Friday, December 10, 2021

Montenegro, China, and the Media: A Highway to Disinformation?

"Perast - Montenegro" by MILACHICH is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

How do Chinese banks really lend in risky countries overseas? Although no documented cases have come to light in Africa (or elsewhere), rumors that Chinese loan contracts allow China to seize land or unrelated strategic assets, like ports, as collateral for sovereign (i.e. government) loans are rife in African media and civil society.

As part of our ongoing CARI research project on Chinese lending, we published this week a detailed investigation by our European colleagues Laure Deron, Thierry Pairault, and Paola Pasquali into similar media rumors surrounding a Chinese-financed highway in the small, mountainous Eastern European nation of Montenegro. 

The Chinese loan contract for this highway has been available online.* These scholars’ detailed examination of this case sheds light on just how reporters’ lack of understanding of common legal terms, in a context where the “China threat” narrative boosts viewership, can lead to rumors like these: 

ON JUNE 21 2021, THE FRENCH PUBLIC TELEVISION channel France 2 evening news aired a report in which it was stated that Montenegro, a heavily indebted nation, was at risk of “having to cede some of its land to China” as a result of its inability to pay back a loan for the construction of a highway. According to reporters, Montenegro’s Port of Bar could be annexed by China “completely legally”, thanks to an “extraordinary contract” that had, “already [been] implemented by the Chinese in Sri Lanka or in Djibouti”. As the report further explained, Montenegro had accepted conditions “never seen before in Europe (…)”: under the contract, should it fail to pay back the loan to the Chinese bank, Montenegro would need to concede lands”. The Balkan State, allegedly, had even requested that the European Union “help pay back the Chinese, lest the latter use its territory as a repayment means”. 

Is this the case? Read on


*the English version starts on p. 50.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

BBC Misrepresents my Views on "Debt Trap Diplomacy"

The BBC misrepresented my views this morning, and I admit I'm stunned. I'm a big fan of the BBC. Living in Taiwan and Hong Kong, in the 1970s; doing fieldwork across Africa in the 1980s, I used to listen to the BBC World Service on my shortwave radio and I trusted them to present nuanced and balanced analysis.

Last night I had a call from London. I picked up to find a BBC reporter who wanted my views on Chinese "debt trap diplomacy." Apparently the head of Britain's intelligence service, Richard Moore, had given the BBC an interview in which he said that the Chinese have deliberately used debt as leverage to acquire strategic assets. We spoke for awhile on background and I outlined why this idea had little basis in fact, drawing on my extensive research with Meg Rithmire about the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka and other cases, and that of other researchers. I gave examples from Montenegro, Kenya, Zambia, and other places where these fears have been trumpeted in the media, but without evidence to support them. He said that another reporter would call me in an hour and record an interview.

An hour later, a woman called and simply asked me to speak for a minute about this idea: a quick explanation of what debt trap diplomacy is believed to be, an example from Sri Lanka or elsewhere, and why the evidence doesn't support the story. I briefly explained all of this, she recorded it, and we hung up. 

This morning I've been getting messages from British colleagues who've been doing research on Chinese investment overseas and who know my research. One said that the recording "seemed to have been edited to make it sound like you were possibly supporting the debt diplomacy narrative, which of course misrepresents your nuanced commentary on this available elsewhere."  

I quickly listened to the BBC recording (my clip is about 1 hr 50 minutes into the program) and was horrified to find that the only clip they took from the interview was my explanation of the "idea" of debt trap diplomacy and the "conventional wisdom" about the case in Sri Lanka. They completely discarded all the evidence I presented after that about why that conventional wisdom was not correct. Then, they brought in a former adviser to the Trump administration whom he interviewed at some length about the China threat, but again providing no evidence about "debt trap diplomacy" aside from this: "we've charted it globally and it's fairly widespread". She also repeated the (oft-debunked) claim that the Chinese bring in all their own workers...

The reporter leading the story clearly had his mind made up already about the point of view he wanted to present. My little clip was prefaced by a question I was never asked: "What can we do to combat this?" he said, rather than a question that would have made room for a more balanced discussion of this claim. It all reminds me, rather depressingly, about the widespread belief that the Chinese were acquiring large amounts of land in Africa to grow food to send back to China. I spent three years doing field research on that myth and wrote an Oxford University Press book debunking it. No one makes that claim anymore--not due to me, I think, but simply because a more interesting "threat narrative" has now gripped the media's mind. Sigh. 

Update December 2: I reached out to the BBC reporter who originally contacted me, expressed my dismay, and sent him a link to this blog post. He responded right away, with apologies, explaining that my inappropriate clip was an editing decision by an inexperienced producer in a tight production situation. I can understand human error and I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt. 

