A recent China-Africa friendship event in Beijing had the makings of a memorable meeting of minds: Dinner, speeches, cultural exchanges and a well-placed translation faux pas.


A large video screen behind the stage clearly displayed four English words: “Innovation”, “Efficiency”, “Transcendence”, and “Exploitation”.

Funnily enough, the translation faux pas didn’t get much attention until a Caixin reporter, Effy Zhang, tweeted a screenshot on Saturday, Feb. 2, nearly one month later:

The Chinese word 开拓 (kai tuo) can be translated as “development” instead.

Chinese neocolonialism?

The Jan. 9. 2019 “China-Africa Friendly Night 2019” event was held at a Beijing hotel by the China-Africa Friendly Economic and Trade Development Foundation.

In attendance were representatives from dozens of Chinese enterprises, as well as nearly 100 envoys from 60 different countries, including some of their ambassadors from African countries who ended up standing on the stage with the word “Exploitation” in full view behind them.

Freudian slip?

Twitter users were in their usual mode, exclaiming that this was a Freudian slip, rather than a sub par translation from Chinese to English without proper vetting subsequently.

And not as if criticism of China is unwarranted.

Accusations of Chinese neocolonialism in Africa has been the new narrative for several years now — perpetuated by both Republicans and Democrats in the United States, as well as European leaders wary of a rising China that can usurp the role as a major world power.

Loans with strings attached

Countries on the African continent have received much-needed Chinese loans with open arms, even if it entails the governments of these countries to be indebted to China in the long run.

Some of these countries will probably be unable to pay off what had been borrowed to fund hefty infrastructure projects, which sometimes end up underutilised or partially botched.

Other findings, on the contrary, reportedly show Chinese loans to be benign and very necessary, and a big part in developing infrastructure, that otherwise, will never get off the ground.

These narratives that run counter to anti-China stories aim to show that the Chinese will benefit Africa more than the previous Western powers, who only pillaged the resource-rich African continent resulting in the irreversible transfer of vast amounts of wealth to colonial hands.