In 1418, a fleet of Chinese ships dropped anchor in Malindi, a sleepy town on the East African coast. The ships were then the largest the world had ever seen, with some up to 500 feet long. But by the turn of the sixteenth century, China’s formidable navy had famously retrenched; all seafaring vessels were eliminated. The shutdown of the Chinese naval program remains one of the bolder—and more unfortunate—strategic decisions of the early modern world.
Six centuries after those ships landed, China has become a global power. And in the last few years, it has shown that it’s ready to explore the world anew. In China’s Second Continent, Howard French covers what might well be the geopolitical story of the twenty-first century. China, the most populous, fastest-growing major economy in the world, has aggressively focused its attentions on Africa, the region most likely to supplant China in both population and GDP growth. For the last decade, Chinese companies and, by proxy, the Chinese state, have been winning contracts and building roads, bridges, and strategic alliances all across the continent. The flurry of engagement, per French, reflects an ingenious macroscopic “barter system, in which developing countries pay for new railroads, highways, and airports through the guaranteed, long-term supply of hydrocarbons or minerals, thus helping Chinese companies win massive new contracts.” Hosting a bounty of natural resources and lacking major infrastructure, the 54 African countries are the natural locus of this innovation, which the Chinese call “Win Win.”
The inauguration of “Win Win” can be traced back to 1996, when then-Premier Jiang Zemin proposed a forum on China-Africa cooperation while visiting the African Union in Addis Ababa. When the forum came to fruition in 2002, the Chinese offered Africa a sweetheart deal: debt cancellation, new hospitals and schools, professional training, increased aid, and $5 billion toward an African development fund. Compared to the boom in capital flows in the decade since, the proposal was modest. Chinese trade with African countries has jumped from $10 billion in 2000 to $166 billion in 2011. That same year, new Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first trip abroad, to Tanzania, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—one of dozens of trips by Chinese heads of state since 1996. Today, one-third of revenues in the Chinese construction industry come from African projects, and nearly 15 percent of African imports originate in China—a surge from just 2 percent in 1990. This time around, the Chinese are in Africa for the long haul.
Accounts of China’s foray into African markets are often made with numbers; French goes beyond the statistics and illuminates the accelerating involvement of Chinese migrants. The vector for this civilizational commitment is, after all, the Chinese people. No one has a proper count of the number of Chinese nationals living and working in sub-Saharan Africa, but it’s probably close to a million. The Africa boom has seduced everyone from penny-farthing hustlers to former President Hu Jintao’s son, hauled to a Namibian court in 2009 to answer for local graft. These migrants have a hand in petty trade, sex work, possibly illegal logging and mining, and billions of dollars in new construction. Men live in bachelor-style campgrounds, or with families sent for after years of disconnection. In one early scene, French encounters a family from Henan province reassembled in southern Mozambique. The son is as listless as his father is enterprising. “It’s too hot,” the young man moans. “I wanted to cry when I first got here.”
These candid moments are arresting, delivered via seasoned and sensitive reporting. French’s language abilities and experience as a foreign correspondent, developed over stints as a New York Times reporter based in West Africa and in Shanghai, admit him to rooms that would be closed to another seeker of this story. The result is a sometimes-finicky travelogue that synthesizes both streetside and structured conversations with diverse Chinese nationals in Africa, including some government officials. Each chapter treats a new nation and a new cast of characters, and coursing through it all is the persistent tension between China’s tradition of collectivism and the by-the-bootstraps ambitions of the new frontier.
To appreciate French’s work, it is first important to understand what the book is not. The book does not attempt to explicate China’s strategy on the African continent. It isn’t a geopolitical treatise on the emergent Chinese power, nor a chronicle of the African economic boom. Rather, it offers a ground-level view of a great migration. It’s accessibly written and benefits from French’s familiarity with the nuances of Chinese diction and national culture. For a book about humans caught in the midst of a dramatic geopolitical moment, it is often lacking in drama. But, like 2009’s China Safari, another book about the Chinese expansion into the African continent, it gives a thorough gloss on a fascinating aspect of the modern political economy.