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Zambia's Chinese Debt in the Pandemic Era

Figure 1: Chinese loans, copper prices, and Zambian elections


In August 2021 a new president, Hakainde Hichilema, took office in Zambia, facing a debt burden that had never been fully transparent to Zambia’s public and the world. 

In two CARI papers released today, we shed light on Zambia's Chinese debt dilemmas. 

In CARI Briefing Paper 05/2021, "Zambia's Chinese Debt in the Pandemic Era," Yinxuan Wang and I use CARI data and research on loan disbursements and repayments to estimate Zambia’s outstanding external public debt to all Chinese financiers, official and commercial: approximately US$6.6 billion. This figure is more than double that of the most commonly cited figure for Chinese debt in Zambia (US$3 billion). 

  • 18 major and minor Chinese financiers have provided external loans to Zambia and its state-owned enterprises since 2000, the highest number of any country in our data
  • Loan commitments by Chinese financiers between 2000 and 2020 totaled US$10.3 billion, with 63 percent (US$6.47 billion) committed just since 2015 (Figure 1)
  • Based on project implementation status, we estimate that US$7.8 billion was disbursed by August 2021. 
  • Contracted but undisbursed Chinese loans as of August 2021 amounted to US$2.5 billion, around 13 percent of 2020 GDP.
  • We calculate that Zambia and its state-owned enterprises have repaid at least US$1.2 billion to Chinese lenders since 2000. 

Our estimate should not be interpreted as evidence that Zambia’s total public external and publicly-guaranteed debt as of December 2020 was significantly higher than Zambia has previously reported ($14.3 billion). These Chinese debt figures can largely be accounted for in aggregate figures published by Zambia’s Ministry of Finance's Annual Economic Reports and the new "Government Debt Portfolio Review."  For example, Chinese creditors are likely buried in the "other creditors" category of US$4.0 billion in external debt in the end-2020 central government debt report and in the US$527 million of government guaranteed debt owed by ZESCO.  It does mean that the Lungu government was not transparent about the heavy weight of Chinese financiers among its many external creditors. 

As there are many rumors about Chinese “debt traps,” it is important to emphasize that Zambia is an outlier when it comes to the weight of Chinese loans (Figure 3). We estimate that Zambia’s loan commitments to all Chinese creditors at the end of 2019 was close to 43 percent of 2019’s gross national income (GNI). The average for Africa was 10 percent (all data refers to the African continent). Figure 2, based on World Bank data for GNI and external PPG debt, and CARI data on Chinese loan commitments shows how Zambia, Djibouti, Angola, and the Republic of Congo stand out.

Figure 2: Chinese loan commitments as % of 2019 GNI vs External Debt Stock as % of GNI

In a second paper, CARI Working Paper No. 51, "How China and Zambia Co-Created a Debt 'Tragedy of the Commons'," I analyze how Chinese creditors, contractors, and Zambian stakeholders failed to take steps to make Zambia's borrowing sustainable. Curious why Zambia was a clear outlier (Figure 2), I explored the system for project development and loan approval in Zambia and China. 

My argument holds that principle-agent problems, including information asymmetries, the tragedy of the commons, and moral hazard, explain the Zambian case. In particular, Zambia has the largest number (18) of separate Chinese lenders of all the African countries in our data, and the second largest number of separate Chinese contractors (29). It also is the African country with the largest amount of Chinese interest-free loan debt write-offs, and the country with the highest number of separate debt cancellations.

Figure 3: Zambia: Chinese contractors' annual revenues
and Chinese lenders' annual loan commitments

This large number of stakeholders competing for business in the "pond" of public resources created Zambia's unsustainable debt. Figure 3 shows the relationship between contract revenues in Zambia and loans. A dip in contract revenues after 2013 was followed by significant new lending in 2016 and 2017, and contract revenues rose again.

Given the complicated situation with at least 18 Chinese lenders having provided external loan funding to the Zambian government and its state-owned firms, reaching consensus on burden-sharing in the Common Framework is likely to prove exceptionally difficult. 

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

The Road to Who Knows Where: What one highway project in Cameroon can tell us about the complexities of Chinese lending in Africa

This post is by former CARI Research Assistant Alex Hardin and CARI Director Deborah Brautigam. Alex Hardin is now an M&E Associate at Winrock International.

Photo credit: The Taxi Photographer via Wikimedia Commons
Narratives of China’s lending to Africa are often oversimplified, focusing on the Belt and Road initiative writ large, and leveling accusations of “debt-trap diplomacy.” Yet, a peek beneath the surface reveals an increasingly complex web of Chinese financiers and contractors, African government planning and finance bodies, and numerous other infrastructure agencies. Each project reveals a story that both complicates the reductively simple narrative and helps to paint a clearer portrait of the process by which these projects are realized.

