Written by Daouda Cissé.

The 6th Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) is scheduled to be held in Johannesburg, South Africa on December 4-5, 2015. There is a lot of speculation and expectation regarding the meeting and its outcomes from academic, media, political and economic spheres in African countries, China and elsewhere. While FOCAC is a platform for dialogue and exchange between African and Chinese officials to pave the way forward in Africa-China relations, most of the discussions and negotiations take place around economic cooperation regarding trade, investments and aid.

Over the years, FOCAC has been an arena to boost investments (both state and private) and trade between China and African countries, and to develop and grant aid packages, primarily for infrastructure. Alongside fostering trade and investment deals, it is presupposed that the discussions and negotiations will be centered around aid packages from China to African countries.

While this pattern in Africa-China relations through FOCAC is also seen in other multilateral fora where African officials meet with their partners, there is near consensus that aid alone cannot be the solution to Africa’s development, though it can make some positive changes. In multilateral settings like FOCAC, the EU-Africa summit, US-Africa summit, India-Africa summit, TICAD, etc., how much aid (if one considers the amount of the aid package) will be enough to satisfy the needs of the 54 African countries?

While aid can encourage positive change, it appears to be insignificant to the overall development of the continent. Paradoxically, African officials are interested in how much aid their partners are willing to disburse as opposed to investments and trade by their partners on the continent. Especially given the Chinese aid architecture, generally monies do not leave Beijing and are managed by China’s state and private financial institutions, and flow through the different Chinese companies involved in development projects in Africa. African countries where projects are taking place can receive concessional or preferential loans, yet these are still managed through the Chinese aid architecture.

Alongside aid, Africa-China relations are primarily centered on trade and investments. FOCAC has contributed to deepening trade ties between African countries and China, along with African and Chinese traders, private entrepreneurs and businessmen. Through FOCAC, trade and investments agreements are signed in order to foster trade between China and African countries, which has resulted in more and more joint-ventures and business partnerships between African and Chinese companies for investments in African countries. In contrast, there are fewer investments from African companies to China. As Chinese investments in Africa are growing and expanding to various sectors, trade continues to dominate Africa-China relations.

Other Important Issues Beyond Aid, Trade and Investments in Africa-China Relations

Other sectors and areas of cooperation between African countries and China need to be explored through FOCAC in order to tackle existing issues in Africa-China relations. It seems that there is less interest and focus of discussion with respect to skills and technology transfer, environmental protection and sustainability, conservation and wildlife protection, migration, labour and human rights issues which are also important and could contribute to the overall dialogue under the FOCAC framework.

Skills and Technology Transfer

Through its investments in Africa, China claims to contribute to skills and technology transfer for Africans. In reality, the impact of skills and technology transfer by Chinese companies in Africa is not very significant given the sectors in which they are investing. Most of the Chinese investments are concentrated in labour intensive sectors which generally do not require a high level of skill and training. This is the case in the mining, oil and infrastructure sectors.

While the Chinese oil and mining companies have built infrastructure in a number of African countries, and have contributed to new techniques in the African companies, they have also learned from them in many ways. The manufacturing sector is also labour intensive and most of the African employees who work for Chinese manufacturing companies do not require critical skills training. In the Chinese manufacturing companies, most of the critical tasks are done by Chinese specialists or engineers who are brought from China.

In other sectors (mainly the services sector), Chinese companies in Africa generally hire already qualified and skilled Africans to operate and work for their companies. However, these employees may, at times, receive training for new software, machinery, products, etc.

While skills and technology transfer is high on the agenda of African officials in order to contribute to human development, there is little discussion through FOCAC to address the situation. China, on the other hand focuses on the number of African trainees who benefit from its training programs across sectors.

These training programs, unless designed at a specific Chinese company level and are aimed to upgrading the employees’ skills for a new project, do not really contribute to making positive changes in the functioning or daily work of the trainees once they return to their respective offices. Often employees who go for these training programs are not the most appropriate ones who really need the skills to make change in their daily work or the functioning of their companies. At times employees are chosen through camaraderie and political ties to go for such training programs in China. These are issues that African and Chinese officials should tackle through FOCAC.


While there is growing interest among academics and media experts to cover migration issues in Africa-China relations, discussions on the topic among policymakers and between African and Chinese officials are almost non-existent. Due to the negligence of the issue in the political sphere in African countries, many African immigrants in China do not seek their embassies’ services when facing difficulties. This is the case for many Chinese immigrants in African countries who mention the lack of ties and relationship with the Chinese embassies across the continent.

In African countries or in China, Chinese and African immigrants face a lot of difficulties related to immigration policies, visa regulations, socio-economic problems, discrimination, etc. These are issues African and Chinese officials should tackle through FOCAC if they wish to demonstrate that they are really committed to the so-called people-to-people relations. China has opened up to the world by receiving foreigners and enabling Chinese citizens to emigrate, therefore policies should be developed to fully accept African migration to China from the grassroots and decision-making levels.

Top-down policies developed by competent government ministries could play a role to ease tensions between African immigrants and Chinese citizens, and Chinese immigrants and African populations. Immigrants’ social wellbeing, safety and security should be taken into account by competent services in African countries and China.

Environmental Protection and Sustainability

China is increasingly aware of its role in environmental protection in African countries where its companies invest and have contributed to environmental damage within these countries. China’s government has urged Chinese companies to comply with environmental regulations in countries where they invest. Chinese state and private financial agencies have developed policies and funding mechanisms to ensure Chinese companies which seek to invest in Africa comply with environmental guidelines.

While there are sparse efforts to tackle environmental issues in Africa-China relations, there is less cooperation between African and Chinese ministries and development agencies, NGOs, research centres, etc. in order to contribute to environmental protection and sustainability. For instance, even though there are bilateral talks and meetings between Chinese, South African, Kenyan and Tanzanian officials to overcome issues related to wildlife conservation, more needs to be done and FOCAC would be an ideal platform to draw policies against the destruction of wildlife in Africa and to put in place laws to sanction those who are involved in wildlife trafficking and trade.

Labour and Human Rights

Many myths surround labour and human rights related to Chinese companies’ involvement in Africa. Often, some academics and journalists claim with exaggeration that Chinese companies bring their workers to African countries. Though there are Chinese workers in Chinese state-run projects in Africa, there are far more African workers involved in Chinese companies on the continent and across the different sectors of activity.

However, while the myth about Chinese companies bringing Chinese labour into Africa does not depict the real story, a lot of issues do arise concerning labour relations between African workers and Chinese companies. Often, in the labour intensive sector, contracts are not signed between African workers and their Chinese employers. Therefore workers’ rights are not protected and Chinese companies’ managers do not comply with safety standards and guidelines, and labour laws and regulations in countries where they operate.

Unless unions and NGOs in African countries organise themselves and defend the rights of the African workers, competent ministries and agencies tend not to react to these issues. These are issues that exist in the labour environment in China and have been the cause of tensions between organised groups which defend the workers’ rights and the Chinese local, provincial and central government.

Rising tensions do not mean African and Chinese officials should not discuss labour and human rights issues. Through FOCAC, competent African and Chinese ministries and agencies should develop policies to monitor and assess the labour practices in Chinese companies in Africa in order to ensure that labour laws and regulations are followed and/or implemented, and that other labour related issues are addressed.

Daouda Cissé is a postdoctoral research fellow at the China Institute, the University of Alberta, Canada. Image credit: CC by GovernmentZA/Flickr.

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