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Illustration of China's influence in Africa—a Chinese flag in the shape of the African continent.

China’s role in Africa focus of Des Forges symposium


Published April 16, 2018


China’s increasingly active role in Africa’s economic development has been a recent topic of discussion. The Chinese claim they are dedicated to the economic development and social welfare of the countries where they are working, but some critics assert they are behaving very much in the manner of Europeans and Americans, who too often have exploited the human and material resources of Africa to their own benefit and with little positive impact on Africa.   

To enhance the understanding of China’s record in Africa in comparison with those of Europeans and Americans, experts from leading universities and research institutes in China, the U.S. and Europe will gather on April 26 at UB for a daylong symposium, “China in Africa: Global Perspectives.”

Presenters will range from Fantu Cheru, a senior researcher at the African Studies Centre at Leiden University and associate senior fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, to Liu Haifang, professor and deputy director of the Center for African Studies in the School of International Studies at Peking University.

The free, public event will take place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in 120 Clemens Hall, North Campus.

It will be followed by a scholarship fund dinner in Buffalo that benefits students interested in human rights.

Both the symposium and dinner honor the memory of Alison L. Des Forges, a member of the UB community who fought to call the world’s attention to another great humanitarian crisis: the genocide in Rwanda.

Des Forges, an internationally known historian and Buffalo native, was an adjunct member of the UB history faculty during the 1990s and received a SUNY honorary doctorate during UB’s 155th general commencement ceremony in 2001.

She was one of the world’s leading experts on Rwanda, serving as an expert witness in 11 trials at the United Nations International Criminal Court for Rwanda. Her award-winning book, “Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda,” was a landmark account of the 1994 genocide, and her tireless efforts to awaken the international community to the horrors that occurred earned her a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999.

The symposium will open with registration and welcoming remarks at 9 a.m., followed by panels focusing on African Perspectives, and Chinese, European and American Perspectives.

The African Perspectives panel, which runs from 9:30 a.m. to noon, includes the following presentations:

  • “Understanding China’s Embrace of Africa in a Broader Historical Perspective”

Howard W. French, professor, Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University

This talk will discuss how China’s economic and political push to engage the African continent, beginning in the early 1990s, set the stage for China’s current and much broader global ambitions, and especially for President Xi Jinping’s trademark Belt and Road Initiative.

  • “In the Shadow of China: African Development Prospects in the 21st Century”

Fantu Cheru, senior researcher, African Studies Centre, Leiden University, and associate senior fellow, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute

China is not the sole power in search of Africa’s resources and it is subject to the same political gravity as many western powers trying to exert influence on Africa. Transforming the new relationship into a “win-win” partnership will ultimately depend on African agency. African countries can negotiate with China from a position of strength only if committed political leaders with long-term visions are prepared to act regardless of the risks involved. In the absence of this, the relationship with China could turn out to be “colonialism by invitation.”

  • The Changing Dynamics of Chinese Oil and Gas Engagements in Africa

Cyril Obi, program director, African Peacebuilding Network, Social Science Research Council
This talk examines how Chinese state oil corporations have engaged African petro-states through investments in the oil and gas sector, the different phases of what has been tagged as “Chinese Resource Diplomacy,” and its impact on Sino-African relations. It offers explanations for how lessons learned and experiences gained by both sides have impacted the dynamics of China-Africa relations. The talk then weighs in on the debate over the implications of the entry of Chinese oil companies into Africa’s oil fields — traditionally dominated by western oil multinationals — for Africa’s development, and explores the prospects for future relations.

The Chinese, European and American Perspectives panel, which runs from 1-3:30 p.m., includes the following presentations:

  • “The Relationship between the Belt-Road Initiative (BRI) and Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC)”

Liu Haifang, professor and deputy director, Center for African Studies, School of International Studies, Peking University

At the BRI Summit held in Beijing in May 2017, Africa was included in the “Belt and Road Initiative.” Scholars in China and elsewhere are tempted to ask which projects already underway in Africa will be included in BRI and which will continue simply under FOCAC. In other words, how should we understand the relations between FOCAC and BRI? What kinds of projects can we expect to result from the combination of the two strategies and how might they benefit Africa more? Liu will try to provide answers to these current issues based on her observation of the evolution of China’s African policies and her empirical research on particular cases.


  • China’s Involvement in African Mega-Infrastructure: The Case of Kenya’s Madaraka Express

Uwe Wissenbach, diplomat, European Union
This talk will describe and analyze the decisive impulse of Chinese financing and know-how in African infrastructure mega-projects through a case study:  Kenya’s new railway, the Madaraka (“self-rule”) Express between the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa and the capital Nairobi. It’s a story of an unlikely achievement against many odds that plague megaprojects in general and those in African countries in particular: institutional voids, lack of local skills and inefficient bureaucracies. While the train is now up and running, and is Kenya’s pride, there are critical issues, such as African agency, project organization, corruption, vested interests (trucking), skills transfer, labor and ethnic issues, compulsory land acquisition, impact on wildlife and the long-term cost-benefit and debt calculations. Uwe will address some of those and focus on differences between traditional “Western” approaches to infrastructure financing in African countries and the specific Kenyan-Chinese one.


  • How the U.S. Engages across the African Continent and How China Factors into their Thinking

Sarah Margon, Washington director, Human Rights Watch

With an emphasis on good governance, humanitarian aid — particularly in areas of health and education — and private-sector-led investment, the United States’ priorities on the African continent and how it pursues policy objectives are vastly different from those of China, which includes “non-interference” and political independence, infrastructure development and state-sponsored investment. The Trump administration’s lack of interest in prioritizing Obama- and even Bush-era initiatives enhances growing concern over China’s influence in the region, now the continent’s largest trading partner. The White House has yet to define an Africa strategy, while the general foreign policy agenda signals movement toward bolstering security initiatives. This, in addition to a hollowing of the State Department and USAID — with proposed budgets cuts and numerous vacant seats at senior-level positions — raises concerns over whether the U.S. is “ceding Africa to China” and leaves the door open for Chinese “soft power” to become a substitute for long-standing U.S. support in areas of democratic processes, human rights, civil society and independent media.

Sponsors include the Alison L. Des Forges Memorial Committee and the UB Asian Studies Program; Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy; Department of Comparative Literature; Confucius Institute; Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion; Department of History; Humanities Institute; James Agee Chair in American Culture; Department of Philosophy Samuel P. Capen Chair; Department of Political Science; and Office of the Vice Provost for International Education.

Scholarship dinner

A scholarship dinner and discussion after the symposium will support an endowment that funds Alison L. Des Forges Memorial Scholarships for Buffalo Public Schools graduates demonstrating a strong interest in pursuing studies at UB related to human rights and social justice.

The dinner, which costs $100 per seat, takes place from 6:30-9:30 p.m. April 26 at the Jacobs Executive Development Center, 672 Delaware Ave., Buffalo.

Reservations are required, and guests may RSVP by contacting Kathleen Curtis at 716-645-2077 or