Chinese globalism, African regionalisms and state spatial strategies: The intricacies of regionalising Africa’s railway renaissance

New chapter in Routledge book on Africa’s Railway Renaissance: The role and impact of China


China’s keen interest in constructing railways in Africa has been lauded by many as conducive to contemporary African regionalisms that are aimed at boosting intra-African trade and regional value chains. Yet, the railway-regionalism nexus is more complex and contradictory than it appears at first sight. Drawing on expert interviews and various primary and secondary data, this chapter identifies three sets of contradictions in the multi-scalar spatial political economy of Africa’s recent railway renaissance that complicate the latter’s regionalisation and curtail its impact on regional integration. First, it is shown that the globalism underpinning China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the initiative’s predominant spatial logic of integrating African territories into China-centred, transregional value chains are not necessarily compatible with contemporary, more “inward-oriented” regionalisms advanced by the African Union, notably the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). A second set of contradictions is owed to the fact that – despite much regionalist rhetoric and ambition – railway projects have been determined by national priorities and politics and marked by inadequate regional coordination and harmonisation, as an analysis of railway politics in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the East African Community (EAC) reveals. Third, this chapter demonstrates that, in the case of East Africa’s ongoing “railway race”, Kenya’s and Tanzania’s competing state spatial strategies have exacerbated disintegrating tendencies in the EAC and have resulted in a regional railway patchwork and contestation from actors who have lost out from changing regional transport economies. This chapter concludes that the regional impact of Africa’s railway renaissance is compromised “from above” (the global scale) and “from below” (the national scale), with both globalist and nationalist logics ultimately undermining recent, “inward-oriented” regionalism in Africa.

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The political economy of China’s globalising railways – and their arrival in Africa

New chapter in Routledge book on Africa’s Railway Renaissance: The role and impact of China


This chapter sketches the historical development of China’s own railway sector and documents the centrality of railways in the current spatial reorganisation and expansion of the Chinese economy under the banner of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It problematises three contradictions that have arisen in the context of Chinese railway projects in Africa. First, the question to what extent Africa’s railway renaissance is ‘owned’ by Africans. The author argues that certain knowledge-transfer and capacity-building measures have ensured a degree of local ownership of Chinese rail projects. Yet, just as other foreign commercial actors, Chinese firms have little interest in technology transfers to an extent that would enable African construction firms and manufacturers to join the very markets these firms are keen to exploit. Second, the state-orchestrated incentivisation of overseas rail projects has resulted in cut-throat competition among Chinese firms in African markets, which, in turn, has fuelled corrupt practices to win contracts. The author suggests that intra-Chinese competition is likely to remain stiff in Africa, as loan financing from Chinese policy banks has been restricted. Simultaneously, competition with other foreign firms will intensify. Lastly, it is shown that Chinese railway loans have caused political controversies across the continent and have become increasingly risky. To keep up demand for Chinese construction firms and railway manufacturers despite unsustainable debt levels, sovereign railway loans will likely make way for more public-private partnerships in the coming decade of Africa’s railway renaissance.

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New book on Africa’s railway renaissance

Edited volume on China’s role in Africa’s railway renaissance will be published in Routledge’s New Regionalisms series in July 2023.

Book description

The recent renaissance of railways in African development planning at national, regional and continental levels of governance has coincided with growing Chinese interests in globalising the country’s railway sector and related industries under the Belt and Road Initiative. Half a century after the historic construction of the Tanzania-Zambia Railway, railway projects are yet again symbols of Sino-African cooperation, albeit in substantially different geo-political and economic circumstances. This book provides a multi-disciplinary study of key drivers behind, and ramifications of, Chinese-built railways in Africa.

The collection compiles research that ranges from the micro to the macro level of analysis, conducted by a diverse group of scholars from the fields of development studies, economics, engineering, geography, history, international relations, sociology and political science. The book contextualises China’s major role in Africa’s railway renaissance from political-economic, spatial and historical perspectives. It examines how Chinese-built railway projects have interrelated with African regionalisms and exposes persistent challenges in regionalising the continent’s railway renaissance. In-depth case studies provide insights into social, economic and political contexts of, popular narratives about, and lived experiences along railway projects with Chinese participation, including Angola’s Benguela line, the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway, Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway and Nigeria’s Lagos-Kano railway.

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From ‘debt diplomacy’ to donorship? China’s changing role in global development

New article, co-authored with Pádraig Carmody and Ricardo Reboredo, in Global Political Economy


Since the mid-1990s the Chinese state and the country’s businesses have significantly increased their activity throughout the Global South. In International Development, China’s impacts on this varied meta-region have generated substantial interest in recent years due to their scale, scope and distinctive nature. Understandably, given the complexity of the subject, most analyses have focused on discrete aspects of Chinese engagement rather than attempting to undertake more comprehensive assessments around its nature and evolution. This article engages this lacuna by identifying the main vectors of China’s engagement in the Global South, and examining their adaptive nature. In particular it identifies the main channels of impact and intersection before focusing on China’s signature foreign economic policy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), to ground the analysis. The article then examines the ways in which China is reconfiguring its foreign economic diplomacy in response to the issue of infrastructure-linked debt – perhaps the most controversial aspect of China’s growing global presence. We demonstrate that the Chinese ‘development’ policy is currently undergoing a substantial reorganisation towards soft power initiatives in response to (geo)political backlashes arising from the previous implementation of the BRI and the risks such loans present to the Chinese economy. We characterise this as an attempt at ‘normalisation’ of China as a ‘donor’, suggesting the power of global public opinion despite the ‘omni-channel politics’ and other power resources the country can bring to bear.

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Seamless imaginaries, territorialized realities: the regional politics of corridor governance in Southern Africa

New article out in Territory, Politics, Governance

Corridors are central to contemporary processes of spatial reordering. On the African continent, they feature prominently in development planning at national, regional and continental scales. This article sheds light on the regional politics and supranational governance of cross-border corridors, aspects that have remained underrepresented in the burgeoning literature on corridors. Combining theoretical insights from the New Regionalism Approach and critical political geography and focusing on the ‘corridor agenda’ pursued by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the article deconstructs dominant conceptions of corridors as archetypal spaces of flow and advances the argument that the spatial production and governance of cross-border corridors are contingent upon the compatibility of scalar and territorial articulations of state space. In the case of the Walvis Bay–Ndola–Lubumbashi Development Corridor, the incompatibility of Namibia’s decidedly regional ‘gateway strategy’ and Zambia’s (sub)national ‘pothole politics’ has yielded a connectivity patchwork. Efforts to institutionalize supranational corridor governance have been obstructed by state territoriality aimed at retaining political control over corridor space at the national scale. While commonly represented as spatial panaceas for attaining neoliberal meta-goals of global connectivity and seamless territorial integration, (trans)regional corridors are politically contested spaces that engender dialectical processes of de- and reterritorialization at various scales.

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‘Win-win’ contested: negotiating the privatisation of Africa’s Freedom Railway with the ‘Chinese of today’

New article out in the Journal of Modern African Studies


As infrastructure development has become a key ingredient in Africa–China relations, the role of African governments in co-determining the design, funding and governance of the continent’s infrastructures has come under close scrutiny. This article sheds light on the rehabilitation of a symbol of Sino–African friendship: the Tanzania–Zambia Railway Authority (TAZARA). Employing Jessop’s strategic-relational approach, it is shown that the strategies of the shareholding governments in the negotiations with a Chinese consortium were informed by strategic learning from previous railway privatisations, corresponding cost–benefit analyses and reflection about Chinese commercial interests. Zambia’s indebtedness and Tanzania’s autocratic developmental state under President Magufuli formed crucial elements of the structural context in which the fate of Africa’s Freedom Railway was negotiated. The article transcends both crudely structuralist accounts of a supposedly all-powerful China and voluntarist conceptions of African agency that are void of structure. Assessing (African) agency requires analytical sensitivity towards the dialectical interaction between specific strategic capacities and strategically selective political–economic contexts.

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Infrastructure and the Politics of African State Agency: Shaping the Belt and Road Initiative in East Africa

New article, co-authored with Frangton Chiyemura and Elisa Gambino, in Chinese Political Science Review


Infrastructure development has experienced a political renaissance in Africa and is again at the centre of national, regional, and continental development agendas. At the same time, China has been identified by African policy-makers as a particularly suitable strategic partner. As infrastructure has become a main pillar of Sino-African cooperation, there has been growing analytical interest in the role of African actors in shaping the terms and conditions and, by extension, the implementation of infrastructure projects with Chinese participation. This follows a more general African “agency turn” in China–Africa studies, which has shifted the research focus onto the myriad ways in which African state and non-state actors shape the continent’s engagements with China. This article is situated within this growing body of literature and explores different forms of African state agency in the context of Tanzania’s planned Bagamoyo port, Ethiopia’s Adama wind farms, and Kenya’s Lamu port. We posit a non-reductionist and social-relational ontology of the (African) state which sees the state as a multifaceted and multi-scalar institutional ensemble. We show that the extent and forms of state agency exerted are inherently interrelated with and, thus, highly contingent upon concrete institutional, economic, political, and bureaucratic contexts in which African state actors are firmly embedded. In doing so, we make the case for a context-sensitive analysis of various spheres of state agency in particular conjunctures of Sino-African engagement.

