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Decentering the analysis of Africa-China relations

Décentrer l’analyse des relations afro-chinoises

Descentrar el análisis de las relaciones afro-chinas

Revue internationale des études du développement n°251 (2023-1)

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Published on Tuesday, March 15, 2022


The question put forward by the vast majority of works studying the relations between Africa and China is “What is China doing in Africa? What are the Chinese doing in Africa?”, thus often overlooking the anthropological dimension of social, economic, and political change in which African actors can reclaim their place, in other words an approach that would decenter China and the Chinese in order to shed light on the microfoundations of the macroprocesses of development by examining Africa and Africans. Agency – or agentivité as it is now commonly called in French – is defined here as the ability to effect or introduce socio-economic and political changes in the arena in which the actors are involved. By addressing the question of African agentive practices and norms in Afro-Chinese relations, this call for papers therefore leads to decentering China to focus on Africa.



  • Thierry PAIRAULT (pairault@ehess.fr), Socio-economist and sinologist, emeritus research director (CNRS / EHESS) and member of the Research Center on Modern and Contemporary China at EHESS.
  • Folashadé SOULÉ (soule-kohndou@bsg.ox.ac.uk), Political scientist, Senior Research Associate at the Global Economic Governance programme, Blavatnik School of Government University of Oxford.
  • Hang ZHOU (zhou@cmi.no), Political scientist and anthropologist, Post-Doctoral Fellow at Chr. Michelsen Institute, Bergen.


The question put forward by the vast majority of works studying the relations between Africa and China is “What is China doing in Africa? What are the Chinese doing in Africa?”, thus often overlooking the anthropological dimension of social, economic, and political change in which African actors can reclaim their place, in other words an approach that would decenter China and the Chinese in order to shed light on the microfoundations of the macroprocesses of development by examining Africa and Africans. To borrow from the words of Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan (1991), the approach must be centered on African actors that seek development at the grassroot level, and must focus on their points of view and their practices in order to reveal their strategies, however constrained they may be, and their leeway, however limited it may be, in a word, their “agency” [angencéité in French, as translated by Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan]. This approach highlights the logics and rationalities that underlie representations and behaviors. “It emphasizes the existence of real ‘levels of decision-making’ at every scale, and of choices made by individuals in their own name or in the name of the institutions of which they consider themselves to be the constituents.”

Agency – or agentivité as it is now commonly called in French[1] – is defined here as the ability to effect or introduce socio-economic and political changes in the arena in which the actors are involved. Making these changes does not always imply challenging power, nor does it necessarily mean deconstructing structures and denouncing norms. It is quite possible to promote such changes by establishing forms of action that conform to existing norms. That is why decentering[2] the approach to Afro-Chinese relations is made necessary, precisely to better assess to what extent the Chinese presence has met African demands (cheap manufactured products and services, financing, etc.). This decentering leads to a series of questions: 1) What is the nature of the changes sought or brought about? 2) How are they produced?) What spheres of power do they involve? 4) What are the norms that underpin and sustain them?

By addressing the question of African agentive practices and norms in Afro-Chinese relations, this call for papers therefore leads to decentering China to focus on Africa. Studying the agentive practices of African actors within internationalized networks also implies examining how these practices interact with the strategies of extraversion (Bayart, 1999; Lavigne Delville, 2017) through which these actors mobilize financial, political, or intellectual resources. All disciplines – economics, sociology, anthropology, law, geography, history, political science, and demography – can be called on to address the various aspects of this theme and document the related experiences, more specifically targeting its effects on territories, societies, institutions, and individuals mainly but not exclusively through three lines of inquiry:

An approach through three lines of inquiry

African actors in their relations with China at the local and national levels

Afro-Chinese relations develop through multiple actors, but also at multiple levels. A growing number of studies that focus on this line of inquiry deal with an increasingly wide range of African actors, from presidents (Amougou & Bobo, 2018; Malm, 2020; Wang, 2021) to political factions in power ( Phillips, 2019), political elites (Cabestan, 2020; Corkin, 2013), bureaucrats and political parties (Benabdallah, 2020; Soulé, 2018, 2020), local governments (Gambino, 2020), labor unions (Lampert & Mohan, 2013; Lee, 2009), local entrepreneurs (Ding, Samatar & Liao, 2018; Kernen et al., 2020, Lampert & Mohan, 2015), and advocacy organizations (Chipaike & Bischoff, 2018). Despite the progressive decentering that has already been carried out, it is important to further develop this approach because of the changes on the ground in both Africa and China. In addition, the Chinese New Silk Roads (NSR) strategy, which was launched in 2016 and whose objectives remain ambiguous, could have a significant economic, geopolitical, or social impact in Africa, thus making the study of the agency of African actors in the NSR a pressing priority (Links, 2021a; Van Staden, Alden & Wu, 2020; Mwetaminwa & Vircoulon, 2022). Rather than simply celebrating African agentive practices, the literature has also tried to identify the structural constraints faced, and some researchers (Carmody, Taylor & Zajontz, 2021; Khan-Mohammad & Amougou, 2020; Kragelund & Carmody, 2015; Zajontz, 2021; Zhou 2022) have started examining whether different types of agentive practices might in fact lead to structural transformations in African societies. Submissions must adopt a multi-actor and multi-level (local and national) analysis distinguishing the actors by type, motivations, and practices, as well as the different contexts (structural and historical) in which they perform their actions. Therefore, the starting point must be empirical evidence and/or case studies in order to illustrate the agentive practices put into place by every public, private, or mixed actor.

