top of page

“New Colonialist,” Neocolonialist, or Tributary?

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

Understanding Africa’s Complicated Historical Relationship With Both Beijing and Washington



African guerilla fighters read a book titled the “Selected Works of Mao Tse Tung” with a caption below in Chinese reading: “Chairman Mao is the great liberator of the world's revolutionary people.” Illustrated in April 1968 by an unknown artist. Source: 上海人民美术出版社. (Via Chineseposters.net.)

It is undeniable that most of Africa has grown increasingly close to China. Much of that is a result of a mutually beneficial economic partnership that has developed over the past two decades. To describe this as the only reason for Africa’s growing affinity with China, however, would be misleading. Fundamentally, many African countries view the United States and China differently based on each country's deeply rooted historical relationship with the continent. While Western governments are keen to label China as a “new colonialist,” understanding the history of both the United States’ and China’s relationship with Africa explains why many African states remain largely skeptical of this characterization of Chinese intentions.


American “Neocolonialism”: A Complex US Legacy In Africa

Throughout most of its existence the United States has maintained a complex relationship with Africa. Even though it is true that the United States did not engage in any direct colonialism on the continent, bar the individual and nuanced example of Liberia through the American Colonization Society, the United States had largely upheld the status quo of European imperial claims on Africa up until the conclusion of the Second World War. Even as American presidents began to more forcefully advocate for African independence after the war, historians largely agree that the United States’ primary concern was countering the threat of Soviet influence, not supporting liberation. This can be explicitly seen in the United States National Security Council Report 5719 from 1957, in which the United States’ primary strategic objective was expressed as to “... deny Africa South of the Sahara to Communst control,” as well as to “... avoid in Africa a situation where thwarted nationalist and self-determinist aspirations are turned to the advantage of extreme elements, particularly Communists” (Lay 1957). At the time, Washington feared that a rapid decolonization project would provide fertile ground for Soviet interference across the continent (Ohaegbulam 1992, Zoubir 1995). It was because of this fear that while the United States officially remained supportive of immediate decolonization, it was largely tolerant of many European countries’ gradual withdrawal from Africa that continued all the way into the late 1970s.

Once European colonial governments did eventually leave, however, it did not spell the end of Western interference. Throughout the Cold War, under the pretext to limit the expanse of communism, the United States on numerous occasions engaged in covert operations that undermined the sovereignty of independent African states. According to some scholars, such as London based historian, Susan Williams, this type of American interventionism in Africa constituted a form of “neocolonialism” as outlined in her 2021 book, White Malice. Williams cites the example of the CIA’s repeated attempts to oust and assassinate Congolese Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, due to fears that he was collaborating with the Soviet Union. Although it remains disputed if the United States had a role in his eventual death, it has become clear through declassified documents that the US government had plans to assassinate Lumumba as well as having financially backed the Prime Minister’s political enemies like Mobutu Sese Soko (Meyer 2021). Regardless, Lmumbuba was only one of many US backed operations in Africa during that era. Even after the Cold War ended, American interventionism persisted through the War on Terror and in other separate conflicts. For example, despite many African states’ mutual dislike of former Libyan dictator, Mummar Gadaffi, due to his support of African militant opposition groups in Liberia and Sierra Leone, many have criticized America’s role in toppling Gadaffi in 2011 as only further destabilizing Northern Africa after terrorist and rebel groups took hold in Libya in the years after (Isilow 2021). Given the US’ clear record of prior interventions, it is actions such as these that have damaged the US’ reputation as a partner as well as made courting diplomatic favor in the 21st century more difficult.

NATO Coalition Forces Around Libya and No-Fly Zone. Source: Reuters, U.S. Navy, Media Reports (Via Reuters)

Beyond direct military interference and state subversion, there are a number of other ways historical US policy towards Africa has perpetuated ideas of American interventionism on the continent. One way this can be seen is through the American persistence in promoting its political and economic values. In tying specific preconditions of economic and political reforms to foreign aid assistance and development programs, the United States effectively designated the nature of the US-Africa relationship as being inherently paternalistic, rather than each party being on equal footing. After all, US loan agreements make clear that African countries must adopt Western style liberal democracy and marketization even before many countries had the state capacity to address perhaps more immediate issues such as guaranteeing the rule of law or solving endemic poverty (Fukuyama 2004, Archibong et al. 2021).

Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, responds to Western criticism about a new law that increases penalties against “homosexual acts.” (Via CNN)

The same idea of interventionism applies to Western critiques of African opinions on social issues, such as the controversy over the treatment of homosexuality in Africa. While the West views this as a universal human rights issue, many African heads of state continue to point out that opposition to homosexuality remains a cultural and democratic issue for Africa, and not one that should be influenced by the West or used as a threat to withold aid. Back in 2019, this controversy gained great media attention when the US Ambassador to Zambia spoke openly against the government’s high profile prosecution of a gay couple in 2017. In response, then Zambian president, Edgar Lungu, appeared on a Sky News interview responding that “If [the United States] want to be tying your aid to homosexuality... If that is how you will bring your aid then I am afraid the West can leave us alone in our poverty” (Qtd. in Crawford 2019). Over the years, other African heads of state under similar criticism have framed the argument as a sovereignty question, arguing that African laws on homosexuality is part of an African right to self determination. Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, echoed this argument in a 2016 interview, asking Western countries to “... respect African societies and their values.” Adding, “If we are wrong, we shall find out by ourselves” (Qtd. in Landau 2014). In conclusion, it is clear that America’s mixed historical legacy in Africa continues to be an issue in US-Africa relations. At the heart of the problem is a persistent American belief in the right to intervene in African affairs—whether through direct military interference or imposing Western economic and political values through preconditions to aid. On the flip side, the United States has also done tremendous good in fostering better political ties in Africa through generous loan forgiveness programs in recent decades. Ultimately, however, China’s lack of scrutiny over human rights or political ideology paired with a US legacy of interventions may have pushed many African states to increasingly look for investment from Beijing.


A Shared Historical Experience: The Unique Status of Chinese Investment in Africa

During the Mao era, much of China’s economic aid to Africa was for political reasons. Framed in both the times of the Cold War and the widening Sino-Soviet split, China provided economic (and sometimes military) support to anti-Western African liberation movements and certain non-aligned states that sought to play both sides for increased economic support. As the Mao era came to an end and the victory of Deng Xiaoping against the more Maoist elements of the CCP signaled a rejection of the politics of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese interest and investment in Africa naturally was significantly reduced during the 1980s (Shinn 2019). Despite this, however, many African states did not forget Chinese political and economic support during the Mao era which would help accelerate diplomatic breakthroughs in the late 90s and early 2000s when China’s interest in Africa resumed.

Former Chinese President, Hu Jintao, pictured with former Zimbabwe dictator, Robert Mugabe, at the Forum of China-Africa Cooperation Summit on Nov. 4th, 2006. (Source: Andrew Wong/Getty Images News)

Although China’s initial historical interests in Africa, being political interference and natural resources, were not especially unique compared to its Soviet and Western counterparts, what distinguished China in a positive light compared to the others was their shared experience of Western exploitation and colonization. During the period of what Chinese scholars describe their Century of Humiliation (百年国耻 1839-1949), much of China’s riches were plundered by invading foreign powers while numerous colonial outposts, generated as a result of a number of disastrous wars fought by the Qing, dotted across China’s eastern seaboard. This shared experience combined with the knowledge of China’s lack of colonies of its own further cemented the natural affinity shared between Africa and the PRC. Besides a shared historical experience, Sino-African relations were further bolstered from the belief that the Chinese were increasingly respectful of African authority, at least on the macro scale. It is true that many Chinese private businesses and large SOEs have been accused in a number of infamous examples to have racially discriminated against their African employees, but when it comes to following the law of African states, however, China has outdone the United States in maintaining long term government projects and investments even after major shifts in many African nations’ state policy. For example, after Zimbabwe passed an indigenisation law in 2008 that required all foreign firms to offer at least 51% of their shares to local citizens, analytics since then has shown a significant US decrease in investment in the country while China’s investment continued to increase rapidly (Seyfried 2019, Sun 2016). While this reflects very poorly on US investors' interest in adhering to domestic African laws, China’s consistent expansion of investment despite changes in legislation paired with an indifference to African governance and human rights abuses has made China especially popular with many African governments.

