What is the role of China as land grabber in Sub-Saharan Africa? Between reality and myth: a literature overview | Land Portal
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Date of publication: 
septembre 2018
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China's presence in Africa has gained growing attention at an international level in the last two

decades, especially since the 2007 food crisis, however China's presence in Africa is far from new.

China can not been perceived as a new international actor, still its reemergence as a world's leading

economic power needs to be reconsidered. China's presence in Africa has been generating a

growing misunderstanding at a different level that Debora Brautigam clearly describes in her paper

“China in Africa: seven myths”( Brautigam, 2011). Even if the presence of China in Africa has gained

international and media attention predominantly in the last fifteen years, its presence has been

constant since the 1950s/1960s. However, the growing debate over China's rising influence on Africa

has been strongly related to the alarmism consequent to the 2007-2008 food crisis, especially when

following the sharply increase of food prices China pushed the going global policy in agriculture.

Moreover, is also related to the rise of Chinese aid commitment and economic engagement since

2006. China has continued to strengthen its involvement in Africa through the Forum on China-Africa

cooperation (FOCAC), in particular the year of 2006 was denominated by the Chinese government

the “Year of Africa”, and the result of the forum held in Beijing brought on the strengthening of

ties(Alden, Large & De Oliveira, 2008:pp.3-4). The main objective of this dissertation is to challenge,

through an accurate literature review, the robust myths and shared belief that following the food crisis

have designed China as the biggest land grabber in Africa. Land grabbing is surely not a new

phenomenon, indeed is something that have characterized history for century. However, the global

food crisis that made headlines in 2008 and the subsequent rise in food prices have conducted both

national governments and private sector to elaborate new strategies to face the problem, that have

been labeling as “land grabbing”. Therefore, is possible to distinguish land grabbing following two

different paths. On the one hand, land grabs is strictly connected to food security as a part of public

agenda. On the other hand, the private sector moved towards the acquisition of land abroad, as

resulting of its financial returns. The phenomenon of Land grabbing as been used as theoretical

instrument to guide the understanding of China's land acquisition in Africa. Furthermore, the purpose

is to explore if land deals represents an already existing column of the “Going out” policies in

agriculture in which China endorsed since 2001, or as its has been debated by several editorials,

articles, statements if China is assuming the role of new colonialist power in Africa. Historical,

political, and economic relations are firstly analyzed in order to understand the strong presence of

China nearly everywhere in Africa. The background of the Sino-African relation represents the

cornerstone in the understanding of the actual volume of economic exchange. While during the

colonialist period, China mainly supported socialist regimes, with the end of Cold War was already

clear that China's interests in Africa were larger. Indeed, from a more ideological and political

intervention the activities shifted onto a more focused economic and utilitarian approach(Van Dijk, M,

2009:59). With the end of the Cold war, pragmatism piloted China's involvement in those African

countries which were overlooked by the United States and the Soviet Union. The withdrawal of cold

war nations from Africa during the 1980s, and the sharp decrease in development aid provided by

Western countries, gave rise to the opportunity for China to foster its political agenda by

strengthening contacts with African elites(Servant, 2005). Public diplomacy is an important tool in

strengthening China's political agenda abroad, and the launched of the Forum on China-Africa

Cooperation(FOCAC) in 2000, has represented the strategic instruments in cultivating and enlarging

contacts with African Elites(IdunArkhurst & Laing, 2014). China's aid involvement in foreign countries

today is still based on Enlai eight principles expressed in 1964, which were mainly based on mutual

benefit, equity, non-interference in the political sphere and free interests in economic loans. The

West is concerned about China taking over Africa, and about the impact that China's engagement

could have on the base of their principles of intervention.

Above the different objectives for China's presence in Africa, relative is its need of obtaining land

abroad for agricultural purpose. Since 2012 China has been declared as “food dependent” and surely

his demands for supply will increase in the coming years on the base of its population growth and

fast economic development. China's food problem is also strictly related to the actual status of its

natural resource, for instance the inversion of agricultural land into industrial areas or the

contamination of water have sharply reduced its production capacity. In 2016, China's arable land

per capita was 0.086, which is a rate comparable to the one of Bangladesh. Africa has 60% of the

total of arable land, nevertheless does not have the technologies to strongly develop the agricultural

sector. Thus, is not surprising that China's interest in Africa agricultural land have sharply increased,

and that African government are willing to cooperate with China, to obtain advanced technologies.

However, China endorsed in the Going Global policies in agriculture already in 2001, long before the

food crisis and there were no secrets that the going global would include overseas farming. The

adoption of the Going global policy in 2001 which encouraged Chinese companies to establish

business abroad, represented the turning point of China's engagement in Africa. Beijing encouraged

Chinese companies to invest in the farming sector in Africa, however the production of food to be

exported back to China does not represent the main objective. China is trying to enlarge its area of

influence and enter new market, and African markets represent a good business. Chinese

government never officially declared that agricultural investments in Africa represent a way to ensure

food security in China, or at least not yet. Although, common perception is that China is supporting

Chinese enterprises to acquire land abroad as part of a national food security strategy. According to

the top 20-reported “Chinese” farmland acquisitions in Africa between 2000-2014 published on

Landmatrix, the total amount of land leased was around 5,566,960 hectares. However, field research

have documented that the total amount lease in 2014 was 88,837 ha, due to the fact that the majority

of investment were abandoned, not implemented by Chinese or still under discussion(Brautigam,

2016). This is an example of how official data based on unchecked grounded research have created

a robust myths around China's agricultural engagement in Africa. Obviously, the paucity of data

increased the poorly understanding of the Sino-African relations. For instance, this dissertation

presents and compare two different case studies respectively of the Hubei-Gaza friendship farm in

Mozambique, and of the ZTE corporation in Congo. Those projects have been featured as case of

“land grabbing” in different list, and the analysis allow to explore how myths differ from reality.

Agricultural investment in Africa are not easy to conclude as is shared believed. Investments can

face local opposition and up rise of the farmers as it happened in the case of the Hubei-Gaza

friendship farm. In conclusion, the common perception that China is supporting Chinese enterprises

to acquire land abroad as part of a national food security strategy is not supported by grounded

research. China's intention in Africa are still not clear, and the paucity of data impedes a correct

understanding of the Sino-African relation. Clearly, China's involvement in African agriculture is increased and

China is interested in invest in farmland abroad. Nevertheless, while the involvement of China in Africa has

been seen with suspicions by the West, African countries are willing to strengthen their relations with the

Chinese government, especially for their principles of on non-intervention,mutual benefit, and equity. To some

extent, China has become an alternative cooperation partner at least as important as the EU for example in

the case of Ethiopia and Angola. The presence of China in Africa is not going to slow down at any point in the

future, however, the lack of grounded resource is a limit to a fully understanding of Chinese intention in Africa,

that surely as assumed by the main researchers of this field new to be filled.

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