Are China’s development practices problematic?

In recent days the Chinese financial crisis has dominated the news. Everyone from the Economist to the Guardian are predicting ‘the great fall of China.’ The West’s conviction ‘that China is no longer a powerhouse for global growth’ is drenched in self-satisfaction. It is no secret that, in particular, the US and the UK finds China’s unrelenting financial growth and the emergence of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a bank set to rival the West’s International Monetary Fund (IMF), deeply uncomfortable.

The same applies to China’s international development practices. International development does not exist in a vacuum, as it is tied to wider geopolitical and ideological agendas. Thus, China’s approach to development, especially in Africa has been widely criticised by Western powers. China is accused of overlooking the social, human rights and good governance aspects of international development that Western development treasures so much. Instead, China focuses on straightforward infrastructural projects that claim to have fewer conditions than the Western approach, which often requires a country to demonstrate that they can perform well against certain criteria, such as reduced corruption or liberal trade agreements.

China claims that they are serving the real needs of Africa whereas the West argues that this is done at the expense of environment and human rights. China’s policy of awarding construction contracts to Chinese companies is also admonished because this limits employment opportunity for local workers and instead addresses China’s own unemployment issues.

The assumption that China’s approach to development is problematic has become dogmatic, which overlooks the complexity of its role in developing countries.

The first is the narrative that depicts Africa in need of saving from a new exploitative power, which is a hangover from the colonial era. This discourse causes us to disregard the power that Africa gains from having a solid, alternative development model to the entrenched Western one. For instance, in Angola after the civil war in 2002, Angola chose to reject the IMF’s criteria for good performance and staff monitored programmes in favour of an oil-backed loan with the China Construction Bank that had far few conditions. Angola can also play China against Brazil, Portugal and South Africa who are also vying for Angola’s natural resources.

The second misconception is that China is an emerging player in the development field when in fact China has had intimate development ties with Africa since the Cold War. That criticisms of Chinese development have emerged only in recent years suggests that they are interlaced with wider geopolitical debates concerning China’s emerging role as a leading economic power.

Thirdly, as noted by researchers at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), ‘China is not a monolithic entity…driven by a grand strategy.’ In fact it is private companies who the Chinese embassy does not control that implement a large part of Chinese development. Accordingly, this makes it harder to label and categorise Chinese development as destructive when in reality it is much more fluid. However, this also means that Chinese development is often performed in an ad hoc manner because its Department of Foreign Assistance lacks the capacity, personnel and status to monitor, evaluate and control overseas development policy. Zhenbo Hou, from ODI suggests that the Chinese government should consider partnering with Western style development agencies, such as the UK’s Department for International Development to improve their development expertise. Whether China chooses to do so remains to be seen.

Thus, Chinese development is far from the straightforward, destructive image depicted by the West. China’s recent and enormous donations to West Africa for the Ebola crisis is another example of how China’s wealth can potentially improve millions of lives by fostering a South-South partnership.

But what is missing through all of these debates are the voices of ordinary people. Although a reduced ties oil deal benefited Angola’s government and elite, how did this impact Angola’s citizens? What are the consequences for those living near Angolan oil reserves, for example? This is something I would like to see much more of in future discussions concerning Chinese development practice, as without it, we can never properly assess the true impact of Chinese development.



Tan-Mullins, M., Mohan, G. and Power, M. (2010) Redefining ‘AID’ in the China-Africa Context. International Institute of Social Studies. Development and Change 41(5): 857-881

Rosie Wigmore
Rosie is the Development Editor for The Atlas Times. She is currently studying for her MA in Social Development at the University of Sussex. Her research has been based in Sierra Leone and more recently medical anthropology and the politics of disease and bio-security.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *