The Political Economy of China’s Infrastructure Development in Africa: Capital, State Agency, Debt

New monograph in Palgrave’s International Political Economy series

Book description

This book sheds light on structural drivers that led to the Chinese omnipresence in African infrastructure markets and offers a strategic-relational approach to the study of African agency in Sino-African infrastructure encounters. Case studies cover the Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority (TAZARA), Zambia’s road sector as well as Tanzania’s Bagamoyo port and Standard Gauge Railway. It is shown that African (state) agency in the infrastructure sector is contingent upon dynamic state-society relations and distinct political-economic contexts and constraints. The book problematises contradictions related to infrastructure debt, the emergence of Sino-African public-private partnerships and the intensifying geopolitics-cum-geoeconomics of infrastructure across Africa.

The book…

  • Combines theorisation of Sino-African infrastructure cooperation with in-depth case studies from Tanzania and Zambia
  • Develops an original structurally grounded approach to the study of African agency in Sino-African relations
  • Adds nuance to the highly politicised debates about Chinese-owned African debt in times of intensifying geopolitics

Critics’ reviews

“Theoretically informed and enriched by fieldwork, this new book sheds light on the sometimes-murky depths of Chinese infrastructure engagement in Africa. Using Tanzania and Zambia to ground the research, Tim Zajontz highlights the African state strategies that shaped disparate outcomes. This perceptive analysis has global implications. It will be a useful resource for scholars and policymakers trying to understand the expansion of Chinese capital across Africa, and beyond.”

Deborah Brautigam, Bernard L. Schwartz Professor of International Political Economy Emerita, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University

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From Loan-Financed to Privatised Infrastructure? Tracing China’s Turn Towards Public–Private Partnerships in Africa

New article, co-authored with Kjeld van Wieringen, in the Journal of Current Chinese Affairs


Waning debt sustainability has challenged the debt-financed, infrastructure-led global expansion of Chinese capital. This article traces the gradual shift in the financial governance of the Belt and Road Initiative towards public–private partnerships (PPPs). We first document China’s domestic PPP experience and its failure to check the unsustainable indebtedness of sub-national governments. We then conceptualise China’s “turn” towards PPPs in Africa as an attempt at “metagoverning” its current growth model. Analysing official Chinese sources, we discern dominant Chinese narratives that present PPPs as panaceas for African debt problems. However, Chinese risk perceptions and empirical examples, such as the Nairobi Expressway, the Tanzania–Zambia Railway, and the Congolese Kolwezi–Kasumbalesa toll road, reveal that China’s experimentation with PPPs in Africa engenders new challenges, including popular contestation, controversies over financial terms and corruption. Furthermore, contrary to the official Chinese narrative, profit imperatives behind PPP investments and potential financial complications that were widespread in China’s domestic PPP experience risk adding to the financial burdens of African governments and populations.

Link to the article

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.

Link to the chapter

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.

Link to the chapter