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2006 was the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the first diplomatic ties between China and African countries and saw an increased focus on the relationship between China and Africa. In June 2006, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao visited ten African countries to promote China–Africa relations. In November, African heads of state met in Beijing to learn of a massive Chinese package of aid and assistance, including preferential loans, cancellation of debts, and numerous other initiatives.

Chinese engagement with Africa has become the topic of serious analysis and debate. In the field of governance, natural resources and markets, China’s presence is everywhere. Suddenly, Chinese influence in Africa has begun to top the foreign policy agenda of African governments. Chinese involvement in Africa has raised concerns about China's commitment to human rights issues and its policy on arms sales to African governments, while in the areas of textiles and natural resource exploitation, Chinese competition has generated some adverse consequences for African industry and the environment. China has been pronounced the new imperial power in Africa, usurping the influence of Western governments. However, a more nuanced approach and understanding of China–Africa relations might be more helpful.

Historically, China has played a different role in Africa from Africa's colonial powers, supporting African countries in various liberation struggles, providing educational opportunities and assisting in healthcare. Moreover, the rise of China in Africa does not just make problems for the continent, it also creates opportunities. As Stephen Marks pointed out in a recent editorial in Pambazuka News , Western corporations and governments now face competition – there is an alternative to the dictates of the international financial institutions – and this can give African states more room for manoeuvre. The African Union as well as civil society need to consider how to react to China's challenge while avoiding ’uncritical acceptance on the one hand or mere rejectionism on the other’.

Despite the clear influence of China, research, policy, debate and analysis on China’s present and future role in Africa remains limited. All too often, the influence of Western policy towards Africa dominates development discourse. What is missing is an integrated overview of Africa’s own response, especially by researchers and activists on the ground and an ongoing forum through which such an integrated response can be developed and sustained.

With the support of Christian Aid and TrustAfrica, Fahamu undertook a work in progress to identify leading institutions, activists and academics within Africa who were working on China. In the course of this review, we commissioned a number of researchers to write papers on the key issues for both this special issue of Pambazuka News (issue 282 of 14 December 2006) and for a book, which we plan to launch at the World Social Forum. Given the relatively short deadlines available to ensure that the book would be available at the World Social Forum, not everyone we approached was able to respond. The articles in this special edition provide, therefore, only a taste of the richness of research and reflection on the subject of China’s emerging role in Africa.

This special issue contains shortened versions of the articles that appear in the book 'African Perpectives on China in Africa', edited by Firoze Manji and Stephen Marks, and published by Fahamu in 2007. To save on space, we have not included references here. The full articles will appear in the book as will the references. We will also make the full texts of the articles available for download in PDF format at Pambazuka News website at

As we have several long articles, this special issue is published in two parts, the second part going out tomorrow in place of the usual Links and Resources.

Our intention in publishing this special edition is both to reflect the current thinking on the subject as well as to help nurture further research and engagement. But in so doing, we know that we are only beginning to understand the shifts in the balance of forces in Africa that are emerging as a result of what some refer to as ‘South–South cooperation’. There are four other players whose role needs further attention: India, Venezuela, Brazil and South Africa. We hope to turn our attention to these ‘new’ players in the coming year.

• Firoze Manji is director of Fahamu and editor of Pambazuka News.