China is large. Large population. Large land area. Large economy. China is so large that it often easily dominates any relationship and any analysis of that relationship…even when that relationship is between China and 54 other countries. Mohan and Lampert’s 2013 article, “Negotiating China: Reinserting African Agency into China-Africa Relations“, helps us zoom out from China and pan towards Africa.
Summary: Mohan and Lampert argue that China-Africa relationships are maturing beyond state-to-state deals, thus it is critical to start considering African agency at levels below the state. They offer case studies from Angola, Nigeria, and Ghana that show how actors beyond the African states are “acting to leverage benefits from Chinese investment” (92) and are not just passive recipients. For example, African companies choosing to import Chinese labor and skill and Chinese private enterprises that depend on locals to survive. Additionally, Chinese business seems to result in African entrepreneurs as African employees develop new skills and capabilities under Chinese management before establishing businesses of their own.
Reflections: Since I tend to be working from China, I appreciate articles like Mohan and Lampert’s to help me keep various African voices in focus. The authors also point out that an actor-agent lens is important for researchers concerned with Chinese motivations as well. Chinese involvement in the “differentiated landscape of African politics” result in Chinese actors who take on different engagement strategies depending on the history and geography of an African state. Understanding that African agency varies and is context-specific, sheds light on when and where China is able to successfully engage or stumble.