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.

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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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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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The Chinese infrastructural fix in Africa: Lessons from the Sino-Zambian ‘road bonanza’

New article out in Oxford Development Studies


This article scrutinises the surge in Chinese-funded road development in Zambia with the help of David Harvey’s theory of spatio-temporal fixes. The ‘moving out’ of Chinese surplus capital and material to Africa has been facilitated by an extensive disbursement of loans and export credits for infrastructure projects. Transcending Harvey’s analytical ‘imperio-centrism’, the article shows that the actualisation of the Chinese infrastructural fix has been contingent upon Zambia’s ambitious, debt-financed infrastructure development agenda. Particularities of Chinese loan financing have thereby fostered ‘not so public’ procurement processes and accelerated Zambia’s rapid debt accumulation. As rising debt has imposed structural constraints, the recent shift in the financial governance of road development towards private project finance is analysed with reference to the Lusaka-Ndola dual carriageway. The renaissance of public-private partnerships and the gradual privatisation of Zambian roads signify new rounds of accumulation by dispossession, as the Chinese infrastructural fix enters its next stage.

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