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Today, the China Studies Program at SAIS hosted a former alumna and current SAIS visiting scholar to discuss, “Private Chinese Investment in Africa: Myths and Realities.”  This talk had two interesting angles that many similar endeavors lack – a free Chinese lunch buffet and a Chinese ex-World Bank official as the featured speaker.

First some points on the demographics of the audience ascertained through an unscientific visual scan.  The following groups appear to be interested in the subject of Chinese investment in Africa (both bullets in descending order of their cohort’s level of representation):

  • Female Asian students (presumably Chinese), retired white men, white male students

The following groups were not particularly well represented at all:

  • White female students, retired white women, Africans of either gender (I noted only one black male in the audience)

Before continuing, I must disclose that I had to leave at the end of Xiaofang Shen’s prepared remarks and missed all of the Q&A.  Shen discussed the results of her study examining Chinese investment (both private and state lead, though with a strong emphasis on the former) in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana, Zambia, Rwanda, and Liberia.  The rationale for the inclusion of the first four was that they were in the top 5 of Chinese investment destinations in Africa (she excluded South Africa from the study given its more advanced level of development).  I’m not sure why Liberia and Rwanda were thrown into the mix, although it was interesting to note that the Chinese presence in Liberia was significantly greater than that in Rwanda.  I was a bit curious as to why Angola did not make an appearance here, perhaps those with greater economic prowess than I could have deduced the reason from her slides.

Shen began her talk by critiquing the myth that the overall level of Chinese investment in Africa was miniscule, and that even amongst the Chinese, Africa is still seen as something of a fringe investment frontier (one slide showed that the size of the average Chinese investment project in Africa is smaller than that of those led by Indians).  Shen suggests that what is notable is the extreme acceleration of Chinese investments in Africa over the past decade.  The second myth that Shen debunked is that of excessive Chinese interest in industries that extract resources.  She suggests that the majority of Chinese private investment instead supports manufacturing (Liberia a notable exception) and the retail/service industry.

The speaker, as one may expect of a World Bank official of Chinese extraction, was generally bullish about the opportunities offered by Chinese private investment in Africa.  She did sound some cautionary notes regarding the insular nature of Chinese communities in Africa, but did not go into any specifics (at least in her prepared remarks).  If the Freer screening last week and the SAIS talk this week are any indication, the fires of the China in Africa discussion continue to burn brightly in the nation’s capital.