European Affairs

China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, By Howard W. French     Print Email
Thursday, 03 July 2014 By Laurence Barrett, former Senior Editor Time Magazine


Ebola afflicts Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea – the worst outbreak on record, according to the World Health Organization. Nigerian Islamists kidnap scores of school girls. Homicidal incursions by Somalian terrorists damage Kenya’s tourist trade. Rebels seeking to impose seventh-century mores on Mali are checked only when French troops arrive.

To casual consumers of news from sub-Saharan Africa, the most visible headlines blend into a dystopian loop. It is less horrendous than the Rwandan genocide, the AIDS pandemic, and the atrocities surrounding blood diamonds, all in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, but awful enough.

A very different story line is emerging, however, told by a few financial publications and specialized authors. Economies in many sub-Saharan countries, while still tiny, are growing at a handsome rate. They are also diversifying as infrastructure expands. A middle class is forming across the continent. And in a fascinating subplot, China has become the dominant outside player in black Africa’s economic development.

Through a combination of top-down policy and the entrepreneurial zeal of adventurous individuals, the Chinese have supplanted Europeans and Americans as sources of investment and buyers of Africa’s abundant raw materials. Africa’s growing consumer market displays an increasing appetite for Chinese exports. Thus China recently surpassed the United States and the European Union bloc to become Africa’s largest trading partner.

Four years ago Deborah Brautigam examined the phenomenon in “The Dragon’s Gift: the Real Story of China in Africa.” Now comes “China’s SecondContinent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa”by Howard W. French.

Brautigam, a professor of International Development and Comparative Politics at Johns Hopkins, treated the subject in scholarly, analytic fashion. French, a former correspondent with long experience in Asia and Africa (first for the Washington Post, then the New York Times) provides a more anecdotal approach. He takes readers through eleven countries as he examines the always complex and often contentious relations between Africans and the ubiquitous newcomers among them. The result is a colorful, significant book that helps explain why China is eating everyone else’s lunch in the globalization gobble.

Then-President Jiang Zemin planted seeds of the phenomenon in 1996. He visited six sub-Saharan countries, talking exclusively about economic cooperation. Chinese leaders have come courting ever since, talking up “win-win” transactions, bearing gifts consisting of loans and grants for construction. Chinese contractors then do most of the building. Beijing meanwhile has encouraged individual citizens to migrate under its “go out” policy.

In Namibia, Hou Xuechong tells French: “In China I was a nobody, but now I am rich.” Hou owns shops in town, a large farm in the country and several luxury cars. But success was elusive. Twice he went bust and Namibian authorities deported him. During his third try, Hou got advice from a local lawyer: marry a Namibian woman to get better treatment.

By phone, his wife in China consents to pragmatic bigamy. Hou finds a second spouse, prospers in business, but encounters a new challenge: his African wife wants children. When he demurs, his in-laws threaten legal action. By then he has enough money to buy off the local wife and her kin. They accept a settlement, Hou sends for his Chinese wife, and another Chinese family settles into Africa for the long term.

In Mozambique, French meets Hao Shengli, who had arrived a dozen years earlier after business reverses at home. He could speak neither Portuguese nor English, let alone the local dialect, but he was willing to “eat bitter” – the Chinese short-hand for sacrificing today’s comfort in exchange for tomorrow’s prospects. He managed to lease enough fertile land from the government for a commercially viable farm. But peasants who had once plowed the same acreage were resentful. Hao worried that eventually the farm would be taken from him. So he summoned his two teenage sons from China with the intention of marrying them to Mozambican girls. Thinking long-term, Hao envisions putting the land in his grandchildren’s names.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Chinese concluded a mammoth deal worth some $6 billion. In exchange for constructing a variety of needed projects – roads, a railway, hospitals, a university campus – China gets first call on the nation’s copper and cobalt exports for 20 years.

For a country rich in resources but starved for infrastructure development and vocational skills, the barter arrangement sounds advantageous. But Chinese companies do all the construction and import skilled workers from the homeland. Congolese get only the menial jobs – a pattern French finds in every country he visits. And the terms for the resource exports are vague.

The deal stirs controversy in Congo, as does a proposed similar transaction in Guinea. Critics manage to derail the latter deal. French quotes one of the skeptics, Professor Amadou Dano Barry of the University of Conakry, as to why African elites outside of government have doubts about China’s “win-win” slogan:

“The Chinese come and want your iron, your bauxite, your petroleum. In return, they’ll deliver you turnkey projects, where they supply the materials and the labor, with salaries that are mostly not paid in the country and do not contribute to the economy. On the African side, no one verifies anything. No one knows the real costs….[Y]ou’ll get your infrastructure, but after five years, if you’re lucky, it will be in a deteriorated state.”

In country after country, French reports similar developments. Chinese, usually on a government-to-government basis, donate heavily to build an athletic stadium, a school, a major highway. The new assets are political pluses for the local ruling party. So officials tend to look the other way when Chinese contractors monopolize construction, or when Chinese employers abuse unskilled and semi-skilled African workers. Minimum wage standards and safety regulations are routinely ignored.

French discovers what he calls “casual primary racism” among nearly all his Chinese interlocutors. In a remote settlement on the Angola-Namibia border, he visits a thriving Chinese enclave. The hui zhang, or business community leader, is Chen Qingping, who lived in a tent when he arrived 20 years earlier but now sports a gold Rolex.

Chen speaks frankly, telling the author that he never liked Communist functionaries back in Jiangsu province because they frequently extorted local businessmen like him. And Chen dislikes recent arrivals from China because they have a poor attitude toward Africans. “They make no effort to speak the language,” he says of newcomers. “They begin bossing people around. And they behave very arrogantly.”

In the next breath, Chen says: “Ninety percent of Africans are thieves.” Other Chinese complain that Africans are lazy, resistant to training, unfit for demanding crafts or management position. That is their rationale for importing personnel from China. Many stay on after their contracts expire because they perceive greater opportunities in Africa – and greater personal freedom -- than back home.

One reason for the surprising candor that spices “China’s Second Continent” is that French speaks Chinese – an ability that astonishes many of his sources. The author has greater rapport with Africans than most American writers would because of his personal as well as professional background. His father, a physician, served as a public health official in West Africa, French’s wife is from Ghana, and a brother lives in South Africa.

So the book is particularly strong in conveying the human dynamics of the growing relationship. On other elements, French is less sure of himself. He appears ambivalent about whether African societies are net beneficiaries of China’s involvement. That Africans are being exploited in many transactions is clear. But French withholds judgment as to the bottom line.

Further, he acknowledges that the book’s subtitle – “How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa” – should not be taken literally. No one knows how many Chinese now live in Africa; the figure of 1,000,000 is merely a consensus estimate. But in Namibia alone, he hears it may be 10,000 or 40,000 or something in between. The term “empire,” given the history of colonialism in Africa, is misleading. The goal is mercantile monopoly, not political dominion.

Still, French’s book is an important reminder that Europe and the United States have much ground to make up if they wish to participate in the rapid growth occurring in sub-Saharan Africa. That the Obama administration is hosting what it calls a U.S. – Africa Business Forum this summer is a hint that the message may be getting through.