Chinese officials often describe their growing economic involvement in Africa as a “win-win” arrangement. As they see it, African nations gain investment and infrastructure, make progress toward development goals and benefit from the creation of jobs and other economic activity. China lands contracts for its state-owned enterprises, enhances its image as a global leader, generates jobs back home and new markets for its goods and locks in new sources for the raw materials it needs to sustain rapid growth.
All well and good, if only it were true. The claimed victories on both sides appear pretty hollow when viewed up close in a new book by a veteran journalist, Howard W. French.
Based on a prolonged recent tour of 11 African nations, “China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa,” suggests that those most pleased with China’s economic adventurism are the people at the very top, both Chinese and African.
On the Chinese side are government and business leaders who can offer gifts of stadiums and dams or bribe their way into exclusive sweetheart deals that provide lopsided benefits to Beijing. On the African side are leaders who can boast of those gifts or are willing to offer those sweet deals in exchange for under-the-table payoffs and the appearance of economic progress.
French also shines a light on the often-overlooked million or so Chinese immigrants who have made their way to Africa on their own over the last decade to seek their fortune. These days, the Chinese faces are popping up everywhere on the African continent. They are starting up small businesses, toiling in farming and construction, working in restaurants, selling sex and operating ramshackle market stalls alongside their African counterparts, hawking wares like individual cigarettes, grilled meat snacks, cellphones, cheap clothing and toys.
These immigrants, while motivated primarily by a desire for economic opportunity, are often fleeing a bad situation, French found by interviewing a great number of them. Contributing “to the decision for many to take a great leap into the unknown and move to Africa was a weariness with omnipresent official corruption back home, fear of the impact of a badly polluted environment on their health, and a variety of constraints on freedoms, including religion and speech,” he writes, adding, “Many migrants also invoked a sheer lack of space.”
Ordinary Africans, on the other hand, come out as the big losers in the Chinese gambit. The good jobs created by Chinese investment often go to imported Chinese workers, while those that involve hazards or hard labor, for example, are left for the local workforce, which is poorly paid and often viewed as less than human.
French, an African-American who covered China and Africa for The New York Times before becoming an associate professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, toured 11 African nations to research the book: Congo, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Zambia. His deep familiarity with Africa and China and his Chinese language skills made him a natural for the task. A simple greeting of “ni hap” was at times all he needed to open doors in the isolated Chinese communities he sought. What he found there deeply impressed him at times but also occasionally appalled him.
A number of the Chinese people he interviewed insisted they would succeed in Africa over the long term because they were used to “eating bitter” — a term for hard work and little to no reward at the start of a project so as to enjoy far greater benefits as time passed.
“Chinese people are in a hurry to work, to earn money, to get rich. If they are farmers, they make every day count. Here, it’s not the same. Africans like to dance. That’s their specialty. They may be poor, but they are very happy,” a Chinese development aide working in Mozambique told French. If so many Africans are short on food and money, why are they so lazy and go to church on Sunday rather than work in their fields, several Chinese asked him.
Many Africans told him, however, of their unhappiness with ludicrously low wages and the contempt shown by their supervisors for all things African, including the well-being of their employees. They expressed fury over tales of Chinese bribes securing exclusive contracts and other economic concessions, with no requirement that the Chinese firms divvy up the profits, provide job training or share technology with the African communities and governments in which they were investing.
At the same time, they complained to French that Chinese firms were using their growing presence on the continent to get a lock on the extraction of valuable resources like oil, metals and lumber while ignoring environmental and worker safety requirements. They were driving African firms out of business by dumping low-quality Chinese-made goods in the local marketplace at impossibly low prices.
French cites reports that China has built and donated 42 stadiums and 54 hospitals to nations across the continent, and that its Export-Import Bank extended nearly $63 billion in loans to African nations from 2001 to 2010, $12.5 billion more than the World Bank. Chinese trade with Africa has been growing by as much as 20 percent a year, recently surpassing its commerce with both Europe and the United States, he notes.
At its most noble, China’s interest in the continent reflects an optimistic view of Africa’s future, a conviction that the continent is becoming a top global economic power able to improve the fortunes of its poorest inhabitants. It also highlights some hard economic realities facing China — that it has 20 percent of the world’s population but just 9 percent of its farmland, for example.
There is also the question of whether China is simply acting out the latest form of neocolonialism.
‘The Chinese decide what they want,” one Ghanaian politician told French. “They arrange the financing. They send their companies. Yes, they consult with the African governments a bit but in a way it is only to tell them what [the Chinese have] already decided to do.”
True, China has not literally sought out colonies, and its involvement has been peaceful and “for the most part welcomed by the governments of Africa, even though here it should be said there are growing signs that for some the honeymoon is over,” French writes.
Yet clear hints of Western-style imperialism are emerging, he adds. “China, for all its denials of any global ambition that could be likened to hegemony, is clearly competing with someone and for something — global preeminence.”
French says he was often most struck by the “almost haphazard” nature of the stories of the Chinese living in places likes Guinea, Mozambique and Namibia. “There was little hint of a grand or even deliberate scheme, but in the end that’s not so important,” French concludes. Instead, “it is outcomes that count.”
He seems convinced that China will have a big future in Africa, in contrast with the failed Western colonialism of the past. But there are many parallels between the two eras, and it is hardly certain how this latest tale of African adventurism will play out.
“China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa,” by Howard W. French; 9780307956989
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.