China’s Deepening Economic Engagement in Africa:Perspective of the Conflict Theory

In 2018, August, U.S. Senators including Chuck Grassley and Joe Donnelly wrote a letter to the Treasury Secretary and the Secretary of State to express concerns over the China’s “debt trap” through its infrastructure financing in Africa (Grasley). In the letter, the senators sought to know he plans of the Trump administration in dealing with the dangerous consequences of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which may require the developing countries to make bailout requests to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). China’s growing relationship with African countries, which is allegedly laced with predatory interests, has sparked great criticism. The China-Africa relationship, from a perspective of the conflict theory, is mainly based on conflict instead of harmony, although the engagement may project more harmony than conflict.

The conflict theory, which was established by Karl Marx, assumes that the society is in a constant conflict due to competition for insufficient resources (New World Encyclopedia). Conflict theorists posit that domination and power, rather than consensus and conformity, maintains order in the society. The wealthy and powerful maintain their status by any means possible, majorly by oppressing the powerless and the poor. The basic premise of this theoretical approach of sociology is that individuals and groups in a society always strive to maximize their own benefits (New World Encyclopedia). Sociologists have used the conflict theory to explain a wide range of social phenomena including discrimination, corruption, wealth and power, and violence, which illustrate social inequality in the distribution of resources. According to Marx, the society consists of two classes of individuals with common interests and the same level of property ownership (New World Encyclopedia). The first class is the bourgeoisie, the wealthy and powerful members of the society and the second category is the proletariat, the working class or poor. The bourgeoisie, who are the minority, use their influence to oppress the proletariat, who are the majority. This concept can be illustrated by the practice of small groups of elite members including politicians and businessmen who use their power to dictate the terms and conditions of the larger group in society.

There are four principles of the conflict theory – competition, revolution, structural inequality, and war (New World Encyclopedia). Competition, according to conflict theorists, is a perpetual and, sometimes, an overwhelming concept in almost everyone’s interactions. Due to scarce resources including money, property, dominance, social status, and sexual partners among others, people find themselves in constant competition for survival. Revolution is the outcome of the conflicts or competition. Revolution always leads to change in power dynamics whereby individuals or groups, majorly the preliterate, fail to adjust and cause conflict, which bring about abrupt changes in power dynamics (New World Encyclopedia). The third assumption of the conflict theory is structural inequality. Power inequality is experienced in all human relationships and social structures. Therefore, some individuals or groups have more power than others. Furthermore, the individuals or groups that benefit from a given social structure always strive to maintain the structure in order to enhance their power. War is the last principle, which, according to conflict theorists, is a unifier of the society. Due to cumulative and growing conflict between individuals and groups, war erupts to unify the society or, sometimes, end the society (New World Encyclopedia). Besides the four pillars, Marx also focused on capitalism, which he said cause an imbalance between business owners and the laborers.

The conflict theoretical approach can be applied in China’s expansive investments in African countries. In the recent decades, China’s economic involvement in the African continent has been dramatic: including trade, extraction, and manufacturing. Economists assume that Africa, due to its wealth of resources, is the right target for China, whose massive manufacturing power and expanding economy require a good supply of natural resources including oil (Zheng ). By 2010, the trade between Africa and China had recorded $100 billion and it was anticipated to hit $350 billion by 2015 (Zheng 3). This amount succeeds USA and Europe. While China’s involvement with Africa may seem that it is based on development, the former is using its economical influence to coerce African leaders into accepting its partnerships in order to advance its (China) interests. Chinese trade partnerships have also been criticized because the companies majorly employ Chinese people, which does not translate to economic empowerment of the local communities.

The principle of competition is manifested in the scramble for Africa investments, which involves China, USA, and Europe. In 2012, China’s trade relations in Africa rose to prominence while USA-Africa union plummeted with the exit of USA from oil imports (Martinez, 2018). Structural inequality has also been experienced in the countries doing business with China. Zheng points out that China’s investments have been embraced in Africa where there is a great gap between the poor and the rich (7). Those in power pocket the benefits from the short-term opportunities generated by their partnerships with China while the working class and the poor languish in poverty. The last concept witnessed in the China-Africa trade relationships is revolution. In 2018, Sierra Leone, a West African country, rejected the Chinese-funded international airport, which was termed as a “risky venture of the century” (Rainforest Rescue). In doing so, Sierra Leone changed the power dynamics.

China’s heightened economic involvement in Africa, although seems harmonious, is, undoubtedly, based on conflict. The country uses its economic power to lure African countries into trade partnerships that might cost them in future. Concerns by the US senators best paint the picture of China’s capitalistic involvements that are characterized by competition, structural inequality, and revolution.



Works Cited

Grassley, Chuck. “Grassley, Senators Express Concerns over China’s “Debt Trap” Diplomacy with Developing Countries”. Chuck Grassley. 10 Aug 2018. 8 April 2019.

Martinez, Carlos. “Is China the New Imperialist Force in Afria?”. Invent the Future. 8 Oct 2018. 8 April 2019.

New World Encyclopedia. “Conflict Theory”. New World Encyclopedia. 13 June 2013. 8 April 2019.

Rainforest Rescue. “Sierra Leone Rejects Chinese-Funded ‘One-Belt, One Road’ Airport”. Rainforest Rescue. 16 Nov 2018. 8 April 2019.

Zheng, Conie. “China’s Investment in Africa: Expanding the ‘Yellow River Capitalism’ and its Impications”. ResearchGate. 2019.’s_Investment_in_Africa_Expanding_the_’Yellow_River_Capitalism’_and_Its_Implications. 8 April 2019.