China in Africa – the ‘de-imperial critique’

Terrell CarverTerrell Carver is Professor of Political Theory at the University of Bristol, UK, and Research Associate, SA UK Bilateral Chair in Political Theory, University of the Witwatersrand. His research and teaching bring together discourse and visual analysis; studies in sex, gender, sexualities and masculinities; and decolonising approaches to the political economy of contemporary great-power politics.


Anglophone political economy has for some time tracked the financial circulations of Chinese investment, particularly in the selection of nation-state ‘partners’ on the African continent. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is thus portrayed as a new player in the great-power imperialisms of exploitative commercial enterprises through which capitalist modernity arrives, whether local people like it or not.

Characteristically this kind of ‘development’ is welcomed by some, who see the national future, and in many cases their own personal gain, aligned – at whatever level of wealth or poverty – with Chinese money and power. And of course there are those who resent and reject these ‘opportunities’, treating them as ‘throffers’ – threats you can’t really refuse.

That pattern of state-driven aggressive and extractive commercialism dates to the fifteenth-century era of voyages and conquests. These ‘exploratory ventures’ have been recorded as such in heroic anglophone histories of industrialised modernity and swash-buckling derring-do. However, in the last few decades the dial has turned from celebration and exculpation to excruciating exposé and mumbled apologies.

The international settlements at the close of World War II (itself a great-power ‘Allied’ historiographical construction) set out a decolonising/nation-building requirement that was enforced on some empires, notably the British and French, but also on the remaining Spanish and Portuguese ‘possessions’. Any number of those political processes are still on-going and disputed at any number of levels, and there are many struggles defying any simple West-East or South-North framing.

Some of these ‘loose ends’ are major geo-political threats, as anglophone and similar perceptions style them, e.g. the Korean peninsula, where the ‘Cold War’ continues. Others are easily marginalised as dots-in-the-ocean, e.g. Falklands/Malvinas. Réunion. There are a number of self-legitimated continuing colonisations, a status where the Falklanders overlap with Bermudans, for example. Because these ‘hangers-on’ stall the postwar decolonising agenda, the politics of these places annoys the UN.

There are also ‘conflict zones’, where the withdrawal of colonial forces allows and encourages other domestic and regional interests, whether bent on irredentism, colonialism or liberation, e.g. Western Sahara, Madagascar. Anglophone historiography characteristically locates colonialism and its consequences well outside Europe and North America, though this geographical binary should be resisted: Ireland and Bosnia-Herzogovina are also in the colonial legacy. Colonialisms are processes, rather than places.

This pattern of power-struggles, which are always internal/external in relation to the nation-state/inter-state political framings, has played out across the African continent. And it is much the same set of stories that eurocentric histories locate in Thucydides as a point of origin: rival colonial powers fought each other via sponsored factionalism within and over their colonial enterprises.

Today’s supposedly non-colonial great powers – in the global politics of the G7/G20, IMF, NATO, Davos and similar hierarchies of wealth, power and military might –  are now stuck on the horns of three dilemmas: crimes against humanity for genocidal conquests; charges of inhumanity in pulling armed forces out ‘prematurely’ and creating power-vacuums; well substantiated allegations that ‘aid’ programs and ‘trade’ agreements enforce economic and political dependency.

Returning briefly to the fifteenth century, when imperial policies in China, Japan and Korea enforced increasingly heavy restrictions on trade with ‘outsiders’, and when the ‘opportunities’ afford by exploratory voyages were wound up by imperial orders, we set the scene for the apparently sudden twenty-first century appearance of ‘China in Africa’.

But what are we actually looking at? The Chinese government, the Communist Party of China (CPC), and their attendant corporate enterprises of course value their commercial secrecy, as does everybody else in the global economies of national competitions.

However, there are economic data-bases and political studies to tell us what there is to know. Generally these are framed to suit specialist audience-interest in economics or/and foreign policy, though with the PRC the two are quite conveniently self-identified with each other.

Many other countries are quite content to have their ‘internal’ disputes on both counts – economic policy and foreign policy – aired in the international anglophone press. And they are also prepared to apologise and ‘reform’ when unauthorised downloads and whistle-blower-leaks reveal their shabby secrets to the world.

However, the PRC/CPC drums up domestic strength by playing the ‘strong China’ and ‘no disrespect’ cards, drawing very easily on local historiographies of national humiliations, foreign occupations and horrendous invasions. From that perspective Japan as an imperialist power falls into the same bracket as Britain, France and Germany, as do the Americans, given their adoption of Formosa/Taiwan as their protectorate.

Moreover the PRC/CPC has no difficulty when it is constructed as a ‘threat’ to current economic/political strengths elsewhere in the ‘global order’. Playing the great-power game suits the PRC entirely, so becoming a threat to the biggest – the USA – is just the job. And China is well versed in divide-and-rule. Since 1978 their unprecedented and meteoric rise up the OECD index has resulted in large part from careful management of trade agreements, e.g. with Germany and Japan.

So far, so conventional. But is this the whole picture? What else is going on here? To get another view we need to get outside the usual boxes – way outside the boxes.

