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China in Africa: Over 40? You Probably Don’t Get It

China in Africa: Over 40? You Probably Don’t Get It

There is a discernable generational divide when it comes to opinions about the Chinese in Africa.  It isn’t subtle and the split lines up according to age.  In almost every instance, those over 40 years old frame the issue in “colonial terms” clearly influenced by their own early education of Western imperial activity on the continent.  For these critics, Beijing’s engagement in Africa is binary — it’s either good or bad.  This explains why so much of the news coverage on the subject is structured in such simple terms with headlines like “Is China Good For Africa,” et al.   For this generation, the memories of decolonization, Live Aid and the countless Hollywood portrayal of a female  aid worker (and they are always women in the movies) gently holding a starving African child have had a profound impact on their worldview.  For the over 40 crowd, their education in the West never clearly condemned colonialism for its brutal failings.  There was always a hint that European, and even American attempts, to “civilize” the “natives” was a benevolent ambition.

A new generation of bloggers and scholars is emerging who approach Sino-African relations with significantly more sophistication than older observers who are burdened by their early education of Western imperial activity on the continent.

Since the launch of  China in Africa” podcast two months ago, I have found there is an entirely different perspective from a new generation of twenty and thirty something bloggers and academics who are unburdened by this conventional thinking.  They seem to approach the topic with a refreshing lack of intellectual baggage that permits a far more nuanced view of the issue that doesn’t frame the subject in that “good vs. bad” framework that is so typical of their older peers.  In universities across Europe and in South Africa (none in the United States that I have found so far), a new crop of students and bloggers is emerging who approach the subject with an unprecedented of level of sophistication.  To these younger observers, China’s activities in Africa are evaluated much more comprehensively, taking into account the histories of both Africans and Chinese.  Furthermore, there is a sense the Chinese should be judged in isolation rather than in the context of Western imperial policies of the past.  And unlike their older peers, this under-40 group generally approaches the subject with significantly less prejudice about China, instead focusing on the tangible impact of Beijing’s policies on the continent.

Judge for yourself:

1. Lu Jinghao: South Africa blogger and China-Africa analyst who writes the “A Chinese in Africa” blog ( and is also a contributor to the China Africa Project.

2. Lila Buckley: Oxford University graduate student who is focusing on Chinese engagement in African agriculture.  She recently posted a guest blog on Deborah Brautigam’s “China in Africa: The Real Story” about her research in Senegal.

3. Johanna Jesson: Researcher at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and Phd. candidate at the Roskilde University who specializes in transparency issues related to Chinese aid and investment on the continent.  In particular, she has written extensively on Chinese investment patterns in both the DRC and Gabon.

4. Henry Hall: Masters candidate at the London School of Economics who is doing research on Chinese-Zambian relations.  Henry also publishes the weekly email newsletter and website China Africa News.

5. Dr. David Robinson: African historian who lectures at Perth, Australia’s Edith Cowan University.  Dr. Robinson recently published “Hearts, Minds and Wallet: Lessons from China’s Growing Relationship with Africa.

So while age by itself should not be considered the determining factor in judging the competence of any journalist, blogger or scholar, it does seem that younger observers are engaging the Sino-African issue with a very different perspective.  This is a particular issue that is extremely complex with intersecting histories, cultures and peoples who defy the simple stereotypes that are depressingly common in much of the mainstream press’ an academia’s coverage.

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About Eric Olander

Eric Olander is the founder and Editor in Chief of The China Africa Project. Eric is a veteran international journalist with 20+ years experience throughout Greater China, Africa, the United States and Europe. Eric is currently based in Southeast Asia where he is the senior news executive with a leading 24-hour all business news cable TV network.


  1. Re – China in Africa: over 40? You probably don’t get it.

    I personally respect opinion polls and other research materials, but you are completely wrong about the subject above.

    Who did you interview for your findings? Have your subjects read the history of China-Africa?

    If you are basing your findings on those who mainly live in the West or spend large amounts of time watching Western media here in Africa, you need to re-sample your target respondents. But if your respondents are among Western young Africans or are Western influenced young Africans, you definitely need to do your homework about the matter all over again.

    China is not new to Africa and unlike what the Europeans have done to Africa, they come to the East Coast of Africa nearly seven hundred years ago during the Ming dynasty. And they came to Africa for friendship and trade.

  2. Addul, this post was not intended to serve as an academic study or formal research poll. It is imply my opinion that the vast majority of people, be they in China, Africa or the West, the phenomenon of China’s engagement in Africa is poorly understood. My post has nothing to do with China’s long history in Africa, as you rightly point out, or what “Europeans have done to Africa.” Instead, it was about understanding the massive geo-political changes that are underway around the world that can be attributed to China’s rapid rise and how for most people over 40 years old, it is more difficult for them to shift their thinking on this subject.

  3. Eric….If I may add a personal view to the above it will be the following. It makes me very sad at times when listening to comments or reading people’s views on the China/Africa relationship. Sometimes I can contain myself and stay calm when I know that most comments are made by uninformed or mislead people not seeing all the positives and new opportunities within this fast growing relationship. But then again there are those who have knowledge of old historical negatives and new future potential and still choose to break down rather than build up what we have in front of us. Maybe because of some underlying fears or even selfish ideals that does not go well with a positive and enhanced China/Africa relationship.
    I am 50 and have no doubt about the advantages a positive, wise and stable relationship will have for both Africa and China.
    Age should not stop us from learning or adapting when things change. Even more we should get informed and see how we can help add to the positive instead of being critical just for the sake of it. We all know there are many shortcomings and issues still to be dealt with and we are not ignorant to those but we choose to find the many existing positives and build those into a long term victory that will make world history in the years ahead. This is happening and will be done…it is our choice to be part of it or not

    • Ferdie, you and I see the world in a very similar way. I absolutely agree that age should not be the determining factor in how people see the world but sadly it does seem to get in the way. Now, I fully understand why because for many people, particularly in the West, who were educated in a way that relied heavily on stereotypes and caricatures, it can be very difficult to see the world as it is which is vastly more complicated. This one of the reasons why I am quite optimistic about the younger generation who are not burdened by those limitations.

      • Hallo again Eric…have’nt been on this website lately and only now read everything to update myself. Thanks again for doing great work to change perceptions and helping more people to see things in a better light. Have been talking to Barry Van Wyk at WITS and it makes me so glad to see your involvement to their media efforts. Vitally important to inform everyone at all levels about the China/Africa connection. Ignorance will only hold us back in the years to follow. Appreciate your work. @AfricaChinaLink