China has been accused of debt trap diplomacy through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Starting with the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, commentator William He examines the rhetoric surrounding the BRI, and controversies that have emerged from Asia to Africa. Is the BRI a channel for China to expend overproduction, infrastructure construction to boost connectivity, or a grand project to take over the world and counter the US?


China offered several loans to developing countries in Africa, and received criticism for engaging in debt-trap diplomacy by various officials from Western countries. I was wondering if there was any official from African countries who criticized China for engaging in debt-trap diplomacy, because I don't ever recall that happened.

  • 1
    Worth noting that the number of Chinese ex-pats in Africa is down by more than 50% and the amount of Chinese investment in Africa is down by more than 60% over the last five years or so (I may post an answer if I can find links to those statistics that I am recalling from memory right now). For whatever reason, China is backing away from involvement in Africa in a big way. This could have been COVID related, but it could be part of a bigger unannounced change in policy.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Mar 29 at 20:05

3 Answers 3


Regarding criticism from politicians, the Sri Lanka affair did trigger some, but not Africa:

Letter to Xi: Lankan MP accuses Beijing of pushing Colombo into debt trap

pulled up Beijing and his own party and previous governments led by Mahinda Rajapaksa for pushing the island nation into a debt trap through Chinese loans and projects under the Belt and Road Initiative.

Mind you, there are also some claims that "debt-trap diplomacy" is a Western way to disparage China.

A maybe more calm and reasoned way to assess things is that Western countries had a gradual learning curve with loans to poor nations themselves. In the 80s and 90s it became apparent that many African nations had been put in an extremely nasty position with much of their surplus servicing past debts. The spectre of bad PR and cold commercial reality - these were dud loans - gradually made Western donors more "forgiving". This ended up with "Heavily Indebted Poor Countries" (HIPC Initiative), in 1996.

But it certainly did not start out that way. And China seems wary of joining such approaches.

Not that I am accusing China of of such selflessness as putting its own national interests after those of its debtor nations, either, no sir. Look at how it handled things with Venezuela.

p.s. China has a long history of going ballistic on the slightest diplomatic slight. Ask Australia's wine growers. I find it unsurprising African leaders would stay clear of this. And the Q also needs to take into account one claimed characteristic of Chinese loans: that they are quite beneficial to political leaders, with few strings attached on things like human rights. So Africa's eternal incumbents are not an obvious place to be hearing criticism from.


Some African parties and their leaders, even if (presently) not power, have attacked China though, on a broad populist message. E.g.

The leader of Patriotic Front Party (PFP) in Zambia, Michael Sata, effectively utilised anti-Chinese populist strategy in his presidential campaign. Part of the wedge appeal was a vow to deport foreign investors and business owners, primarily Chinese, if elected. Rehashing public discussions, Sata in his campaign messaging portrayed Chinese investors as ‘exploiters’ of the country’s natural resource. Besides, he branded Chinese as ‘infesters’, and accused Chinese companies of practising ‘slave labour’ and accordingly promised concerned constituents he would not only undertake deportation of Chinese if elected but also initiate a fiscal regime barring Chinese investors repatriating their income from the country.

[...] By riding on the anti-Chinese populist surge, Sata and the PFP won the presidency in 2011.

But they lost it in 2021. (Sato died in office earlier, in 2014, but was succeeded by other presidents from PFP.) Zambia reportedly also has some the highest debt owed to China. I would not be surprised if the issue was also mentioned in those campaigns, but I can't point to specific statements. About three years ago, Zambia defaulted and its now in some kind of debt restructuring process, with Chinese participation. The opposition (UPND) guy who won the 2021 election reportedly was pushing for a 20% 'haircut' on the debt.

Hichilema, who has lost five previous elections, did not make the issue of Chinese debt as prominent as in previous campaigns and will need Beijing’s help in restructuring the country’s debt after a recent Eurobond default. [...]

In what was seen as a change of tune, in August that year [2021], Hichilema wrote to the Chinese embassy saying his United Party for National Development would “work hard to strengthen the friendship between our two nations” if it won the election.

However, he continued to warn that the country’s debts to China “had brought about major socio-economic problems.”

Which suggests that previously he campaigned on that issue, even if not using the Western 'debt trap' term.

And more recently in Kenya (2022):

Kenya’s new president, William Ruto, has signalled that the East African nation will still look to China to finance and develop its infrastructure – a U-turn from the antagonistic stance he struck during the campaign.

China is Kenya’s largest bilateral lender and has financed infrastructure projects from railways to highways. But during the presidential campaign, Chinese lending became a major political issue, with Ruto blaming those loans for Kenya’s debt troubles.

The rhetoric appears to get toned down or reversed once these African China-critics get to power though.

Also (from my first source), the playbook has been adopted by opposition elsewhere in Africa, even if not always successful in giving them power e.g.

From the playbook of Michael Sata of Zambia, the leader of Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change Party (MDC), Nelson Chamisa, also adopted anti-Chinese populist strategy as a wedge issue in the 2018 presidential campaign platform. At the centre of Chamisa’s campaign was a vow to ‘expel’ Chinese investors from Zimbabwe, and also cancel all perceived unfair bilateral agreements signed involving China if elected as President. This was a remarkable turn of event considering the long-cherished Zimbabwe–China ties. [...] In a speech at a rally in the capital of Harare commemorating the 2018 May Day, Chamisa declared:

I have seen the deals that ‘Ngwena’ [referring to President Mnangagwa] has entered into with China and others, they are busily asset-stripping the resources of the country. I have said beginning September when I assume office; I will call the Chinese and tell them the deals they signed are unacceptable, and they should return to their country.

Chamisa failed to win that election, but he did score a respectable 45%.

Sometimes the criticism is directed at specific projects, e.g. in 2018:

[the] new president of Sierra Leone Julius Maada Bio canceled a Chinese-funded airport project signed by his predecessor, after referring to Chinese projects as “a sham” during a campaign debate.

And you might notice that some of this African criticism isn't directly purely at China (like much of the Western 'debt trap' talk is) but also takes aim at African leaders who agreed to those projects/terms.


I would say that "debt-trap diplomacy" is largely a liberal propaganda claim which seeks to characterise positive commercial and political relationships between China and developing countries as somehow coercive.

The real issue for the West is that China is offering better terms to developing countries with fewer strings, and thereby gaining friends and favour, and willing participants.

China, for its part, uses its investments to expand its potential export markets, expand and secure its market for imported raw materials, and expand opportunities for its companies and workers to gain experience in major infrastructure projects.

This is different when the West is involved, who typically try to create local capitalist elites who are usually deeply corrupt, and try to create opportunities to offshore work entirely from their mainlands and exploit cheap foreign labour (since the liberal model is all about attacking Western workers and offshoring work, rather than Chinese policy which is to promote the development of its working class).

And unlike the USA which regularly uses its tentacles to overturn regimes it dislikes, or even sends in troops (as it does almost ceaselessly), there's very little evidence of China interfering covertly to overturn foreign regimes and even less of it sending in troops.

So I would treat claims of "debt-trap diplomacy" for what it is - a mendacious smear from political quarters that cannot be trusted, rather than a serious account of political relations in the world.

  • This answer could be improved by directly addressing the question: Did any African country accuse China of debt-trap diplomacy? Commented Mar 31 at 23:22

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