Despite their growing concern for their own environmental status, China is continuing to contribute to deforestation in Africa

Photo Courtesy of Rainforest Action Network

A Closer Look at China’s Investment in Africa

By Ahalya Mahindra          December 10, 2017

China’s rise has been an apparent trend in the last few decades. It has earned the position of a dominant world player– especially with regards to trade and economic ties. More recently however, China’s increased involvement in the African continent has garnered global attention. Although there are significant benefits that arose out of the Chinese presence in these African countries, Chinese involvement is still the center of criticism, with increased apprehension from environmental advocacy groups. It is important to note that while much of the critiques are deserved, if the investment does not have a noticeable negative consequence on the environment, it often goes unnoticed.

David Shinn, an International Relations scholar and professor at George Washington University, has focused on the relations between China and Africa, publishing multiple books and articles on the matter. In an article published last year titled “The Environmental Impact of China’s Investment”, Shinn accounts for many important aspects of this relationship. He believes that it is useful identifying the relative priority of environmental problems to both governments in Africa and in China. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project surveyed people in 44 countries regarding the five greatest ‘dangers’ in the world. The survey included nine African countries: Tunisia, Nigeria, Egypt, Senegal, Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa and Uganda. According to the study, most African countries had similar concerns of “disease, poverty, civil conflict, ethnic violence and religious extremism.” These issues are more pressing to some countries than matters of the environment.

China, on the other hand, ranked pollution and environmental concerns as one of the most important dangers in the world. This result is puzzling to some, who believe China to be rather complacent and aloof when it comes to the environment. China’s rapid economic development the last few years has led to severe environmental pollution. Having the world’s largest population, the country has been the biggest consumer of energy since 2010 and subsequently the highest emitter of carbon dioxide. Some might be perplexed by the fact that although the Chinese view pollution and environmental degradation as a concern – why is it still such a widespread problem?

A separate study by the Pew group found that the Chinese public is “increasingly concerned about the country’s air and water quality”. It is interesting to note that the increasing public concern about matters such as these proves to be domestic challenge for the Chinese government. Shinn writes “The situation has reached a point where the environmental record of government officials has become an important part of their evaluation by the Communist Party; cadres are held accountable for their actions even after leaving their potential.”

As a result China has taken several steps toward paying more attention to environmental issues. This applies to domestic issues and overseas investment. In 2004, an environmental policy and impact assessment model was developed to encourage Chinese companies to comply with the policies of the host country regarding sustainable development and the protection of the environment. In 2006, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), which previously was not greatly concerned about the environment, shifted to a new approach by which leaders agreed to “intensify cooperation in environment protection, share experiences and boost sustainable development on both sides.” In 2009, at a FOCAC meeting, the discourse was focused on targeting issues pertaining to the environment, namely climate change. In 2013, China’s Ministry of Commerce and Ministry of Environmental Protection encouraged companies investing overseas to adhere to their guidelines for environmental analysis, including issues such as waste management and minimizing impact on local heritage.

With the abundance of evidence, China is making a move towards being more environmentally conscious, both domestically and in overseas investments. It is also, according to Shinn, in the best interest for them politically, to avoid exporting bad practices to other countries. This begs the question – why does China now have a reputation for ruining the environment in various African countries?

Arthur Mol, a professor at the Wageningen University, delves into the environment ‘conditionalities’ in China’s operations overseas. He attempts to decipher the logic of China-Africa relations; he points to China’s global search for resources, as well as the abundant availability of such resources in Africa. Another equally important point being that African countries are opening up their doors to trade in this era of what Mol refers to as “resource nationalism”, protectionist measures which arose out of the credit crunch of the 2008 financial crisis. Many African countries have plenty of interest in the Chinese investment. After a significant number of halted infrastructure-for-resource deals with Western countries, China was welcomed as an alternative benefactor. Many appear to be interested in China’s ‘no conditions’ aid, proving to be less constricting than their Western counterparts. Nevertheless, the China’s involvement has been met with criticism on their environmental impact.

Shinn discusses a number of case studies that demonstrate the negative impact that Chinese investment has on the environment. As previously mentioned, Shinn emphasizes that the positive impact of their investment is not as widely documented, and as a result negatively taints the image of China. This, however, does not mean that poor practices should persist. The following paragraphs outline several case studies Shinn focuses on, showing the negative impact some Chinese investment has had on both the the infrastructure and the environment in these countries.