China’s Second Continent is most intriguing when it uses the Chinese migration to Africa to illuminate what life is like in China. The documented exodus may be read as a demonstration of “manifest destiny,” as one section is titled—or it could be read as a reaction to demographic panic. A Zambian union organizer theorizes that the flood of Chinese to Africa is an attempt to “decongest” China’s 1.3 billion-person economy. Where the churn of Chinese growth promises much but has not delivered for all, it may well be true that the nation is exporting people who would otherwise be rioting.
We hear the stories of Chinese individuals who arrived in Mali, in Ghana, in Sierra Leone, expecting, if not El Dorado, the chance to build a better life than they can have at home. French meets a well-to-do young man running a large farm in Namibia, who was thrice deported from the country, doggedly returning each time. He explained why: “[I]n my circle of friends back home, very few people were able to even afford a car. None of them became bosses. I had to leave China in order to achieve this.”
Many of the Chinese migrants French encounters are unsparing about life back in the homeland. One says the state is “full of bullshit,” detailing the “utter nonsense” of the revolution. “The perpetual revolution crap we had to endure was anti-social, anti-human.” French documents Chinese who feel a twinge of envy for protesters in Zambia. The Chinese operate some mines there in flagrant violation of that country’s labor standards. Recently, the situation has prompted a cycle of standoffs that has occasionally burst into violence. Responding to the news of a recent mine protest that led to a fatal shooting, Chinese Web posters in Zambia were sympathetic to the protestors and even covetous of their ability to stage a protest against an authority that mainland Chinese could never safely threaten.
But the “million migrants” in French’s subtitle represent a tiny fraction of the Chinese population. Just as Africa accounts for only 5 percent of China’s global trade, settlement in sub-Saharan Africa is not a large-scale policy. The fact that these migrants are outspoken and pro-market may confirm a certain migratory selection bias. And still, the Chinese word for migrants, haiwai huaren, or “Chinese overseas,” embeds the expectation that they will return to China one day. Some carry with them the idea that Herculean feats of social engineering are to be expected from governments. The very projects that these migrants are enabling in Africa—new dams, mass relocations, the consolidation of smallholder land tenure into megafarms—are all proof of their homeland’s “deep civilizational patience, a belief in planning and in engineering on the largest of scales.”
Other attitudes travel as well: The Chinese commercial sector’s well-documented cheating, nepotism, and corruption scandals have found fresh hosts in the thinly regulated marketplaces of various African countries. We learn that Chinese merchants copy African textile designs, pumping out cheap replicas of West Africa’s most distinctive cultural products to sell them back to locals in their own markets. The shadowy China International Fund, a state-backed investment vehicle founded in Hong Kong just as the Africa boom began to accelerate, is actually little more than a petty-cash drawer for industrialists and merchants on the continent. Chinese managers pay off customs officials and local governments to skirt trade and immigration laws. To win government contracts, firms bid at or below cost, and their short-term losses serve as a Trojan horse for long-term domination. To secure resources, state-backed Chinese companies dive headlong into an established extractive sector (copper in Zambia, oil in Ghana, rubber in Liberia), offering cash or construction for a piece of the continent’s natural wealth. Though the book becomes repetitive with these stories, they underscore the ubiquity of these arrangements and how they reinforce the scale at which the Chinese are embedded in modern Africa.
Among China’s sins in Africa, its approach to labor has rankled Africa watchers most. Frequently, Chinese firms will win contracts for major infrastructure and then import many thousands of low-skilled Chinese workers to construct it—leaving gleaming new public works in place, but starving the local population of the opportunity to earn a living wage or build capacity.
Combining puritanism and greed at once, the workaday Chinese whom French encounters self-identify as the stubborn barnacles of the barter economy, willing to go anywhere and do anything to turn a profit. Virtually all of them speak of “eating bitter,” or suffering conditions French (repeatedly and evidently) finds uncomfortable, for later gain. Commonly, he discovers, “material advancement was the goal; there was almost no stopping to smell the roses.” One migrant in Mali sagely notes: “You should never go anywhere where there are no Chinese…. Those are places where it is impossible to make money.”
