China to fund new railway line in East Africa

In the latest of many huge projects on the African continent, China has promised to build a railway from Kenya to Uganda. But is it for everyone’s benefit or part of a new colonial empire?

In 1896, the British Empire started work on its most ambitious project in Sub-Saharan Africa, a 1000-km long railway linking Uganda to Kenya’s east coast. Africans called it the ‘Iron Snake’, British newspapers ‘the lunatic line’. Of the 2,500 workers who died constructing it, 130 were eaten by a pair of lions with a taste for human flesh.

More than a century later, this rickety remnant of colonial times is nearing the end of the line. On a visit to Africa, China’s prime minister has just signed a contract to build a new $3.8bn replacement track which will link Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan. Trains will travel at a top speed of 75mph, massively reducing the time and cost of moving goods in the region.

It is part of a Chinese-funded infrastructure boom unlike anything Africa has seen before. From Angola to Ethiopia, Nigeria to Zambia, Chinese companies are investing heavily in raw materials like oil, copper, cobalt and rare metals. One has offered Congo $6bn to build mines, 2,400 miles of road, 32 hospitals and two universities.

But not everyone is happy. The governor of Nigeria’s central bank complains that China’s actions have ‘a whiff of colonialism’ as it takes raw materials then sells back finished products at a much higher price. Hilary Clinton has voiced concern, and primate expert Jane Goodall adds that the Chinese companies are ‘leaving people poorer’.

Many labour groups are also worried. One study of labour conditions in ten countries found it was a ‘common trait’ that Chinese companies were ‘among the worst employers anywhere’. They say Chinese companies regularly flout minimum wage laws, and force workers to work terrible hours for low pay.

The Chinese government insists this criticism is unfair. It notes 85% of the people working for Chinese companies are Africans, which shows how valuable jobs are being created. Its emphasis on building schools and facilities shows that it is interested in a mutual partnership with Africa, not just exploitation, as was the case with colonial powers.

On a new track

Some say that China is not investing in Africa simply out of generosity and that this is the exploitation of poor countries by a powerful one, just as Europe’s great powers carved up Africa in the 19th century. We need to keep a close eye on its actions.

On the other hand, many think that China has simply seen great opportunities and the West is suspicious because it did not take advantage first. Of course China is interested in natural resources, but it is also ensuring Africa gets a fantastic deal in return. African governments would know for themselves if they were being exploited, and it is patronising of the West to say otherwise.

You Decide

  1. Should we be suspicious of China’s intentions in Africa or are we being cynical?
  2. Is a business partnership ever truly mutually beneficial or is one side always exploiting the other?


  1. In pairs, find the African countries mentioned in the article on a map.
  2. Using the links in ‘Become an Expert’, research China’s ties with Africa. Write a report on whether you think it is a mutually beneficial relationship.

Some People Say...

“It is only guilt over its own colonial past which makes the West suspicious of China.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why do I need to worry about what happens in Africa?
Many people are uneasy about China’s economic rise and worry it may have ambitions to become much more powerful abroad. However, China denies this and some experts say it has more than enough issues to take care of at home, like political unrest and pollution. But whether its actions in Africa are good or bad, they will have consequences for millions across the world.
Don’t Western countries invest in Africa too?
Yes, but they usually offer investment through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and typically only with strings attached, such as introducing democratic reform. China, however, does not demand reform. This makes some worry it is encouraging authoritarian governments at the expense of democracy.

Word Watch

Since the economic reforms in the 1980s, China’s economy has been growing at an incredible rate of 10% a year, lifting over 500m people out of poverty. It has been investing heavily in raw materials around the world to help fuel this growth.
Pro-China experts say that China’s own rapid growth has made it very aware of just how important higher education is to lifting countries out of poverty, adding that its investment in education is a sign of its good will.
Jane Goodall is regarded as the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees and has devoted her life to conservation projects in Africa.
Zimbabwean workers for one China company were paid less than a dollar an hour, which meant they could only afford to buy oil for cooking after half a day’s work.
Many in China feel humiliated by its experience with colonial powers. After the first Opium War ended in 1842, China ceded territory to the British which became the highly successful trading port of Hong Kong. Given this history, the Chinese government says it has no interest in becoming a colonial power.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.