Wenhua Zongheng: Quarterly Journal of Chinese Thought | VOL.1 No.3

China-Africa Relations in the Belt and Road Era

Guo Hongwu (郭宏武), Revolutionary Friendship Is as Deep as the Ocean (革命友谊深如海), 1975. Poster, 54 x 77 cm. Credit: chineseposters.net, Landsberger collection, BG E15/581.

China and Africa’s Attempts at Industrialisation

Grieve Chelwa

Grieve Chelwa is an associate professor of political economy at The Africa Institute and a non-resident senior fellow at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. His research focuses on political economy and the prospects for African economic development. He previously worked as the director of research at the Institute on Race, Power, and Political Economy at The New School and as a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business.

The call to industrialise has been a rallying cry of African countries ever since their attainment of political independence. During the twentieth century, the modal decade of the continent’s national liberation struggles was the 1960s. Many within the first generation of post-colonial African leaders, from Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana) to Julius Nyerere (Tanzania) to Kenneth Kaunda (Zambia), had a deep appreciation for the role that industrialisation would play in the total emancipation of the African continent. These leaders grasped that Africa’s economic dependence was borne out of the original sins of imperialism and colonialism that consigned the continent to the position of perpetually supplying inexpensive raw materials to wealthy countries in exchange for expensive manufactures. Disrupting this colonial and imperial logic – that is, cutting the yoke of dependence – would require a structural re-orientation of African economies away from raw material production to industrial production. Additionally, industrialisation was viewed as the vehicle that would deliver a high level of employment and decent wages to a great mass of the population whose lives had been upended by colonialism and imperialism.

With this impetus in mind, African countries formulated plans at local and regional levels that placed industrialisation at the center of development. For example, the Organisation of African Unity (the precursor to the African Union), developed a landmark strategy in 1980 called The Lagos Plan of Action for the Economic Development of Africa which gave a pride of place to industry. The Lagos Plan of Action encouraged African states to ‘accord, in their development plans, a major role to industrialisation, in view of its impact on meeting the basic needs of the population, ensuring the integration of the economy and the modernisation of society’.[1] Further, the Lagos Plan of Action emphatically declared: ‘in order for Africa to achieve a greater share of world industrial production as well as to attain an adequate degree of collective self-reliance rapidly, Member States [of the Organisation of African Unity] proclaim the years 1980 to 1990 [as the] Industrial Development Decade in Africa’.[2]

Unfortunately, despite all this fervor, the African continent as a whole has not industrialised in any meaningful way over the last 60 years or so. The industrial level of many countries on the continent remains where it was at the time of political independence in the 1960s. Many have, in fact, de-industrialised. That is, the share of industry in their economic output is lower today than it was at the time of independence.

This inability to industrialise has had wide-ranging implications for the economic life of the African continent and its people. For example, real wages, which are often buttressed by industrial production, have declined and are lower today than they were in the 1970s.[3] Additionally, over the last three decades the number of people living in poverty has declined in every region of the world except for Africa, where the opposite has taken place. In 1990, close to 300 million people lived in poverty in Africa. By 2020, that number had grown to 400 million and is likely to grow further in the current decade.[4] Finally, the African continent is today more dependent on the rest of the world, especially the West, as a market for its primary commodities than at independence.

While industrialisation has eluded the African continent over the past six decades, during the same time period, China has registered unparalleled achievements in this regard. Ever since the reforms of the late 1970s heralded by Deng Xiaoping (邓小平), China has consistently grown its industrial base which, in turn, has led to one of the fastest reductions in poverty in human history.[5] In 1981, about 90 percent of the Chinese population lived in poverty. By 2018, China’s poverty rate had declined to a mere third of a percent.[6] Additionally, the country’s growth in industrial production has undergirded its rise as a serious economic and political player on the world stage with an unquestioned ability to determine its destiny.

Given China’s success at industrialisation and Africa’s struggles with it, there has curiously been a paucity of comparative scholarly work that seeks to draw out China’s lessons for Africa’s industrialisation. Even less has been work that considers whether China can be an effective ally in Africa’s hitherto elusive quest to industrialise.

It is this gap that the current issue of Wenhua Zongheng (文化纵横) seeks to fill. The two essays in this issue are written by leading Chinese scholars of comparative economic development. The first essay, by Professor Zhou Jinyan (周瑾艳) of Shanghai International Studies University, is titled ‘Africa’s Path to Industrialisation: How Can China Contribute to the Continent’s Economic Development?’. As the title suggests, the essay seeks to describe and analyse Africa’s historical experience with industrialisation while considering the role that China can play in the continent’s quest to develop. The essay starts out by acknowledging the facts presented earlier, namely that Africa has had a disastrous record with industrialisation. Rather than place the blame at the feet of Africans, as many, especially Western scholars, are wont to do, Professor Zhou sees this history of lacklustre industrial performance as largely the result of the ‘failure of Western development prescriptions’. For instance, she writes emphatically that ‘Western aid has promoted economic dependence in Africa, while the political, economic, and ideological hegemony of the West has reduced Africa’s policy space and autonomy. From neoliberal structural adjustment programmes to reform strategies aimed at improving the business and investment environment, Western prescriptions have not assisted African economic development’. In line with some of my own work, Professor Zhou decries the total dominance of Western intellectuals and experts in the policy process in Africa.[7]