Conclusion:

Besides China’s increased economic partnership with Africa over the past two decades, China’s unique historical relationship with the continent has also been a driving force in the growing proximity and strength of Sino-African ties. Not only was much of China's foreign aid during the Cold War appreciated and remembered by recipients, but China’s similar historical experience of undergoing Western exploitation and track record of adhering to changing African laws has also significantly grown China’s appeal in Africa. On the other hand, the United States’ complicated relationship to colonialism, neocolonialist interventions throughout the Cold War, and continued insistence of imposing Western values has conversely contributed to the receding influence of the United States in Africa. As a result of these overarching trends, most African governments are not able to seriously recognize American claims that the Chinese government is a “new colonialist” in Africa. Although any sort of direct Chinese colonialism resembling that of the European powers or the neocolonialism of the United States during the Cold War remains unlikely in the present moment, a different colonialism with Chinese characteristics may present itself in the near future. After all, much of Xi Jinping’s goals have been to reassert China’s rightful place in the world, which harkens back to a time in history when states paid tribute to China as the rightful center of the universe. Perhaps signs of China’s implementation of coercive vaccine diplomacy demonstrates this potential shift to a renewed tributary system. Reports did indeed surface that China allegedly offered Paraguay access to Chinese vaccines in exchange for a switch of recognition from the ROC to the PRC, although these claims were categorically rejected by the Chinese Foreign Ministry (Doherty et al. 2021). Regardless of the veracity of these reports, African governments will have to think carefully about the intentions of both the United States and China, as competition between the two countries over Africa is only likely to increase in the coming decades.


Works Cited

Amanpour, Christiane. “President: Gay rights 'of no importance' in Kenya.” CNN, 20

Archibong, Belinda, et al. “How have the Washington Consensus reforms affected

Crawford, Alex. “Zambia to warn US over remarks about jailing of gay couple.” Sky

“Decolonization of Asia and Africa, 1945-1960.” United States Department of State

Doherty, Ben, et al. “Coercion or altruism: is China using its Covid vaccines to wield

Fukuyama, Francis. “The Imperative of State-Building.” Journal of Democracy, vol.

15, no. 2, Johns Hopkins University Press, April 2004, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/54670.

Isilow, Hassan. “African intellectuals remember late Muammar Gaddafi as pan-

Landau, Elizabeth, et al. “Uganda president: Homosexuals are ‘disgusting.’” CNN,

Lay, James S Jr. “NOTE BY THE EXECUTIVE SECRETARY TO THE NATIONAL

SECURITY COUNCIL ON U.S. POLICYTOWARD AFRICA SOUTH OF THE SAHARA PRIOR TO CALENDAR YEAR 1960.”United States Department of State Office of The Historian, 23 Aug. 1957, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1955-57v18/d24.

Maru, Mehari T. “Why Africa loves China.” Al Jazeera, 6 Jan.

Meyer, Lily. “CIA Role In Africa Expanded As U.S. Cold War Worries Grew, 'White

Ohaegbulam, Ugboaja. “The United States and Africa After the Cold War.” Africa

Today, vol. 39, no.4, Indiana University Press, 1992, pp. 19-34, https://www.jstor.org/stable/4186860?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents.

Shinn, David, editors. “China-Africa Ties in Historical Context.” Oxford Scholarship

Sow, Mariama. “Figures of the week: Chinese investment in Africa.” Brookings, 6

Sun, Yun. “China’s pains over Zimbabwe’s indigenization plan.” Brookings, 26 April

“Zambia gay rights row: US ambassador 'threatened' over jailing of couple.” BBC, 2

Zoubir, Yahia. “The United States, the Soviet Union and Decolonization of the

Maghreb, 1945-62.” Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 31, no. 1, Jan. 1995, pp. 58-84, https://www.jstor.org/stable/4283699seq=4#metadata_info_tab_contents.

Image and Video Citations

“Chairman Mao is the great liberator of the world's revolutionary people,”

Shanghai People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, April 1968, https://chineseposters.net/posters/e16-339.“NATO Forces Around Libya.” Daily Mail, 18 March 2011, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1367063/Libya-crisis-World-strikes-Gaddafi-UN-votesprotect-Libyan-rebels.html.

“NATO Forces Around Libya.” Daily Mail, 18 March 2011,

“Uganda president: Homosexuals are ‘disgusting.’” CNN, 25 Feb.

Wong, Andrew. “Beijing Summit Of The Forum On China-Africa Cooperation.”

bottom of page