One such story is that of the first phase of a Cameroonian highway construction effort intended to link the country’s political capital, Yaoundé, to its economic center, Douala, by way of another major metropolitan hub in Edéa. To this end, in the first phase, as described by a project overview from the Ministry of Economy, Planning, and Regional Development (MINEPAT), Cameroon set out to construct a road between Yaoundé and Bot-Makak, a town approximately one third of the way toward the ultimate endpoint in Douala. To finance construction works, the Government of Cameroon signed a loan with Eximbank China in the form of a preferential export buyer’s credit (PEBC) worth US$482,800,000 on March 8, 2012. China First Highway Engineering Co., Ltd. (CFHEC) was selected to build the project. From this point on, progress would be anything but straightforward.

In December 2013, China Eximbank made its first disbursement of US$96,560,000. Yet the start of construction was unexpectedly delayed by the  Cameroonian authorities, who intervened at this late date to modify the project specifications by raising the speed limit from 100 km/hour to 110 km/hour as well as increasing the number of planned lanes. This, in turn, led the contractor to warn that the budgeted project cost would allow for construction of only 47 of the contracted 68 kilometers, if built under the new stipulations. 

On March 27, 2014, the Chinese Embassy’s Economic and Commercial Office posted a commentary on the project on its website (in Chinese). The commentary explained that the highway had been originally designed to meet Chinese standards for highway construction. The decision by the Cameroonian authorities would bring the road in line with French standards, which are closer to Cameroonian requirements. The Embassy further remarked that China hoped to see its counterparts in Cameroon (i.e. the Minister of Public Works) provide feedback on the final technical standards of the project as soon as possible, hinting at a growing frustration at the sudden adoption of specifications that differed from those originally negotiated. Adding to the air of exasperation, the author underscored a desire that Cameroon identify its “sole interlocutor” for the project, which it deemed necessary “because several ministries and commissions of the Cameroonian government are involved in the project at the same time”. The author assured readers that Cameroon had promised an official start date before April 15, 2014, despite lingering issues over land acquisition and compensation, a responsibility of the Cameroon side. 

That optimism was misplaced. Work on the project finally began sometime in the first quarter of 2015 and was scheduled for completion in 2018. However, progress was continually beset by obstacles. Chief among these were delays in compensating residents whose property fell along the proposed route. Cameroon’s defaults and restructuring of Chinese loans in 2019 also affected the project. 

After making six disbursements amounting to US$202,675,284 up through October 29, 2019, the Chinese bank had stopped disbursements. “Yaoundé does not present any repayment guarantee,” a well-placed source said. China Eximbank proposed a new repayment guarantee mechanism, of an unclear nature. Yaoundé had not yet signed it as of October 2020. For all these setbacks, however, work on the 60km section of road was reported to have reached a “physical execution rate” of 91% by the start of 2021. 

The Chinese contractor is bearing the cost of the delay—each day of delay is likely to come at very high cost, as the contractor must pay staff, workers, and perhaps service the company’s own loans. The question now is who will blink first: will the government provide an acceptable guarantee, or will the contractor finish the project, essentially providing its own loan to Cameroon? 

In the larger context of China-Africa relations, this project serves to demonstrate that, contrary to the image of a one-sided asymmetry of power dominated by a strong China, African borrowers can exercise a certain degree of agency. Within the constraints of an established relationship involving a Chinese state lender and a Chinese contractor, the borrowing country was able to reconfigure project plans to suit its own ends, seemingly without first consulting its Chinese partners. 

This is not to say that doing so was necessarily the most prudent decision—and the repeated delays and missing payments indicate that local Cameroonians are likely to bear some of the negative consequences. For example, the last steps for finishing roads include a final layer of black top that seals the road, and the construction of culverts that channel water away from the road. Will the contractor complete these steps without being paid? Or will the road start to wash away in the rainy season? 

Nevertheless, the story highlights the fact that examining individual projects reveals the complexity and unpredictability of the relationships that develop between African countries and Chinese actors.

Note: At the time of publication, the Cameroonian government website where the authors sourced a large portion of the data necessary for this analysis ( has ceased to be accessible online. We hope that it will become accessible again soon.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Evaluating the Impact of China-Financed Power Projects on Electricity Access

This guest blogpost is by SAIS PhD student Keyi Tang 

Photo credit: ZSM
In the last decade, China has overtaken the World Bank and the African Development Bank to become the biggest financier of infrastructure projects in sub-Saharan Africa. The CARI loan database now housed at Boston University provides extensive data on these projects. Yet little research has been done on how Chinese loans affect the social welfare of African countries. Africa is the region with the highest percent of people who do not have access to electricity. Electric power is the second largest sub-sector in Chinese lending, making up 20 percent of all loans (transport makes up 54 percent). 