Paul Amar (2021) directs the queer eye very straight at our target. His article ‘Insurgent African Intimacies in Pandemic Times: Deimperial Queer Logics of China’s New Global Family in Wolf Warrior 2’ is an essay in ‘eversion’, that is, getting outside the box to look back in and thus see a different and complementary set of dynamics. Nodding to his prize-winning book (2013), Amar focuses on the ‘the archipelago of the PRC’s shipping, mining, and medical projects’, most particularly on the African continent (2021: 419).

However, what Amar fixes on isn’t conventional anglophone or similar ideas of ‘Africa’, which notoriously erase the diverse realities and histories of any number of struggles, projects, cultures, languages and communities that are situated on or near an enormous continent. Rather he fixes on how official Chinese culture constructs an ‘Africa’ in order to support its geo-political ambitions for influence and profit.

Unsurprisingly, but perhaps rather weirdly, China’s ‘Africa’ resembles the long-normalised tropes of ‘western’ colonisers. Those imaginaries and locutions are now highly suspect, at least to some anglophone audiences. In that light they are patronising, racialising, sexualising, infantilising and on down the line to dehumanising. But the Chinese tropes are also interestingly updated.

Understandably this isn’t what one sees in the statistical measures of geo-economics, nor what one views on the news or documentary media channels. In his article Amar shows us how Chinese commercial cinema makes ‘Africa’ visible for the home audience by using an uncritical genre: the blockbuster action-adventure, male-dominated, blow-shit-up, two-hour mainstream/malestream movie.

A straightforward, voice-over propaganda documentary covering Chinese ‘development’ policies and ‘humanitarian’ interventions in ‘Africa’ would have limited appeal, especially to China’s youthful millions. In a rapidly commercialising, high-tech/high-consumption, internationally oriented society the ‘modern’ generation – from the PRC’s perspective – is at risk. What better way to consolidate the national narrative, ethnic identity and moral mission than to present it in blockbuster mode?

Suffice to say the Chinese heroes’ shoot-em-up-bang battles with ‘white mercenaries, corrupt Asian businessmen, and local pirates’, undertaken as their brave warriors are ‘saving Africa from a ravaging pandemic’, is – for me, anyway – pretty much unwatchable (Amar 2021: 419). What Amar’s analysis of the movie shows us is how important ‘gender, race, and sexuality’ are to policy-makers in getting their messages across. To achieve that, they need to play on emotion-driven credulity and fantasy-driven desire.

Against that visual and aural onslaught, viewers would require considerable repression of their love for adventure, exoticism, danger, drama and cliché in order to generate any kind of critique. Academics can do that, but obviously the CPC presumes that semi-captive audiences won’t be so successful.

What is striking here is how successful anglophone and similar academic cultures are at excluding this kind of material, and that kind of approach, in the first place, however ‘critical’ their approach.

Amar’s article doesn’t present everybody’s ‘race, gender, and sexuality’, either. His ‘de-imperial queer analysis’ exposes ‘utopian gender and sexuality plots’ lurking ‘within seemingly conventional heteronormative or patriarchal popular-cultural texts’. Through this lens we see, within the movie, ‘a homoerotic model of rogue or “wolf” governmentality’, a ‘gendered haunting of supremacist humanism’ through which China protects the ‘right kind’ of rebels, and a dramaturgically legitimated queer kinship system of cross-racial adoption and bromance (Amar 2021: 420-421).

All this politically driven ‘Wolf Warrior’ queerness is of course safely displaced onto an ‘Africa’ of dramatic vignettes, and framed throughout as a very foreign adventure. Hence in no way could the movie be a cross-racial, multi-cultural, super-progressive template for anyone to imitate back home.

What, then, is the upshot of Amar’s explication de texte for anglophone readers? His analysis should make them even more suspicious of the ‘humanitarian-medical interventionism’ that passes regularly through parliaments and congresses in the richer nations, or alternatively in the same forums then gets subjected to budget cuts and spend-it-at-home subterfuges. And in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, this yo-yo ‘us vs them’ debate resurfaces in very justified allegations of vaccine-hoarding and profit-seeking at the expense of poor nations and thus individuals.

That on-off binary framing, though, fails to speak to the more basic issues of political economy and cultural domination through which global inequalities have arisen – and are worsening – in the first place. Amar’s article exposes this very clearly, by taking anglophone readers abroad to China’s ‘Africa’. The article isn’t a critique of the PRC/CPC – it’s a critique of whiteness, where whiteness happens to look Chinese.

And the upshot for readers in and near the African continent? Most will have lived this great-power politics already, as objects within an imperial gaze, and subjects within an imperial context. No doubt it matters somewhat from which direction this comes, but not as much as each side would have it.

Works Cited

Amar, Paul. 2013. The Security Archipelago: Human Security States, Sexuality Politics, and the End of Neoliberalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Amar, Paul. 2021. Insurgent African Intimacies in Pandemic Times: Deimperial Queer Logics of China’s New Global Family in Wolf Warrior 2. Feminist Studies 47(2): 419-49.

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