China in Africa: Does history repeat itself?

  • Jean Raphaël Chaponnière


Once upon a time, an emerging Asian economic power made inroads on African markets. The entry of this newcomer aroused a flurry of criticisms from established European merchants. They claimed that this competition was unfair as it employed cheaper labour who toiled far longer hours than Europeans. Not only did this intruder base its competitiveness on the undervaluation of its currency but its financial practices were disloyal as it proposed three year maturity loans while established exporters offered a three month revolving credit. Last but not least, it infringed copyright. This issue was raised by Lieutenant Commander Astbury at a meeting of the House of Commons on November 1933. There, he showed to the assembly a pattern of cloth which had been sent from Manchester to South Africa at 33d. per yard and a copy of that same pattern which was sold at 19d. per yard. He then declared “How on earth can we meet that devastating competition? Within six months after we put a new pattern into the market that pattern is copied and a similar cloth is offered by this Asian competitor at a price which is 75 or 100 per cent below (..). What hope is there for the Lancashire cotton trade unless that competition is stopped?”1 These criticisms sound familiar to the reader as there are now used against China. The criticised new competitor in the 1930s, however, was Japan. Japan‘s entry in Africa started at the end of the 19th century and its exports surged after the Great Crisis (see part 1 of this article) and there are some interesting parallels to the 21st century rise of China in Africa. Japan‘s relations with Africa went beyond trade as illustrated by its special relationship with Ethiopia (see part 2). And as the emergence of this new power challenged Western historical domination, Japan was considered as a model by some African countries (see part 3).