructure Projects

China has invested in a number of high-profile infrastructure projects throughout the continent, including a $7 billion oil pipeline in Niger, a $1.3 billion port project in Cameroon, and a $3.6 billion investment into the aluminum sector in Guinea. Many of these projects are designed to facilitate access to raw materials and speed their export via roads, rail, or port.

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