A new empire?

Review of China’s Second Continent: How a Million New Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, by Howard W. French. Knopf. 2014.

For the past decade, the West has been obsessed with the narrative of Africa as a continent subject to exploitation by a rising and resource-hungry China. According to Western convention, China, in its rush for resources and wealth, has exerted a corrupting influence upon Africa’s fragile governments. A new book provides the most richly reported and, perhaps, the fairest look yet at how China’s presence is reshaping Africa.

Howard French, a professor at Columbia University and former international correspondent for the Washington Post and New York Times in Africa, China and a host of other locales, is the author of China’s Second Continent. French’s reporting takes him to a dozen African countries and into the lives of a colorful cast of Chinese who, either on their own or as part of state-directed efforts, have found their way to Africa.

It is the stories of the individuals who have come to Africa independent of the Chinese state that French tells like no one before him. French argues that the future of Sino-African relations is being forged less on a state to state level than it is by the tens of thousands of Chinese who are coming to Africa on their own initiative, those whose audacity far exceeds that exhibited by the Chinese state. They range from small-time traders and wildcatters to large-scale farmers and developers. Yes, there are the state sponsored show projects – roads, hospitals, stadiums -but French suggests convincingly that it is this army of individuals that is truly reshaping Sino-African ties.

The hearty characters French writes about have travelled to Africa haphazardly, often on a hunch that Africa is abundant in opportunity gleaned off bits of information found on the internet. One recurring theme is that the continent is devoid of the intensity of competition that would have stifled any chance of success at home in China. French’s implication is that were it not for open borders allowing China’s wealthiest to go to the West and its restless to go to Africa, China would be teeming with far more instability than that with which it currently wrestles.

Meanwhile, French also captures well the frustrations many Africans hold against this surge of Chinese attention, one aspect of which is the tendency for Chinese to import their own workers and subsequently underinvest Racism is also a source of contention, particularly with respect to Chinese opinions of Africans’ work ethic. “Black people are not good at getting things done. Their customs were formed back when there was no telephone and no highway,” is one of the less offensive quotes French captures. Yet, as French writes in retort,

“I felt like reminding [his host] that perhaps forty million Chinese people had died of starvation a half century earlier … It was the largest famine in history. A snapshot taken then would have given a very different picture of the supposedly essential character of Chinese people, and it would have entirely missed the point. Governments matter. Markets matter. History matters. International circumstances matter.”

Perhaps even more important than this superficial racism is the combination of ignorance toward African history and arrogance that the West has long been guilty of alone. Both make China’s future standing on the continent vulnerable. Yet, instead of attempting to engage the broader population or insist that government relations be conducted at an institutional level, China prefers to deal directly with individual African leaders. The result is, quite ironically, a subversion of African governance.

If there is to be any criticism of French’s work, it would be that while abundantly reported, the book is comparatively under-researched. Throughout, French emphasizes frequently demographic projections that suggest Africa’s population will double to two billion persons within the next generation. Beyond this, however, French’s fact base is relatively limited, frustrating his efforts to give his rich stories perspective. This discrepancy is in part a reflection of the opacity of data available by the African and Chinese governments. Still, the absence of more relevant statistics is a disservice to the work of the many individuals and organizations who are attempting to bring greater transparency to a relationship that is vital to the future of African and global stability. The attention the book pays to rumors, meanwhile, is generally useful in faithfully capturing the sentiments on the ground, even if many are unsubstantiated.

Only in the epilogue does French address his subtitle’s claim of a “new empire,” while simultaneously making a pointed comparison to Japan’s colonial past. The growing ranks of Chinese nationals and interests will severely test China’s commitment to “non-interference” in the affairs of other countries, particularly when future stability may in fact be caused by the Chinese presence itself.

Though largely pessimistic, French reports signs that China’s presence is spurring a more focused labor and political activism among Africans. If channeled successfully, this agitation may strengthen civil society on the continent. Only with awareness on a continental-scale can Africa exert leverage on China, something that may also accelerate the process of integration so necessary to Africa’s future success.

And how should the West respond? French does not dwell on this subject, but does provoke several responses from the reader. China’s attention to Africa as an opportunity was an important wake up call for a West that had grown complacent in thinking of the continent as a perpetual aid recipient, for one. Western companies, of course, should compete wherever they can and trust that increasing experience with Chinese enterprises will allow Africans to make better judgments about what is in their long-term interests. The West must also continue to serve as the destination for the growing numbers of Africans seeking advanced education, empowering a new generation of leaders to make wise decisions on their countries’ behalf.

Ultimately, what is taking place in Africa will not be remembered as a Chinese success story or failure but an African one. Success is not only worth hoping for, but seems more likely than French is willing to admit.


This review originally appeared on HuffPost and China Hands.