The chest-thumping of the self-made entrepreneur is not quite warranted, given the generous subsidies for state-run businesses that undergird much of the commercial success of many Chinese concerns in Africa. Indeed, the biggest likely source of Chinese migration to Africa is temporary workers who decide to stay once government contracts are concluded. Yet there is no contest: Chinese interests wield real competitive advantages over both African firms and the wisps of European or American institutions remaining. Where the wealthy world sees risk, Chinese evidently see opportunity in consumption and construction—the twin forces driving African growth.
Consequently, local fear of the Chinese incursion is real. French invokes the specter of “new conquerors, armed not with guns but with plentiful cheap finance and powerful commercial networks linking them back to China.” But while the African critics French includes in his story are quite perceptive, they are not central to the narrative. Some of the relevant actors are not African at all: The United States taxpayer often plays midwife to Chinese ascendancy—Chinese bidders are the most frequent winner of American aid contracts.
I spent about two years living in Nairobi and traversing the continent as a reporter, and observed the encroaching Chinatowns in places from Dakar to Dar es Salaam. Driving along the new, butter-smooth roads the Chinese were building in Kenya, in Ghana, in Senegal, I found myself rooting for China in Africa. In my previous writing on the subject, I have cheered purely economic partnerships—hard-boiled and disconnected from the muck of governance, rights, and politics in African countries. I have celebrated Chinese contractors as private suppliers of what ought to be public goods. When African citizens ask their governments, “What have you done for me lately?” the answer for decades has been, too often, “Nothing.” For those suffering under leadership too inept to manage resources, build a tax base, and provide services, Chinese roads, hospitals, and clinics offer a welcome alternative.
The unanswered question is whether these arrangements are “fair.” French veers from his studied neutrality when emphasizing the high stakes for Africa. In conversation with a Chinese hotelier in Liberia salivating over the country’s lumber potential, he retorts: “Do you realize that if you cut down all the trees here there will be no more rain? Did you know that the countries to the north of Liberia are all arid?” Like many observers, French finds it hard to sit on the sidelines amid such leering environmental rapacity. The natural resources that still anchor most African economies are finite—and the same economies will be running out of these resources (including land, perhaps) just as their populations peak. Today’s resource management determines tomorrow’s quality of life.
French also puts his finger on the paradox of the current arrangement. A Chinese textile factory in Mali that drove out local competitors “did not require organized evil conspiracies or even ill will. It represented opportunities seized.” The Chinese, famously socialist in organization, are merely being good capitalists. The IMF believes that Africa’s larger exposure to Chinese capital actually helped protect the region from the worst of the 2008 financial crisis. What’s more, some of the tangibles left behind—from cheap mobile phones to new roads—definitively improve African lives. Surely this merits some applause?
Maybe. An American diplomat outlines what French calls “an undeclared global contest under way” between West and East, playing out south of the Sahara. In the war for influence in Africa, the Americans prefer a “software” approach that emphasizes governance and institutional reform, while the Chinese favor the “hardware” of industry and infrastructure, and ignore social dynamics entirely.
Certainly, China’s presence enhances its political influence. But it’s clear that many Chinese are uninterested in engaging with Africans at all. In fact, the hardware approach looks very ugly at times. The casual racism of virtually all the Chinese migrants interviewed is easily the most infuriating part of this book. The barrage is relentless: The blacks don’t have any qualifications; the blacks don’t know how to do anything; the blacks are “so primitive.” (Even the phrase deployed, hei ren, black person, is pejorative.) At a hotel in Monrovia, the Chinese guests bring their own towels so as to avoid having to dry themselves with one that might have been used by a Liberian.
The Chinese are not the first to project a childish laziness onto the hardworking people of the continent. As I and others have written, this misapprehension is obliquely embedded in much development assistance to Africa. The “international community” has its own sneering prejudices—the Chinese are just more open about theirs. But it is the opposite of refreshing.