Oil Sector Investment in Sudan and South Sudan : The China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) bought out Chevron’s concessions in the late 1970’s, becoming the main developers of oil wells in the region. This was due to the persisting civil war in Sudan, and the declining relations between Sudan and the US. Through various projects, CNPC financed most of the oil sector developments in Sudan, peaking at about 483,000 barrels per day in 2007. The development of the oil fields required intensive field research, such as the seismic surveying of land. This led to miles of bulldozed tracks, ravaging through farmland, pillaging forests. Deforestation was only one of the many concerns. The construction of the roads disrupted water flows, which in turn disturbed irrigation systems in the vicinity, leading to the evacuation of several communities. The contaminated pools of water filled with waste from the oil reservoirs were the most damaging to the environment spreading illnesses to the surrounding community, as well as killing a significant portion of livestock.

Oil and Iron Ore Investments in Gabon: In 2002, the government of Gabon made an effort towards protecting their environment by designating a quarter of its territory as a nature reserve, with the hopes of protecting the abundance of wildlife present in the region. Environmental concerns arose in the near future with the questionable practices of the Chinese company SINOPEC, a Chinese oil and gas company. The company was accused of polluting the national park by dynamiting and constructing new roads. The problems in Gabon were not only caused by SINOPEC – at this time the China National Machinery and Equipment Import and Export Corporation (CMEC) caused major environmental damage. Their work had caused massive deforestation as well as the Kongou falls on the Ivindo River. The level of pollution was also said to heavily impact the local fishing industry.

Timber Trade and Investment in Mozambique: In the recent years, China has been one of the major importers of the hardwood timber from Mozambique, receiving close to 90% of their total exports. The big concern arises from the fact that about 80% of all the logging in the forests in illegal. Therefore a large percent of the timber China imports is harvested illegally. Although they might not be directly extracting the material themselves, funding an illegal trade, especially one such as logging, poses a huge threat to the environment. Therefore, management and ensuring the sustainability of the forests in Mozambique is a very critical issue. The common illegal activity in the timber trade is harvesting beyond the permissible licensed amount. In 2009 a Chinese company named Kings Way was caught in their attempt to smuggle illegal timber into China, and ultimately fined. In  2015, it was revealed in an open investigation by Mozambique, that the illegal timber exports were still  a very prominent problem as they identified about 70 containers of wood shipped from Beira without any form of authorization.

These are just few of the many examples of the negative impact Chinese investment has on some African countries. The West and many independent media organizations in these countries more or less have a negative view of China. The fundamental issue is that the tainted perception of China exists, as the positive impact of their investment often goes unreported. Despite the improvements that China has shows, as well as their upward trajectory in terms of concern for the environment, these changes are slow. Shinn believes that in the more recent years, the Chinese government “has become more sensitive to criticism of overseas investment”. The efforts made include the implementation of the voluntary guidelines for companies investing overseas. Shinn believes that unless these guidelines are made mandatory and implemented with punishment, companies will be slow to change their behavior, and this environmental destruction will persist.

It is also important to examine this trade and these investments in a political sense. In the last decade, an increasing share of China’s natural resource consumption and their questionable practices often relate to peripheral regions (as we can see with the aforementioned case studies). Mol groups much of the Global South into these peripheral regions, and stresses on the countries in sub-Saharan Africa. He argues in his paper that the rise of China that we can witness is in line with a popular theory in political science and international relations as the World-Systems Theory.

This theory is based upon the idea of ‘environmentally unequal exchange’. The World-Systems Theory school of thought, popular in the late 70’s attributed the ascendance of hegemonic powers today, such as the US, Japan, the Dutch Republic and the British Empire, with environmentally unequal exchange, and exploitation of these peripheral countries. Some theorists foresee China as a dominant hegemonic power in the near future, and with the trends in their trade and investment, it can be understood why a parallel can be drawn with the countries listed above. These powers thrive off the peripheral nations through unfavorable terms of trade, which subsequently leads to the growth in their economies.

The theory points to the establishment of the hegemonic status in the world system believing it to be caused by the relentless destruction and pollution in the peripheral economy and environment. The evidence provided in Mol’s article relates very closely to the examples provided by Shinn. China’s rise fits clearly what World-Systems Theory identifies as the establishment power, through excessive natural resource procurement and incessant environmental degradation. Although China is making a conscious effort to improve their business practices and control their impact on the environment, the trajectory they have been on is a similar pattern to the rise of other hegemonic powers that we see in the world today.




Shinn, David H. (2016). The environmental impact of China's investment in Africa. Cornell International Law Journal, 49(1), 25-67. Retrieved Nov 05, 2017


Mol, A. (2011). China's ascent and Africa's environment. Global Environmental Change, 21(3), 785-794, Retrieved Nov 05, 2017

The Emerald Review

Interested in writing for The Emerald Review?

Email us at