The debate on whether China's relationship with Africa can be characterized as “neo-imperialist” has focused primarily on the features of the contemporary engagement. This has polarized the field. The debate has not yet made systematic reference to the mechanisms of imperialism through which the original “scramble for Africa” was carried out by colonial powers at the turn of the 20th century. This article carries out this historical comparison, contrasting the imperial partition of Africa around 1880–1914 with current Sino-African relations. It is evident that there are many similarities, from the multiple agendas of the actors and the role of compradors through to patterns of investment and financing. The article raises questions, however, concerning the utility of the concept of “neo-imperialism” given its implicit negativity.