This article examines recent Chinese efforts to construct a series of official economic cooperation zones in Africa. These zones are a central platform in China’s announced strategy of engagement in Africa as ‘mutual benefit’. We analyse the background, motives and implementation of the zones, and argue that they form a unique, experimental model of development cooperation in Africa : market-based decisions and investment by Chinese companies are combined with support and subsidies from an Asian ‘developmental state ’. Though this cooperation provides a promising new approach to sustainable industrialisation, we also identify serious political, economic and social challenges. Inadequate local learning and local participation could affect the ability of the zones to catalyse African industrialisation. The synergy between Chinese enterprises, the Chinese government and African governments has been evolving through practice. A case study of Egypt provides insight into this learning process.