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Remembering Ian Taylor

Last year in February, Professor Ian Taylor of the University of St Andrews passed away after a short struggle with cancer. Ian was a world-renowned scholar in the fields of African Studies, International Relations and Global Political Economy. Besides his remarkable academic achievements, Ian was an extremely passionate educator as well as a kind, humorous and supportive colleague and friend to many of us. This is a modest attempt at paying tribute to an inspiring intellectual and true friend of Africa.

Together with his twin brother Eric, Ian grew up on the Isle of Man, before the family relocated to West London where he spent his teens and would become a die-hard Brentford FC supporter – in his words a ‘100% local club’. Whilst there were few points of contact to Africa on the small Crown dependency in the Irish Sea, Ian, early on, developed an interest in Africa, as he heard stories from his grandmother whose parents had lived in South Africa, and where a large network of relatives still live.

After reading History and Politics at what was then the Leicester Polytechnic, Ian used a gap year in 1991-92 for his first travel to southern Africa – obviously at quite a formative time for the region. This trip clearly left a firm impression on him, as he would return to the region throughout his life. However, first he joined Jo, the love of his life whom he met in South Africa, when she took up Ph.D studies at the University of Hong Kong in 1994. Ian enrolled himself for a Master’s there. His 368-pages M.Phil thesis on China’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Africa laid the cornerstone for one of his research specialisations and arguably also for a new sub-discipline, China-Africa studies. One of his first academic articles, an output from his M.Phil research, was published in the Journal of Modern African Studies and has since been cited 357 times (Taylor 1998). Exactly 18 years later, Ian became co-editor-in-chief of this prestigious journal, together with Ebenezer Obadare.

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Railway Imperialisms in East Africa: Laying the Tracks for Exploitation

New chapter out in The Oxford Handbook of Economic Imperialism, edited by Zak Cope and Immanuel Ness


Physical infrastructure has been central to the century-long exploitation of Africa’s soil and peoples by external powers. This chapter sheds light on the pivotal role of railways in the political economies of historical and contemporary imperialisms in East Africa. It first recounts how rail infrastructure developments in Britain’s East Africa and Uganda Protectorates as well as in German East Africa fostered colonial primitive accumulation by forcing local and imported labour power to construct the means that would accelerate the theft of the continent’s natural wealth. In a second step, the chapter examines how contemporary infrastructure development in the region has continually served economic imperialisms. China’s transition from a provider of anti-imperial infrastructure, in the form of the Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority (TAZARA), to a neo-imperial investor is problematized in the context of East Africa’s gradual integration into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Drawing on David Harvey’s theorization of spatio-temporal fixes as a tendency inherent to capitalist imperialism, the chapter documents how debt-financed large-scale infrastructure projects, such as Kenya’s new Standard Gauge Railway, serve the geographical expansion of Chinese surplus capital and lock the region into Chinese-centred systems of accumulation. The chapter concludes that Africa’s contemporary infrastructure boom perpetuates the continent’s dependent integration into the global capitalist economy and facilitates new forms of accumulation by dispossession.

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Gerechtigkeit global gedacht

Rede beim Neujahrsempfang der SPD Uhingen am 9. Januar 2022

© Heidi Lorenz

(Es gilt das gesprochene Wort)

Sehr verehrte Damen und Herren,

zunächst einmal ganz herzlichen Dank an euch, Susanne und Michael, für die freundliche Einladung nach Uhingen zu eurem traditionsreichen Neujahrsempfang. Nicht nur ist es in den aktuellen Zeiten grundsätzlich schön, unter Einhaltung der notwendigen Maßnahmen persönlich zusammen zu kommen und sich auszutauschen. Schließlich sind wir alle soziale Wesen. Nein, es freut mich auch im Besonderen, mal wieder in Uhingen und in eurem tollen Uditorium zu sein.

Die heutige Neujahrsansprache ist überschrieben mit “Gerechtigkeit global gedacht“. Nun muss ich gleich zu Beginn sagen, dass sich dieses Thema tatsächlich nur mäßig dazu eignet, zu Beginn des Jahres gute Laune zu versprühen. Wir werden bereits von der allabendlichen Tagesschau daran erinnert, wie ungerecht es doch in vielerlei Hinsicht in Deutschland, an Europas Außengrenzen oder aber auf anderen Kontinenten zugeht. Trotzdem möchte ich in der nächsten knappen halben Stunde mit euch und Ihnen, ein wenig laut darüber nachdenken, warum es gerade vor dem Hintergrund aktueller Herausforderungen so wichtig ist, Fragen globaler Gerechtigkeit ins Zentrum gesellschaftlicher und politischer Debatten zu rücken. Ich werde dabei in der gebotenen Kürze einige globale Gerechtigkeitslücken ansprechen. Zugleich verspreche ich aber, mit einer optimistischen und hoffnungsvollen Note zu enden.

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