Has Chinese lending improved the access to electricity for Africans? This blogpost proposes a research idea that attempts to answer this question using the SAIS-CARI China-Africa Loan Data and other databases. We hope other researchers will take up this challenge.

Research period: 2010-2019

Although SAIS-CARI documents China-financed energy projects in Africa since 2000, the bulk of the loan projects are recorded as being signed post-2010. A focus on the 2010-2019 period could allow a higher number of samples, which translates to more observable events. 

Unit of analysis:

Because the SAIS-CARI data is at the country level, the easiest way to answer the question is to look at the impacts of China-financed energy projects in different African countries at an aggregate level. Researchers can also use the subnational unit of analysis by searching the subnational location of these projects through Google Map.






Dependent Variable

Proportion of population with access to electricity

International Energy Agency

Access to electricity by country and year, 2000-2019

Main Independent Variable

China-financed energy projects

SAIS-CARI China-Africa Loan Database

China’s loan to Africa, by country, year, and sector, 2000-2019

Control Variables

OECD countries’ bilateral finance to African countries’ energy projects

OECD Development Finance Data

By recipient country, donor, year, and sector, 2010-2019

Spatial distribution of population and population density


Other socio-economic and geographical indicators that might influence access to electricity through channels other than investment on energy infrastructure.


Armed conflicts location and event data

ACLED Database

Nighttime lights


GDP per capita, PPP, by country and year

The World Bank


Mines in African district

Data in Space project


International commodity price by year

The IMF Primary Commodity Prices


Empirical strategy:

The following econometric methods are generally applied to evaluate the impact of large-scale infrastructure. Researchers can check the literature below.

a. Ordinary least square (OLS):  Humphrey & Michaelowa (2019)
b. Difference-in-differences: Martorano et al. (2020), Tang & Shen (2020)
c. Instrumental variables: Duflo & Pande (2007)

If you do undertake this research, send us a copy at!

Helpful References:

Duflo, Esther and Rohini Pande. (2007). Dams. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 122, Issue 2, Pages 601–646.

Humphrey, Chris and Katharina Michaelowa. (2019). China in Africa: Competition for traditional development finance institutions? World Development, Volume 120, Pages 15-28.

Martorano, B., Metzger, L., & Sanfilippo, M. (2020). Chinese development assistance and household welfare in Sub-Saharan Africa. World Development, 129, 104909.

Tang, Keyi & Yingjiao Shen. (2020). Do China-financed dams in Sub-Saharan Africa improve the region's social welfare? A case study of the impacts of Ghana's Bui Dam. Energy Policy, Volume 136, 111062.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Don’t miss our CARI/Washington Post Monkey Cage collaboration series

From February to April 2021, the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage and the China Africa Research Initiative brought you a series exploring a variety of China-Africa issues. Almost all of these eleven pieces were written by our 2019 writing workshop participants and/or CARI staff. We have compiled below short teasers from each article. To read more, click on the hyperlinked title. 

  • U.S. policymakers often criticize Chinese investment in Africa. The research tells a more complicated story,” by Yoon Jung Park and Lina Benabdallah, February 19, 2021
    • China policy is a top priority for the Biden administration, who will likely face domestic challenges on how it deals with China’s role in the world. A number of legislators in Congress have, over the past several years, tried to outdo themselves with their hard-line positions on China. Nowhere has this been clearer than in their scrutiny of Chinese activities in Africa.

  • The pandemic has worsened Africa’s debt crisis. China and other countries are stepping in,” by Deborah Brautigam, Kevin Acker, Yufan Huang, February 26, 2021
    • With the coronavirus crisis exacerbating the economic crisis in Africa’s low-income countries, economists and other experts argue that debt relief is essential. While the Trump administration and others have been skeptical about China’s willingness to offer debt relief, our research shows that these fears may be overblown.

  • Don’t believe the hype about China’s ‘vaccine diplomacy’ in Africa,” by Lina Benabdallah, March 5, 2021 
    • Commentary in U.S. and European news media and policy circles have stirred cynical concerns about China using vaccines as a soft-power move to further its political and economic interests in Africa. Academic research, however, shows that China’s humanitarian assistance to Africa, including medical aid, is nothing new. 

