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
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).

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