African actors in their relations with China at the regional level and in multilateral institutions

A body of existing studies that has contributed to enriching the debate on “African agency” in international politics addresses the involvement of African states in multilateral forums and examines their efforts, often in the form of collective strategies, to influence the agendas of multilateral institutions and/or the formulation of international norms (Harman, 2015; Lee, 2013; Mills & Bloomfield, 2018). In accordance with this avenue for research, this line of inquiry calls on submissions that examine Afro-Chinese relations in the context of regional or global multilateralism. They may explore the agentive practices of African actors in the context of their relations with China, in African regional organizations such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Southern African Development Community (SADC) (Links, 2021b), the East African Community (EAC) (Otele, 2020), and the African Union, or in summit diplomacy like the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) – or even in multilateral institutions on specific issues, such as climate change, world trade, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding. The aim is also to show the agentive practices put into place by African actors despite the constraints and structural asymmetries in these institutions whose rules of the game were initially often established without the real participation of African actors. Submissions should therefore specify at what level, for what reasons, and through what means the agentive practices observed are put into place, but also examine their impact both in the context of the objectives of African actors and on the structure of these institutions.

Similarly, it could be interesting to see the convergences/divergences between China and Africa and to examine the extent to which African countries engage in agentive practices to convince, persuade, or rally Beijing’s support on specific issues. The papers dealing with these questions should also integrate the potential tensions induced by these practices in their relations with traditional Western partners.

Models of development and confrontation of norms

While research in China has not seemed to be greatly interested in the study of African practices and norms, Africa has been confronted with China’s reinvention of norms and practices that were initially designed to distinguish itself from the West (assimilated to the modern world), but also to differentiate itself from the West in the eyes of developing countries – including African countries. An identical process has probably been at work in Africa (for example through the construction of the African Union and the African Continental Free Trade Area). In this context, the “Chinese dream” may have become “the dream of being like China” in Africa and may have impacted African practices and norms. Submissions could also examine the reception and transferability of a “Chinese model” as opposed to a Western one (Kernen, 2014; Fourie, 2015; Pairault, 2019 & 2020; Kernen et al., 2020; Hodzi & Åberg , 2020), the successive FOCAC sessions (Sun, 2021), and the debt crisis – whatever its real importance – (Pairault, 2021) to study how these practices emerged and evolved in such a way that some African countries now feel that they can claim a weight, a role that they thought they did not have, as underlined by F. Soulé (Petite, 2021). Submissions may also consider the Chinese response, in particular to resistance and protest, and the tools mobilized for this purpose; but also in the opposite direction, the adhesion or renegotiation of the terms of the relationship leading to overcome any disagreements and to generate consensus.

Submission details / Participation in Issue no. 251 (2023/1) of the RIED

The authors agree to read the editorial policy of the Revue internationale des études du développement and to comply with the code of ethics.

The selection process will take place according to the dates specified in the publication calendar below.

  1. Submitting the proposal

The proposals in French, English, or Spanish must present the paper in 4,000 characters (with spaces), or approximately one page. The Word file (.doc or .docx) for the proposal must be entitled “AUTHOR’S SURNAME-Proposal-251,” and must include:

  • a title (70 characters maximum, with the possibility of adding a subtitle);
  • an abstract detailing the research question, the theoretical framework, the fieldwork, and the main results;
  • some bibliographical references (not included in the character count);
  • a second file entitled “AUTHOR’S SURNAME-251-info,” including the author’s first name and last name, their status, their institutional affiliation, and their email address.

The relevancy of the proposals with regard to this call for papers and their conformity to the journal guidelines will be verified by the journal editors and the editorial team.

  1. Submitting the paper

The authors whose proposals have been selected will be invited to send a first draft of their article, which must absolutely follow the guidelines below. The articles will then be submitted to a double blind peer review by two external reviewers who are experts on the topic.

The articles (45,000 characters with spaces, excluding the abstract and references) may be written in French, English, or Spanish. They must be original work. They may however have been presented at a conference (with proceedings), as long as they have been adapted to the format required by the Revue internationale des études du développement (see the guidelines for authors on the blog for the publications of the IEDES), but the author must not submit their paper to another journal simultaneously.

Publication calendar

The authors agree to comply with the calendar.

The proposals must be submitted by April 8, 2022 to:

  • pairault@ehess.fr
  • revdev@univ-paris1.fr
  • folashade.soule-kohndou@bsg.ox.ac.uk
  • hang.zhou@cmi.no

The authors preselected by the editors and the editorial committee will be notified by the editorial team the week of April 19, 2022.

The first draft (V1), following the journal’s guidelines for authors, must be submitted by the authors to the three aforementioned email addresses by June 3rd, 2022.

The evaluation process will take a few months; each – anonymous – article will be submitted to a double blind peer review by two external reviewers who are experts on the topic. Requesting a first version of the article does not constitute a commitment on the part of the journal to publish the aforementioned article, which must be approved by the editorial committee, following the different steps in the evaluation process; no. 251 is expected to be published in March 2023.


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[1] Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan (2021: 156) dates this use to 2018 following the work of Cyril Lemieux. In fact, this term may have already been used in psychology and sociology before that, and seems to have been coined in French-speaking Canada.

[2] We use the term decentering which refers to moving the center rather than decentration which refers to an alignment issue in optics. The latter term is used in international relations to indicate non-alignment with Western approaches.


  • Friday, April 08, 2022


  • agencéité, agentivité, Afrique, Chine


  • Béatrice Trotier-Faurion
    courriel : revdev [at] univ-paris1 [dot] fr

Reference Urls

Information source

  • Béatrice Trotier-Faurion
    courriel : revdev [at] univ-paris1 [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

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« Decentering the analysis of Africa-China relations », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Tuesday, March 15, 2022, https://doi.org/10.58079/18hf

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