  • African countries are helping China go green. That may have a downside for Africans,” by Meredith DeBoom, March 12, 2021
    • The details of China’s new 5-year plan, released earlier this year, suggest China has put off the difficult steps necessary to become carbon neutral by 2060. How will Beijing pursue this goal — and at what cost? China’s plans for more nuclear power plants could mean that its reliance on Namibian uranium may transfer on to Namibians the price to pay for cleaner energy in China.

  • Will Chinese funding help strengthen Africa’s climate change response? It’s complicated,” by Michael Addaney, March 19, 2021 
    • Many African governments see projects initiated under China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative as a way to help build much-needed infrastructure and help 46 participating African countries industrialize, strengthening their ability to cope with the effects of climate change. Addaney’s research, however, suggests that other factors matter as well.

  • Chinese firms — and African labor — are building Africa’s infrastructure,” by Frangton Chiyemura, April 2, 2021 
    • The proliferation of Chinese enterprises involved in Africa has attracted a great deal of attention from academics, policymakers and other observers in recent years. Of particular concern to many are China’s employment practices for large infrastructure projects on the continent. Chiyemura’s research shows that Chinese companies hire a large number of local employees. 

  • Chinese companies have different ways of managing African employees,” by Ding Fei, April 9, 2021 
    • When local Africans work for Chinese companies, the stereotype suggests, their employment is precarious. But Chinese companies do not manage employees in Africa in any universal way: their diverse backgrounds and investment in different industrial sectors influence their management practices.

  • Huawei is trying to avoid U.S. sanctions. That may change the U.S.-China tech rivalry in Africa,” by Henry Tugendhat, April 30, 2021 
    • A battle is unfolding between U.S. and Chinese tech firms over who will control what millions of people in Africa can see, hear, read and say. The launch of Harmony, Huawei’s mobile phone operating system, represents the first major Chinese foray into the world of operating systems that two U.S. companies, Apple and Google, have dominated to date.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

In Memoriam: Professor Ian Taylor

African Studies, International Relations, and our small world of China-Africa researchers, lost one of its towering figures on February 22. Professor Ian Taylor died at the age of 52, after a short and brave battle against cancer. 

Ian was at the peak of an astounding career: the author or editor of 12 books, with over 80 refereed journal articles in his vita. He leaves behind his wife Jo, two children, Archie and Blythe, a brother and other family members and colleagues. He was very well-loved. 

For those who were fortunate to know him, Ian was literally larger than life:  tall, handsome, and kind, a generous mentor who taught a generation of students at St. Andrews University. He had a wry humor, and his energy was meteoric. And now it turns out that his life, too, was like a shooting star that explodes in a burst of color, light and energy and then is over, much too soon.

I first met Ian through his work. In the 1980s and 1990s, Philip Snow (who wrote a fantastic book The Star Raft in 1989) and I seemed to be the only people interested in the obscure topic of China and Africa. I had published an article in 1994 in the Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics on China's export of development ideas through its foreign aid to Africa, an article which quickly fell into obscurity. And then, out of the blue, I had a letter from the JCCP editors asking me to peer review a paper they'd received that was also about China and Africa. This became "The 'Captive States' of Southern Africa and China: The PRC and Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland,' Ian's first refereed journal article. 

Ian started his China journey in Hong Kong, where he studied Mandarin at the University of Hong Kong, earning an MPhil there in the mid-1990s. Our paths crossed increasingly often after that initial paper. Ian was always up for a long discussion about African development, or China's role on the continent. Our encounters often highlighted his zest for life outside the academy. Once, for example, Ian and I were both at a China-Africa conference near Charlottesville, Virginia. Afterwards, instead of heading directly to the airport, he rented a car and spent a couple of days driving and hiking in the Shenandoah mountains, exploring Virginia. In April 2010, he invited me to a conference at St Andrews. After my talk, he brought me home, where I met Jo, Archie and Blythe. We then spent the rest of that sunny Saturday on a memorable mini-tour of the coast of Scotland, visiting the church where he was an elder, walking in the villages along the coast. In 2015, Ian joined our new CARI team as a research affiliate, helping us launch our ESRC China-Africa research project at an event in Addis Ababa. 

Ian wrote to me in June last year to share the news of his grave diagnosis. In his usual full-hearted way, he was embarking on this journey with optimism, fortitude, energy, and deep appreciation for the people who were now going to be his new colleagues. "It looks like I have got a bit of a trek ahead of me," he said. "Definitely getting my taxes back through the treatment! The health people have been brilliant, and I can't complain about anything at all." 

Ian leaves behind a vast legacy, on a personal and professional level. His many honors bear witness to his vibrant mind, always questioning, seeking answers, and sharing what he learned with all of us around the world. And this will live on.