The fall in global commodity prices since 2014 has negatively impacted many resource-exporting economies in Africa, with implications for the China-Africa relationship. Since 2014, total volumes of China-Africa trade have declined steeply. African exports to China fell dramatically between 2014-2015, and while Chinese exports to Africa continued to rise in 2015, this trend appears to have also reversed: our most recent year of data shows that African imports of Chinese goods have also fallen.
This may indicate the effects of low commodity values, as well as the problems of exchange rate crises in many large economies in Africa, which have impacted economic demand and buying power for Chinese goods. Interestingly, this trend appears to have also affected the market for Chinese contractors. Our new 2016 data for labor and contract revenues (below) illustrates what appears to be a downturn in African construction markets, with consequences for Chinese SOEs and private contractors on the continent.
Correlating to the decline in contractor revenues, we also see a similar decrease in the numbers of Chinese workers in Africa in 2016. Data for this also comes from official governmental reports—which encompass only the Chinese workers who arrive in Africa for specific projects, and do not give figures for traders, private entrepreneurs and small investors who come to African countries independently. At the end of 2016, there were over 227,000 Chinese workers in Africa, according to official sources -- with Algeria hosting 40% of all Chinese workers, close to 100,000. This is a steep decline from 2015—within a year, 36,000 Chinese workers left the continent. As contract revenues decline, it is not unexpected that employment opportunities for Chinese workers overseas are also tighter.
Though falling numbers of Chinese labourers can also be accounted in completion of large projects, or wider trends of labor force localisation, it is clear in the shifting economic relationship between China and African economies, that Chinese firms and economic actors are also feeling the effects of Africa’s economic downturn.