I had one shocking encounter in Nairobi. A friend suggested a local Chinese restaurant where he’d dined multiple times. At the gate, a Kenyan security guard turned us away. We assumed the lot was full and parked just outside. When we returned to the gate, the guard clarified: “No Africans.” My companion, who is Mexican-American, shoved his way past the gatekeeper, incensed.
We sat ourselves in a dining area full of Chinese people and were handed menus by another young Kenyan. We asked him if what we had heard at the gate was true—that the restaurant did not serve Africans. He confirmed, and we immediately demanded to see the manager, a young Chinese woman who seemed embarrassed and then nonchalant when confronted about the racist policy. She confirmed that “American” Africans like me were fine, and explained that there had been some robberies recently. “I am sure you can understand,” she nodded.
I share the story because I could follow the Chinese hostess’s twisted logic a certain distance. The response of the Kenyan security guard and waiter, however, perplexed me for weeks afterward. Why and how could they enforce such a patently racist policy?
The book provides a partial answer: the “Win Win” ideology China trumpets constantly. “Win Win” is the joint understanding that private goods are superior to public dysfunction in Africa, the Faustian agreement to accept cash and gifts for equity in Africa’s future. So while China appears to be “exporting its labor, dumping cheap goods, despoiling the environment, dispossessing powerless landholders or flouting local laws, fueling corruption, and most of all empowering awful governments,” French finds that being “anti-Chinese” is unusual among Africans. Instead of pervasive outrage, there is gratefulness. French describes a “common set of adverse images”—Chinese electronics that break, roads that quickly fill with potholes, and everyday insults—that might one day jeopardize Chinese interests in Africa. In the short term, however, the racial snobbery appears to be just one more thing Africans are willing to overlook in service of a hand up.
Fundamentally, the Chinese arrangement feels like something less than a full partnership. In contrast to the other non-African communities—what Amy Chua would call “market dominant minorities”—elsewhere in Africa, the Chinese interactions are purely commercial. The Gujaratis living in East Africa since the British built railroads with their labor speak fluent Swahili, and often self-identify as African nationals. Likewise, Lebanese merchants, ubiquitous in West Africa, profit handsomely, setting up hair salons and trading posts that require what large construction sites do not: intimacy. The instruments of Chinese competitive strategy, by contrast, are baldly transactional. People get married to evade immigration authorities, or to sire a dynasty. One of the more disturbing vignettes involves that young Chinese man wilting in the Mozambican heat. His father intends for him and his brother to breed children who will be entitled to land.
All second-generation migrants have the power to overhaul or refine the relationship with their adopted home. The “preening and standoffish” posture of young Chinese in Africa—who have known neither hardship nor equality—is not encouraging in that regard. If mutual respect matters, the more promising connections may be with third-party “spoilers” also from emerging markets: the Romanian mining mogul who beat the Chinese to Sierra Leone, the Turkish and Indian governments that also provide development assistance, the gargantuan Brazilian private-equity funds earmarked for Africa, the increasingly relevant intra-African trade. These relationships look commercial—but they are also reciprocal. China’s refusal to embed wholly in the culture, to perceive of its migrants always as haiwai huaren, represents the obstacle to its long-term flourishing.
And where does the United States fit in all this? While it may offer a veneer of respect for the rights and dignities of ordinary Africans, the country’s commercial and political conservatism is an impediment to engaging a world region with demonstrable inventiveness and potential. If the Africans whom French encounters are cynical about China, they are disappointed in America. Sure, there are principled speeches and quadrennial visits from Bush, Clinton, Obama, and their various secretaries of state. In a last-ditch show of respect for the gasping old guard of African leadership, Obama hosted more than 40 African heads of state this summer. But since Black Hawk Down and the Rwandan genocide, French observes, “Washington’s abiding concern in Africa was avoiding being left holding the bag.” Post-Libya, military engagement to tackle regional insecurity seems forever off the table. And in commercial matters across the continent, “America managed to convey the smug message that it would always have far bigger fish to fry.” For African countries, the multifarious linkages with China appear to be the biggest fish of all.