“Look to the East”: Neo-Colonialism in Africa

Photo Credit: ABC News

By Delaney Custer
Staff Writer

Over the course of the last several months, tensions have continued to mount between China and the United States. The destruction of the Chinese spy balloon, the United States’ public support of Taiwan, the current Congressional debate surrounding a ban on TikTok, and the U.S. imposition of economic sanctions on China and Russia have fueled diplomatic shifts in the international relations sphere. The impacts of these policies on both China and Russia have solidified that, despite their sordid past, they share a common problem: the United States. The recent summit between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping alludes to a budding defense partnership, and with North Korea’s alleged sale of weapons to Russia, as well as China’s role as middleman in the formation of a Saudi-Iranian alliance, experts assert that the United States’ foreign policy has inspired a real-life “Legion of Doom.” 

The power contest between China and the United States is by no means a new development, and over the last decade, an understudied playing field of conflict between these two global superpowers has been forming in Africa. The weapon of choice takes the form of not nuclear warheads, defense partnerships, or economic sanctions– but language. The violent history of colonialism and imperialism in Africa has spawned disillusionment with Western culture, and consequently, its languages. Hence, Africa has turned its attention to China. Since 2015, several African governments have steadily been adopting a “look to the East” policy, which involves the introduction, expansion, and acquisition of Mandarin Chinese on the African continent, primarily through the medium of education. 

The introduction of Mandarin Chinese in Africa is a byproduct of economic engagement between China and Africa, specifically the extraction and exportation of Africa’s rich and diverse natural resources, including an abundance of gold, diamond, crude oil, lithium, and the world’s largest deposit of cobalt. As the key components in the assembling of lithium-ion batteries, the powering device for smartphones, lithium and cobalt in particular are of immense value to the Chinese economy. China requires an enormous supply of lithium and cobalt as the number one global manufacturer of smartphones; in 2021 alone, the country exported 48.4% of the world’s smartphones, reaping 127.9 billion U.S. dollars in the process. The Chinese economy, and quite frankly every global economy, is almost entirely dependent on the natural resources and human capital of Africa, but the history of exploitation, colonialism, and imperialism within the continent has stirred controversy around resource extraction. Therefore, in order to maintain an economic relationship while harvesting the natural resources necessary to sustain its economy and satisfy the global demand for smartphone technology, China has turned to language. 

China’s strategy is reminiscent of European colonial practices, which had imposed language policies on African countries as a means of social control, meanwhile endangering indigenous languages and stripping the continent of its linguistic diversity. However, China’s neo-colonial language policies in Africa do not reduce domains of use for indigenous languages, but rather for Western languages. Linguists have noticed a shift away from European language use in several African countries in favor of Mandarin Chinese. The primary mechanism for this language policy implementation has been Confucian Institutes. China pays for the establishment of these institutions in African countries, as well as for teacher training for local peoples, instructor salaries, and course materials. As a result, Mandarin has become popular at African universities and has been introduced as a foreign language in secondary schools. The increasing number of Confucian Institutes across Africa suggests that Mandarin Chinese is gaining interest and value–  positioning itself as a frontrunner to displace English and other European languages as the continent’s dominant foreign language. Although no long-term predictions can be made, Chinese language policy in Africa serves as an early indication that Mandarin may assume an important linguistic role in an increasing number of countries worldwide. 

Chinese-built Confucius Institute at the University of Zambia, Lusaka.
Photo Credit: Quartz 

The economic motivations for the introduction of Mandarin Chinese in Africa are clear. Language creates access– the expansion of Mandarin in Africa expands economic opportunity by giving the country the means of communication to take its pick of Africa’s wealth of natural resources. Furthermore, language is power. Given the nature of American-Chinese relations, the expansion of Mandarin in Africa may be propelled by a political undercurrent, and there is the potential that China could be using language as a means of establishing a partnership in Africa that transcends gold and diamonds. However, it must be acknowledged that China’s economic relationship with Africa is not parasitic. China is a major investor and trading partner for the continent, whose business helps support Africa’s foreign and domestic economic activity. Thus, losing Chinese funds would be catastrophic and leave local African stakeholders stranded. Nevertheless, should Mandarin Chinese develop a strong enough foothold in Africa to rival English’s widespread domains of use, linguistic competition could culminate in a power-grabbing contest between the world’s two dominant economies on one of the most exploited continents on the planet. Global economic competition over natural resources, coupled with an already unstable diplomatic situation between China and the United States, threatens another “Scramble for Africa”- a harrowing prospect for the people of the African continent. 

China’s growing economic and linguistic dominance in Africa proves that history most certainly repeats itself. Neo-colonialism in Africa, coupled with the potential defense partnership between Russia and China, signals a shift in the pendulum of global power– one that the United States ought to be wary of as tensions continue to mount. 

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