Ideas & Debate

Is China a fiery dragon or a friendly panda?


What happened to the Chinese selling mitumba at Gikomba? For a brief period the media highlighted the Chinese presence at the Nairobi market, creating a narrative that may have as well shaped labour and immigration policy and then moved on to the next big story.

Questions on what the influx of Chinese money, infrastructure, companies and nationals means for Kenya and Africa have been raised in university corridors for a long time. This year, the University of Nairobi is hosting its inaugural conference on China-Africa relations, which will try to challenge the two dominant narratives; is China a fiery dragon or a friendly panda.

In 1972 Gregory Bateson developed a theory called framing, suggesting that how something is presented to the audience influences the choices people make about how to process that information. This is used in setting agenda by focusing on issues to shape how people think about a topic.

In political science framing is rooted in theories of international relations — the realist who sees a dragon and the liberal who sees a panda. The realist view sees China’s engagement in Africa as driven by economic interests and geopolitics. The quest for natural resources to sustain its energy security has often been cited as part of economic interests, often laced with principles of peaceful co-existence.

As one scholar observed “Beijing uses the pillars of its foreign policy, notably unconditional respect for state sovereignty and its corollary, noninterference, in the pursuit of its interests”. The drive is further amplified by China’s self-proclaimed Africa’s ‘all-weather friend’ operating within the South-South framework which resonates well with African elites allergic to intrusive policy transfers from the West.


As such, China has ably used aid and trade policies to bait ruling elites in African countries endowed with natural resources. As one scholar remarked, “China’s insatiable drive for resources to power its economic engine as it emerges as a new global economic powerhouse has led the country to pursue an aggressive foreign policy engagement on the African continent”. Those who subscribe to this thinking argue that China is not different from the former colonial masters.

It is a ‘New Mercantilism’ model whereby the Chinese state supports its national champions to have a strong footing in resource-rich countries to maintain the growth of the domestic economy. As China increases its presence in the continent, this narrative argues that the balance of power seems to work against the traditional Western players. To this end, substantial discussion has centred on how the Chinese presence on the continent is challenging the US hegemony.

Some have even suggested that China’s growing dominance in the continent is a training ground for its superpower ambitions. That if the US fails to counter China in Africa, this may have contagious effect in other developing world thereby allowing China to leverage on its “significant and rapidly growing power to counterbalance global American power and carve a more central position for itself in the world — from which it can extract the international resources required to maintain recent economic growth levels at home-thus enhancing its security”.

The second dominant narrative — the liberal view — sees China’s engagement in Africa from the context of its growing role on the global economic stage courtesy of its adoption of capitalism with Chinese characteristics from the late 1970s. The growth of Chinese market led to improved prices of primary commodities as well as improved demands of agricultural products driving China’s interests in Africa because “the continent was seen as providing new markets and investment opportunities for China’s growing economy. The ever-growing range of imports from China, varying from shoes and textiles to high-tech goods, [began] flooding African markets”.

A study commissioned by the African Economic Research Consortium a decade ago reported that Chinese firms are more engaged in African economies than what the realist narrative would want us to believe.

The study further established that the firms were fairly distributed in infrastructural, construction and agricultural sectors, with presence in small and medium enterprises. Unlike the realist narrative that sees Chinese companies as solely driven by the quest to access natural resources, the liberal narrative view sees Chinese companies as driven by the same motives as other Western companies.

In fact, the liberalists argue that Chinese companies are too young to compete on the same footing as Western companies, and therefore given that Africa possesses low-cost markets this allows them to gradually develop their capacity to also become global economic players. Therefore, the Chinese state plays a key role in promoting these companies by offering subsidies and diplomatic support.

The liberal narrative also believes that Chinese companies in Africa are likely to improve African markets through “spin-off effect”, whereby the companies offer business opportunities for local companies consequently linking them to the global supply chain. In the same view strong China-Africa economic ties are likely to have a spillover effect on other areas like cultural exchange, education and security.

Evidently, the two dominant narratives focus on the power relations between China and African countries, economic interests, the geostrategic competition with the West, and economic cooperation.

Yet, China-Africa relations cut across all facets of human exchange. Whereas other disciplines have also attempted to understand the relationship, we are yet to have an interdisciplinary forum that seeks to integrate these perspectives into a holistic approach. In addition to the discussions centering on China’s trade, debt and foreign direct investment in Africa, the University of Nairobi conference has attracted a panel on China-Africa cultural interaction that seeks to reinsert the role of history and culture into the discussion.

Whereas the realist and liberal narratives have ignored historical and cultural contexts, what they forget is that the power relations and economic motivations have a foundation in shared historical and development experience between China and Africa. We believe that this interdisciplinary exchange will further improve our understanding of China’s Africa policy.

Dr Otele is a lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s Department of Political Science and Public Administration.