The last section of Professor Zhou’s essay considers three ways in which China can contribute to Africa’s industrial development. First, she argues that China’s remarkable drive to build infrastructure across the African continent over the last three decades or so will greatly aid the continent’s aspirations at industrialisation. The building of modern ports, highways, and power stations should reduce the costs of production and thereby promote industrialisation. Second, China can aid Africa’s industrialisation through the realm of ideation by providing an alternative, state-led development model as opposed to the private sector-led, market-centric approach that is the staple of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The final way in which China can aid Africa’s industrialisation is by enhancing Africa’s autonomy in the global geopolitical arena by providing the continent with an alternative way to interact with the rest of the world along mutually reinforcing and respectful lines.

The second essay in this issue is titled ‘China’s Belt and Road Initiative and African Industrialisation’, written by Professor Tang Xiaoyang (唐晓阳) of Tsinghua University. The author is interested in understanding the impact that China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has had on the prospects of industrialisation in Africa. Professor Tang starts off his essay by arguing that ‘the biggest challenge to industrialisation in Africa lies in the difficulty of integrating various [production] elements into a system’. In other words, à la Adam Smith, Africa has failed to industrialise partly because of an absence of a division of labour in its industrial sector. Seen this way, entities within the continent’s industrial sector operate in a segmented and isolated fashion with very few linkages. Professor Tang further argues that the absence of a division of labour is itself a product of an absence of large-scale infrastructure on the continent that can enable intra- and inter-sectoral linkages. It is this constraint that the BRI is meant to alleviate through the promotion of ‘infrastructure connectivity’. Therefore, Professor Tang is emphatic in seeing the BRI as a pro-industrialisation strategy for Africa.

In closing, the current edition of Wenhua Zongheng with its focus on Africa’s industrialisation is a welcome intervention as we continue to debate the prospects of emancipatory development in Africa. As the essays in this edition demonstrate, there is much for Africa to learn from China’s experience with industrialisation. Further, there is much that China can do in advancing the continent’s aspirations for industrialisation in a just, humane, and comradely way.


Chelwa, Grieve. ‘Does Economics Have an “Africa Problem”?’. Economy and Society 50, no. 1 (2021): 78–99.

Organisation of African Unity. Lagos Plan of Action for the Economic Development of Africa, 1980–2000. Addis Ababa: Organisation of African Unity, 1980. https://www.nepad.org/publication/lagos-plan-of-action.

Rodrik, Dani. ‘An African Growth Miracle?’. Journal of African Economies 27, no. 1 (2018): 10–27.

World Bank and Development Research Centre of the State Council, People’s Republic of China. Four Decades of Poverty Reduction in China: Drivers, Insights for the World, and the Way Ahead. Washington, DC: World Bank, 2022. https://thedocs.worldbank.org/en/doc/bdadc16a4f5c1c88a839c0f905cde802-0070012022/original/Poverty-Synthesis-Report-final.pdf.

Author’s Notes

1. Organisation of African Unity, Lagos Plan of Action for the Economic Development of Africa, 1980–2000 (Addis Ababa: Organisation of African Unity, 1980), 15, https://www.nepad.org/publication/lagos-plan-of-action.

2. Organisation of African Unity, Lagos Plan of Action, 15.

3. Dani Rodrik, ‘An African Growth Miracle?’, Journal of African Economies 27, no. 1 (2018).

4. The statistics presented on poverty in Africa are from the World Bank’s Poverty and Inequality Platform, available here: https://pip.worldbank.org/home.

5. See Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, Serve the People: The Eradication of Extreme Poverty in China, Studies in Socialist Construction no. 1, July 2021, https://thetricontinental.org/studies-1-socialist-construction/.

6. World Bank and Development Research Centre of the State Council, People’s Republic of China, Four Decades of Poverty Reduction in China: Drivers, Insights for the World, and the Way Ahead (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2022), 1, https://thedocs.worldbank.org/en/doc/bdadc16a4f5c1c88a839c0f905cde802-0070012022/original/Poverty-Synthesis-Report-final.pdf.

7. See Grieve Chelwa, ‘Does Economics Have an “Africa Problem”?’, Economy and Society 50, no. 1 (2021).

Africa’s Path to Industrialisation: How Can China Contribute to the Continent’s Economic Development?

Zhou Jinyan

China’s Belt and Road Initiative and African Industrialisation

Tang Xiaoyang