Is China seizing African infrastructure?

29 March 2024

Yesterday, the 28th of March, the Public Policy and Research Institute of Zimbabwe (PPRIZ) hosted a multistakeholder reference group engagement in South Africa. Following the delivery of a brilliant presentation on China’s strategic goals in South Africa by Dr Emmanuel Matambo (Research Director of the UJ Centre for Africa-China Studies), I had the honour of being the respondent. Matambo’s talk used a three-pronged approach to understanding China’s activities in South Africa: the political, media, and academia. In all three, I found his analysis precise and on point. I was still left optimistic, however; China may be making concerted efforts to influence all three spheres in the country, but South Africa (and South Africans) show an incredible amount of resilience and imperviousness.

A lively question and answer session followed, in which I got to answer a few questions myself. Inevitably, a question was fielded about “China taking over African infrastructure” when they cannot pay their debts – the so-called ‘debt trap.’ Having looked at the claim in some detail a few years ago, I replied that there is no such thing. It’s a classic case of fake news. I share my research into how this lie came about and has caught fire below.

The history of a lie

In December 2018 John Bolton, then US national security adviser and the point-person for Trump’s Africa strategy stated as fact that “China planned to take over some state-owned enterprises if the Zambian government defaulted on its debt” (NBC, 2021, February 17). This was widespread news, and has since remained in the mainstream discourse. One of its original mainstream outlets was an NBC report initially put out in September of 2018. The NBC article itself was relaying an interview with a “consultant” in which he expressed “intentions” that his firm “had seen” regarding China’s appetite for the southern African country’s assets. Importantly, the consultant was not referring to events which had occurred. To quote the NBC article: “Research from business risk consultancy EXX Africa suggested that Chinese firms are seeking control of Zambian mining assets as collateral for potential loan defaults” (NBC, 2018 [updated 2021]). Earlier in 2018 (September), the following headline by African Liberty was widely circulated.

Sample of a fake news headline online. Source: African Liberty, ‘China is taking over Zambia’s National Assets, but the Nightmare is just getting Started for Africa’ by Ibrahim Anoba September 10, 2018.

The article[1] cites its information as stemming from a credible source of information which claimed that a Zambian SOE had already been taken over. That article, however, published in Lusaka Times,[2] in turn only provides as its proof the following: “The respected Africa Confidential has revealed that talks are underway for a Chinese company to takeover power utility ZESCO” (emphasis added).

How misunderstanding becomes policy, and how policy fuels misunderstanding

This evinces a particular feature of fake news: exaggeration. This allows for purveyors to be able to link their stories to a degree of truth. An initial report will introduce a case with careful wording (showing, for example, that plans are at most being “discussed”). This in turn morphs into an appeal to authority and sees tenuous or tentative developments reported as fact.

In this instance, we must locate the root problem of how fake news can find its footing on Africa-China relations: the deliberate paucity of raw data and information from either the African or Chinese governments, or the FOCAC process itself, leaves an information gap which can only be closed by speculation and exaggeration. Both sides should take measures to be transparent and open.

[1] Anoba, Ibrahim. 2018 (September 10). ‘China is taking over Zambia’s National Assets, but the Nightmare is just getting Started for Africa’ African Liberty. URL:

[2] Lusaka Times. 2018 (September 4). ‘China to take over ZESCO – Africa Confidential,’ Lusaka Times. URL: